Mixing is an art that blends technical skill with creative intuition and exploration. As with any worthy endeavour, crafting great mixes means making the right decisions during the mixing process.
Here are my top 11 tips for making better mix decisions:
- Set your mix goal
- Organize your studio and session
- Develop and follow a framework
- A/B testing with level matching
- Referencing reference mixes
- Take regular breaks
- Limit your resources
- Push the limits of your tools (and split the difference)
- Think subtractive instead of additive
- Seek constructive feedback
- Use your ears, not your eyes
In this article, we'll dive deeper into each of these tips to help you improve your decision-making skills and, ultimately, your mixes!
This is part of a two-part series. The other article is titled “The Psychology Of Decision-Making For Mixing Engineers“.
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If you're just starting out in your mixing journey (and even if you've been mixing for a while), I think you'll dig my 55 favourite music mixing tips, which you can check out after reading articles in in the following link: 55 Music Mixing Tips For Beginners (What I Wish I Knew)
Set Your Mix Goal
Perhaps the best decision when it comes to mixing is setting an end goal for the mix from the start. Doing so will set the stage, so to speak, and act as a lens through which all other decisions will be made throughout the mix.
Start by understanding the goal of the song (and the goal of mixing), taking into account the artist and producer's vision(s) of the song as well as your own thoughts after having listened through the initial tracks (all the multitracks together) or rough mix. Have a detailed conversation with these people about the music being produced and ask for references if possible (I'll touch on using reference tracks shortly).
What emotion or story is it trying to convey? Identify the key emotions that the track should evoke in the listener. Write them down or keep them at top of mind throughout the mixing process to help guide your decisions. Considering how the dynamics of the song should ebb and flow is another important to enhance the emotional impact.
The intended goalpost of your mix will also be largely dependent on genre. Each genre has its own set of norms and expectations. For instance, a pop song might require a bright and clear mix, while a jazz track may call for a warmer, more natural sound.
We can also think about where and how the final mix will be listened to — in a club, on streaming platforms, in headphones? Ideally, mastering will make the final mix sound great everywhere, but imagining where the music will be played back the most can help influence decisions about levels, EQ, and dynamics.
In terms of the mix aesthetic, this can be discussed with the artist and producer, gleaned from the references and anticipated in advance by you, the mixer. Decide on the desired characteristics of your mix — do you want it to be bass-heavy, bright, airy, punchy, smooth, etc.?
Defining your goals clearly at the outset provides a roadmap for your mixing process, ensuring every decision you make is purposeful and aligned with the ultimate vision for the track. This focused approach can significantly enhance the quality and impact of your final mix.
If you're interested, I have an article titled What Is The Goal Of Mixing Music? that I think is worth checking out.
Organize Your Studio And Session
I was originally going to focus this tip strictly on session organization and optimization, but figured I'd add in the organization of the physical studio space as well.
Having a clean and organized physical space fosters a sense of clarity and calm, freeing up cognitive resources. In such a space, the brain is able to operate without the distraction of unnecessary stimuli, enabling a greater allocation of mental energy and focus towards effective decision-making.
Organizing your sessions also creates a conducive system for focused work, helping with mental clarity, efficiency and, in turn, decision making.
Ordering, labelling, colour-coding, gain staging, routing and even editing can all be done before we ever start mixing so we don't have to waste time on these tasks during the mix or contribute to the decision fatigue as we choose when and how to complete these tasks during the mix.
Bonus points here if you can organize your sessions the same exact way every time (or as closely as possible). Keeping your conventions the same will allow you to find what you're looking in the session much more quickly and reduce decision fatigue during the organization process, helping to get you into the mix faster and with a fresher perspective.
I have a video detailing mix session organization that you can check out here:
I also have another article you can check out titled How To Prepare A Mixing Session (7 Key Steps).
Develop And Follow A Framework
In the last tip, I suggested setting up each of your sessions as identically as possible. That's essentially a framework: a set of procedures and guidelines that are established to effectively manage and execute a task.
If you really want to make your mixing decisions easy, extend this idea of a framework to the entire mixing process, from the mix preparation through to the final mix.
My workflow covers five broad steps in the mixing process:
- Prepare, organize and route the session.
- Get the initial balance (faders and pan pots).
- Processing and refining (EQ, compression, saturation, delay, reverb, etc.).
- Automation and extra production techniques.
- Finalize the mix.
I go through each of my mixes in this order and never really have to question what the next step is — it's almost second nature at this point, which helps tremendously in reducing the onset of decision fatigue.
