Introduction To Mixing For Music Producers

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Mixing is an integral part of music production, a process where various elements of a track are blended to create a harmonious final product. It's not just about balancing levels; it's an art form that shapes the very essence of a song. The importance of mixing for music producers cannot be overstated, as it significantly influences how a track is perceived and received by the audience.

What is mixing? Mixing music and audio is the art of balancing levels of multiple audio tracks together. A good mix is achieved with both technical and creative excellence. It's about adjusting their levels, panning, and applying effects like EQ and compression to create a cohesive, balanced final audio piece.

Fundamentals Of Mixing

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In music production, mixing refers to the process of combining and manipulating multiple individual tracks, skillfully combining them into a single, cohesive audio piece.

In this way, mixing is rather simple. However, in practice, it can be difficult to pull off great mixes.

The mixing process involves adjusting various elements such as volume, panning, frequency content, dynamics, and space. The goal is to ensure that each component of the mix works harmoniously with the others, resulting in a final product that sounds unified and complete.

These basic elements of mixing, in more detail, are:

  • Volume: set the levels for each track to ensure clarity and balance.
  • Panning: position elements within the stereo field to help create a sense of space and dimension.
  • Frequency content: sculpt the frequency content of individual tracks to make room for each element and reduce frequency masking.
  • Dynamics: adjust the differences between the loud and quiet parts of individual tracks to make them more consistent.
  • Space: create dimensionality in stereo (and surround) mixes by manipulating the dimensions of “height“, “width“, and “depth“.

In my opinion, level/volume balancing is the most important aspect of mixing. I'd encourage you to try a few “faders only” mixes, where, as the name suggests, you limit yourself to only using the faders to balance levels in your mix.

Mixing is both a technical and creative endeavour. It requires a deep understanding of audio engineering principles and the creative vision to bring a musical idea to life. A good mix should not only sound technically proficient but also convey the intended emotion and energy of the music.

A key skill in mixing is the ability to listen critically. This involves analyzing how different elements interact and making adjustments to achieve the desired sound. It's important to reference professional mixes and develop an ear for balance and sonic quality.

The music producer may play a pivotal role in this phase, making critical decisions that affect the track's sonic character. The basic elements of a mix include volume, panning, equalization (EQ), compression, and the application of various effects, each contributing to the track's overall sound.

Equipment And Software For Mixing

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If you've ever seen big-time music studios, you'll know that the equipment and software can be borderline excessive.

Of course, we don't need massive collections of equipment and software to mix, but it's worth covering the essentials and extras that we use as mixing engineers.

That stated, it's now common practice in professional and amateur studios to integrate hardware processors with software-based setups. This hybrid approach combines the tactile feel of hardware with the flexibility of software, offering the best of both worlds.

Personally, I mix almost exclusively in the box. While I love hardware, it's just not worth it to me at this time. I have my monitors, headphones, interface and computer, along with my microphones and instruments, but outboard processing has yet to come into play.

Basics Of Mixing Hardware

Mixing consoles: Traditional analog mixing consoles, like the SSL and Neve desks, are revered for their warmth and character. They offer tactile control over the mix, which many engineers prefer.

SSL and Neve

SSL and Neve are featured in My New Microphone's Top 10 Best Studio Recording/Mixing Console Brands.

Studio monitors: High-quality studio monitors are crucial for accurate sound reproduction. Monitors come in various sizes and configurations, tailored to different studio environments. Brands like Genelec, Yamaha, and KRK are popular choices.

Genelec and Yamaha

Genelec and Yamaha are featured in My New Microphone's Top 11 Best Studio Monitor Brands You Should Know And Use.

Headphones: For detailed listening and mixing in non-ideal environments, a good pair of studio headphones is essential. Headphones like the Sennheiser HD 600 or the Audio-Technica ATH-M50x offer a flat, uncolored response suitable for critical mixing.

Sennheiser and Audio-Technica

Sennheiser and Audio-Technica are featured in My New Microphone's Top 13 Best Headphone Brands In The World.

Audio interfaces: An audio interface is vital for high-quality AD/DA conversion and connecting various studio gear. Interfaces range from compact, home-studio models to professional multi-channel units. Key features to consider include the number of inputs/outputs, preamp quality, and compatibility with your DAW. Most of my experience with interfaces is with Avid, Focusrite and Universal Audio models.

Avid, Focusrite and Universal Audio

Avid, Focusrite and Universal Audio are featured in My New Microphone's Top 11 Best Audio Interface Brands In The World.

A Note On Acoustic Treatment And The Monitoring Environment

While not technically hardware or software, I figured I should mention acoustic treatment and listening environment.

Proper acoustic treatment is crucial for an accurate listening environment. This includes bass traps, diffusers, and absorption panels to control room reflections and standing waves.

