Mixing music can be incredibly fulfilling and yet incredibly frustrating. Getting our mixes to sound professional takes time, effort, and skill. Many beginners, myself included (at one point), lack all three. So in this article, I'd like to share a whopping 55 mixing tips aimed at beginners with a focus on what I would have liked to learn in my beginnings.
These tips are in no particular order, and I explain each of the following tips in detail in their own sections within this article. Please feel free to jump around the article via the links in the list below.
Here are 55 music mixing tips for beginners:
- The magic is in the midrange
- The sub-bass isn't the bass
- Clean up the low end
- Don't be afraid of low-pass filters
- Use more fader automation and less compression to control levels and dynamics
- Work in solo sparingly
- Gain stage your tracks (at least at the beginning of the mix)
- Mix in a separate session
- Bounce MIDI tracks down to audio before mixing
- Use effects sends and returns rather than inserting effects directly on tracks
- Mono compatibility is a sign of a strong mix
- Bus similar instruments together for similar processing
- Use VCAs to control the levels of doubled or layered tracks
- Create and use a mix template
- Keep the low-end in mono (mostly)
- Ear training is important
- EQ and process effects returns
- A good mix can't fix bad arrangement, performance or recording
- Good mastering can't fix a bad mix
- Dimensionality depends on contrast
- Don't go looking for offensive frequencies with sweep EQ
- Mix with your ears, not your eyes
- Level balancing is the top priority
- Reference your work outside the studio
- Saturation and distortion are invaluable tools and shouldn't necessarily be avoided
- Better plugins and/or outboard gear won't solve poor fundamentals
- Seek help from trusted individuals
- Always back up your work
- Set up a consistent workflow
- Set aside time specifically for learning and experimenting
- Boost and cut EQ to what sounds good
- Use clipping to control transients and maintain punch
- Boost upper frequencies with EQ to get more clarity and presence from kick, snare, toms, etc.
- Keep most time-based effects quiet for space
- Don't monitor too loud for too long
- Take frequent breaks
- Always check for phase issues in the multitracks
- Ask yourself what the most important element is at any given time and mix it accordingly
- Understand the song first
- Use reference mixes
- Have patience
- Editing time is crucial
- Editing tuning is crucial
- The mute button is a mixing tool, too
- Not everything needs EQ
- Not everything needs compression
- Use level matching and A/B testing
- Cymbals are often quieter on record than they are live
- Consider presets as a starting point, but don't rely on them
- The balance typically changes throughout a song
- Learn the plugins you have, and don't worry about what you don't have yet
- Samples are sometimes needed, so use high-quality ones
- Use noise gates or gate manually
- Organization will save time and sanity
- Watch out for the build-up of energy in the “muddy” low-mids
Alright, this it going to be a long one, so strap in and let's get into these 55 mixing tips for beginners!
1. The Magic Is In The Midrange
This is a tip that I, admittedly, only really understood later in my development as a mixing engineer. It's something I picked up from Colt Capperrune's YouTube channel (who credits Episode 22 of Pensado's Place with Jack Joseph Puig with relaying the information to him).
The phrase “the magic is in the midrange” basically means that the bulk of the important information is in the midrange frequencies, say from 200 Hz to 4,000 Hz. If we can nail the mix in this limited range, we'll naturally achieve a better mix.
Firstly, although the universally-accepted range of human hearing spans from 20 Hz to 20,000 Hz, we're naturally the most sensitive to the midrange frequencies. Furthermore, the variation in hearing response tends to be the greatest at the extremes.
Secondly, playback or sound reproduction systems also vary quite drastically in their ability to create low-end and high-end frequencies (think of a club PA system versus your smartphone's speaker, for example). However, most playback systems are pretty decent at recreating the midrange. In many cases, we can't even monitor the extremes appropriately when mixing.
So, then, if we can hone in and really master the midrange of our mixes, we can improve our mix translatability and the overall quality of our mixes.
I, and many other mixers, often spend far too much time on the low-end and high-end and neglect the importance of getting things right in the midrange. This often leads to less-than-ideal mixes that don't translate well from one system to the next.
I also put together a video demonstrating this concept if you're interested: Mixes Not Translating Outside The Studio? Try This Simple Technique!
2. The Sub-Bass Isn't The Bass
This tip kind of piggybacks off the first. It may seem obvious, but the sub-bass isn't necessarily the bass.
Sure, the open B string of a standard-tuned 5-string bass will have a fundamental frequency of about 31 Hz, which is in the sub-bass region (and we may even want to accentuate that frequency in the mix). However, the sound of the bass guitar, in this example, is much more than its fundamental.
Related article: Fundamental Frequencies Of Musical Notes In A=432 & A=440 Hz
In fact, there are many harmonics (integer multiples) that make up most bass sounds. The exception here is a pure sine wave, which, by definition, is made up of a single fundamental frequency. Everything else will have harmonics which we can work with to shape the sound and make it more present in the mix.
Bass instruments, whether bass guitars, synths, 808 samples, tubas, etc., will often have information in the sub-bass region (loosely defined as everything below 60 Hz). However, to get the most presence out of these instruments, we'll typically have to work on the harmonics.
A mistake I've made in the past (and see others make to this day) is to boost the sub-bass region, often with a low-shelf boost, to bring up the bass in the mix. More often than not, this will act counterproductively, eating up headroom in the mix and leading to a poorly balanced mix.
So although the sub-bass frequencies are important, rather than focusing on the sub-bass for presence, try focusing on the harmonics of bass instruments. A lot can be done with EQ in the bass, and midrange frequencies (from 60 to 4,000 Hz) and saturation (harmonic distortion/generation) can be an invaluable tool when mixing bass to be more present in the mix.
Related article: Top 11 Best Tips For EQing Bass Guitar
3. Clean Up The Low End
Keeping on the topic of the low-end frequencies, it's critical to “clean up” the low-end of most tracks by removing unmusical content in the low extremes of the frequency spectrum. This can be done with high-pass filters and low-shelf filter cuts.
You may think, as I had, that more information in the low-end would mean a more powerful low-end, but that's not how it works. To understand why, we need to understand phase.
Phase is the position of a point in time on a wave cycle, though, in mixing, it refers to the alignment of positive and negative amplitudes between non-identical waveforms.
When two or more waveforms are “in phase”, they act constructively to output more signal. On the extreme, if two signals are totally “out of phase”, they will completely cancel each other out via destructive interference.
So if we have multiple audio signals/tracks with low-end information that continuously go in and out of phase, we'll have differing phase correlation, which will, in turn, cause some instances of the mix to have barely any information in the low-end and other instances to have too much low-end.
Related article: Mixing: What Is Phase & Why Is It So Important To Get Right?
By eliminating noise and other non-musical information from tracks that don't need representing in the low-end (the majority of tracks), we can effectively make room for those tracks that do have musical information in the low-end (the bass, the kick drum, etc.).
So, although perhaps counterintuitive, we can actually get a stronger bass response in our mixes by reducing the amount of information in the low end. Again, this can be done with high-pass filters and low-shelf filter cuts.
We can even roll off the extreme low-end from our bass elements, so long as we're not taking anything away that would be detrimental to the mix. Just because we can technically hear down to 20 Hz doesn't necessarily mean we need a significant amount of energy all the way down there.
