By Mike Metlay
Mixing – turning a bunch of tracks into a coherent song – is something you can study your whole life and still learn more about every day. Even the most experienced mixing engineers are constantly adding new techniques… but what about us beginners? Where and how do we start?
In this article, I’m going to teach you ten things that every mixing engineer, no matter how novice or experienced, should do for pretty much every mixing project. Every one of them could easily fill an article or more on its own; I present them here so you can “get them into your head,” i.e. get used to thinking about them until they become second nature.
It doesn’t matter which musical genre you’re working in, or how big or small the job – these ten tips will get you started and keep you moving in the right direction.
1. Know what you’re hearing.
If you learn nothing else today, learn this: If you can’t monitor accurately, everything else you do will be worthless.
So many people happily spend huge sums on the best mics, preamps, interfaces, etc., yet treat monitoring as an afterthought. Those priorities are totally backwards! Every single thing in your musical world eventually has to get into your ears, and you can’t work with what you hear if you can’t trust it.
When budgeting for your studio, decide what you can afford for proper monitors, appropriate acoustic treatment, and/or at least a reliable set of headphones – and then steal a bit more from the rest of your budget to take things up a notch. It’s not sexy, but it’s vital.
2. A good mix starts with good tracks.
This one’s obvious, but people skip it anyway. “Fix it in the mix” is at best a last-ditch strategy for the pros, and at worst an excuse that will sink a project. Too often, even the best engineer can’t fix tracking problems in the mix, only hide them.
So start with good material! Make sure your tracks are well-rehearsed, free of unwanted noise and artifacts, and cleanly recorded, and you’re halfway to a great mix.
3. Start at the beginning.
The first thing you should do when starting to work on a mix is to turn up everything to unity gain and hit Play. Resist the temptation to dive in and start messing with things until you hear the whole song all the way through, preferably more than once.
Take notes but don’t start work yet; thinking before you act will give you a huge head start on a good mix… and if you followed Rule 2 properly, you’ll be surprised at how close to a finished mix that first pass will sound.
Most importantly, let the song tell you which tracks you should work on first. Many engineers start with drums and bass; others attack vocals using a guide guitar or keyboard part. Find a strategy that works for you, but stay flexible.
4. Get organized.
As you work, certain tracks will want to be grouped together: all the drums, all the rhythm guitars, all the backing vocals. Every DAW makes it easy to rearrange tracks and group them onto buses. Once you have the relative levels of elements within a group sounding right, put the whole group on one mix bus with one fader so you can bring it in and out easily.
For some types of work, you’ll find it handy to record these grouped instruments into their own stereo mini-mixes, called stems. They can prove handy for other engineers down the line, or for later stages in your own mix.
5. Stay away from the Solo buttons.
Soloing a track or group while mixing is one of the riskiest things you can do. It happens to everyone: you think you’ve got something sounding perfect, but when you take it out of Solo, it sounds wrong in the mix. Ouch!
Soloing is great for finding and fixing problems, but don’t mix with it. Every part needs to serve the song, and if you can’t hear the rest of the song, well… you get the idea.
6. Know when to avoid using compression.
Just because you can put a compressor plug-in on every track doesn’t mean you should. Compression can wring the life out of formerly dynamic-sounding tracks more often than it actually helps your sound, so use it carefully.
Compression can be great as a special effect – e.g. to crush a drum bus or flavor a bass track – but if you’re just trying to smooth out an uneven performance, volume automation is time-consuming but will often sound better.
7. When using EQ, always cut, never boost.
The secret to a mix that fits together is that every instrument has some frequency ranges that are important to it and others that aren’t. If you carve away the unimportant parts, that leaves room for other instruments’ critical frequencies to shine. (The classic and perhaps most important example: getting the kick drum and bass to coexist.)
Boosting adds noise and makes it harder, not easier, to mix with power. Believe it or not, you’ll get to “everything louder than everything else” quicker by turning stuff down!
8. What goes where?
If you’re mixing in stereo, your soundstage is vital. Spreading out some tracks will give you a sense of space, but remember to keep your vital tracks to the center. Putting the kick, snare, bass, or lead vocal off to one side may seem edgy and daring, but it’ll sound to your audience like you don’t know how to mix.
Leave the spreading-out to parts that frame your picture: doubled rhythm guitars, backing vocals, stereo keyboards, and the like. Let them create the space for your song.
Speaking of space, a reverb Aux bus can help pull tracks together into a single sonic environment. When you do that, here’s a useful trick: set the reverb to where you think it sounds just right, but then turn it down just a little more.
Why? Reverb is seductive; we always want to add a little too much. What might seem too dry earlier in the process often sounds perfect in a finished mix.
9. Be careful about putting effects across your Master bus.
Some plug-ins are meant to add a little “glue” compression on a mix’s stereo master bus, which can help one mix but hurt another. The best way to decide is with your ears, not your eyes – via blind testing.
Record three versions of your mix: one with no “glue”, one with what sounds like the right amount, and one with half that much. Then have a friend play them back in random order while you listen with your eyes closed, and go with what sounds best.
Oh, and global EQ? It’s for correcting bad room sound at gigs, not mixing.
10. Make sure your mixes translate to the real world.
When your mix is done, listen to it everywhere you can: home theater systems, cars, smart speakers, and especially earbuds and smartphone speakers. This is called check monitoring; it’ll teach you a lot about how to mix on your studio’s monitors, as you learn to tweak your mixes to sound their best no matter where you play them back. (A mix that does this is said to “translate well.”)
You don’t want mixes that only sound right in your room. For example, if you mix with your sub too loud, your “balanced” mix will have less bass, so your tracks will sound weak when there’s no sub for playback! Using multiple check monitors will be frustrating at first, but makes you a better mixer in the long run.
BONUS TIP: Save your work.
This is another place where you shouldn’t skimp. Make backups, label them carefully with project and date, and if possible, have them in two or three places: a backup drive on your shelf (safe from power spikes), a backup drive somewhere outside your home (safe from fire or theft), or in the cloud (both). Losing your work sucks.
As I said, any one of these tips could be an article in itself. For now, you’ll find them useful as a guide to mixing with more confidence and less worry, and getting the best results possible.
Have fun, and remember the First Law Of Mixing: Up Is Louder.
About the Author
Dr. Mike Metlay is a musician, educator, writer, editor, gear lover, and retired nuclear physicist (no, really!), who has been working in the audio technology industry for nearly 40 years. As a former Editor of RECORDING Magazine, he has authored hundreds of gear reviews and articles enjoyed worldwide. These days, he’s taken his education efforts online through his firm Atomic Words; you can learn more at atomicwords.net.