Furthermore, I know what decisions I generally have to make at each point of the mix, so as meta as it sounds, I rarely have to decide on what to make a decision about, if that makes sense.
I discuss my mixing framework in greater detail in my Mixing Guidebook, which you can get for free below!
Additionally, I have an article on the “step-by-steps” of mixing, aptly titled Step-By-Step Guide To Mixing Music.
A/B Testing With Level Matching
Mixing is about balance, which is done primarily though faders and pan pots. However, our processors and effects play a big role in balancing the levels, tonalities and dimensionality of the mix.
It's critical, as we move through the mixing process, to ensure that the processing we use is actually helping us achieve our ideal final mix rather than detracting from our goal.
The simplest way to do this is with A/B testing. Yes, it's exactly what it sounds like: testing option A against option B.
There are a few ways by which we can utilize A/B testing during our mixing endeavours:
- To compare a signal with an without an inserted processor/effect: this is done by toggling the bypass or mute button of the processor/effect.
- To compare two versions of the same processor/effect (so long as the plugin or hardware allows for switching between two or more settings).
- To compare the mix with or without a specific track or multiple tracks: this is done by toggling the mute button of the channel(s) in question. Note that these channels can be audio tracks hosting the original multitracks, auxiliary effects returns or even entire subgroups if we need them to be.
I always recommend doing any A/B testing in the context of the entire mix. After all, no end listener is going to hear anything in solo, so why not focus on making the right decisions to benefit the mix as a whole.
Additionally, as the tip's title suggests, I always recommend level matching. Whenever possible (pretty much any time except for option three mentioned above), set up your plugins/hardware so that they output the same level as if they were bypass and, if you're auditioning two different settings within the same plugin/unit, ensure the two settings are at the same output level.
This helps us make a much better comparison and better decision by eliminating the loudness bias, which is our natural psychoacoustic tendency to prefer the louder option when presented with different sounds.
I go into more detail on A/B testing in my article A/B Testing & Its Importance In Mixing (With 5 Best Tests).
Referencing Reference Mixes
Speaking of A/B tests, one of the most important comparisons to consider is your mix against your reference mix (or mixes).
Once again, it's important to level match to get a better comparison.
In the goal-setting phase for the mix, we should have selected one or more reference tracks (or had these references chosen for us by the artist or producer) to base our mix off of. It's important to actually reference these tracks throughout the mixing process to check up on how we're navigating toward our intended goal post(s) of mix aesthetics.
Let's assume, for the sake of argument, that you want the aesthetic of your mix to match that of your single reference 100%. In that case, you can periodically reference it against your own and identify what needs changing in your mix to better match the sound of the reference.
From there, if you're confident in your mixing skills, you can make the proper decisions to sculpt your mix into something more closely resembling that of the reference track.
In the real world, we aren't generally trying for a 100% match. However, we will take aspects of our references that we'd like to emulate and be better suited to make decisions to enhance such emulation by actually referencing the references.
I have an article going into much greater detail on reference mixes if you're interested: Mixing: What Are Reference Mixes & Why Are They Important?
Take Regular Breaks
Taking regular breaks during the mixing process can have remarkable positive effects on our decision-making abilities.
First off, regular breaks are part of managing general decision fatigue, a psychological phenomenon rooted in the diminishing ability or willingness of people to continue making well-thought-out decisions after having made many decisions over a period of time.
Second off, taking breaks from mixing where we don't listen to any other sounds helps counteract ear fatigue, a physical and psychoacoustic phenomenon where our sense of hearing worsens over time as we're exposed to sound pressure. As ear fatigue sets in, we lose our objectivity in fully understanding what we're hearing, leading to poor decision-making.
It can be tempting, when we're in the creative flow of mixing, to push forward and continue on. However, scheduling regular breaks will ultimately allow you to be more effective for a longer time.
Limit Your Resources
In the current state of music production, we have an incredible number of tools to choose from. Assuming you're using a digital audio workstation, the choices for plugins is rather astounding. Just look at all the different plugin brands and manufacturers, let alone the number of individual plugins.
Having all these different tools might seem like a good idea to help us create better mixes, but ultimately it leads to the paradox of choice, where having too many options can actually lead to worse choices, increased anxiety, and overall dissatisfaction with the choices we make.
Having more options means more having more consideration for each decision. For example, if we only had two compressors (say a VCA option and a FET option), it would be relatively easy to pick which one we'd want for say, compressing a snare drum. Contrast that scenario with having 200 different compressor plugins — how sure can you be that you're picking the “best” one.
And if you can't get the compression to sound exactly how you wanted, it's all too easy to blame your first choice and then decide to run through the next option (and the next, and so on).
