You’ve hopefully recorded your tracks very well and now the time has come to mix your song. Sometimes mixing can seem overwhelming. You can spend hours and hours jumping from one track to another without any real point and lose your time and focus if you’re not careful.
You have to have a plan a road map to get your mix done in a few hours.
Here are 7 steps you can follow to get great mixes very quickly.
1. MIX PREPARATION: USE GROUPS AND BUSSES
When you first open your project, sort the tracks. If your tracks are in disorder, you’ll have trouble knowing which track you worked on, and you will waste time scrolling up and down looking for your Electric Guitar Solo track.
Usually, I begin with drums, then bass, then acoustic and electric guitars, then piano and pads, then vocals and harmonies, from top to bottom.
Then, create subgroups and route your tracks correctly. Create a DRUMS bus, a GUITARS bus, a VOCALS bus, etc…
This will allow you to simplify your mix, control the volume of many tracks with just one fader, and apply EQ and Compression on all the tracks at once if you want to.
Listen to the song, and find the busiest part of the song.
It can be the last chorus, or the bridge, etc…
Loop that part. This is the most complex part to mix, so if you start here and get it to sound great, the rest of the song will sound great.
2. GET A GREAT STATIC MIX
I cannot stress how important that is. Mixing is all about setting levels. EQ, compression, reverb and effects are just polishing and fine-tuning. Setting levels right is critical for the quality of your final mix.
You need to be able to hear all the instruments, yet give them each a place, because not all instruments are important.
Play with just the volume faders, and try to achieve a good balance between the instrument. Don’t touch any panning knob, don’t use any plugins. Just volume faders. This is real core mixing.
Personally, I tend to put the drums, bass, and vocals a little more upfront because they carry the rhythm and lyrics of the song. When listening to music, you sing along, and bob your head to the drums and bass, so I try to mimic that when mixing.
Oh, and don’t forget to leave some headroom! Your mix should not clip. Don’t be afraid to turn your tracks down, and turn your speakers up.
Also make sure you’re in mono. The easiest way to go mono is to hit the mono button on your interface, or to pan everything in the center.
By this point, you should have an idea of where you’re going. Are you going to feature the piano? Does the song need ultra-fat drums? Where will you put the harmonies? Etc…
If you decide now what you want the song to sound like, you’ll know what to do next.
3. APPLY EQ TO GET CLARITY
EQ is a tool that you should use to get clarity and separation.
If instruments are competing for the same frequency range, then EQ can help make them sit well together.
A nice cut in a less important instrument in that frequency range can go a long way to free up space for others.
If you have no idea how to EQ effectively, the simplest and safest thing you can do is to use a High Pass Filter.
The low end of your mix should be occupied by the bass and drums. The other instruments do not have a lot of information in the low end, but they have some that might add up and make your mix sound muddy if you’re not careful.
So use a High Pass Filter on all your other tracks, and get rid of the useless low end. It’s really the simplest way to use EQ.
Believe me, a simple High Pass Filter on every track will cut the uneeded low frequencies on your instruments, and instantly clean the low end.
4. APPLY COMPRESSION TO GET PUNCH
Compression is, with EQ, one of your most powerful tool.
Basically, a compressor evens out the volume of your tracks.
It turns down peaks, and turns up the quietest parts.
Use a compressor on your drums to fatten them up, and make them punchy.
Use a slow attack if you want some snap, or use a faster attack to have them fat. Another option is to send a copy of the drums to another bus, compress it heavily and blend the compressed drums with the un-compressed (or lightly compressed) original to get the best of both world.
Compress your bass track to tame the attack a little and get more sustain and body.
Use it on your main vocal tracks to turn up the quieter words that might get lost in the mix.
However, make sure to avoid over-compressing your tracks. As a rule of thumb, 3 to 6 db of gain reduction is enough. Be subtle and start with low ratio like 2:1 or 3:1.
The point is to make your tracks more consistent and punchy, so the compression should not be obvious.
You can apply compression to other dynamics instrument as well if needed (like piano for example). But for a typical rock/pop song, be sure to focus first on drums, bass and vocals.
5. APPLY REVERB TO GIVE A SENSE OF SPACE
We homestudio owners have to work in less-than-ideal sounding room. So we try to close-mic every instrument to avoid bad sounding room sound in our tracks.
The result is dry sounding tracks.
Use Reverb on drums and vocals to give them space. Every instrument might benefit from a little reverb, but you can go little further on drums and vocals.
Again, be careful not to drown your mix in reverb. A High Pass Filter on the reverb track can also help you avoid muddiness.
6. USE PANNING TO GO STEREO
At this point, your mix is still in mono. It’s time to go stereo!
Oh, and you can get out of your loop as well!
I always mix in mono and use panning in the end of the mix. That way, if I can get a great mix in mono, it will be wider, bigger, more awesome in stereo.
Use panning automation to bring movement, variations and keep things interesting.
However, keep kick, snare, bass, and vocals in the center. As I said before, they drive the song, so they should have a central place in the mix.
Sometimes, even after compression, you might notice the end of vocal phrases getting lost in the mix. Using volume automation, a slight 3db boost can make that final syllable more audible, and perfect your vocal track.
You can also use volume automation to feature some instruments in certain parts of the song, or to tame them.
Be creative and use your shiny fancy effect plugins to make things interesting: maybe a slight chorus effect on the lead guitar in the 2nd verse might do the trick and make that verse stand out.
Maybe drop the bass completely on the first verse, to get the chorus to explode when you bring it back.
The point here is to make the mix interesting from start to finish and not bore the listener.
Do whatever you feel is right for the song. It might be a subtle effect, panning automation, muting some tracks, or doubling others, distortion, whatever…
Be creative, and let your personality shine here!
If you skip this step, you’ll still have a great mix, but it will not be yours. Add your stamp to the mix, your vibe, and feel. Get crazy (not too much) and make a killer track.
SIMPLE MIXING GETS THE JOB DONE
I am Tope Ajisafe. I manage a home studio where I get all the projects of my students in my music school done...
I am also learning though...
However, this is how I approach mixing. Every mix engineer does it differently, and I’d love you to tell me how YOU mix. Tell me about any differences, similarities, or if you just plain disagree with me on that.
Now go mix some good music!