by Anders Johanson January 30, 2021 12 min read
One of the most subjective topics in all of music recording, whether it is a modest home studio or a tricked-out professional space, is mixing. There are so many approaches and philosophies behind how to mix a song or an instrument, and everyone who does it will swear up and down that their way is the best way to go about it. The fact of the matter is that there is almost an incalculable number of variables that would change things between one location and another. From bigger, more obvious details like the size of a room and the acoustic treatment (or lack thereof), to smaller things like microphone choice and placement, guitar amplifier power tubes, or what company they brand of microphone and instrument cable they prefer. You could hand two producers the same tracks and they will both give them back to you with the final result sounding completely different.
This video from Waves’ YouTube channel shows how two mixes can change the same song from sounding one way to sounding completely different, all based on decisions made in the mixing process.
That doesn’t mean that one is right and the other is wrong, of course you will have your own opinions and will prefer one over the other if you had to choose, but both producers did what they could with the space and gear that they had, and at the end of the day that’s all it comes down to. Many people sit and watch YouTube studio tours and dream about having the same microphone cabinet, guitar rack, drum room, computer specifications, synthesizer closet, you name it - we all dream about it. Or maybe that’s just me? It takes years of saving and hunting to track down the gear that some of these producers have, but you might just have a couple of cheap microphones and an audio interface and be wondering to yourself “How can I make this work?” Well whether you have a multi-thousand-dollar studio or you’re in a one-bedroom apartment with a laptop and a Shure SM57, there are some universal rules that apply to mixing that you can use to improve your tracks right away.
This list is by no means comprehensive or extensive, but it is a collection of essential tips and things to remember when sitting down to mix a session. Does not matter if you were paid thousands of dollars to mix a well-known band or you’re helping a friend with their singer/songwriter EP for a hundred dollars and a few cups of coffee, these things will apply to any scenario. It would be ridiculous for anyone to write an essential guide to mixing music and list off pieces of gear that you “absolutely need” in order to get a great mix, or say that a room needs to be a certain dimension with specific treatment from one brand in order for the snare to sound the way that it should. You don’t need to scour estate sales and refresh Craigslist every ten minutes to find someone’s MPC 2000 that they discovered in their grandpa’s attic, because that’s the only way to sample instruments and records and end up with a “good mix.” Instead, there are core principles that can be followed and applied in any setting, with any gear, and in any studio.
#1 - Get to Know Your Gear
This is one of the most important things you could do. Before you rush out and buy an expensive microphone, before you shell out money for another vintage compressor plugin, before you convince yourself that you cannot live without that sample library, get to know what you already have available to you. Some of the best plugins in your arsenal could be the ones that come stock with your digital audio workstation, and you probably have never used it because you always scroll by it looking for the bigger, flashier name. You might feel like you have limitations because you don’t have this thing or that thing, but you won’t truly know your limitations until you truly know your capabilities. If your DAW has 300 stock plugins but you only ever use four or five, do you really think you’re going to use the ones in that $900 plugin bundle from Waves? Probably not. I probably have fifteen reverb plugins and I’m always looking at new ones, and yet I consistently choose Valhalla Room every time I need to use reverb. You know why? Because I’ve used it a lot, I play around with it a lot, and I know that I can get a good sound dialed in quickly. That’s not to say that you don’t need to buy more plugins, there are a lot of companies that make incredible software, but if you already have something that can do something similar, save yourself the money and use that thing. I promise you nobody will be listening to your track in their car and take the time to appreciate that you used the JLA 37 vintage tape machine plugin, but they will be able to tell if your track sounds good or not. Once you hit “publish” on your track and it’s available on Bandcamp or Soundcloud or wherever, nobody cares if you used Reaper or Pro Tools. Nobody knows that you used a Squier Stratocaster and not a Fender Custom Shop. Only you will know what you used, so get to know what you already have.
In this video, prolific metal producer Adam Getgood mixes a drum kit using only the stock plugins in Logic. Granted he has years of experience and dozens of albums to his name, he got to a fantastic end result using only the things that came with this DAW. No extra purchases, no software bundles, just completely stock.