I talk about the importance of high-pass filters in more detail in my video, The Most Important EQ Move In Mixing.
4. Don't Be Afraid Of Low-Pass Filters
At the other end of the audible frequency spectrum, we shouldn't be too afraid of using low-pass or “high-cut” filters, either.
Top-end frequencies won't suffer nearly as much as bottom-end frequencies from phase issues, namely constructive and destructive interference (there isn't much we'd be able to do about these short waveforms, anyway). However, many tracks won't have much useful information in the top end anyway, and sometimes it's good to eliminate this information.
The high-end or “brilliance” range, loosely defined as 8 kHz and above, doesn't necessarily hold a significant amount of harmonic content (though the upper harmonics of some instruments' notes can be noteworthy here). Rather, this is the frequency range most typically associated with “air” or “sparkle”, though these terms are largely meaningless unless you already have an inherent understanding.
The information in the brilliance range may not be overly musical, but it does play a role in the clarity and definition of a sound. Too much high-end information will lead to an overly bright and fatiguing mix (our ears naturally fatigue faster to higher frequencies) while too little high-end information will lead to a dark and somewhat ill-defined mix.
The best plan of action, in most cases, is to reduce the very top end in some tracks that don't need it with the use of low-pass filters (or high-shelf cuts). It's sometimes worth boosting the high-end in some tracks that could benefit from the additional crispness, which is common with cymbals and vocals.
Furthermore, low-pass filtering tracks with significant high-end bleed can help to further isolate the tracks in question while also clarifying the top end, making more space for the tracks that would most benefit from clean top-end in the mix.
5. Use More Fader Automation And Less Compression To Control Levels And Dynamics
Compression is a fairly complex process, but it can be understood relatively simply in the following way:
Mixing is about balance (mostly of relative levels). Faders are the primary tools for adjusting the relative balance, and we can move faders up and down to increase or decrease a track's level, respectively. Compression can be thought of, in the most basic sense, as an “automatic fader control” that automatically attenuates (brings the “fader” down) as the track's level surpasses a set threshold and automatically brings the “fader” back to its original position as the track's level drops below the set threshold once again.
In fact, I repeat this definition throughout my Mixing With Series Crash Course (link for more details).
Of course, there's a lot more to compression than that, but it's a simple way of understanding the overlaying principle of dynamic range compression.
So then, we could achieve the same results as a compressor by automating our faders. It would be much more meticulous, but we could do it. Compression is so popular because it controls dynamics automatically.
However, in cases where there are significant changes in the dynamics of an audio signal (common in vocal performances), the more involved approach of dialling in volume/fader automation can be much more appropriate for achieving transparent control over the dynamics of a track.
Furthermore, performances can get louder or quieter in different sections of a song, and static compressor settings may fail us in these situations. For example, the threshold may not even be reached in a quiet section, while a louder section may be overcompressed with static parameters. In this case, we can use volume/fader automation or even automate the parameters of the compressor itself.
One thing to note here is that the fader of a track controls levels after the inserts of the track. If we want to automate the level going into a compressor, we'll have to automate some sort of gain/trim plugin before the compressor or the input gain of the compressor itself.
I discuss and demonstrate automation in much more detail in my video, How To Use Automation In Mixing.
6. Work In Solo Sparingly
The solo function is a powerful tool. It allows us to quickly solo individual tracks, subgroups and auxiliary tracks to hear them in isolation. This can help us troubleshoot issues in a timely manner, and shape sounds the way we want.
However, a great mix is about ensuring all the tracks sound great mixed together (hence the name), and not necessarily about making each track sound perfect on its own. Put another way, a great mix is made up of imperfect tracks.
It's often the case that the processing that sounds awesome in solo won't fit well in the mix at all, leaving us with wasted time and a poorer mix to boot.
“Mixing in solo” is an erroneous phrase, as we aren't really mixing at all. If we hear issues in the mix, we can often find and solve them by soloing our tracks and fixing track-level issues one at a time. However, in the context of the mix, we should be doing the bulk of our processing and balancing with all the tracks playing back together. It's what the end listeners will ultimately hear, anyway.
I go deeper into the dangers of mixing in solo in my video, Stop Mixing Tracks In Solo. Do This Instead!
7. Gain Stage Your Tracks (At Least At The Beginning Of The Mix)
Gain staging is one of those processes that people either love or hate on the internet (what isn't cause for controversy these days?).
Gain staging is effectively the process of ensuring appropriate signal levels at each stage (input or output of a microphone, preamp, amplifier, processor, etc.) of a signal path.
It's tremendously important in analog equipment due to noise floor and overload issues. Proper gain staging would ensure adequate signal-to-noise ratios while also keeping equipment safe from overload and signals safe from excessive distortion.
In the days of 32-bit floating point digital audio, gain staging isn't super necessary, though it's still a “best practice,” in my opinion.
The way I go about gain staging in my digital audio workstation (typically Logic Pro X) is I insert a gain/trim plugin as the first insert on each of my audio tracks, set all faders to unity, and adjust the gain so that I have an average level reads about -20 to -18 dBFS. From there, it's important to level match at every insert if possible (see Tip 47).
Not only does gain staging help ensure true headroom throughout the mix (the ratio between the maximum 0 dBFS ceiling and the peak level of the digital audio), but it also helps us drive plugins that emulate analog equipment more appropriately.
• What Are Decibels? The Ultimate dB Guide For Audio & Sound
• What Is Headroom In Audio? (Recording, Mixing & Mastering)
But more important to me, at least, is the fact that gain staging will give us the same relative levels for a given fader position (so long as we properly level-match our processors). Therefore, we can have a better grasp of the balance by simply looking at the mixer and the relative fader levels rather than having instances where equal loudness could mean vast differences in fader levels between two non-gain-staged tracks.
Of course, you don't have to gain stage or level match, but it can make a world of a difference in simplifying your mix sessions.
For more information (and demonstrations) on gain staging, check out either of these videos: Get Better Mixes With Gain Staging! or What Is Headroom And Why Is It Important In Mixing?
8. Mix In A Separate Session
This tip may seem obvious if you're tasked strictly with mixing. However, for those of us who write, produce and record, it can be hugely beneficial to bounce out multitracks from our “production” session and import them into a brand new, dedicated mixing session.
Having a dedicated mixing session means we won't be distracted by any more of the production phase tasks (tweaking effects parameters, virtual instruments, recording additional parts, editing, etc.). Have a dedicated session to get all of that work done first, and then bounce down the multitracks and import them into a session designed precisely for mixing.
The mixing session can be set up as a template (see Tip 14) and have everything you need to dive right into the mixing process and follow your typical workflow.
9. Bounce MIDI Tracks Down To Audio Before Mixing
This tip is perhaps a more specific version of the previous, but bouncing down MIDI tracks, whether you're producing multitracks or mixing within a “production session,” is beneficial.
For starters, it will eliminate the distraction of tweaking the virtual instrument or MIDI information. It will also ensure the audio from the newly-bounced audio track is the exact same every time (some virtual instruments will trigger differently upon different playbacks, which can lead to unnecessary mind games).