The layout and setup of the studio, including monitor placement and listening position, significantly affect how sound is perceived during mixing.

Basics Of Mixing Software

Digital audio workstations: DAWs are the heart of modern mixing setups. Software like Pro Tools, Logic Pro, Ableton Live, and FL Studio offer extensive functionality, allowing for intricate editing, automation, and processing. The choice of DAW often depends on personal workflow preferences and the specific needs of the project.

For my take, check out the Top 7 Best Digital Audio Workstations (DAWs) On The Market.

Plugins: The digital equivalent of outboard gear, plugins offer limitless possibilities in shaping sound. Essential plugin categories include EQs, compressors, reverbs, delays, and special effects. Many engineers also use plugin suites from companies like Waves, iZotope, and Universal Audio for their versatility and quality.

Waves, iZotope, and Universal Audio

Waves, iZotope, and Universal Audio are featured in My New Microphone's Top 11 Best Audio Plugin (VST/AU/AAX) Brands In The World.

Virtual instruments: For music production, virtual instruments (VIs) are indispensable. They simulate a wide range of sounds, from classic synthesizers to realistic orchestral samples. VIs like those from Native Instruments, Spectrasonics, and Arturia add immense creative potential to a mix.

Native Instruments, Spectrasonics, and Arturia

Native Instruments, Spectrasonics, and Arturia are featured in My New Microphone's Top 11 Best Virtual/Software Instrument Plugin Brands.

For more information: Essential Processors/Processes For Mixing Music & Audio

Understanding Your Mixing Tools

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Let's consider our mixing tools through the lens of the aforementioned mix elements of volume, panning, frequency content, dynamics, and space.

I'll touch on advanced tools, but my focus will be on the essentials. I'll also link to additional resources where possible to learn more about certain concepts (rather than explaining everything in detail in this single article).

These essentials, in my opinion, are the faders, pan pots, EQs, compressors, reverbs, delays and distortion/saturation. I actually write about each of these processes in great detail in my “Mixing With Series” ebooks:

Let's break down each of these tools:

Faders: faders (notably those on our mixers) allow us to control levels and are the primary tool for balancing the volumes of the individual tracks within the mix. They can also be used to control the levels of subgroups, VCA groups, etc., as well as in other processes.

Tip on using faders: try gain staging your tracks to a common average level so that the positions of the mixer faders are more visually representative of the mix balance.

Pan pots: pan pots allow us to control the directionality of our tracks within the left-to-right stereo panorama. They help to balance the width dimension of the mix.

Tip on using pan pots: try LCR (left-centre-right) panning to achieve maximum width and a strong, mono-compatible centre image.

Equalizers: EQs can be thought of as frequency-dependent level controllers, allowing us to shape the frequency content and tone of our tracks.

Tip on using EQ: it's often more effective to cut frequencies rather than boost them, as this can reduce muddiness and maintain headroom.

Compressors: compressors can be thought of as automatic level controllers that engage and disengage above and below a set threshold level, respectively. They allow us to control the dynamics of our tracks.

Tip on using compression: be cautious of over-compression, as it can lead to a lifeless mix.

Reverbs: reverbs act to emulate the sound of natural reverberation and play a role in creating a sense of space in the mix.

Tip on using reverb: dense mixes don't generally benefit as much from reverb as dense mixes.

Delays: delays repeat signals after a set amount of time, often with colouration, helping to increase the dimensionality of the mix.

Tip on using delay: too much can make a mix sound washed out or distant.

Distortion/Saturation: distortion and saturation shape the waveform of the audio, often adding additional harmonic content to the tracks of the mix, helping to shape the character of such tracks and the overall mix.

Tip on using delay: a little can go a long way to help “warm up” individual tracks and glue the mix together.

Beyond what I consider the essentials, we have more dynamics processing (limiters, de-essers, noise gates, expanders, and more), modulation (chorus, flanger, phaser, etc.) and more creative effects that are more for “colouration” rather than “technical” mixing, per se.

Again, I've left links so that you can do more research on whatever other tools you're interested in!

Mixing Techniques And Strategies

Although the goal of mixing is largely to achieve a balance suitable for the end listener, there are numerous ways to mix, depending on the equipment used, the genre of music, the artistic vision, and your preferred workflow.

Let's consider a few common mixing techniques and strategies in this introduction to mixing. Again, I'll leave links to articles with more detailed information where applicable.

Common Mixing Techniques

Gain staging: the process of feeding each audio device in a signal chain with optimal levels to avoid distortion or poor signal-to-noise ratios. In mixing, gain staging has added benefits of upholding proper headroom, “standardizing” track levels at given fader levels and helping with A/B tests.

A/B testing: the act of comparing one thing (thing A) against a second thing (thing B) to decide which performs better objectively. This can be done by auditioning processes on and off, switching between two different settings on our processors, or even muting and unmuting full tracks in the mix.