This dissatisfaction isn't only not good for your confidence in the mix; it also forces more decisions to be made, thereby contributing to decision fatigue.
I've been guilty of feeling this way, having accumulated a lot of plugins over the years. The only remedy that has worked for me has been to limit my usage of plugins when mixing to those I know and love. Of course, I do make time to experiment with the other plugins, but I digress.
So my suggestion is to restrict the tools you access when mixing and make the most out of the ones you do end up using. By eliminating choices, we can reduce the unwanted effects of “the paradox of choice” while simultaneously becoming better at using our favourite tools in the mix.
Using myself as an example, at the time of writing this article, I have a relatively light selection of “go-to” mixing plugins:
- Waves SSL E-Channel: my go-to channel strip for adding EQ and compression to channels, especially in the early stages of the mix. I'll do my best to get the entire balance with faders, pan pots and simply moves with the E-Channel's parametric EQ and compressor.
- Logic Channel EQ: quick and easy for gentle cuts and boosts, plus it automatically creates an EQ thumbnail at the top of each channel in the mixer.
- FabFilter Pro-Q 3: a fantastic fully parametric EQ with natural, minimum and linear phase options along with the ability for dynamic EQ. It's pretty much all I need.
- Plugin Alliance Mäag EQ4: I'll sometimes reach for this to add the coveted “air band” to lead vocals, but that's pretty much it.
Compressors And Dynamics
- Logic Compressor: has a wide variety of emulations from different compressor types (digital, FET, VCA, opto). This is my all-around compressor and the one I normally reach for for sidechain compression. Like the Channel EQ, it also offers a thumbnail on the mixer channel to denote the gain reduction applied.
- Waves CLA-76: I like this 1176 emulation for snares, rooms, vocals, and parallel compression, especially to really slam them.
- Waves SSL G-Master Buss Compressor: my go-to stereo compressor for subgroups and the mix bus.
- Xfer Records OTT: a free over-the-top compression plugins for crushing whatever needs crushing.
- Waves L1 Ultramaximizer: a “lightweight” limiter (doesn't use many resources) I use within the mix to either control peaks or really create consistent levels. Love it on bass, drums and vocals.
- FabFilter Pro-L 2: My mastering limiter, complete with pretty much everything I need to maximize the loudness of the mix/master.
- Waves De-esser: an easy-to-use de-esser that sounds great on vocals.
- Logic Pro Noise Gate: an easy-to-use noise gate that's also lightweight.
- KiloHearts Transient Shaper: an awesome free transient shaper plugin.
- Plugin Alliance SPL Transient Designer Plus: an awesome paid transient shaper plugin.
- FabFilter Pro-MB: for when I need multiband compression (which admittedly isn't very often).
Saturation/Distortion And Amp Simulations
- FabFilter Saturn 2: a super-powerful saturation plugin that I can dial in to get extra harmonic character and presence out of my tracks.
- Soundtoys Decapitator: a classic saturation plugin with a few different emulations I can reach for for quick character enhancement.
- Soundtoys Devil Loc Deluxe: a bit of a heavy-handed distortion, but it works when I need something quick.
- SIR Audio Tool StandardCLIP: my go-to clipping plugin for soft or hard clipping.
- Neural DSP Archetype: Nolly: pretty much everything I need in terms of a great guitar amp sim (for electric guitar and many other tracks).
- Neural DSP Darkglass Ultra: pretty much everything I need to give more grit to bass guitar (and other elements).
- Logic Stereo Delay: everything I need in a digital stereo delay.
- Logic Tape Delay: a super-easy-to-use tape-style delay.
- Soundtoys EchoBoy: if I'm looking for a specific emulation or some more in-plugin customization.
- Logic Space Designer: the stock convolution reverb (you only need one), that works incredibly well within Logic.
- Soundtoys Little Plate: simple and awesome EMT-140 emulation.
- Softube Spring Reverb: I'll use this on guitar reverb returns from time to time.
Other Effects And Processes
- Logic Gain: I use this simple utility plugin to gain stage before every mix. I also use it to flip polarities of signals when need be and to adjust levels at certain points in the signal chain (channel inserts) or for making small tweaks after fader automation has been set.
- Celemony Melodyne: my preferred tuning plugin/software.
- Synchro Arts VocAlign: for fast and easy time-alignment of vocals and more.
- Waves Doubler: for pseudo doubling effects and widening parts of the mix.
- Xfer Records LFO Tool: for quickly dialling in pumping that would otherwise take longer with sidechain compression.