Furthermore, audio takes a lot less CPU (and RAM) than virtual instruments (especially those based on sample libraries). Therefore, we can free up more resources to go toward our mixing processors rather than our VSTs.
10. Use Effects Sends And Returns Rather Than Inserting Effects Directly On Tracks
If you have experience in the world of analog audio and music production, you'll know this already. However, if you're like me and have started out in digital audio workstations, it can be all too easy to insert the same plugin across a variety of tracks and completely ignore the power of auxiliary track send/return channels.
It used to be the case that mixing engineers may only have a few channels and a few pieces of outboard gear, so it was natural to route multiple tracks to a single aux track for group processing. It's only with the advent of modern DAWs that we have the luxury of running numerous instances of the same plugin across multiple channels.
And yet, the old-school way of settings up effects sends, and returns is still the proper way to go about mixing in most cases, particularly with time-based effects like delay and reverb.
First, we'll use fewer plugins, which does help reduce the strain on the computer resources.
Second, we can send multiple tracks to the same effects return, which can help to “glue” the tracks together via identical processing.
Third, and perhaps most importantly, is that by setting up an effects send and return, we will have independent control over the wet signal (the return channel) and the dry signal(s) (the track(s) being sent to the return channel). We don't only have independent control over the fader/level of the “wet” channel but also over the processing itself, including any other inserts before or after the primary effect (see Tip 17).
When first starting out with digital audio workstations, you may not even know that auxiliary tracks are available options. I'm here to tell you they are and that they're incredibly useful in mixing!
For more information on using sends/returns, check out my video, Why You Should Be Using Effects Sends/Returns In Your Mixes.
11. Mono Compatibility Is A Sign Of A Strong Mix
This tip is effectively stating that a mono-compatible mix (one that sounds good when summed to mono and in stereo — or surround) is worth striving for.
When starting out, it can be tempting to make our stereo mixes super-wide. After all, most modern music is mixing in stereo (and now in Dolby Atmos), so it's natural that we'd want to make our mixes wide, too.
However, the pursuit of width comes at a cost, as stereo width is essentially caused by the differences between the left and right channels. Any differences between these channels will be effectively cancelled out when the mix is summed to mono.
So, put simply, the “wider” our mix is, the worse it will translate to mono playback systems such as many club PA systems, Bluetooth speakers and smartphone speakers.
When mixing, then, it's worthwhile to periodically check our work by summing the mix bus to mono.
It's also worth considering keeping the most important elements of the mix in the centre, which is why most modern music production has the vocal, kick, snare and bass in the middle of the stereo spectrum. That way, these elements are still clearly heard on mono playback versus the stereo information that will be altered in one way or another.
I put together a video to discuss mono compatibility in greater detail. Check it out here: Mixing In Mono? Here's Why It's So Important!
12. Bus Similar Instruments Together For Similar Processing
The act of bussing similar instruments to their own subgroups is nothing new, but it's a strong habit to get into for mix organization and simplicity.
For example, we can bus all the drums together on their own subgroup, all the guitars to their own subgroup, all the background vocals to their own subgroup, etc. That way, we can process these groups in a top-down fashion, applying bus processing to the combination of their audio signals rather than to the individual tracks.
This helps free up resources by not having duplicated plugins while also enhancing the “glue” or cohesion of the grouped tracks due to the mixing of their signals before the bus processing.
I also have a video dedicated to busses and subgroups, which you can check out here: What Are Audio Buses & How To Use Them In Your Mixes.
13. Use VCAs To Control The Levels Of Doubled Or Layered Tracks
Voltage Controlled Amplifiers (VCAs) are fairly popular in audio equipment. In terms of mixers, we can set up a VCA to control the output of several tracks via a single fader.
For example, we can set up multiple kick drum tracks (a kick inside mic, kick outside mic and kick sample) to a single VCA and use that single VCA fader to control the output of all three tracks equally without adjusting the relative balance between the three tracks. This helps to simplify balancing and automation by having a single fader rather than having to control the tracks' faders individually while maintaining the relative balance.
For more info on VCAs and all other routing options, check out my video, Everything You Need To Know About Routing (Featuring Logic Pro X).
14. Create And Use A Mix Template
Having a defined workflow will dramatically improve the consistency of our mixes while also saving us time and effort from mix to mix. In perfecting our workflow, we can also consider creating mix templates for our sessions.
A mix template, as the name would suggest, is a pre-organized session that we can open, import our multitracks into, and get to work immediately. It can contain the tracks we need pre-labelled and pre-routed, and each of the tracks, subgroups and auxiliary tracks can have our typical processors already inserted.
With a proper mix template, we can skip a lot of the minutiae of setting up a mix session and get into the mix faster, saving ourselves time and keeping our ears fresh to begin the mix.
All modern digital audio workstations allow for templates. I personally use Logic Pro X and have a few different templates (for different genres, for mixing, mastering, production, composing to video, etc.). When I was working full-time at a local studio, we had Pro Tools sessions for pretty much every possible scenario we could find ourselves in (including surround sound for film, remote voiceover, dialogue editing, sound design, radio ad production, and more).
So while it may be beneficial to get your reps in when it comes to setting up and organizing your session when you're just starting out, developing a solid mix template can help in keeping you on track in your workflow and ultimately save you hours of time mix after mix.
To learn more about mix templates, check out my video, 6 Benefits Of Mix Templates (Plus A Free Gift For Logic Pro X Users!).
Furthermore, if you'd like my free Logic Pro X mixing template, you can find it here!
15. Keep The Low-End In Mono (Mostly)
In Tip 11, we discussed the importance of mono compatibility and how width is caused by the differences between the stereo channels (the left and right channels).
These phase differences are especially destructive in the low end due to the longer wavelengths. The destructive interference that comes from “stereoized” bass frequencies can lead to poor low-end integrity.
The phase cancellation in the low-end sounds unnatural and uncanny to our ears and ultimately leads to poor mix results.
This is largely because, in nature, low-end frequencies tend to sound omnidirectional due to their wavelengths being longer than the distance between our ears (sound localization is complex, but a large part of it has to do with sound waves reaching one ear before the other). So if we have different sub-bass and bass information coming from two channels, it can be unlike what we hear in nature, which isn't necessarily a good thing.
Additionally, historically speaking, the bass frequencies have been kept in mono for vinyl mastering. The stereo information of a vinyl pressing is in the differences between the inner and outer walls of the groove. The bass frequencies carve out longer and often deeper portions of the wall, and many styluses will actually be forced out of the groove if the differences between the inner and outer walls (left and right channels, respectively) are too different. This is particularly the case toward the centre of the vinyl, where the circumference of each successive groove becomes shorter and shorter.
That all being said, having wide bass instruments isn't necessarily bad. A nice stereo chorused bass sounds nice, but the stereoized part of the signal is typically in the midrange rather than the sub-bass range.
In some genres that have a lot of low-end information, like electronic dance music, we may want to adhere more strictly to the “mono-only policy” when it comes to the low end. However, in genres with a bit more balance, like rock, we can experiment with more width in the lower frequencies, at least in the bass (perhaps not the sub-bass) and achieve some interesting yet stable results in the mix.
