Are you ready to make amazing mixes?
What is mixing, anyway? Wikipedia explains the process perfectly:
"Audio mixing is the process by which multiple sounds are combined into one or more channels. In the process, a source's volume level, frequency content, dynamics, and panoramic position are manipulated and or enhanced. Also, effects such as reverberation and echo may be added. This practical, aesthetic, or otherwise creative treatment is done in order to produce a finished version that is appealing to listeners."
Mixing is to combine several sounds into one source. Good mixing is doing this and getting a balanced result. Both in terms of volume and frequency range, in a way that sounds good to the listener (no harsh, resonating peaking frequencies, a clean, heavy bass for example). In with the good and out with the bad.
Mixing can be tricky when starting out, but don't get discouraged.
We all know how difficult it can be to make your mix sound good and thought-out, especially in the beginning. Your kick and bass sound too thin, your snare drum sounds boxy and your guitar takes away too much of that sweet keyboard and pad you made. Your mix may also sound very two-dimensional and flat, with little to no contrast in the frequency spectrum.
You may wonder if your music is ever going to sound as sweet as that professional artist you have been listening to. I'm here to tell you that yes, it can and will sound professional if don't give up. Knowing the fundamentals in mixing and music arrangement is a great start.
Learning to mix on a professional level takes a long time, but here we have compiled a list of the five best tips to take your mix from bad to good if you follow them. This list also serves as a roadmap for mixing, which will always be applicable in your music production and mixing career.
Btw, if you haven't seen our brand new course on mixing and mastering a future bass track from start to finish, see it here :)
Let's dive in.
1. The mixing process starts in the arrangement
This is very important, and something I must state first and foremost. The sounds that you choose for your track all contain their individual frequencies. This may be obvious, but in the music production and mixing process, this is crucial to think about on a deeper level. When we choose different sounds for our track, we do it most of the time for their frequency characteristics, whether we are aware of it or not.
Painting the frequency canvas
For example, we choose a kick drum because it contains a thump in the lower frequencies, a snare for a mid-range clap and hi-hats for the higher spectrum. A bass to help the kick drum along in the lower or sub frequencies, a guitar for mids and so on.
If you look at the picture to the right, you will see the spectrogram of a synth sound. All these frequencies, ranging from 20-20k matter (some more than others), play a vital role in balancing your mix.
In creating melodies and chords, an important thing to remember is that the notes and octaves of your sound will change the frequency response of your sound.
For example, a bass sound played in a very high octave will have little to no low-frequency information. Where you put the notes of your sounds matters in terms of mixing, and the goal is to make it sound balanced even before you start the mixing process.
This is the reason you get frustrated
No matter how hard you tweak the equalizer knobs, compress, and pan, the mix still sounds bad, and you don't understand why. You think you have missed something or lack some badass plugin.
That is usually not the case. It's usually that you have chosen the wrong instruments/sounds, melodies, and chords and try to force them to cooperate with mixing techniques. If your arrangement sounds bad without any EQ/effects on, it won't sound that much better with it on.
So, get it right from the start.
When you mix:
- Think of yourself as a painter of frequencies
- Carefully choose and distribute your sounds evenly through-out the frequency spectrum
- Many sounds in the same frequency range will make your mix sound bad and confused
- Think in terms of "balance" and separate or layer your sounds as needed
- Don't polish a turd, get it to sound amazing before mixing
Check out our "Mixing and Mastering Melodic Techno" online masterclass:
2. Think in terms of "separation" or "layering"
When you work with a wide variety of sounds in your mix, you either want to separate or layer them.
The technique many producers do when creating kick drums is an easy example. They create or sample sub/low-frequency information from one source, mids from another and highs from another. When now combining these three, you have an evenly distributed frequency range that makes up one sound. One kick drum.
Another example is using a lower frequency part of a pad. Combined with another sound that has higher frequency information and no lows, working together to create a completely new sound.
Layering is used to create more complexity and get better control of the frequency information in each part of the sound. You can also create fun contrasts in your mix working like this. If you have very low heavy keyboards steadily jamming away in the background, a different, higher octave keyboard or sound can complement this beautifully and add contrast.
How to create layering:
- Highpass and lowpass filter different sounds and combine them
- Combine different frequency dominating sounds
- Use sounds in different octaves that contain different frequency information
Separation means getting your sound (or your layer of sound) to stick out from the rest of the sounds in a mix.
How to create separation:
For example, you might have a pad behind your main instrument, let's say a lead guitar. Let's say that both are placed somewhat in the center and that they have similar frequencies. For separation, you would need to either cut the frequencies that the lead guitar dominates from the pad. In that way, the guitar can breathe on its own and will stand out from the pad.
So, when you make music and when you mix, think about what sounds you want to layer, and which sounds you want to separate from the rest. This will make it much easier to create a well-defined mix.
Panning is also a very important tool to create separation and definition in your mix. If all your sounds are placed dead center, the mix will sound very flat and two-dimensional. Spacing the sounds out in the stereo spectrum is the key for professional sounding mixes.
