Mixing Music The Right Way

By Glen Parry / September 29, 2017
Mixing music the right way

So, you’ve gone through the process of recording your first song. All those battles with microphones, various cables and routing paid off. But what next?

While mixing may seem like a daunting task at first, there are a few useful steps you can follow in order to get the most out of your equipment and skill level. Let’s see exactly what you can do to your song and make it sound great!

1. Take Care of Your Room’s Acoustics

If you’re running a home studio, your room should have been acoustically treated before you even started recording. This way, you will already have a good foundation for your work.

If that is not the case, don’t worry, there is still time for you to improve this.

But why is this so important?

Think of it this way, you’re using flat frequency response headphones and studio monitor speakers, right? You’re doing so in order to achieve a natural and precise audio image of the songs you’re working on.

If the room you’re working in isn’t acoustically treated, you are not going to be able to mix properly. A large room can add a lot of reverb and echo, and so can big closets.

Sure, you could use headphones all the time, but you probably already know the advantages of using speakers as well while you’re working in your studio.

A bigger budget means you could invest in pre-made acoustic panels. However, there are amazing DIY solutions you can find on the internet, if you don’t want to, or can’t spend money on this.

After just one session of mixing in a properly treated environment, you are bound to see a huge difference and improvement in sound quality and feel. This video provides a great summary. 

2. Keep the Reference Mix On Mind

Ask yourself, what is your job as an audio engineer?

While you should ultimately be trying to make the recording sound as good as possible, there is a crucial idea you should never forget.

Make the song sound as good as it can get, without it losing the original vibe.

That’s exactly why you should have the reference, or rough, mix in your mind at all times.

Depending on the skill level of the artist, or band, you’re working with, it can be either easy or very hard. If this is the band’s first time in the studio, you can’t really tell if they want a more raw sound, or they simply lack the experience and skill to make things sound tighter.

However, like most things in life, you will get better, and work faster with each next song you work on. Communication with the band members is crucial, and having the ability to play back the rough mix back to back with the edited one can go a long way.

After all, not everyone wants their songs sounding surgically precise and tight. Do what you can to make the recordings neater, but to a point that the artist wanted in the first place.

3. Do Some of the Mixing Before the Actual Mixing Time

Though it may sound a bit confusing at first, it’s actually pretty logical.

Before and while you are doing the recording and production, take some time to do basic mixing. This means, for example, choosing the best samples while you’re in the sound selection process.

Stretch the work out through the whole process, from the moment you open up your DAW, to the actual “mixing only” phase. This way, not only will you get the job done faster, but much more easily as well.

Tinkering around with the levels helps a lot in the recording and production phase. Doing the mixing step by step will give you a better image of the song way earlier, and you will have a better idea of what you’re doing altogether.

4. Use Templates!

This one is especially helpful for you absolute beginners out there.

Whichever DAW you choose to work in, chances are that there are pre- built templates that you can load and start using.

There are different ones that go with various genres and situations. A simple “Rock” template will lay out the needed tracks for you in an organized fashion, and give you a great and simple environment to start with.

Once you’ve gotten the hang of the DAW you’re using, it’s a good idea to set up a couple of your own templates.

By doing so, you can simply boot up the program, and with a simple click, have all of the necessary tracks and settings displayed so you can start your work in no time.

It will also help you with defining your own mixing style, something that is very important for you as an audio engineer in the long run. You can check out how to do this with ProTools below.

5. Keep Things Neat and Organized

Everyone has that spark of laziness in them.

For every person that names their files and folders by the actual content, there are a hundred more which will rather mash their hands on the keyboard than actually write something descriptive.

Don’t be that person.

Imagine if the trains and buses you use every day changed their numbers randomly each time you needed to use them. Instead of focusing on finding the guitar or bass track in your DAW, keep things organized!

  • Color coding is a great way of keeping things neat. If you don’t believe me, just remember this advice the next time you need to work on a project with more than just a couple of tracks. Color as a visual cue will save a bunch of valuable time, unlike having to read the names of all the tracks. Group similar instruments together, and have them tinted in different shades of the same color.
  • Name your tracks, files, and folders correctly in order to avoid having to browse through a myriad of similarly named ones that the DAW automatically generates. Add tags like “guitar solo was a bit off”, or “string buzzing present” to your different project and track saves. You never know when you’re going to need one of those “bad takes” again.
  • Refrain yourself from deleting – This goes for takes during the recording phase, as well as any ideas and modifications you may come up with during the mixing phaseUnless a track is a complete disaster and has no real value at all, save it. Maybe you can scavenge some parts of it, or it may turn out to be a great idea in the end. Just don’t go on a deleting spree every time you feel overwhelmed with the number of tracks in your project.