16. Ear Training Is Important
Ear training is something I neglected for years, and it's a deep regret of mine. I remember applying to the Music Arts program at my local community college after completing the Recording Arts program, and while I got accepted thanks to my playing and theoretical knowledge, my practical ear training test was quite a disaster.
But beyond being able to identify chords, intervals, pitches, timbres, etc., in musical settings, it's equally (if not more) important for mixing engineers to be able to identify the technical aspects of sound and audio.
That means things like identifying the frequencies of boosts and cuts in and EQ; where resonances may lie in the frequency spectrum and in which track; how compression sounds in various settings; what the different types of distortion sound like; the time parameters or delay and reverb; how the elements are balanced within a mix; the panning or width of certain elements, and much more.
When I started out, the go-to training was Golden Ears, but since it wasn't assigned as part of my college education, I naturally neglected it (I was too busy damaging my hearing playing local bars, anyway).
Nowadays, I use SoundGym for ear training, which I love. It's gamified and almost addicting to play. I've found it to be an invaluable resource for ear training and cannot recommend it enough for beginners and professionals alike.
17. EQ And Process Effects Returns
I discussed how crucial effects sends and return can be in mixing in Tip 10. Beyond having independent control over the levels and effects of the “dry” signal(s) being fed to the return aux track and the “wet” aux track itself, we can also process the return channel beyond the primary effect (often delay or reverb).
So rather than having an effect inserted directly on a track and having to process the dry and wet signals together, we can process the wet return channel completely independent of the track(s) feeding it. Let's consider a few examples here:
- Insert an EQ after a delay with a low-mid cut to reduce the “muddiness” and a low-shelf cut to push the delay further back in the mix.
- Insert a compressor after a reverb and set the dry source(s) as the sidechain signal for the compressor in order to duck the reverb while the dry signal is present and have it swell up after the dry signal dissipates.
- Insert a distortion or saturation effect after a delay or reverb to give it more character.
The signal processing can get much more intricate than that, but those are three examples to help get you thinking.
18. A Good Mix Can't Fix Bad Arrangement, Performance Or Recording
I used to think mixing could be a magic pill for mediocre production. In fact, I thought I was being cool by recording things a bit “loosely”.
However, the truth of the matter is that good mixing can't fix bad arrangement, performance or recording.
Starting with the arrangement, if the tracks of the session don't fit well together to begin with, mixing will be an uphill battle from the start. Some instruments don't work well together, and some songwriting/composing/arranging is sub-par. If the parts of the song are written in a way that invites excessive frequency masking or jumbled rhythm, it can be downright impossible to get a great mix.
Moving on to performance, if the musicians can't play, it'll be difficult to get a great-sounding record at the mixing stage. Of course, a lot can be done with editing (see Tips 42 and 43), but that shouldn't be relied upon, and in many cases, we'll have a very difficult time editing performance issues into something that can sound professional.
Lastly, the tracks of the mix need to be recorded well. Yes, there's a lot that can be done with mixing processes like EQ and restoration plugins, but if there is excessive bleed, noise, artifacts or distortion in the recordings, we'll have a much harder time getting a great mix.
So if your mixes aren't turning out the way you want them to, if they aren't meeting your expectations or your references, consider the arrangement, performance and recording. Perhaps some changes to the arrangement are in order, or maybe more dedicated time to getting the best performances and recordings is needed for the project.
19. Good Mastering Can't Fix A Bad Mix
As an extension of Tip 18, good mastering can't fix a bad mix. I used to think mastering was some magical process that could take my underwhelming mixes to a professional level. Wrong again.
Mastering is the process of optimizing audio for playback across all playback systems and audio formats. While loudness maximization and additional processing are part of the mastering procedure, the goal of mastering is by no means to alter the mix.
So then, we should spend time crafting the best mix we can before mastering and not expect the mastering process to enhance the quality of our mix. Sure, it can (and often does) make small improvements to minor details, but it is not designed to alter the mix a tremendous amount.
Mix as if the mixdown will be the final product, and your masters will sound that much better.
20. Dimensionality Depends On Contrast
Dimensionality is crucial in music production. In addition to our typical dynamics, I like to think of a mix in 3-dimensional space: as having height, width and depth.
Height refers to the frequency content of a track or mix. It's in the language (low-end refers to the bass, and high-end refers to the treble). The contrast and balance of frequencies within this range give us the dimension of height in a mix. Filling out the frequency spectrum will generally yield better results than not.
Width refers to the difference between the left and right channels, which largely coincides with the differences in sound arriving at our left and right ears. Width is created by panning tracks and using stereo effects, including time-based effects (delay and reverb).
Depth refers to the perceived distance between the listener and the sound source (track) in a mix. In the real world, we can approximate the distance between our location and the location of the sound source intuitively. Depth is created by altering levels and high-end frequency content, transient shaping, and time-based effects (delay and reverb).
But in order to have the dimensions in proper balance, we need contrast. If everything is wide, deep (far or closer), and tall or short, then nothing is.
In order to have a wide mix, we need a strong mono/centre image.
In order to have a deep mix, we need elements in the distance as well as elements in close proximity.
In order to have a tall mix, we need balance across the frequency spectrum.
Keep contrast in mind when it comes to dimensionality, and you'll get nice, full mixes.
Dimensionality is something I think about all the time in mixing and music production. I talk about a variety of methods to achieve dimensionality in my video, How To Achieve 3-Dimensional Mixes (Concept + Tactics).
21. Don't Go Looking For Offensive Frequencies With Sweep EQ
If you go around looking to be offended, you'll find things to be offended at. That's as true in life as it is in mixing.
There's a popular technique I refer to as the boost-and-sweep technique. It's used to find harsh resonant frequencies in an audio signal so that we can reduce them in our mixes.
As the name would suggest, the technique includes boosting a band in a parametric EQ and sweeping that band across the frequency spectrum. As we come across the resonant frequency, the boost will let us know that it's an issue, and we can subsequently cut at that frequency.
This is a useful technique for troubleshooting issues of ringing/resonances in our tracks and can be a tremendous help in achieving the best mix possible.
However, when taught to beginners, this technique is all too often learned as a sort of “must-do” method for EQing our tracks. By significantly boosting a narrow band with an EQ, nearly every frequency being boosted will sound terrible, leading many beginners to overdo the cutting in their EQs. This results in a comb-like filter pattern with lots of seemingly random notches of falsely-accused “resonant frequencies”.
It's not good practice to do this, and while it's a useful technique to find a problematic frequency if you hear something you don't like, it's by no means a practical standard for EQing if you want good results.
22. Mix With Your Ears, Not Your Eyes
This phrase is a bit trite, but it's important to reiterate. Mixing is about getting the best audio, not the best visual.
We naturally take in more information through our sense of sight than all our other senses combined, so it's natural for us to rely more heavily on what we see. Combine this with the incredible user interfaces and analyzer in modern hardware and plugins, and it's all too easy to “mix with our eyes”.
But the end listeners don't care about how the EQ curves, gain reduction graphs, or anything else looks in your mix session. They care about good music, and so it's critical to do our best to rely as much on our ears and as little on our eyes as possible when it comes to mixing.
