You may have heard this term many times without fully understanding what it means. Perhaps you’re not quite certain of where it sits in the process of creating a song. In this guide, we explain mixing, what the process involves and how you can start doing it at home. Music production in the 21st century is not the same as it was 20 or 30 years ago. Skills like this were reserved for those with specialist equipment. Now, anyone can produce music at home. If home recording is your bag, you certainly need to learn about this topic.
First thing’s first. You need to understand what mixing is in order to get to grips with it. A song is produced or recorded as multiple “tracks”. Tracks may be feeds from different microphones, or additional tracks added in the computer such as virtual instruments.
These tracks are what make up a complete song. Each track usually represents a microphone feed or an instrument. For instance, if you have 10 microphones recording a band, 10 tracks in your DAW will be needed. Mixing is the blending together of all the different tracks, along with effects and processing, to make one finished song. The end result is a 2-track stereo file.
Mixing consists of the following:
- Adjusting volumes and EQ so that every instrument can be heard.
- Using ‘panning’ to make instruments come from the left or right speaker.
- Muting or removing certain tracks.
- Adding effects like reverb and delay.
- Adding dynamic effects such as compressors or gates.
This is a very basic overview. However, it gives an idea of the principles of mixing. You are aiming to turn the raw audio into something polished, which sounds clear and professional.
The Music Production Chain
It helps to know where in the production “chain” mixing sits. The steps to producing a song are as follows:
- Composing. Firstly, writing the song. You will probably do this on instruments. Some people write their song within the DAW.
- Pre-production. Refine your ideas and get the song ready to be recorded. This can include demo recordings.
- Recording. The process of recording the instruments. You can either layer them or record everything at once.
- Editing. Cutting things that don’t need to be there, rearranging parts of the song and more. Tuning vocals, editing drums in time.
- Mixing. This is where mixing comes into the process.
- Mastering. You will send the song to a mastering engineer. They polish once more, maximizing volume and tweaking EQ to make the song ready for airplay.
- Distribution. Finally, we have distribution, getting your music out there!
Some people think of mixing as the final step. This is really not the case. After mixing, music needs to be mastered. Think of this as the final ‘rendering’. Perfecting the final file ready for people to hear it.
What Do I Need to Know About Mastering?
You will usually get your mastering done by a separate studio. They use the final 2-track mixdown of your song. Mastering engineers don’t have access to multi-track projects. They work exclusively with the final mixdown of the left and right channels.
Mastering can involve compressing the song to maximize volumes. Also, mastering engineers use EQ to make your song sound balanced and ready for the media they’re about to be reproduced on. These tips show some other things mastering engineers do when finalizing mixes.
Why Learn to Mix?
Many musicians mix their own music. Home recording is becoming more popular. Equipment is accessible, acoustic treatment doesn’t have to be too much hassle. The result is more people needing to know how to mix their music.
This incredibly insightful article shows some artists who self-record. It somewhat defeats the purpose if having recorded you then send the song to someone else to mix. Mixing is a good talent for musicians to have, but it can change your whole approach to songwriting. Knowing what is needed, or what can be done in the mix can change how you are writing and pre-producing songs for the better.
What You Need to Mix
The stereotypical image of mixing involves using a mixing desk. A mixing desk is helpful, but not essential if you have the audio files. So what do you need to mix?
In terms of equipment, you will need:
- A computer capable of running music software.
- A DAW (digital audio workstation). This will be your central hub and interface for mixing.
- Audio plugins. Effects like EQ, reverb and compressors might need to be used. Some DAWs include these.
- Monitors and headphones. Yes, one does not replace the other.
Also, you need your recording. The multiple tracks of the recording, also known as ‘stems’, can be used to create your mix. Finally, you need a reference track (a mix similar to the one you hope to make) and your ears!
Steps to Mixing Your Songs
In addition to knowing what equipment is needed, and knowing what mixing is, you need to know how to approach it. Some aspects of mixing are universally needed, others are personal opinion. You will develop your own workflow over time. Firstly, try to understand the song, and the instruments used. Knowing how to mix every instrument individually involves knowledge of how the instrument works, and what frequencies it covers. However, many of the tips we mention below will be extremely helpful when mixing.