Generally speaking, sounds/instruments that will play a leading role in your track is placed in the center for maximum focus. The bass, kick, and a snare are almost always placed in the dead center for the same reason. Low-frequency heavy sounds give the most power placed in the center and is why you should never pan a bass to another side. The exception to this rule would be for an experimental track.
These instruments/sounds are typically placed center in the mix:
- Vocals/main lead sound
- Deep pads
Stereo image is the difference between left and right, and mid and side. You can create it for example by panning instrument layers.
Wide (two channels)
Panning two separate takes of the same rhythmic guitar, hard left, and hard right, you will get a very wide stereo sound. This technique can also be used by duplicating two identical samples/sounds and offsetting one of them just a couple of milliseconds (see the Haas effect).
For similar sounding instruments that play different, hard panning can be negative and sound a bit unfocused. Pan them 80-90% to the left and right instead of hard panning all the way, for a better mix.
These instruments/sounds are typically placed wide in the mix:
- Rhythmic instruments
- Rhythmic keyboards
- High frequency-focused percussion, like shakers
- Background vocals for a chorus-type effect
15 left or 15 right (and other)
Feel free to experiment here, the whole left to right panning spectrum is all yours to place your instruments. Remember, what you are striving to achieve is a balance. You should not place all your sounds in the center and to the left, without anything in the right speaker to balance it out. Panning in mono is also a great help to decide where a sound should be placed. You will not hear the live stereo pan in mono, but you will hear problems and clashing sounds better. I really recommend this.
With drums, the typical way of panning is as a drum set is placed. In a regular drum setup, the hi-hat is situated to the left, and the ride cymbal to the right. The toms go from left to right and the cymbals can be placed all over the drum kit, but generally more to the sides. Panning drums realistically sound better and help the listener better visualize the entire drum kit.
In drum panning, there is some debate to whether you should pan from the drummer’s perspective (sitting in the drum chair) or from the audience perspective. This is up to you, but I personally prefer the drummer’s perspective, with the hi-hat to the left.
Keyboards, synths, strings, and pads can be placed anywhere in the stereo spectrum. Preferably where it does not clash with other sounds.
Here are a few examples of instruments and sounds you can pan 15 left, 15 right or anywhere over the stereo spectrum:
- String instruments
- Strings and violins
- Cymbals and percussion
You can also pan the effect buses for your center panned lead instruments/sounds creatively around the stereo spectrum for a cool effect. Delays and reverb for example.
Fill the stereo image and center pan the leading instruments, vocals and kick/bass/snare. If you have not paid too much detail to panning before, you will get shocked by the results and the difference it will make in your mix.
4. Use compression the right way
Are you guilty of using compressor presets just to fatten up the sound? Do you really know what all the knobs do? Using the wrong compressor settings can really take the life out of your sound, we will try to walk you through the basics here.
The threshold meter marks the level at which compression begins to take effect. It only affects the signal that exceeds the threshold set. For instance, if your threshold is set at -5dB, only the signal that exceeds -5dB will be compressed.
Ratio basically means how much compression is applied. It is most commonly written as "1:1", "4:1" and so on. If we take 4:1 for example, this setting means that the signal input must exceed the threshold by 4dB for a 1dB output level increase to take place.
The release (measured in milliseconds) time means how long it will take for compression to stop after the signal dips below the threshold.
The attack (measured in milliseconds) means how long/quickly it will take for the signal to become compressed after exceeding the threshold. If you have a longer attack time (let's say 100 ms), the sound will not be affected by compression, 100 milliseconds after it starts to play. A faster attack time will cause the sound to be almost directly compressed.
The knee means how the signal will react when it passes the threshold. Typically, there are two knee settings, a "soft knee" and a "hard knee" setting.
- Hard knee clamps the signal right away
- Soft knee is softer and more gentle
Here is a great visual example of the soft versus hard knee setting:
When applying compression, the output of the signal is lowered. The opposite of what most people think. The makeup gain allows you to "make up" for the lost output gain in the compression process.
Note: Sometimes you see an "auto makeup" button on compressors. This means that the lost gain in the compression process will be automatically added. You can then control the overall output with the output slider.
The output basically means the output gain of the signal, after it is compressed.
What is the goal of compression?
The goal of using compression is to control the dynamics of your sounds. Compression can boost the quieter parts of your sound and tame the peaks. Your goal is to find a balance where you retain the dynamics of your sounds but keep your signal peaks and drops in check. For some sounds, your goal could be to make it flat, but that is a completely esthetic decision, one you'd have to make yourself.
Some pointers for compression:
- Don't over-compress your track - or you will lose the life of the mix. A good mix needs both ups and downs to sound interesting. Making everything sound flat is bad.
- Slow attack = more impact - a slower attack is key for keeping the initial "hit" of a sound. If you set a very fast attack, the compressor will start to work immediately on your sound and compress it from the start. Use a slower attack speed for drums and other sounds where you want to retain the punch/hit. Just make sure the attack is not too slow though, or you will lose control of the sound.