Here are a few strategies to help focus our sense of hearing and reduce visual information while mixing:
- Use plugins that don't offer a tremendous amount of visual feedback — plugins that emulate analog hardware are often great for this. For example, I do the bulk of my EQ and compression with the Waves SSL E-Channel Strip because it doesn't offer any graphs (and it sounds great).
- A/B your plugins by level-matching them (ensuring the same level whether the plugin is on or off) and toggling them on and off to judge whether the processing is for the betterment or detriment of the mix — bonus points for doing this with your eyes closed.
- Turn off your monitor/screen altogether, listen through the mix session and take notes on what needs addressing.
23. Level Balancing Is The Top Priority
There is so much information on music production and mixing that it can be easy to get lost in the advanced techniques and concepts before we develop a strong sense of the fundamentals.
There is nothing more fundamental to mixing than the relative balance of levels between our tracks. In fact, I'd argue that the balance of levels makes up more than 80% of the mix (with faders and pan pots), with additional processing (EQ, compression, saturation, delay, reverb, etc.) making up less than 20%.
These additional processes can be thought of as finer tools for adjusting the level balance of the mix, and I actually teach them as such. For example:
- EQ can be simplified down to frequency-dependent level control.
- Compression can be simplified down to “automatic” level control.
- Saturation and distortion add harmonics and control dynamics and can thereby be simplified down to frequency-dependent (harmonic) level control and broad dynamic level control.
- Delay and reverb may not directly affect level balance, but they do affect dimensionality, which is part of the overall balance.
So if you find yourself learning a lot about advanced concepts and techniques without experiencing gains in the results of your mixes, I recommend getting back to fundamentals and focusing on the level balancing more than anything else.
I discuss level balancing with faders and pan pots in much more detail in my video, Never Overlook This Fundamental Mixing Step (Initial Balance).
24. Reference Your Work Outside The Studio
This is an important habit to get into. It's one thing to get a great-sounding mix in an environment we're familiar with, but another to get a mix that sounds great everywhere.
As part of the elusive search for mix translatability, we should be referencing our mixing on as many playback systems as possible outside our main mixing area.
It's an uncomfortable feeling to be so proud of a mix you've done, only to have it fall apart when played back in a car, stereo system, earbuds, or wherever else you listen to music. That said, it's probably better to hear the differences and make adjustments yourself before you send the mix to client or release it into the world.
The truth is that the vast majority of listeners will never hear your mixes the way you do in your studio. Therefore, it's critical to reference your mixes outside the studio to get a better sense of how they translate and to make any necessary adjustments to help improve the translatability of your mixes.
So bounce out your mixes, and gather a few go-to listening environments (I like listening in the car, on my earbuds, through my Bluetooth speaker, through my smartphone speaker, and through my PA system). Listen to every mix you do through each of these systems/environments, take notes, and make adjustments to help your mix translate as best as you can.
25. Saturation And Distortion Are Invaluable Tools And Shouldn't Necessarily Be Avoided
When I first got into recording, for one reason or another, the idea that distortion should be avoided was pervasive in my research. Looking back at it now, it could be that my memory is a bit foggy and that digital clipping distortion was the distortion to be avoided at all costs. Either way, it was strange to me then (as a metalhead/hardcore kid) and is still strange to me now.
Rather, I openly celebrate distortion and regularly strive for it, not only in hardware but also through plugins. Distortion and saturation can add so much character to our mixes, especially in the sterility of the digital environment.
Of course, I'm not talking about overloading our equipment to the point of damage, nor am I necessarily talking about digital clipping (though there may be a place for that as well — see Tip 32). Rather, I'm talking about the wide variety of distortion effects and saturation types that can shape and colour our audio signals in pleasing and even not-so-pleasing ways to enhance the impact the mix has on the end listener.
I've even written an ebook all about mixing with saturation, aptly named ‘Mixing With Saturation‘.
From a bit of extra “warmth” and adding presence to bass elements to special effects and tonal shaping, distortion is a powerful tool in mixing and music production. Don't be afraid to use it!
• Top 11 Best Distortion Plugins For Your DAW
• Top 11 Best Saturation Plugins For Your DAW
26. Better Plugins And/Or Outboard Gear Won't Solve Poor Fundamentals
Much like advanced techniques and concepts can't carry your mixes if the fundamentals aren't there, top-of-the-line gear won't make a huge difference if you can't maximize its potential.
Like many beginners, I used to convince myself that my production would improve drastically “if only”. If only I had a better computer. If only I had a treated room. If only I had better microphones. If only I had those plugins I see in all those YouTube tutorials. I even convinced myself that my DAW was the issue in the early days.
The truth is that I could craft a better mix with a free DAW on a laptop using earbuds today than I could in the multi-million-dollar studio I got to work in at college (2015). It's not a matter of the gear; it's a matter of developing strong fundamentals to grow from.
27. Seek Help From Trusted Individuals
No man is an island, and we all learn from those who came before us. Don't make that common “creative” mistake of trying to figure everything out on your own.
Find a trusted mentor, someone who's ahead of you in the game, and learn from them.
That doesn't have to be me, by the way, and I'd encourage you to listen to my material and mixes before taking advice from me. If you don't dig the way I mix, then perhaps I'm not to be trusted, either!
You can check out my music here.
My point here is that you will, at some point, need help to get to the next stage of your mixing journey. Take advantage of the resources available to you.
28. Always Back Up Your Work
This tip is pretty simple. Back up your work on the cloud or an external hard drive (or both). You never know what could happen to your computer and digital mix sessions.
Related article: Top 11 Best External Hard Drive Brands For Music/Audio
29. Set Up A Consistent Workflow
Having a consistent method of going about your mixes will save you time, effort, and troubleshooting today and into the future.
Some people believe that having a consistent “step-by-step” process will take all the creativity out of mixing. I argue that knowing exactly what to do and when to do it will actually free up your creative energy (and keep your ears fresher) to ultimately help you make better decisions in the mix.
My workflow, in the most general sense, is made up of 5 stages:
- Mix preparation/session organization
- Initial mix (with faders and pan pots)
- Processing and re-balancing
- Automation, additional production and special effects
- Mix finalization
I have smaller steps within each of these stages, but I pretty much follow this same pattern in every one of my mixes, and since I don't have to think of what's next in the big picture, I can focus on being creative in the mix itself.
As an aside, I'll often utilize a mix template to shortcut the mix preparation/session organization stage (see Tip 14).
Learn more about my workflow in my video, How To Mix Music In 5 Simple Steps (Steal My Workflow).
You can also pick up your free copy of the My New Microphone Mixing Guidebook here, which goes through the entire mixing process to help you develop a strong workflow and achieve great mixes consistently.
30. Set Aside Time Specifically For Learning And Experimenting
The best way to learn mixing is to practice mixing. I make most of my money teaching music production, and I'm adamant about the fact that you'll learn more with dedicated and conscious time spent inside your mixing sessions than you will from reading or watching my content.
Of course, that's not to say that educational resources aren't valid. In fact, I believe they're necessary if you want to learn effectively. What I will argue, however, is that there should be a place and time for learning and experimenting and another place and time for getting mixes done.
