As with most jobs, we need tools in order to do them correctly. Mixing requires mixing tools. This can be outboard hardware or ‘in the box' software. This article focuses on software Digital Audio Workstations and their mixing tools, most of which are called plugins.
There are plenty of plugins out there, both free and paid. DAWs come with their own stock plugins, which are often times of very high quality! 3 stock Logic X plugins are pictured in this post, but any DAW comes with (in my opinion) the 5 Essential Mixing Tools in Your DAW.
Whether you're a mix engineer or a bedroom producer, the following 5 mixing tools are a must!
The 5 essential mixing tools in your DAW are:
Level faders and pan pots are not plugins. They're so important that they are always automatically part of an audio channel! Equalization, Compression, and Reverb are plugins. They “plug in” to the effects chain of audio channels.
Before we dive into why these tools are essential, I'll share a common mix theory:
Mixing music can be thought of as filling a 3D space. Imagine that musicians are scattered around a room playing music, and we, the mixing engineers are seated in the centre of that room, listening intently. This room will be referenced as we make our way down the list.
Level faders are the “sliders” on a mixing console that slide up to increase the loudness of a channel and down to decrease the loudness of a channel. They are the main tools to use when balancing the relative loudness of elements in the mix.
The picture to the right shows that the level fader of the track “BASS” is set at -3.0 dB, and the output is currently -21 dB with a previous maximum of -15dB. The pan position is at 0.
Sitting in the room, how loud is each musician or audio source in relation to every audio source? We use level faders to adjust this balance.
- The snare channel is way louder than the kick, cymbals, and other percussive elements. The snare is not noticeably closer to us than the rest of the kit. We bring down the snare channels volume with its level fader to balance it with the rest of the kit.
- The lead melody is buried in the mix. It's hard to hear, so we bring up its volume with its level fader to help push it a bit louder in the mix.
Level values are measured in decibels (dB), a ratio. Explaining what decibels are can get confusing and will be the subject of another article.
For now, I'll present how dB difference affects perceived loudness:
-10 dB = 1/2 the perceived loudness
-20 dB = 1/4 the perceived loudness
-40 dB = 1/16 the perceived loudness
Remember to use the level meters that are typically right beside the faders to monitor the output (loudness) of the channel. Use the level faders to adjust that output.
Levels add depth to our 3D space. Louder elements are perceived as being closer and up front, while quieter elements are perceived as being further back in the space.
The first thing I recommend you do in the mixing stage is set your levels with the level faders in your DAW. You very well may need to adjust them as you get further into the mix. But it's a great starting point to have your elements sitting how you want them before moving on.
Pan Pots (short for Panoramic Potentiometers) are mixing tools used to place tracks from left to right in the stereo field. They are essential to adding width and separating elements in a mix.
Sitting in the room, listen intently to one musician. Are they to your left, your right, or facing you in the centre? Ask yourself, are they panned left, right, or centre.
The picture to the right is a channel with a pan position of 55 to the right (55/64) So it's nearly panned all the way right.
The fader level is at -13.0 dB, while the output is at -42 dB with a previous maximum of -27 dB.
Adjusting the pan pots determines where in the stereo field and audio source will be positioned. Pan a synthesizer all the way to the left, it will only play out of the left speaker. Pan a guitar all the way to the right, it will only play out of the right speaker. Pan a kick drum centre, and it will play evenly on both speakers.
Making a mix sound wide is to utilize the panoramic real estate. Panning instruments and sounds from left to right helps to create width. Panning also helps create separation between tracks, helping the listener to better hear individual elements of the mix more clearly!
Here are a few tips on panning:
- Low frequencies are better off panned centre (in other words, in mono). Physics states that the lower the frequency, the longer the wavelength. The longer the wavelength, the less directional the sound is. Panning kick and bass in the middle is a good idea (You can always affect their high end with a stereo effect). Panning low frequencies on a vinyl can even cause the needle to jump out of the groove!
- Monitor your master channel in mono from time to time to make sure there are no serious phasing issues. Phasing is when the peak of one waveform happens at the trough of another waveform. This causes destructive interference, which damages the sound. Phasing is less heard in stereo since two speakers are playing different audio. But a simple switch to mono (both speakers will play the same thing, removing the stereo effect) will unveil if there is major phasing going on in the mix.
I recommend panning tracks after setting the level faders. Adjustments may have to be made to the levels, however. Panning can change the perceived volume of a track.
Equalization is an essential mixing tool for further separating tracks and clarifying a mix. EQ is really just frequency-specific gain. With EQ, you can reduce or boost certain frequencies of a track, or remove them completely.
Think of the frequency spectrum as the height of the room. This does not make as much sense as width and depth do, but bear with me here. We rate frequencies from low to high (bass to treble). We also rate height from low to high. For this reason, we can imagine the frequency spectrum as being the height in our 3D space. EQ affects the spectrum, so it affects the height!
The frequency spectrum of human hearing is from 20 Hz to 20,000 Hz. Different instruments put forth different frequencies that we hear. A kick drum's thump is a low frequency, whereas as a cymbal's shimmer happens at a high frequency.