#2 - A Good Mix Starts With a Good Recording
This one should be simple. If your source sound is bad, your mix is going to be bad. You can only do so much to a guitar tone that wasn’t dialed in, or a vocal take that pops the microphone capsule, or a drum kit that wasn’t tuned or properly cared for. You can’t always go back and re-track something that clipped because your gain setting was too high. If the sample pack you found is low quality or has a low sample rate, your extensive collection of EQ plugins will not save it. If you are aiming for the most professional mix you can achieve with the gear that you have, make sure you take the time to record everything right. So much lost time and added stress can be avoided by taking the time to make sure everything is set up properly, and while that statement does still have room to be subjective, I’m talking about the difference between setting up a microphone right on a snare drum or having the microphone a foot away and being surprised that it doesn’t sound right.
There are subjective elements, but there is also common sense. If you already have an idea of how you want an instrument to sound in the final product, try to get as close as you can to that sound on your recording. It will save you so much time and energy spent trying to make adjustments and tweak small things to get it to where you want it. Instead, research different techniques for setting up microphones on different instruments, try recording in different rooms if you are able to, do as much as you can to get an accurate recording so that when you take it into the mixing stage you are already most of the way there.
#3 - Most of Your Mix is in Three Elements
There are a lot of fancy things to get hung up on when you are sitting down to mix a track. It might be compression, it might be tube amp simulators, could be an array of post-processing effects, any bonus stuff that you think your track might need once everything is recorded and in your digital audio workstation, it’s all just fluff in comparison to the most crucial pieces of your mix. The elements that will have the most impact on your mix are probably the most basic, but easily the most important, and those are volume, panning, and equalizing. It’s true. With knowledge of your gear and a quality source recording, you can do the majority of your mixing simply with volume, panning, and equalization. Those are the three elements that will paint the broader picture of what your final track will sound like, and then you can go in with the finer brushes and add compression, limiting, modulation, dynamic shifts, reverb, delay, whatever you want. If you can get your track sounding good without adding any of those extra things to your inserts or channel routing, then your final mix will sound better overall. The more things you add on to your tracks in the mixing stage, the easier it is for your piece to become disjointed.
The volume control is your best friend. This will be how you set the levels of each track and instrument in your session, and even though that sounds basic and obvious, it’s the most important thing you can adjust. An effective way to get a feel for how your levels should be set is by first turning everything all the way down. Then, one by one, slowly turn up the volume of each instrument. Listen to how it compares to the rest of the mix, and try not to overpower one instrument with another - unless that is your intention. A good mix should have balance, and you should be able to hear everything, so take your time in making the proper moves here.
In this video from record producer Warren Huart’s YouTube channel, Produce Like a Pro, learn how you can save yourself time and work simply by understanding how to set volume levels.
When your volume levels are set, you can start to pan your tracks. As with everything, this can be subjective. Do you want your drum kit to sound like it’s coming from the drummer’s perspective or the audience’s perspective? Do you want guitar lead lines panned left, right, or dead center? Making good use of the stereo field will give your track incredible depth, even before you add any reverb or space-enhancing plugins - if you’ll even need them after this step. Listening to where each piece of every instrument sits is so important. Are you using a shaker sample? Try sending it to just the right ear, then send a pitched down version of the same sample to the left ear for some flavor.
After you are done setting your volume and panning, you can begin to equalize. This is where you will manipulate frequencies in order for different things to sit right. There are two general schools of thought when it comes to equalizing: subtractive equalization and additive equalization. In the former, you equalize your tracks by reducing the volume of specific frequencies. This technique is widely preferred, as it takes information away from your tracks while keeping them sounding closer to the original tone. In the latter, you make your adjustments by increasing the volume of specific frequencies. This technique adds information to tracks, as a guitar tone that wasn’t recorded with a mid-boost but has middle frequencies added in the mixing process now has more than it started with. There is no right or wrong way to do it, you just go with whatever the situation calls for. Just remember that most frequency increases or decreases may need to be met by a frequency increase or decrease somewhere else. If you want your bass to have more low-end thump and presence, then your kick drum might not sit well in that spot anymore, or vice-versa. Pay attention to what instruments are taking up which frequency spectrum, and make sure nobody is competing with anyone else. This will help you maintain clarity in your mix.