So my advice is to set aside time to mix, and only search for information if you really get stuck in the mixing process. The majority of your time should be spent working inside your DAW.
Then when you're not mixing, consider learning about music production and mixing from me and other mentors. It's also worth spending “free time” messing around in your DAW and learning through experimentation.
31. Boost And Cut EQ To What Sounds Good
There's a lot of advice out there on how to use equalization.
- “Don't cut or boost more than X dB”
- “Don't boost, only cut”
- “High-pass filter absolutely everything that's not kick and bass”
And while most of the advice given is backed by good intentions, it's often arbitrary at best.
The best advice, which is a lot less directional than the phrases mentioned above, it to boost and cut to what sounds good in the mix.
Yes, there's something to say about the effects that excessive EQ will have on the tone and phase of a track, but sometimes a few aggressive EQ cuts or boosts will benefit the mix more than attempting to retain the original tonality of a track (that said, I at least tend to be less aggressive with EQ on guitars and vocals).
My caveat to you here is that you should be familiar with the fundamentals of EQ before pushing it too far. Misguided aggressive EQ can do much more harm than good to the integrity of the mix.
32. Use Clipping To Control Transients And Maintain Punch
In Tip 25, I mentioned the boogeyman of digital clipping. Digital clipping happens when we exceed the digital ceiling (0 dBFS), and our digital audio signals are clipped at their positive and/or negative peaks. The results of such clipping can sounds rather egregious, hence the caution against them.
In general, we want to avoid digital clipping as much as possible, especially in the recording stage (though 32-bit floating point kind of does away with this worry). That's a conversation for another article.
With that out of the way, clipping can be an incredibly useful tool in mixing. Additionally, I'm not only talking about digital or “hard” clipping here; I'm also referring to “soft” clipping.
Hard clipping happens when the signal is strictly limited at the threshold, producing a flat cutoff — this produces a lot of high-frequency harmonic content and is often described as being harsh.
Soft clipping happens when the signal is rounded and flattened out at the threshold, where it may even push past the threshold slightly. The waveform is still chopped off, but the tops are still somewhat rounded, which generally produces more sonically pleasing harmonic distortion than hard clipping.
The audible distortion of clipping is typically only audible if it happens over multiple periods of a waveform. It's often the case that clipping the initial transient peaks of a signal won't cause much audible distortion, if at all (though it certainly distorts the waveform).
So we can utilize clipping to help reduce the peak levels of transients without necessarily affecting the sound of the transients. For transient material like snare drums, this can help us to increase the headroom (the ratio between the digital ceiling and the peak level of the audio signal) without shaping the sound of the snare (in this example).
Compare this with other dynamics processors like compression and limiting, which will shape the transients of the incoming signal due to their time parameters (attack and release times).
In other words, clipping (whether soft or hard) can help us retain the punchiness of our transient signals (like drums) while also giving us more headroom to work with within the mix. This allows us to push things a bit louder into any compressors post-clipping, thereby maintaining the sense of strong transients.
I should mention as well that clipping distortion isn't necessarily something to be avoided either. A bit of extra grit can really push things forward and give a track or subgroup that aggressive character it needs to fit into the mix.
Try it for yourself, and be sure to pay attention to any potential distortion.
If you'd like more info on clipping, please check out my video, Clipping Vs. Brickwall Limiting (And How To Use Both).
33. Boost Upper Frequencies With EQ To Get More Clarity And Presence From Kicks, Snares, Toms, Etc.
Percussion and drums can often benefit from a bit of extra top end. We often think of boosting the fundamentals of these instruments, but there is typically some additional information that can be brought up in upper frequencies. It won't always be the right move for the mix, but it's worth considering.
Let's consider, for a moment, some very broad generalizations about frequency bands to consider boosting and cutting in kick, snare and tom drums:
- High-pass filter 20-50 Hz to remove low-end rumble (typically a gentle slope)
- Boost (bell) 40-80 Hz for low-end thump
- Cut (bell) 150-350 Hz for muddiness
- Cut (bell) 600-900 Hz for hollowness
- Boost (bell) 2.5-5 kHz for presence
- Boost (bell) 7-8 kHz for click/attack
- Low-pass filter 8-12 kHz to remove bleed and unnecessary air
- High-pass filter 80-180 Hz to remove low-end rumble
- Boost (bell) 200 Hz for body
- Cut (bell) 350-750 Hz for boxiness
- Boost (bell) 2.5-3.5 kHz for presence
- Boost (bell or shelf) 7-8 kHz for crack/attack
Rack tom drums:
- High-pass filter 30-50 Hz to remove low-end rumble
- Boost (bell) 100-200 Hz for low-end body
- Cut (bell) 150-350 Hz for muddiness
- Cut (bell) 600-900 Hz for hollowness
- Boost (bell) 4-5 kHz for presence
- Boost (bell or shelf) 7-8 kHz for crack/attack
Floor tom drums:
- High-pass filter 30-50 Hz to remove low-end rumble
- Boost (bell) 70-100 Hz for low-end body
- Cut (bell) 150-350 Hz for muddiness
- Cut (bell) 600-900 Hz for hollowness
- Boost (bell) 4-5 kHz for presence
- Boost (bell or shelf) 7-8 kHz for crack/attack
If your drums need a bit more presence or attack, consider making the boosts mentioned above.
• Top 11 Best Tips For EQing Kick Drums
• Top 11 Best Tips For EQing Snare Drums
34. Keep Most Time-Based Effects Quiet For Space
As a guitarist, I love playing through pedals, and while I don't often opt for delay and reverb pedals, but when I do, I want to hear their effects.
When I started getting into music production, I learned that delay and reverb could help produce a sense of space in the mix, and so I started applying these effects as I would to my guitar, that is, far too loud.
The result would be pretty significant wash-out of the dry elements in the mix, even when I started utilizing effects returns for my delays and reverb (see Tip 10).
It's often the case that space is felt more than it's heard in the mix, particularly when it comes to time-based effects. So if you're using delays and reverbs for space (rather than for effect), consider dropping their levels to the point where they no longer draw attention to themselves and rather act solely to support the sense of dimensionality in the mix.
35. Don't Monitor Too Loud For Too Long
There's no feeling quite like blasting your mix to feel the impact of the sound waves. While it's good to do so periodically, monitoring at loud volumes will speed up ear fatigue and, in some cases, even lead to permanent hearing damage.
Mix monitoring ought to be done at various levels, though 80 – 85 dB SPL is the sweet spot with the best frequency balance and low risk of hearing damage. Low levels help us identify elements too low in the mix, while high levels let us hear/feel the mix at a higher risk of hearing damage.
Our sense of hearing is anything but linear within the 20 Hz to 20,000 Hz audible range. However, the “linearity” of our hearing does increase with sound pressure level. This means that, in general, the louder we monitor, the more we'll hear the low-end and high-end represented in the mix. In contrast, the quieter we monitor, the more our hearing will be focused on the midrange.
So yes, it's important to monitor loud every once in a while to hear what the mix sounds like at high volumes. However, for your hearing health, it's best to mix at lower levels for the majority of the time.
Related article: What Volume (In Decibels) Should Audio Be Mixed/Listened At?
36. Take Frequent Breaks
Piggybacking on Tip 35, we have the tip of taking frequent breaks.
Taking frequent breaks (at least 5 minutes once every 30 to 60 minutes as a general rule) can help stave off ear fatigue and act to “reset” our hearing to allow for greater objectivity in our mixing endeavours.
Our sense of hearing tends to adjust rapidly to whatever it is we find ourselves listening to, and so it's important to refresh our ears periodically. As an aside, it's also why periodically toggling between our mix and our references is a good idea.
So take frequent breaks. Your ears and your mixes will thank you for it.
37. Always Check For Phase Issues In The Multitracks
This step should come as part of the mix preparation stage. Ensuring we have proper phase relationships between our tracks is essential if we want to get the best mix possible.
In some cases, we'll need to flip the polarity of tracks that are largely in opposition when it comes to their phase. In other words, if two waveforms are capturing the same sound, yet one has positive amplitude values while the other has negative amplitude values, it's worth flipping the polarity of one of those tracks to better align the phase. Check the other tracks to help decide which of the problematic tracks should have their polarity flipped.
Related article: Audio: What Are The Differences Between Polarity & Phase?
Additionally, we may simply want to nudge the location of an audio file in the arrangement timeline of the mix session so that it aligns more cohesively with the other tracks. Be careful here, as this can get out of hand quickly, but know that it is an option to improve the phase relationships between tracks in the mix before we ever start mixing.
I talk more about phase issues in this video: These Can Make Or Break Your Mix Before You Ever Start (Phase Relationships).
38. Ask Yourself What The Most Important Element Is At Any Given Time And Mix It Accordingly
Many modern productions will have a lead element in most of the song's sections (hint: it's typically the vocal). If you're working with material that doesn't have a distinct lead element, then feel free to skip this tip.
So when going through a mix, we should take note of what's most important in each section and pay attention to ensure that it stands out in the greater context of the mix. That could mean having its level a bit higher than the rest of the tracks, giving it a bit of extra space with reverb/delay or sidechain compression, or any other technique that could offer some separate to make it stand out.
39. Understand The Song First
The ultimate goal of mixing is to serve the song and allow it to have the maximum impact on the end listener. Sure, there are plenty of technical goals to meet within the mixing process, but we should never fail to realize that the song and the listener are the most important.
Therefore, it's essential that we understand the song before we start mixing. What are the long-term dynamics of the song (how does it evolve over time)? What is the overarching emotional theme of the song, and how can I enhance that theme within the mix? How does this song stand up against other songs in the genre and what can I do about that in the mix? These are all questions worth considering when it comes to mixing a song.
It can be beneficial to listen through the rough mix or even just the raw multitracks before diving into the mix. Take notes on what you think the song is about and ask the artist(s) and producer(s) what they envision the song being. Moving forward with this information can help tremendously in guiding you toward a successful mix that truly serves the song.
40. Use Reference Mixes
I couldn't have a list of mixing tips without this one. Reference mixes are often undervalued but are so powerful when it comes to achieving professional mixes that can compete with commercially-released music.
Reference mixes are typically in a similar genre or style and already have the general mix aesthetic that you want in your mix, though they don't necessarily have to be. Furthermore, the best references are typically high-quality, mastered, and commercially released songs, though, again, they don't necessarily have to be.
I recommend listening to your reference(s) before you start mixing to help prime your ears a bit for the task ahead. I also suggest periodically toggling between your work and your reference(s) throughout the mixing process to ensure you're on track to reach your mixing “goal post”.
For more information on using reference mixes, you can check out my video, Reach Your Goals In Mixing Using Reference Mixes.
41. Have Patience
This one applies to much more than just mixing. Your first mixes aren't going to be great. It takes time and dedication to learn and become great at something as technical and creative as mixing, so have patience and keep working. You'll get there!
42. Editing Time Is Crucial
Unless you have top-notch musicians or you're working in a genre that doesn't typically call for time editing (Jazz and Classical typically depend on top-notch musicians, so I suppose it's the same either way), you'll want to do some time editing to be competitive amongst other modern productions.
Editing time is common with rhythm sections, particularly drums and bass, though it can be down with other tracks as well.
Cutting and moving audio is perhaps the most popular method of editing for time. When editing multi-miked instruments like drumkits, it's best to group the drum tracks together so that you can easily cut and move all the tracks together when editing. Any modern DAW allows for this functionality.
Time compression and expansion is another way of editing time, though care should be taken not to introduce too many uncanny artifacts into the sound, particularly when stretching the audio.
Either way, be sure you use crossfades to avoid digital clicks/pops between your cuts.
Vocals, and especially background vocals, can often benefit from some tightening as well. Though we can certainly utilize the manual time editing techniques mentioned above, I'd also suggest looking into Synchro Arts VocAlign (link to check the price at Plugin Boutique). It makes aligning vocals (I've also used it with great success on horns) so much easier.
43. Editing Tuning Is Crucial
Along with editing time, editing for tuning is also standard in modern music production. A little can go a long way when it comes to tuning, and you'd be surprised at how natural these new tuning algorithms can be.
The most commonly tuned element in music is the vocal. When tuning vocals, it's important to focus the majority of our efforts on the middle of the notes rather than on the beginnings and endings of words. Tuning the initial transients and the tails can sound uncanny and lead to artifacts, but tuning the middle tastefully can give us very natural-sounding results.
Of course, it's ultimately up to taste. Some artists have a distinct “Auto-Tune” sound, while other vocalists sound as natural on record as they do live, even though there is sweetening going on.
Many modern DAWs will offer some sort of tuning option.
The two major players in tuning are Antares Auto-Tune and Celemony Melodyne. I've used both and personally prefer Melodyne for my work (it's what I have in my studio).
44. The Mute Button Is A Mixing Tool, Too
This one's a bit tricky, especially when we're given multitracks to mix from a client. Whether we're mixing our own material or someone else's song, the tracks are there for a reason — because they fit the vision and arrangement of the artist.
So to mute a track (or multiple tracks) can feel a bit wrong when it comes to mixing. However, if the track(s) aren't serving the mix and are actually holding the mix back from its full potential, it may be best to mute them entirely.
Of course, it's critical to use your discretion here. Don't go muting every track that gives you trouble. Do your best to mix what's in the session, but know that sometimes a muted track can really unlock the mix, allowing it to breathe and affording it the power and clarity it deserves.
This goes back to Tip 18 and the point I made about poor arrangements leading to poor mixes. If a track plays a seemingly insignificant role in the song but muddies up the mix, don't be afraid to mute it if it helps the overall clarity of the mix.
45. Not Everything Needs EQ
EQ is one of the first tools we learn about when we're first learning to mix, and because EQ is so important in mixing, we can easily be caught in the impression that everything needs EQ.
But it's important to never process anything just for the sake of it. Every processor has a downside, and if there's nothing wrong with the audio in a track, EQing it may do more harm than good.
Always ask yourself why you're choosing to EQ a track before you go ahead and EQ it. If, after spending some time adjusting the EQ and A/B testing it by turning it on and off, you find that the EQ moves do not serve the greater mix, do not hesitate to start from scratch and reapply different EQ moves or remove the EQ entirely.
