Mixing is a process that often confuses many people. It’s like a mystical art that we are always trying to chase and improve on in hopes that it will take our tracks to another level 🙏
Throughout the 10+ years I’ve been making music, I’ve made my fair share of mistakes 😅 but I’ve also picked up quite a few mixing tips that I currently go to and today I’m going to share that information with you in hopes it will give you a better understanding of the process and avoid the pitfalls I’ve made over the years.
Think Balance, Not Better
One of the first mistakes I often see and have been victim to myself is thinking of the mixing process as an enhancement process. The truth is, no matter how good you are at mixing, if your source material isn’t great, then your mix is also going to sound 💩
So how do we fix this issue? well, the first thing to do is to make sure your track already sounds good before mixing. This comes down to some key factors such as:
- Sound selection
- Less Is More
Now, I’ve got pretty quick at making a beat, sometimes they take me 2-3 hours in total and sometimes they take me 8 hours. A lot of this time comes down to choosing the right sound selection. Just by choosing the right kick or the right snare, or to get the bass working with the kick is going to give you a very easy job in mixing.
Making sure your arrangement is good will also save you heaps of time. Try to limit your melodic content to 2-3 elements maximum at one time, especially if you plan to have vocals over the track. As a vocalist myself and someone who has worked with many vocalists, very prominent melodies usually make it very hard for a rapper or singer to do their own thing on freely. They end up having to follow the melody you put in the track and often times what sounds like a good melody on the guitar, doesn’t sound so good for a vocal. Always remember, less is more 💯
So, if you have done well in the creation process, when you go to start your mix you should feel quite happy with how its sounding already. Lets take a look at the next step.
Bounce Your Midi to Audio and Use a New Project For Mixing
I’m gonna be honest, It took me longer than it should to adapt this into my process but there is a major reason you should do this with all your tracks before mixing; this takes you out of “creation” mode and into “mixing” mode.
Once your working with only audio in a new mixing project, you are committed. This is your track and what you got to work with, no getting stuck changing a sound later down the road only to notice its been almost an hour and your still trying to select a new sound for your synth pluck, sound familiar eh? 😅
This furthers the point that sound selection is key in the creation process, don’t have the mindset it can be fixed in mixing. It can’t because that’s not the aim of mixing.
Once you’ve imported your audio files to your new mixing project, it’s time to check your peak levels right away. I always make sure that the levels of my track don’t peak over -4db in the creation process itself, then, when I import my audio into my new mixing project, I drop the faders of every track down by a couple of db to make sure my peak levels sit around -8 to -6db before mixing. The reason for this is to give myself headroom. This is the secret to a dynamic punchy mix.
So you got your audio tracks imported to a new project and your levels set right, whats next?
Mix at a Low Volume
If you’re into mixing, you’ll know who Chris Lord Alge is. One of his mixing tips I read long ago in an article stuck with me and that was to mix at a low volume. So low in fact that you can have a conversation with someone in the room with you without having to raise your voice.
The reasons for this are practical; less ear fatigue when listening for an extended period of time. There is a much better and exciting reason though; If you can make something sound big, punchy, dynamic and exciting at a speech level volume, how good do you think its gonna sound when you turn the volume up?
Often times, this is such an amazing mixing hack that it surprises you when you turn up the speakers or put on your headphones and the clarity is amazing. Try it out for yourself and see the difference it makes. 🔥
Using High Pass Filters on Everything To Clean Up The Mix
The first thing I do when I approach a mix is to run a clean up process by using high pass filters on every track.
For example, most instruments don’t need the information below 200hz if it isn’t specifically being used for bass. vocals, keys, guitars and synths can all be rolled off at 200hz as a starting point to leave the space clear for the kick and bass to come through. Often times this step improves clarity and balance of the track overall.
Using EQ For a Reason
One of this mistakes I often did with EQ was to think of it as an enhancement tool, instead of a balancing tool.
The only reason you should reach for an EQ is if something is not balanced correctly. For example, if we had a drum group we were mixing and the balance sounds right in terms where the levels are set but the bass in the drums just isn’t cutting through as much as you’d like, you now have a reason to EQ.
Always try to correct the issue with basic level balancing first, if that doesn’t work, it likely needs some EQ work or compression to fix the issue.
Using Compression For a Reason
My number one rule with compression is; don’t overdo it.
Again, the only reason you should reach for a compressor is if something is not balanced correctly and cannot be fixed by basic level balancing with faders or EQ.
A common mistake is when using a compressor, we will bypass the effect and then turn it on again to A/B it from what we had before but we got the makeup gain set wrong so it just sounds louder with the compression on, that fools us into thinking it sounds better. Now remember, mixing is about balance, so always make sure to set the makeup gain so there’s no audible volume change when doing a A/B test. Then ask yourself, does this sound more balanced?
If something don’t need compression, don’t use it. This will actually breathe more life into your mixes. If you overdo compression, it wont make your track sound loud, it will do the opposite.
How to Avoid Audible Distortion in the Mix
If you are hearing distortion in your mix, it’s likely something in your mix isn’t balanced right. An easy fix for this is to use a frequency spectrum analyser and look at the frequencies that are sticking out of the mix.
You want the spectrum to look quite evenly balanced across the whole spectrum.
For example, one common range that causes distortion is to 800hz – 2000hz range when you are dealing with a resonating vocal. This means you have to go back in your track and make that more balanced. Start with level adjustment, if you lower the fader and lose the vocal, its probably at the right level. This means you should turn to EQ and if the problem still persists, turn to compression.
Saturation is Your Friend
Now onto the good version of distortion.
Adding saturation to instruments like your drum group is a nice way to give them a bit of grit, edge and make them hit hard. The key is to add this sparingly, but if done right, it will give your drums, bass or anything else you want a little push forwards in the mix. One of my favorite tracks to put saturation on is rap vocals. Using a vintage tape emulator plugin to add a very slight distortion the vocal is a nice way to give vocals some edge.
Keep Your Peak Levels Between -6db - -4db
So, with the less is more approach, if you are getting happy with how your mix is sounding, you should now make sure your levels do not peak above -4db. I personally always make my tracks peak at -6db to leave a good amount of headroom for mastering.
Mastering is often considered as “bring the volume up process” but the truth is, slapping a limiter on your master buss and bring up your mix isn’t going to make your track sound the best it can. Always put time into the mastering process just like you do with mixing as they involve different processes.
The One Question You Have to Ask Yourself Constantly Through Mixing
At the end of a mix, there’s only one question you need to ask yourself; can I hear everything I need to hear?
If your answer is yes, your mix is good. If theres a certain element at any part of the song you are unsure of, fix it and ask the question again. Don’t leave it to be fixed in mastering, that will only result in you having to come back and fix that issue later anyway since mastering is about being subtle.