Firstly, get used to the sound that you are aiming for, and the sound of your gear. Your equipment will have a certain frequency response. Listen to songs using your headphone and monitors. Once you are used to the sound you’ll know what to aim for.
The songs you should listen to before mixing are those which have a similar sound to what you are aiming for. You can start to copy the EQ curve, volume and compression in order to achieve similar results.
Naturally, your song won’t automatically sound as good. However, you will pick up knowledge by trying to replicate a certain sound.
Mixing the Traditional Way
The traditional method of mixing involves staying way away from 0 dB. The 0 dB indicator on your mixer or DAW is useful. If the track is going above this, it may start to distort.
The traditional method is to leave “headroom”. This means keeping all the tracks well under 0 dB. Pretend that your -14 dB spot on your mixer is the 0 dB marker. Don’t let much get past -14 dB in volume. You can allow a few peaks to pass this spot, but generally, keep things quieter, preventing peaks from going higher than -14dB. Headroom allows your mastering engineer more space for adding EQ and compression. You will receive better end-results as a result.
Magroove tip: It’s always good to leave the snare and kick drums higher in the mix than you would. They always reduce in volume during the mastering process, due to compression. So leave them a bit loud and the end result will be spot on.
Mixing the Modern Way
Modern DAWs can be used to mix the modern way. Using a limiter on the master bus (the aggregation of all the tracks) keeps everything close to 0 dB but stops it from creeping over.
The result of mixing in this way is much louder. However, if you are planning to send it to a mastering engineer, you don’t need to worry. They will boost the volumes to the highest possible without distorting. (so don’t do this!)
If you’ve ever heard of the loudness war, you’ll know that mixing and mastering can be the subject of some debate. Our advice is to err on the side of caution. Cut rather than boost, and leave room for your mastering engineer, so you don’t risk distortion.
The Mixing Process
As we’ve mentioned already, you will develop your own specific workflow over time. However, you should follow these set steps to start with what is tried and tested. The following steps make a good starting point.
- Listen to the song a couple of times. Familiarize yourself with it. Additionally, if it’s not your own song, this is even more important.
- Balance the volumes. If you have all faders on 0dB and your Master bus is clipping, get all faders down to -10dB and start from there. Get them even lower if you need to. From there, start balancing the volumes.
- Pan things within your track. Panning is the act of putting some things over to the left channel of the mix and others to the right. Those which are played equally in both channels, we call them “in center”. Think of your track as having a full spectrum from left to right. Panning helps instruments cutting through the mix, so all instruments can be heard properly. This guide will help you to understand it more.
- Apply gates where the noise floor is high. This can reduce leakage and means you don’t get excess noise within your track. A gate on the kick drum will mean it doesn’t play any audio unless it hits a certain volume. As a result, you will have removed any noise between kick drum hits.
- Apply dynamics. Use compressors and limiters to stop audio from getting overly loud. Compression can also lead to more consistent volumes on tracks, for instance it can bring the volumes of guitar strums closer together.
- Apply EQ. There are EQ frequencies which won’t be needed on certain tracks. Think of this as trimming the fat. Low-end frequencies may bleed onto the microphone when recording hi-hats, they’re not needed and can be cut away.
- Finally, apply spacial effects. Things like reverb and delay to make your song sound like it is in a physical space.
These are some basic mixing techniques. As time goes on, you will develop more nuanced techniques and work out your own styles and workflows. It doesn’t take a huge amount of practice to get your head around some of the basic concepts like panning and EQ, but you can devote your whole life to learning more about mixing. Don’t lose yourself in an audio rabbit hole. New techniques and methods are always an option, but the important thing is to get these basics nailed down and use them to full effect when mixing your songs.
Finally, don’t be afraid to experiment. You can break the rules once you know them. Once you know these basics, you can try new things within certain parameters to get a new and interesting sound.