46. Not Everything Needs Compression
Just like not everything needs EQ, not everything needs compression. Don't compress your tracks “just because”. Always ask yourself why you're choosing to compress something and move forward from there.
Again, if, after A/B testing the compression, you find that it does not serve the greater mix, do not hesitate to start from scratch and reapply different compression parameters or scrap the idea of compression entirely.
47. Use Level Matching And A/B Testing
I suppose I could have included this tip earlier, as I've been referencing A/B testing throughout this article.
A/B testing is the act of comparing one thing (A) against another (B). Level matching is the act of setting up a processor so that the perceived level of the audio in the signal path will be the same whether that processor is on or off.
Combining these two practices, we can make a habit of A/B testing our plugins and processors, either by setting up different parameters within the plugin and switching between the different sets of settings (if it has internal A/B testing) or by turning the plugin/processor on and off.
By checking our actions with A/B testing, we can judge our decisions in the context of the mix and ultimately decide whether we've improved the mix or made it worse with our processing. From there, we can choose whether to keep the processing, to retry the processing, or to get rid of it altogether.
A/B testing, especially when we're at our most objective (see Tip 36 and Tip 40 for solid strategies on regaining objectivity in the mix), will let us know whether we're moving in the right direction or not. Level matching will eliminate the loudness bias when A/B testing, which states that we'll naturally believe the louder version of something is better, even if it's technically (and creatively) worse for the mix.
For more information on level matching and A/B testing, check out my video, The Importance Of A/B Testing In Our Mixes (With My 5 Best A/B Tests).
48. Cymbals Are Often Quieter On Record Than They Are Live
Maybe it's just me, but after years of jamming and performing in tight spaces, I'm so used to hearing the cymbals of a drum kit loud and clear, often over the shells.
At live concerts with professional sound and on records, the shells are typically mixed above the cymbals or, at the very least, to be more balanced than they are at or adjacent to the drumkit. Keep that in mind when mixing, and you'll save yourself from overly harsh drum mixes.
49. Consider Presets As A Starting Point, But Don't Rely On Them
When starting out, there are often two groups of thought in regard to presets:
- Never use presets; they're a cop-out.
- Use presets and get results fast.
Presets are super useful (especially once you start making your own) and should be used to save time and energy in the mix. Furthermore, experimenting with presets can show you parameters and use cases that you may have never considered in your plugins.
On the other hand, it's important to learn the ins and outs of the plugins you use to have maximum control over how they process the audio in your mixes.
So my advice is to learn the tools as best as you can first, and then learn the presets you like using to get the best results in the shortest amount of time.
50. The Balance Typically Changes Throughout A Song
In Tip 23, we learned that balance ought to be the top priority of a mix. That stated, the ideal balance will often change from section to section.
In many cases, the changes in active tracks will account for the changing balance. However, it's worth noting that automation may be required to alter the balance to suit the song as it evolves over time.
51. Learn The Plugins You Have, And Don't Worry About What You Don't Have Yet
Another common thought that beginning mixers have is that better plugins will make for better mixes.
Honestly, the stock plugins in today's top digital audio workstations are more than capable of getting you professional mixes.
Don't get me wrong; third-party plugins are awesome. I've spent thousands if not tens of thousands of dollars on software for mixing. However, it's far more important, in my opinion, to invest in learning the fundamentals first before investing in the latest and greatest third-party plugins.
And that brings me to my next point, which is to avoid pirating or stealing plugins. I'm not here to be almighty and say that it's wrong, but it will discount your usage of the plugins and going down the path of cracked plugins will all too often result in an overwhelming amount of software that you never get around to learning and using anyway.
Invest in yourself, and make your investments count.
If you've read this far, I hope you've learned a lot, and I hope you don't mind me dropping a link to my paid resources (since we're on the topic of investing in ourselves). You can check out my ebooks and courses here.
For my fellow Logic Pro X users, I talk more about my favourite stock plugins in my video, My Top 11 Stock Logic Pro X Plugins And How I Use Them!
52. Samples Are Sometimes Needed, So Use High-Quality Ones
Whether you're producing sample-heavy genres like Hip-Hop, Pop and EDM, enhancing your Metal or Rock mixes, or utilizing samples in any other mix session, it's worth it to invest in high-quality samples.
I've personally used Splice for years, though these open platforms eventually get cluttered with too many uninteresting or unusable samples. Loopcloud is a great place to find high-quality samples. ADSR Sounds and Audio Plugin Deals are just a few other online stores to shop for quality samples.
53. Use Noise Gates Or Gate Manually
Noise gating is the process of muting an audio track if the signal level drops below a set threshold. It's useful for eliminating noise between hits like toms and other sparsely-played instruments. This can be done with a proper noise gate (as previously defined) or manually by cutting and muting portions of an audio track — just make sure to fade in and out of the audio clips that are left.
If there's significant bleed or noise in a track, gating it can help clean up the mix and improve the overall clarity and power of the mix.
54. Organization Will Save Time And Sanity
I touched on this in Tip 14 where we discussed using mix templates, but properly organizing your session will make your mixes so much smoother.
Here are a few things to tackle during mix preparation and organization:
- Label the multitracks to your naming convention
- Order them appropriately
- Colour-code them to your preferences
- Route the tracks to their appropriate subgroups if wanted
- Set up what you imagine the mix might need in terms of effects returns and parallel processing
- Check for phase issues
- Gain stage the tracks
Doing these basic steps consistently will set you up for success in the mixing process since everything will be laid out as you expect it to be. If you need to tweak a parameter of a certain insert on a specific track, subgroup or aux track, you'll know exactly where it is. This will free up your time as you won't be searching for your processors, which ultimately affords you more time and energy to be creative within the mix.
Sure, it can be tedious to organize your session at the beginning of every mix (which is why templates or so handy), but it sure beats dealing with the chaos of a disorganized session when you're midway through a mix.
Furthermore, if you can get into the habit of setting up each mix in the same general layout, you'll have a much better time revisiting old mixes if revisions or remixes are ever to come up.
If you'd like a full run-through of how I organize my sessions, check out my video, The Full Guide To Mix Organization (Pro Mixes Start Here).
55. Watch Out For The Build-Up Of Energy In The “Muddy” Low-Mids
Another common piece of advice for mixing is to cut in the low mids, typically around 200-500 Hz. This frequency band is often described as “muddy,” and I remember being instructed to cut these frequencies from tracks to reduce such “muddiness” without clear reasons as to why.
Well, the reason this frequency range can be so problematic in the mix is that so many instruments have significant energy in this range. The build-up in the low-mid, often defined around 250 – 500 Hz, is due to the fact that so many instruments produce notes with either fundamentals or strong second, third or even fourth harmonics.
And because there is so much energy here from the melody, harmony and even from percussion instruments, it can easily become unwieldy in the mix. Additionally, since the important harmonics of so many tracks are found in this range, there is often significant frequency masking.
So it's often necessary to cut these frequencies in some tracks to make room for others. There are no hard rules here, though I personally tend to look at cutting from percussion/drum instruments first, and then from instruments and vocals that aren't tasked with driving the song forward and, therefore, don't require the same amount of power (which often comes from the low-mid frequencies).