- Watch out for "pumping" distortion by setting your release too fast. If you set the release too fast, the compressor will turn on and off in-between transients that can cause a
5. Depth (effects, equalizer)
One very important factor in a good mix is depth. Depth means that you can distinguish a sense of space in your track, meaning it does not sound flat. There are a few ways to achieve this, here are a few examples:
Equalizer and volume
Did you know that you can create a sense of space just by an equalizer and volume adjustments alone? To break it down easily, think of a human voice from a far distance. Three things will be notable with this sound when you hear it:
- Lack of lower frequencies
- A lack of higher frequencies
- The sound will be of a lower volume
To re-create the effect of distance, your equalizer could look something like this:
Applying an equalizer with similar settings and lowering the volume will give you the sonic illusion of distance. Adding some reverb will make it even more realistic. If you have a bright and full sound that is upfront, this contrast will create the illusion of depth. This contrast will allow your brain to "compare" the differences in these two sounds and place them in a virtual space.
A sound heard from a distance loses its dynamics and sounds flatter. Compressing your sound hard with a faster attack and release settings will work wonders to achieve the illusion of distance.
A solid reverb on your sounds is perhaps the most obvious effect to use for creating depth.
What is reverb?
Before a sound hits your ears and get processed by your brain, it bounces off whatever is around. Walls, ceilings, floor, objects, you name it. This bouncing action will create reflections of the sound that builds up and then decays. A reverb effect creates a virtual space by mimicking these reflections. The reflections can mimic an endless variety of spaces, from a small bathroom to a giant cathedral.
Some pointers for adding reverb
The goal generally is to add realistic space reflections to your sounds and get them all to work together.
- Less is more - don't overdo it and don't use a lot of reverb on every sound in your mix. It will sound confused and muddy. Instead, add only a few percent of reverb to most sounds. You will not hear it, but it will be noticeable in the mix.
- ... but experiment - adding crazy reverb to some sounds can be very effectual. Route that reverb to a bus for complete control.
- Group your reverbs - most often you want similar reverb for similar sounds. Group your similar instruments and add one reverb to it all, your drum kit for example.
- Use both smaller space and larger space reverbs - try to keep it somewhat consistent. Don't use a hundred different reverbs as this will sound confused. However, using 4-6 different reverbs in a mix is not uncommon at all.
- Try to bus your reverbs - busing your reverbs means your original signal will be unaffected by the effect. You will then have complete control over the reverbed signal, which you can side chain, EQ and do whatever with.
- Don't muddy it up - be careful so that your reverbs don't build up and cause your mix to be muddy. Use reverb wisely and see the previous pointer for better reverb control.
- Please don't reverb your low-end - don't. It's generally a bad idea as deep low-end typically doesn't respond well to reverb.
A delay effect is also one of the most common effects for creating depth.
What is delay?
Basically, a delay is a repeat of a signal, an echo. This repeated signal can be altered in many ways. Most obviously you have the delay time. This can range anywhere from a few milliseconds to seconds, or to (most commonly) a set beat. 1/16, 1/8, 1/4 and 1/2 bars are common delay times, and can also be set to triplets. This simply means that the signal will be repeated matching the tempo of your track, in your chosen beat.
The delay "style" is also an interesting feature, seen to the bottom right of Soundtoys Echoboy (which I absolutely love). It processes the repeated signal in various ways. You can for example give your delay a reverbed or diffused sound, making it sound like a rhythmic reverb. Really cool.
Some pointers for adding delay
A delay works both as a rhythmic tool as well as for creating depth.
- Change things up (automate) - automating your delays can have a great effect on how your mix is perceived. It adds a level of unpredictability to your track and keeps the listener interested throughout. This can be done by automating the dry/wet and the delay time. Subtlety is king, but major changes can also be gold here.
- Fill empty spaces in your track - space is good, but too much of it can get boring. Try to fill up the silent spaces of your mix with delays.
- Think about what kind of delay you want - some delays are preferable for particular sounds. For example, a short slap delay can work wonders on vocals and guitars, but perhaps not on a pad. If your track is very spacious, using a long, diffused delay on your lead vocals or instrument can yield very interesting results.
- Mix your delays - Don't forget that your delays should fit with the rest of the mix. High- and low-pass filters work wonders but sometimes you need to equalize the delays with a separate plugin. You can also use compression and side chain the delays to other sounds for special groove and effect.
So, just to recap. In order to take your mix from bad to good you must:
- Make your track right starting from the arrangement process. Paint the frequency spectrum and make sure your track sounds good even without mixing first.
- Think in terms of separating or layering your sounds. Make the individual sounds stick out our layer up with other sounds.
- Panning. Pan the sounds across the stereo spectrum to create more separation. Use the guides as needed.
- Use compression the right way. Nicely compressed sounds will make your mix sound better, that's just a fact.
- Depth. Use effects and equalizers to create a sense of depth in your mix. Use buses for full control of your effects.
Every good mixer in the world has these tips in their mind when they mix, and now you have too. The secret is out.
Now go nuts and make the world proud!
About the author
Pelle Sundin is a Swedish music producer and freelance copywriter, currently active with his chillout project PLMTRZ. He also produces psychedelic trance. When he's not producing music, he surfs, skates and chugs coffee.
If you're interested in Skype sessions: http://bit.ly/pml_s_one2one
Here's an online course on mixing a track from start to finish.