For your music to sound good, you must understand the fundamentals of mixing. Our essential guide to mixing music will help you get started.
Mixing audio involves blending recorded tracks, setting their levels, and presenting the song in the best way possible. It sounds straightforward, but how exactly do we achieve this? How do you get a perfect audio mix?
Today we’ll describe the basics of music mixing. Each step explained here could have its own article, so treat this article as a quick start guide to outline how to start mixing songs.
What is mixing?
In simple terms, audio mixing is the process of improving the sound of a multi-track recording by blending the individual recordings together. We can do this by adjusting each audio track’s volume, frequency balance, and stereo panning.
Audio engineers use various music production software. A multi-channel audio mixer sets the volume levels and stereo panning for each recording. Effects such as equalization, compression, reverb, delay, and distortion are used on each channel to fine-tune the mix.
The mixing process can be divided into three main stages: Preparation, Balancing, and Processing.
Preparation includes listening to and analyzing the individual recordings and how they interact. Balancing involves placing those sounds in the appropriate space within the stereo field and adjusting the volume and panning to create a cohesive soundscape. Processing includes adjusting equalization, compression, reverb, delay, etc., to achieve a pleasant-sounding mix.
What are the steps to start mixing?
Let’s expand the three main stages of mixing into six easy-to-follow steps that you can follow for your first project:
- Choosing a DAW
- Setting up the session
- Getting the sounds
- Levels and panning
- Audio processing
- Finishing touches
Choosing a DAW
The first step is getting a digital audio workstation (DAW). Our article about free DAWs is a good starting point.
DAWs are music production programs used for audio recording and mixing. Many of them are available online, ranging from free to those costing several hundred dollars.
Some popular free DAWs include Waveform Free, Cakewalk by Bandlab, GarageBand, the 60-day trial of Reaper, and Ableton Live Lite (only free with various hardware/app purchases). Popular paid DAWs are Ableton Live, Logic Pro, Pro Tools, FL Studio, Cubase, Studio One, Reason, and Reaper.
You can mess around on a couple of free ones and find what you like. Several paid DAWs include trial or free versions of their main product (such as Pro Tools First, Reaper, Ableton Live Lite, and Studio One Prime).
If your budget is minimal, then the $60 personal license of Reaper is a good option.
All the paid versions of pro-DAWs basically have the same core features, so don’t stress too much about which one to choose. Most modern DAWs can handle any type of project, including live instrument mixes, MIDI, and voice work.
Start mixing songs: Setting up the session
The first step of mixing songs is to set up the session. You can do this manually or use the template from the DAW. You can also create a custom template once you know what you typically need.
Remember to name the tracks. Mixing sessions quickly get out of hand, and you’ll be picking about the DAW like a ravenous chicken looking for a lost track in no time if the instruments aren’t labeled.
Set up groups of related tracks in a bus. A bus is a channel that groups multiple audio tracks, enabling you to change the level or processing on all tracks simultaneously, saving time. The most common group for a bus would be the drum tracks, but it’s also applicable to anything else that uses the same processing (for example, the lead parts or vocal parts).
Taking a minute to color code groups of tracks also saves time. You could make all the drum tracks one color, the lead guitar harmony tracks another color, etc. This will help you navigate the session faster and help you visualize the various buses.
Remember, learning audio mixing is a marathon, not a sprint. Take it slow and be methodical. Your first results won’t be great, and that’s perfectly fine. But mixing music becomes much easier after some time and a lot of practice.
Get the sounds right at the source
You want to get your basic sounds right during the recording phase and then do light touch changes in the DAW to bring it all together. If the basic sounds are bad, there’s only so much you can do to polish a turd in the mixing phase.
In a way, mixing audio is like cooking. You can’t possibly make a great-tasting dish with low-quality ingredients. A good-sounding audio mix comes from good recordings (or samples).
You’ll ultimately save time redoing a take and getting it right rather than forging ahead with something you know sounds terrible and trying to fix it later.
Pay special attention to the settings on your gear, where the microphones are located, the performance itself, etc. Concentrate on the basics. Tune your instruments, rehearse your vocals, and use good-quality microphone cables.
Don’t waste time trying to EQ something in-depth during tracking; just get a good bare-bones sound that you can more fully shape later.
Mixing audio: Levels and panning
Once your mixing session is ready, it’s time to set levels and pan them. Setting the correct volume and stereo position of each audio track is the first stage of getting a good mix.
We usually set the pans first, then put rough levels on everything so the parts sound about right.
Panning is where the sounds are placed in the left-to-right stereo field. Stereo mixing is a broad topic. Simply put, you want to position things so that each mix element gets its own space.
In a typical song, you might have the following parts in the center: Vocals, bass, snare and kick. Then pan the other drums and cymbals to represent where they sit on a drum kit (hi-hat to the left, for example).
Then put the melody or other rhythmic elements at some point on the left or right to give the center parts some space. For example, if you have an instrumental harmony part, one part could be panned to the left and the other to the right.