I have a video going deeper into my personal favourite plugins that you can check out below if you're interested:
Push The Limits Of Your Tools (And Split The Difference)
When struggling to find the correct fader position for a given track, I like to employ the strategy of pushing the fader to point that is obviously too loud, followed by a point that is obviously too low, and then splitting the difference. It doesn't always work out in the end, but it's a worthwhile default strategy when going through the mix.
Why not apply that to our plugins as well? If we're struggling to decide on at the proper settings for our processing, we can try pushing the parameter in question to a point where it's obviously too much, then dialling it back to a point where it's not really what we want either (we can A/B against the original to get a better sense), and then split the difference.
Additionally, while I often say that “mixing is a game of inches”, it's often not ideal to use our processing subtly (at least in the mix; mastering can be much more subtle). Rather, I mean that a great mix is made up of many small, optimizing decisions.
And therefore, we shouldn't be too conservative with our processing, especially at the level of individual tracks. A 0.5 dB cut at 200 Hz on the bass guitar is unlikely to make an audible difference in the mix.
Be bold with your processing and don't be afraid of pushing things “too far”. It's often in pushing and then pulling things back that we can make the best decisions for the mix at hand.
Think Subtractive Instead Of Additive
Here, I'm not talking about equalization (although this isn't bad EQ advice either). Rather, I'm talking about avoiding over-processing.
You may find yourself at a point with a track, an effects return, a subgroup, or even the mix itself, where you've spent a lot time, applied a lot of processing, and still aren't getting close to your ideal mix. At the point, adding more processing is unlikely to help your situation.
Rather, it's often the case that removing processing will make the mix better. That doesn't necessarily mean starting over from scratch (though sometimes that's the best option), but it does mean taking away plugins to refocus on decisions that actually help the mix.
Remember the saying “garbage in: garbage out”, which refers to the fact that bad recordings are difficult to mix to a professional standard. That's not an excuse not to try, but it is a fundamental aspect of music production.
On the flip side, every process we run our audio tracks through takes away from their original clarity, thereby “degrading” them from what they once were (especially if there's inherent noise in the processor). Looking at things this way, it's certainly the case that more processing is unlikely to fix problems caused primarily by past processing.
So keep things simple to help make simpler decisions and, ultimately, cleaner mixes.
Seek Constructive Feedback
Asking for and receiving feedback on your mixes can help give new perspectives to your work.
Feedback provided by fresh ears and people you can trust to tell you the good and the bad can help point out your good and not-so-good mixing decisions.
Of course, it's important to take feedback appropriately. While some feedback will be fairly objective, a lot of it will be subjective. Either way, we can learn about how our decisions affect listeners by asking for feedback and developing an idea of what works and what doesn't for our future mixing decisions.
If you're interested in what I think of your mix, I do offer a mix feedback service, which you can check out at my Services page if you're interested.
Use Your Ears, Not Your Eyes
This one's a cliché at this point, but I couldn't resist adding it.
To make better decisions, consult your ears as much as possible and try not to rely on your eyes and the many analyzers available in modern DAWs.
After all, the end listener will be listening to your mix, not watching it.
Here are two strategies to help you rely on your ears more:
- Choose plugins that offer no or little visual feedback. For example, the aforementioned Waves SSL E-Channel EQ doesn't have any type of analyzer, which can force us to use our ears when making EQ decisions.
- Close your eyes when A/B testing with level-matched plugins and start from a point where you don't know whether the plugin is on or off (or which setting is live within the plugin).
Additionally, you can exercise your critical listening skills to improve your decision making in the mix. One resource I love using for this is SoundGym.
Call To Action
If you're already applying each of these tips, then I applaud you! If not, choose the one you aren't incorporating into your decision making that intrigues you the most and start considering it in your next mix.
Once you master that tip, move onto the next until you've gotten everything from this article that makes sense for your mixes. Take notes or return to this article at any time for a refresher.
New To Mixing? Check Out My FREE In-Depth Article:
Make the right decisions at the right times to craft professional mixes!
How can I develop my “ear” for mixing? To develop your ear for mixing, regularly practice critical listening, compare/reference your mixes with professional tracks, experiment with various techniques, and seek feedback. Consistent exposure to different genres and mixing styles is also crucial.
What are common mixing mistakes to avoid? Common mixing mistakes include overusing effects, neglecting gain staging, over-compressing, making imbalanced EQ choices, ignoring mono compatibility, not checking the mix on different systems, and failing to maintain headroom for mastering.
Have any thoughts, questions or concerns? I invite you to add them to the comment section below! I'd love to hear your insights and inquiries and will do my best to add to the conversation. Thanks!
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