6. Technicality Before Creativity

Not having the right tools and a poorly designed environment before taking up any kind of work can kill a lot of potential creativity.

While this does round up some of the tips we’ve previously mentioned, there are still a couple of things to have in mind and prepare in advance.

  • Set up the busses – Bussing, or grouping, allows you to control different parameters within a group of tracks, rather than having to deal with each at a time. Grouping various drum tracks is obviously a good idea, but sometimes it can be helpful to group different instruments as well. All of the guitar layers, or even bass alongside drums or guitars, depending on the overall feel and style, will give you a different perspective and also save some time.
  • Tune the effects – This is where listening to the raw mix pays off. You should immediately know which effects you want to use, and which ones you are not going to use. Start off slowly, and add more if needed.

Though doing all this beforehand can save u a lot of time, have in mind that any work you do before the “creative part” isn’t final. The whole point is to not have your train of thought interrupted because you forgot to do a technical part of the mixing process. Watch the video below for a second opinion on bussing. 

7. Deal With The Volume First

Once you’ve set up your template, color-coded and renamed everything, it’s time to do some work!

A rule of thumb I like to follow is adjusting the volume first, and then everything else.

Chances are, you are not going to do your best on your first try. A great and easy way to get your track to sound good is this:

  • Volume
  • Equalizer
  • Compression

So, go over each and every track and set the volume to the level you find is good. Compare each volume level with the previous ones, and with the overall mix.

Once you are satisfied, it’s time to handle the EQ. Follow the previous steps in order to have everything sounding good separately as well as a part of the mix.

Compression should be handled lightly in most occasions. Sometimes, however, you will need to crank it up a bit more each time you go over separate tracks.

Once you are done, listen to the whole thing, and repeat if necessary. After some time, you will find that less time is needed to achieve a satisfying result. It’s all about practice and repetition!

8. EQ Time!

Getting to know your way around an equalizer takes practice. I remember the first time I got an amp for my bass. I didn’t really know what tinkering around the lows, mids and highs meant.

I’m going to assume you know what these 3 knobs on a standard EQ do. However, knowing what part of the spectrum to cut off or boost is a whole another thing.

Apart from trying out different settings yourself, there isn’t really much to be said. At the end of the day, it’s all about trial and error and figuring out what goes best on different occasions.

Here are some useful tips I’ve found to be helpful when it comes to EQ:

  • Start out with a rough idea – Any time you move a fader or turn a knob, you should know why you’re doing it. Stick to the idea, and work your way to the end, step by step. It’s not bad to try out different settings, but once you’ve started, push to the end.
  • Ease off the boosts – While you could boost your way to a satisfying result, try this instead: raise the volume a bit, and give the channel a slight cut. This way, all of the tracks should sound more natural, but will still be present in the mix.
  • EQ the FX – Most effects offer more settings than a simple on/off switch. This especially goes for delay and reverb. Mold the effect plugin, and not the channel itself. Those are two separate things which contribute to a different end result.
  • EQ the Busses – Using this option for multiple guitar layers can make things way easier. You will achieve a more uniform sound for different track groups.

9. Mix in 3 Dimensions

While the 2 dimensions are easily achieved by panning different instruments to one side or the other, the best tracks often give you an illusion of a 3rd dimension.

This means that you should think about the overall feel and impression the song is all about. In accordance, some tracks should be right in your face, while the others should be more subtle and in the background.

Hitting the spot takes time, but simply play your mix, close your eyes, and think about the positioning of the instruments. With some practice, you will soon be able to give your songs the necessary depth.

10. Some Mistakes Can’t Be Covered Up

Whether it’s due to the terrible acoustics of the room you did your recordings in, or the sloppiness of the artist that you recorded, there are just some mistakes you can’t take care of yourself.

No matter how hard you try, or how much you cut, copy, and paste, sometimes, it’s just better to start from the beginning.

Even the best sound engineers out there can’t handle poorly played solos or out of tempo drum lines.

Don’t give yourself a hard time if you can’t bring a project to the finish line every time. Mixing is engineering and not magic.

That pretty much wraps things up! We hope that you found this article helpful and that mixing music doesn’t seem as difficult as before.

Thank you for reading, and we will see you in the next one!

About the author

Glen Parry

My name is Glen Parry. I've been in the audio world for over 15 years. This includes guitar, keyboard, ukulele, speakers, headphones and everything else that comes with it. I spend all my free time on music production and jamming with friends. I hope to use this site to share my experience and help anyone looking for solutions to audio related problems.

Click here to add a comment

Leave a comment: