There is no way around it: Mixing music is a craft that can only be learned through extensive hands-on experience. Over the years, we’ve talked to dozens of engineers who have shared their thoughts about the process, and rarely do their strategies involve esoteric hardware or exotic signal routing. Rather, pro-level work involves careful listening and a common-sense approach to the job, one that focuses on learning how to problem solve in order achieve the intended results.
And there is no end to the learning process because, as technology and musical styles evolve, engineers must keep up. So, no matter what level of experience one has, there is always room for improvement or growth.
That’s what inspired this article.
We’ve selected 21 concepts and strategies from professional mix engineers that cover the process from beginning to end. Although some of the ideas may seem obvious, we suggest keeping an open mind as you read because they can still be instructive as you examine your own practices. Such reevaluation can often lead to discoveries that you hadn’t previously considered.
Know Where You’re Going
Before you start moving faders and turning knobs, it’s helpful to have a strategy in mind for your mix. It could be as simple as trying to pattern it after the mix of a particular song you like. You may decide you want a heavily ambient sound or a very dry one. Perhaps you want to create a mix that catches a listener’s attention with dramatic stereo placement or effects. Because the possibilities are endless, it’s a good idea to have a least a basic concept of what you want the mix to sound like before you start.
Think of it this way: Would you get in your car and drive without a destination in mind? Of course not. And the same holds true for your mix. There are so many ways for a mix to veer off in the wrong direction that, if you don’t know in advance where you want to go with it, you’re likely to lose control of the result.
Take Meticulous Notes
Keep track of the details as you work. In addition to listing any outboard gear you use (the tracks they’re on, the programs and settings, etc.), include any important decisions or elements that will be useful should you need to return to the song at a later date.
It’s easy to ignore this crucial step, so be diligent: Just because you’re mixing in the box, don’t rely on things such as the DAW automation to help you remember what you did. Put notable aspects of the mix into words, and make sure a paper version is stored with your session archives and backups.
Don’t Forget the Stems
Once your finished mixing a song, take a little extra time to create submixes (known as stems) of the instrumental and vocal parts. For example, it makes sense to create an a cappella track while the signal chain for the vocals is still set up. You’ll also want to create stems of the individual rhythm instruments (drums, percussion, bass, rhythm guitar), a mix of the full rhythm section, and an instrumental mix of the entire song. Even if your music doesn’t fit into a genre where remixing is common, there are commercial reasons to create stems; for example, if the song is licensed for use in television or film, you might be asked for an instrumental version. These are additional assets that can be monetized from the song, so don’t forget them.
Easy on the Solo Button
When mixing, the Solo button is a double-edged sword. It’s useful for finding glitches and to hear the effect of processing clearly on an instrument or vocal, but it’s best to make any adjustments with the Solo off, so you’re implementing changes in the context of the full mix. If you rely too much on soloing, you’ll be making your mix moves in a vacuum, and they may not translate when you add the other elements back in. The very nature of mixing—that is, blending individual tracks into a cohesive stereo mix—is all about the relationship of one track to another. Focusing too much on soloed elements will likely detract from the final product.
Future Proof Those Tracks
One more thing to do before you tear down the session: Export each track as an individual WAV file with and without its effects (mono or stereo, depending on the instrument). This is especially important if you’ve assembled various takes of the vocal or guitar parts into comp tracks, but haven’t consolidated them into a single audio file. Now’s the time.
Each WAV file should last the exact same length of time—from the beginning of the song to the end. That way, if you have to remix the song at a later date, and for some reason your session file format is no longer supported, you can import the individual WAV files into another DAW, start them all at the beginning of the timeline, and everything will sync up. Furthermore, by exporting each track with and without processing, you’ll be covered if your favorite plug-in effects are no longer supported.
Move That Screen
Typically, we place our computer screen between the speakers in front of us. But in that position, it can be a distraction, tempting you to make adjustments based on what you see rather than what you hear.
Pro engineers often place their screen, keyboard, and mouse on a rolling stand to the right or left of their seat, similar to where a tape machine’s transport controls would be (see Figure 1). That way, they only look at the DAW when necessary.
Metadata Collection Starts Now
A major casualty of both digital creation and delivery has been song and album credits. Nonetheless, the information is vitally important for future revenue generation, as well as networking and awards consideration. Therefore, if it hasn’t been given to you before you begin, or if what you’re given is incomplete, now is a good time to compile session data. It should include everyone who has worked on the project and other relevant info, such as studios, master recording formats and resolution. The mix stage is a great place to account for everything involved up to that moment, since fewer people will be added to the list from this point forward.
The most efficient way to assemble and store such data is by using Soundways RIN-M, a free plug-in and stand-alone app that is based on the Recording Information Notification (RIN) standard. (A paid version that includes additional metadata fields is also available.) Once the data is added to the RIN-M file for each song, the information will follow the project and be available downstream for labels and streaming services, among others, to use.
Let It Sit
Even when you have a solid idea of where you want to go with your mix, it’s easy to lose perspective during a long session. Once you begin to feel as if you’re spinning your wheels, the best thing to do is to step away for a while (that is, of course, if you don’t have an immediate deadline). Let your mix sit for a few hours—preferably overnight—and reconvene with your perspective refreshed. When you reopen the session, listen to it all the way through and make notes of the issues you hear. Then go through the song, systematically fixing everything on the list.
Use “Save As,” Often
When you listen to the song the day after you mix, you may realize that you had passed the point of diminishing returns well before you called it a night. Due to the nature of mixing, where each adjustment is in context to the previous one, if you take a wrong turn, your problems will be quickly compounded. For example, you might have turned up the lead vocal too much and then felt like the snare had to come up to compensate; and then you realized the keyboards sounded too low as a result, so you turned those up. A successive series of compensations such as this can throw your mix severely out of whack.
When that happens, you need a way to backtrack to the point before you went off course. The best way to ensure that you have that option is to use Save As, periodically, as the mix progresses. Add an incremental number or letter after the song title in the file name, and a short description of the change. For example, “Rocket Mama.4_Snare Up 2dB.” It is especially important to save a new version after you have made a significant adjustment. Incremental saving gives you a virtual breadcrumb trail to backtrack with and makes it much easier to find that point just before the mix went wrong.
One of the keys to crafting a successful mix is to create space for every element. You can accomplish some of that with panning, some with volume, and some with ambience. But there are times where you have to literally carve out the space with EQ when dealing with instruments that reside in similar frequency ranges. Usually, you have to do your cutting in the midrange, which can be tricky because that’s where the meat of most instruments or voices lie. When one element masks another, try cutting the former and boosting the latter at the same frequency with a fairly narrow Q. You’ll likely have to experiment to find a good setting: Let your ears be your guide.
If you have iZotope’s Neutron plug-in, try using its Masking Meter, which lets you compare elements in your mix and shows you the frequency range in which the masking occurs (see Figure 2). It even has a feature called Inverse Link that cuts one track and boosts the other the same amount at the same frequency.
Layer Your Effects
There’s no rule saying you should only use one processor on a given track. Sometimes you can create more interesting and complex sounds by combining different versions of the same kind of effect (see Figure 3). Take reverb, for example: Layering more than one type on a vocal creates a richer sounding ambience than you’d get with a single plug-in. Not only can you combine different kinds of rooms, but also dial in different decay, pre-delay and EQ settings for additional interest.
Using multiple compressors on a single track is another approach. For instance, try using two different vintage compressor emulations to create a unique type of “character” compression. And imagine the possibilities of having two delays with completely different, but tempo-locked, settings on a rhythmic instrument? One of the ways to make a memorable mix is to infuse it with original sounds, so don’t be afraid to get creative.
The master bus (or 2-bus) is where engineers add processing to make a mix more powerful and punchy. The key is to be judicious about it. Bus compressors, such as emulations of the famous SSL G Bus Compressor, provide a cohesiveness to the mix (often referred to as the “glue”), and the results can be dramatic (see Figure 4). But be careful when putting limiters on the 2-bus to make your mix loud, especially if you plan to send the song for mastering: Many engineers avoid limiting altogether, leaving room for the mastering engineer to apply it. (On the other hand, if you’re planning to master the project yourself, and you decide to goose up the level with a limiter, be careful not to overly squash the dynamic range.)
With the growing prominence of streaming music services, which automatically normalize uploaded tracks to the same level (-14 to -16 LUFS—Loudness Units Relative to Full Scale—depending on the service), the loudness war is mainly over. Because it is likely your song will be normalized to the same level as all the others, it is better to retain its dynamic range rather than eliminate it with a limiter.
Mix with Eyes Closed
Engineer Dave Isaac (Stevie Wonder, Prince, Eric Clapton, Marcus Miller) has mentioned in interviews that he often closes his eyes when mixing, which allows him to focus on the music without visual distractions. If you haven’t tried this technique, you’ll be surprised by its power.
As you listen, close your eyes and visualize the band. It will help you clarify your panning decisions and focus more on the performance. It’s an entirely different way to experience a mix and will give you additional insights and inspiration.
Filter the Extremes
Another way to open up your mix is to filter out the frequencies that are not needed by a particular element at the extreme ends of the audio spectrum. For example, in most situations, you can put a highpass (or low-cut) filter on an instrument or voice to roll off unnecessary lows below its frequency range. One way to figure out where to set the filter cutoff is by slowly increasing it until you hear the sound start to thin out, then back it off to just before that point. You can also filter out unnecessary high-end using a lowpass (or high-cut) filter: Just be careful you don’t lose any of the airiness of that mix element in the process.