#4 - Mix With Your Ears, Not Your Eyes
One of the biggest traps we can fall into as music producers is mixing with our eyes. Something might look like the level is too high, or you might think that you are cutting to much of a frequency because of the way that it looks in the user interface of the plugin you are using, but the thing to remember here is that you are supposed to be mixing with your ears, not your eyes. If you are used to setting a compressor a certain way because it always looks like it’s doing something, you might be surprised when you really listen to it and find out that it’s doing something completely different.
Lets say you record a snare drum the best way you know how and you go onto YouTube to watch a video teaching you how to mix a snare drum, you could load up the same exact plugins as the person giving the tutorial, dial them in to the same exact settings, and I guarantee you that your snare will not sound the same as the one in the video. There are so many factors that go into why your two snare tones sound different, so mixing with your eyes - matching up what you think sounds right with what you think looks right - will not work. You need to listen to the changes you are making and figure out what sounds the best for your mix, even if you think it might not look right in some way or another.
#5 - Keep it Simple
Another trap that is easy to fall into is thinking that a good-sounding mix needs to have a lot going on, when truly you could just set the volume, do some panning, equalize to taste, add a few effects if needed, and be done with it. There are videos of professional producers and audio engineers mixing a song in minutes. Granted they have years of experience and have mixed hundreds of songs and albums, but it still shows that you don’t need to do too much to get your mix sounding good, and more often than not we convince ourselves that in order for everything to sound right, it needs to be complicated. That isn’t the case. Mixing music is a lot like Charmin Ultra - less is more.
Check out this video from YouTuber Jon Sine where he walks you through simple steps in getting a song from a decent recording to a good mix in just twenty minutes.
#6 - Listen on Multiple Sources
Listening to your mix on the monitors in your untreated bedroom is one thing. Listening to that same mix through a set of common, everyday computer speakers is another. Make it a priority to listen to your mix through as many different speakers and headphones as possible, from your cheapest to your most expensive. Take notes and identify what is present and what is missing in each one and then come back to your mixing session to try to compensate for those things. In my old home studio I was able to figure out that my tracks tended to lean more bass-heavy than I had intended because bass frequencies got lost in my room. What I thought was an appropriate bass level ended up being too much, so I learned to use less than I thought I had to and the results were vastly different. It’s a saddening realization when you spend hours and hours on a mix, tweaking frequencies and settings to get the perfect sound, only to find out that the majority of people who listen to your track will listen through a phone’s built-in speaker and not through $1,000 studio monitors like the ones that you have in your setup. The more sources you can listen to your mix through, and the more adjustments you can make to ensure consistency across all of them, the better the final result will be.
#7 - A Good Mix Can’t Fix a Bad Song
The inverse of this one is true as well, in that a good song can have a poor mix and still be good. A bad song can be mixed by the world’s most talented producer and yet still be a bad song. Similar to the approach regarding recording your source tones, a good mix isn’t going to save a bad song or a bad performance. One of the best things you can do to help yourself or your producer in the mixing stage is writing a song that sounds good, flows in a way that makes sense, and is recorded adequately at minimum. Panning and volume adjustments can’t fix the fact that your guitar recording sounds terrible, or that your parts are jumbled up and don’t work together. Go into a recording session prepared and ready to give your best performance. Find people you trust and send them demos of things you are working on, ask for feedback on lyrics and song structure, and receive constructive criticism with the understanding that people are trying to help you get better and aren’t attacking you just for the sake of attacking you. The better your performance is when you go into a recording session, the better the mixing process will be, and the better your final product will be.
If it hasn’t been clear just yet, I cannot stress enough how subjective things in the mixing stage can be, but any producer with any amount of experience will agree with these basic tips. You don’t need a thousand plugins and an incredible computer to get a mix that sounds great. You can do it with preparation, an understanding of the gear that you have, and a commitment to being prepared and professional in your approach to the recording process. I hope this guide was useful for you and that you are able to take these basic tips and apply it to your next mixing session.
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