There are charts that describe where certain instruments reside on the frequency spectrum. Synths are harder to pin down because there's so much you can do with them. It's important to know where different elements are in the frequency spectrum when we equalize. Reducing or removing unneeded frequencies from one instrument can give space for another instrument that is more defined by those same frequencies.
Here are a few tips on equalization:
- High pass everything but kick, bass, and toms between 100-250 Hz. This will help reduce clutter in the low end, helping us to get a clean “thump” on the kick and definition in the bass.
- Make way for lead instruments and vocals by first finding their important frequencies, and then slightly cutting those frequencies from other elements that are getting in their way.
- Try not to add too many elements that take up the same frequency range. Fewer elements mean you can better hear them placed on the frequency spectrum!
Often times audio will contain frequencies that do not necessarily define the sound. It's okay to cut or remove these frequencies. Remember that eliminating frequencies will allow other elements that are defined by those same frequencies to appear more clearly in the mix.
EQ also creates depth. We've discussed that the quieter an element is, the further away it sounds. But distance also creates dissipation in the upper frequencies. EQing out some top-end from elements you want far back in the 3D space helps to create that illusion. It also doesn't hurt to cut some low frequencies in this scenario either.
I recommend EQing after setting levels and pans. Proper EQing can really open up the mix and add clarity. Improper EQing can make a mess of what we hear. It is beyond the scope of this article to write about the intricacies of EQ. It's so valuable that it deserves an article on its own!
For more information on EQ, check out the following My New Microphone articles:
• Complete Guide To Audio Equalization & EQ Hardware/Software
• The Ultimate Audio Equalizer/EQ Buyer’s Guide
• Top 11 Best Audio Equalizer Brands In The World
Compression is an essential mixing tool because of its ability to create weight and movement in sound. Let's look at how:
What is compression? Compressing sound means squashing its dynamic range: the difference between the loudest and quietest parts of the audio.
A Compressor reduces the level of the peaks, making the audio quieter. Make-up gain is applied, bringing the new peaks to the initial volume while making the quieter parts louder than they originally were.
This reduction of dynamic range can make a kick drum sound really fat and in your face. It can give weight to the stereo field and widen a mix, and help “glue” the mix together.
Compression can also give movement to the mix with what is known as sidechaining.
Sidechaining is when information from one source triggers an effect on another source. So say we have a high-hat that is lacking groove. We have a kick drum playing at the same time. Put a compressor on the hi-hat channel and sidechain it to the kick drum channel. Now, the hi-hat channel is attenuated every time the kick drum's audio goes above a certain threshold. This pumping effect gives life to the hi-hats in a rhythmic fashion (assuming the kick drum is playing rhythmically). Sidechaining can have a great effect in a mix in both subtle and obvious ways.
For more information on compression, check out the following My New Microphone articles:
• The Complete Guide To Audio Compression & Compressors
• The Ultimate Audio Compressor Buyer’s Guide
• Top 11 Best Audio Compressor Brands In The World
Reverb is an essential mixing tool because it adds depth to the mix. Reverberation occurs naturally, but these plugins are often great at creating an illusion of the effect. Nevertheless, depth is part of the 3D space we have in mind when mixing, and reverb is a great way of turning a 2D mix into a 3D mix by sending elements back in “space.”
Sound waves further from the listener bounce off more reflective surfaces on their way to being heard. Adding more diffusion (less detail) to the reverbs on the faraway sounds will help create the illusion that they are far away. Keeping the upfront sounds dryer will help solidify their place at the front of the mix. Cutting the high end in the reverb will also help solidify the sound's distance.
Reverb on the further elements combined with an EQ that cuts the higher frequencies will give an even better sense of distance.
Related article: 12 Best Reverb Plugins (Spring, Plate, Algorithmic, Convolution)
Why are these 5 mixing tools so essential?
- Level Faders are the main tool for balancing the loudness relationship between tracks. They help add depth.
- Pan Pots place these track in the panoramic stereo field, giving separation and width to the mix.
- Equalization manages the good and bad frequencies of tracks, providing more separation and clarity to the mix. EQ helps define height and depth.
- Compression manages the dynamic range of tracks. It can periodically push elements down in the mix in favour of other elements. It enhances width, depth, and height.
- Reverb creates depth in our 3D world and gives more separation between tracks. It gives a greater sense of depth.
All Digital Audio Workstations have these mixing tools and for the most part, they're really well done. I personally love Logic X's ‘Channel EQ' and ‘Compressor'. Level faders and Pan Pots are part of the DAW, so no luck changing those. But we can swap the plugins for many, many other EQs, comps, and verbs. I'd suggest getting comfortable with the stock essentials in your DAW before trying out any 3rd party plugins.
These are what I consider the 5 essential mixing tools in any Digital Audio Workstation. I experiment with a lot of effects in my music creation. But I never mix without these 5 essentials.
Is there an effect or tool that you never mix without? Please share, I'd love to open a conversation about this!
Thank you for reading and for your support.