Phase alignment: the art of adjusting the timing of different tracks in the mix to better align the phase between the tracks. This is especially important in multi-miked recordings like acoustic drums.

Automation: the process of programming changes to various parameters (such as volume, panning, or effects) over time within a track or mix.

Parallel processing: the technique of sending an audio signal to two different “parallel” signal paths and processing one of them differently than the other before summing them back together.

Sidechain compression: the technique of utilizing an external sidechain signal to control the gain reduction of a compressor acting on a different audio track.

Subtractive EQ: the technique of using EQ cuts and filters rather than boosts to carve out frequencies in a signal.

Summing to mono: periodically collapsing the stereo image of a stereo mix to check for mono compatibility and the phase cancellation that results from summing to mono.

Common Mixing Strategies

Bussing to subgroups: individual tracks can be bussed together to a single subgroup track for common processing and simplified control.

Effects sends/returns: individual tracks can have part of their signal sent to auxiliary tracks, which can be used for parallel processing or separate effects with independent control.

Top-down (versus bottom-up): the strategy of processing the mix bus followed by the subgroups followed by the individual tracks (which is in contrast to processing the individual tracks first before moving “up” to the subgroups and mix bus).

LCR Panning (versus intermediate panning): the strategy of panning tracks either hard left, to the centre, or hard right. This helps with contrast in the dimension of width while maintaining a strong centre image, assuming the important tracks are panned to the centre.

Related reading: 55 Music Mixing Tips For Beginners (What I Wish I Knew)

Creative Aspects Of Mixing

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At its core, mixing is about interpreting the emotional and artistic intent of a piece, transforming raw recordings into a cohesive, emotionally resonant work.

This process involves storytelling through sound, where each decision, from the balance of instruments to the subtlety of effects, contributes to the overarching narrative of the music.

While the mix isn't as effective as the songwriting itself, it's still important for us to conceptualize our mixing as a creative process.

Beyond technical proficiency, pro mixers are often hired for their taste and creativity. It's our creative work that allows us to develop our distinctive sound(s) and helps to set our work apart.

Creative mixing involves manipulating space and depth, using reverb, delay, and spatial effects to craft specific atmospheres. These effects can range from creating intimate, close-up sounds to crafting expansive, wide-open soundscapes, adding depth and dimension to the mix.

The emotional dynamics of a track are profoundly influenced by mixing. Automation plays a crucial role here, allowing for dynamic changes in volume, EQ, and effects that mirror the emotional intensity of the composition.

Strategic changes in the mix can highlight key moments, intensifying the emotional expression and drawing the listener deeper into the music.

Mix engineers often employ effects like modulation, distortion, and filtering creatively, moving beyond conventional uses to artistic expression. This approach can blur the lines between mixing and sound design and “production”, leading to the creation of unique sounds that become integral to the track's identity.

The mixing process also offers opportunities to blend elements from different genres, creating innovative, genre-defying tracks. Techniques from one genre can be adapted and applied to another, bringing fresh perspectives and sounds.

Collaboration with artists and producers is a vital part of the creative mixing process. This synergy can spark new ideas, leading to a more dynamic and inspired mix.

Mixing Different Genres

Different genres demand different mixing approaches.

While songwriting and instrumentation are the primary factors in falling into or out of certain genres, the mix is also a big part of defining the genre of a recorded song.

For instance, I once mixed a record that could have been considered in the realm of metal.

However, I stayed away from the common tropes of modern metal (sampled drums, lots of time editing, high-end presence in the kick drum, mid-scooped guitars, etc.), and in doing so, the overall sound of the record fit more into the genre of rock.

This may seem like a small distinction, but playing that record against others in the “metal” genre of streaming services made it sound out of place, while it fit more nicely with those in the “rock” genre.

That's all to say that different genres have different mix aesthetics. We won't get into detail in this already-long article, but it's worth mentioning here.

Finalizing The Mix

Finalizing a mix is a critical phase in music production, marking the transition from the mixing process to mastering. This stage involves a series of meticulous steps to ensure that the mix is polished, cohesive, and ready for the final mastering process.

Listen to the mix in its entirety, paying close attention to details. Check for balance, clarity, and consistency across the track.

Listen to the mix on various sound systems (studio monitors, headphones, car stereo, etc.) to ensure it translates well in different listening environments.

Based on your observations, make any necessary revisions. This could involve adjusting levels, EQ, and effects or addressing any specific issues that stand out.

Consider getting feedback from trusted ears—other engineers, producers, or musicians. Fresh perspectives can reveal aspects you might have missed.

If time allows, take a break and revisit the mix with fresh ears after a day or two. This can provide a new perspective and help in identifying any subtle issues.