Start with Broad Strokes
In the early phases of a mix, it’s most efficient to start with the macro adjustments before moving on to the micro ones. Get a rough balance, do some quick pan settings and try to get your mix in the ballpark before you spend time EQing that kick drum to perfection. Focusing on fine details when the broad outlines aren’t yet in place could end up being a big waste of time. Approach it like a house painter, who starts with a roller to cover most of a wall, then uses a brush to touch things up.
Build Intensity into Your Mix
If you analyze the mix of a contemporary pop song, you’ll notice that it changes from section to section, often building in intensity and complexity. If you compare, say, the first and last chorus, you’ll likely notice that the latter has more going on, perhaps with additional background vocals and percussion.
Contrast also helps keep the listener’s interest, and much of it will be in the arrangement, itself. Yet even at the mixing stage, there are things you can do to build expectation by highlighting aspects of the arrangement. It could be as easy as muting a percussion part early in a song and bringing it in later, or by creating a breakdown—for example, muting most of the instruments during a chorus late in the song—which provides the ultimate in contrast.
Another way to go is to change the processing on important elements (such as the lead vocal) in the different sections of the song. This provides additional contrast and gives the transitions greater impact as the arrangement move from verse to chorus, chorus to bridge, and so forth.
Put in the Effort
What’s the best way to mix like a pro? Work like a pro! Log in the hours it takes to fully understand how everything in your studio operates. That means familiarizing yourself with the sound and audio quality of each item in the signal chain, making sure any coloration or noise you hear is supposed to be there. In addition, read the manuals to discover all of the hidden potential of your gear.
And, actively listen to everything, including music and genres you don’t enjoy. Hearing how others use the same tools you have will inspire you in your own work.
Headphones vs. Speakers
Headphones are extremely useful for hearing fine details. Mixing on them exclusively, however, is tricky because we experience sound through headphones differently than we do when it is heard in a room through speakers. For example, on headphones, the left/right separation is absolute, whereas when we listen on speakers, we hear reflections from all around the environment, which lessen the impact of the panning a bit. Frequency and volume levels are also perceived differently on headphones. Consequently, it’s hard to know what your mix will sound like on speakers if you mix exclusively on headphones.
If you must mix exclusively on headphones, the Waves NX plug-in is worth investigating. It not only simulates the experience of listening on speakers, but includes visual tracking technology (using a special hardware tracker or your computer’s onboard camera) that adjusts the sound as you move your head. This emulates how the mix would change from similar movements if you were listening in an actual room (see Fig. 5).
Vocal Ups and Downs
It’s not uncommon at the mastering stage to discover that the level of the voice in one or more of the songs needs to be raised or lowered in relation to the rest of the album. Mastering engineers have sophisticated ways of doing this, but you’ll pay for the extra time they spend fixing the issues. If the problems are too thorny to adjust, you will be asked to remix the problem tracks.
To mitigate such problems, create alternate mixes of each song—one with the main vocal slightly louder (called a Vocal Up) and another with the vocal slightly softer (Vocal Down). The boost given to the lead vocal should be very subtle: from 1.5 to 3dB in either direction, depending on how the voice sits in the track. If you know who will master the album, solicit their advice to the level. The goal is to have these optional mixes at hand should the mastering engineer need them.
As with everything else in life, sometimes less is more. All of these interesting processing tools can lead you to add too much of an effect, such as the complex reverb mentioned earlier. As you work, occasionally step back and listen to the overall blend of the different instrument families and sections. Sometimes it actually helps to stand in different parts of the room while listening to see if you hear anything unusual. If clarity is lacking at some point, try lowering or removing effects to see if that helps.
And just because an instrument has been recorded doesn’t mean it must appear in the final mix. As the person responsible for balancing the elements of the song, you’re at liberty to mute anything that complicates the mix or distracts the listener. (I’m looking at you, percussion overdubs!) If you’ve ever heard outtakes of a classic song and noticed parts you’ve never heard before, now you know why: Someone decided to simplify the mix, which may, in fact, have helped the tune become a hit.
Consider the Audience’s Listening Habits
There’s truth to the saying that a well-mixed song will sound good on any playback system. But with so many different listening formats these days, it’s important to know how your mix will fare on a wider variety of playback devices than ever: That’s because the differences in reproduction will change the frequency emphasis making elements stick out more or less. High-pitched elements, such as hi-hats and shakers, tend to jump out more on earbuds than on big speakers, whereas bass parts are often boosted in car systems. You should also consider the impact of lossy codecs such as MP3 and AAC on your mix, since most people will be listening online or on a digital device that uses them.
Be sure to check your mix on as many different systems as you can. At the very least listen on earbuds and audition the mix from your laptop speakers, in addition to your studio monitors. Convert your mix to MP3 or AAC and check it that way, as well. If you have a recent version of iZotope Ozone, it offers a way to preview your music as an MP3. Another solution is to use the plug-in MixChecker from Audified (see Fig. 6). It simulates a wide array of listening environments (from home and car speakers to earbuds, laptops, tablets, and phones) giving you a basic idea of how your mix will translate across numerous devices.