Remember, mixing music starts with setting each mix element’s rough levels and panning. Returning to our cooking analogy, levels and panning is the pizza dough. Everything else is the toppings.
After the pans and rough levels are set, next process the audio. This involves EQ, compression, and reverb, among other more creative mixing tools.
As mentioned, panning exists to give the part space in the stereo field. The purpose of EQ is to provide the parts space in the frequency field. So you’ll use it to carve out a space for the low-end instruments (bass, kick drum, etc.) and the mid and high-end instruments (vocals, melody, lead parts, cymbals, snare, etc.).
You’ll want to use high-pass and low-pass filters to cut the unnecessary frequency areas out of some tracks and then do EQ tweaks to shape the remaining elements.
Compression controls the dynamics of the tracks in your mix. Compression limits the dynamic range of a part by making the loud parts softer and the soft parts louder. You can use this to tame overly dynamic parts and help parts sit more prominently in the mix.
Don’t overdo it, though. If compression is overused, it makes the mix harsh and unpleasant to listen to. Think of a pizza that stayed in the oven for too long. Not very tasty.
Reverb is the reflection of sound in a space. You can use this either as a ‘color’ effect or give the parts a spatial dimension as you’d hear them in a real room.
Compression ‘sharpens’ a sound and brings it forward in a mix, while reverb tends to make a sound defuse and washier.
Using these elements along with EQ allows you to blend the parts harmoniously, giving the mix power and depth.
The finishing touches
Once you’ve leveled and processed the sounds, the final step to mixing music is to export the track for mastering. Use the meters/plugins to check that the levels and loudness are appropriate for both these steps.
You can also use a reference track of a song you like the mix of dropped into the DAW (don’t use an external program to play the track) to see if you’re on the right track in the big picture. Once the mix is finished, you can master it using mastering software, an online mastering service, or send it away to a pro.
How do you mix properly?
Now that you learned the step-by-step process for mixing music, you are ready to practice. However, there are several beginner mistakes you should avoid so that you improve your skillset more efficiently.
Here are four beginner mistakes you should avoid while mixing:
- Not using proper monitoring equipment
- Not utilizing a reference mix
- Mixing at loud volumes
- Not taking breaks to let your ears rest
Remember, listening is critical when mixing. But to listen properly, you must allow your ears to do their job correctly.
So, let’s explore the techniques that will help you supercharge your mixing skills.
Use proper monitoring (studio monitors and headphones)
Using low-quality speakers or headphones while mixing is like editing a photo on a cracked, low-resolution screen. You simply won’t be able to get a good result.
A pair of studio monitors or studio-quality headphones will enable you to hear the audio in full detail and allow you to identify any problems. Issues like frequency masking, clipping, and loudness inconsistencies are auditory phenomenons you simply won’t be able to notice on low-quality monitoring equipment.
You don’t need a big budget for your first mixing setup. A laptop running a free or paid DAW and a pair of budget-friendly studio headphones are enough to get started. If you have more space, you should consider investing in budget studio monitors since they provide a better stereo image.
Use a reference mix
Now that you have proper monitor equipment, you need to get some listening perspective. The easiest way to make sure your mix sounds good is to consistently compare it to a reference mix.
When you first start mixing, you will feel lost in a sea of sound waves and frequencies. A reference mix will be the compass that will always point you in the right direction.
Choosing a reference track is easy. It should be a song you’re familiar with and similar to the track you’re working on. So, if you’re working on a pop mix, find a pop song that sounds good to you and use it as a reference.
Load the reference track on a stereo channel in your DAW, and make it a routine to compare your mix to it. This will recalibrate your ears and help you analyze your mix correctly.
Keep the volume down
Let’s return to our photography reference. Blasting your studio monitors at full volume is like looking at a screen set to full brightness. Your ears will get tired, and ear fatigue will lead to poor mixing decisions.
And that’s just scratching the surface. There are other reasons you’d want to keep the noise down, such as human hearing’s tendency to perceive frequencies differently at different volumes. Keeping your studio monitors quiet will give you a more realistic idea of how your mix sounds.
Another thing to keep in mind is room acoustics. As a beginner, you’re probably mixing in a room that isn’t acoustically treated, and high volumes will exaggerate the room’s resonant frequencies and reflections.
Lastly, you want to keep your ears safe. Listening at lower volumes will help prevent ear damage. You never know when an unstable plugin or a lousy cable might cause a loud volume spike.
Remember to take a break
High volume isn’t the only cause of ear fatigue. Even if you’re mixing at low volume, your ears will eventually get tired. To prevent this, remember to take breaks consistently during the mixing session.
Stop the playback in your DAW, stand up, stretch, and return to the session after a few minutes.
Mixing takes practice
Mixing is easy to learn but hard to master. We hope our mixing guide will help you improve your skills faster, but you’ll need to put in the effort first. The one and only secret to audio mixing is practice, no matter how many mixing tutorials you read and how much advice you get.
Choose a DAW, load it up with VST plugins, record some music, and work on your mixing skills daily. Listen to your mixes on different studio monitors and seek feedback from other producers. Analyze the quality of your mix and try to make the next one better.