Export the final mix in the appropriate file format (usually WAV or AIFF) at the correct bit depth and sample rate, as per mastering requirements.

Prepare notes or guidelines for the mastering engineer if specific considerations or concerns need to be addressed.

Finalizing the mix is about refining and ensuring that every element is in its right place, contributing to a unified and impactful whole. It's the last opportunity to make adjustments before the mastering process, where the track is polished and optimized for distribution.

Learning And Improving In Mixing

We've covered a lot in this introductory article, but it's essential that we continue learning and improving as mixing engineers. It's my goal to provide the best information here at mynewmicrophone.com, so be sure to check out my other articles (or my paid courses).

That stated, learning and improving mostly come down to practice and, to lesser extents (in my opinion), education and guidance. Here are a few tips I have to help you out:

Practicing Mixing

Practicing mixing is fundamental to mastering the art of audio engineering. It's through consistent and varied practice that one develops a keen ear for balance, dynamics, and tonal quality.

Each mixing session is an opportunity to experiment with different techniques, tools, and musical genres, broadening one's skill set and understanding of the craft.

Practice allows for the application of theoretical knowledge in a practical context, turning abstract concepts into tangible skills.

Moreover, regular practice helps in developing problem-solving abilities, which is crucial for tackling the unique challenges each mix will present.

It's in the nuances of repeated trials, errors, and successes that a mix engineer truly hones their craft, developing not only technical proficiency but also their unique style and approach to mixing.

Try practicing different mixing techniques (even if it means remixing the same song). Try mixing different genres of music to see where you excel and where you fall short. Additionally, take some time to experiment — not everything has to be “by the books” all the time.

Mixing Education

Education in mixing is vital for building a strong foundational understanding of audio principles and techniques.

Formal education, whether through academic courses or specialized online tutorials, offers a comprehensive and structured overview of the theoretical aspects of mixing. This knowledge is crucial for making informed decisions during the mixing process.

Additionally, mixing education often includes learning from experienced professionals who can provide insights into industry practices and standards. It also keeps one updated with the latest technological advancements and software in the field.

I have much more information available on this website and my YouTube channel for free. I also have paid courses and ebooks available at my online store if you're interested.

Mixing Guidance

Guidance in mixing, whether from mentors, peers, or industry professionals, is invaluable for both novice and experienced engineers. It offers a fresh perspective on one’s work, highlighting areas of strength and those needing improvement.

Mentorship also opens up opportunities for networking and collaboration, which are essential for career growth in the music industry.

Moreover, guidance can be a source of motivation and inspiration, encouraging continuous improvement and innovation. In a field as complex and nuanced as audio mixing, having guidance is crucial for navigating the technical challenges and artistic decisions that define the craft.

Tips For Effective Mixing

  1. Start with clean recordings and arrangement: great mixes often sound great before mixing. Ensure your multitracks are of the highest quality possible and that the arrangement of the track is well-organized and free of clutter.
  2. Gain staging: properly set the levels of each track before starting the mix. This ensures that you have adequate headroom and that no track is too loud or too quiet in the mix.
  3. Mixing in context: avoid “mixing” in solo as much as possible and mix the tracks within the context of the mix.
  4. Critical listening: develop your listening skills and listen for how elements are balanced, how effects are used, and how the mix translates on different systems.
  5. Use high-quality reference tracks: compare your mix with professionally mixed tracks in the same style/genre. Use them as benchmarks for your mix in terms of balance, tone, and loudness.
  6. Take regular breaks: ear fatigue can skew your perception. Take regular breaks to rest your ears and return to the mix with a fresh perspective.

Call To Action

Delve deeper into any concepts or tools that caught your attention throughout this introductory article.

Plan out a few hours of your time to study a single concept and then practice it immediately by utilizing it in a mix.

Related Questions

What is songwriting? Songwriting is the art of composing music and lyrics to form a song. It involves combining melody, harmony, rhythm and lyrics, typically to express emotions or tell stories through a structured musical form.

For more information, read my article, Introduction To Songwriting For Music Producers.

What is arranging? Arrangement refers to how different elements and sections of a song are organized and presented. It's about deciding which instruments play when, how they interact, and how the song's structure unfolds over time. Proper arrangement is a big part of the overall impact a song will have on a listener.

For more information, read my article, Introduction To Arrangement For Music Producers.

New To Mixing? Check Out My FREE In-Depth Article:

What Are The Step-By-Steps Of Mixing Music?

Make the right decisions at the right times to craft professional mixes!

Leave A Comment!

Have any thoughts, questions or concerns? I invite you to add them to the comment section at the bottom of the page! I'd love to hear your insights and inquiries and will do my best to add to the conversation. Thanks!

This article has been approved in accordance with the My New Microphone Editorial Policy.

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