Want to mix like the pros but don't know where to start? I struggled for years, trying different techniques to improve my mixes. Eventually, I did become a professional audio engineer and really had to hone my mixing skills. Today, I want to share 22 tips to help you get to professional mixes, too!
Here are the top 22 tips to make your mixes sound professional:
- Gain Staging
- Use Buses
- Focus On Width, Depth & Height
- Focus On Balance
- Focus On Contrast
- Serial Compression
- Parallel Compression
- Band-Pass Filtering
- Surgical EQ On Resonances
- Use Saturation & Distortion
- Maintain Low-End Clarity
- Pan Tracks Appropriately
- Use Stereo Widening
- De-Ess Vocals
- Use Delay & Reverb For Depth
- Use Delay For Doubling
- Correct Phase Issues
- Focus On The Hierarchy Of Importance In The Arrangement
- Use Automation
- Use More Than One Limiter
- Use Reference Tracks
- Be Neutral In The Loudness War
In this article, we'll touch on each of these tips in more detail. Pick and choose the ones that stand out to you and improve your mixes today!
Good signal flow is essential for a great mix, and gain staging is the basis of good signal flow.
Gain staging is the process of setting the audio gain to an optimal level for the next processor in the chain.
At the extremes, proper gain staging prevents noise by ensuring the signal is strong enough while preventing overload/clipping by ensuring the signal isn't too strong.
Using proper gain staging is super important in dynamic processing like compressors and limiters, where thresholds are set. Now, typically we can adjust the threshold to react to the signal level. However, proper gain staging ensures we're in a good range for such threshold settings.
Gain staging should be kept top of mind when any volume automation is used. Ask yourself how adjusting the volume will affect any of the processes post-fader.
Additionally, consider the gain staging at each individual track and each bus.
This is why it's important to get a good working balance between all the tracks in a mix before inserting too many plugins. Changing gain on the fly can have a huge impact on how the processors/effects/inserts affect the sound!
An audio bus is a separate track or signal path used to sum individual tracks/audio signal paths together.
The simplest example is the “mix bus”, where all the tracks are eventually routed to. The mix bus is ultimately sent to the outputs.
Within the mix, though, we could have the following (as a few examples):
- a double-tracked guitar (two tracks) summed to a “guitar bus”
- all the background vocals (multiple tracks) summed to a “background vocals bus”
- all the drum mics (kick, snare, toms, hats, overheads, etc. tracks) summed to a “drum bus”
Each individual track could have its own processing, and this processed signal would then be routed to the bus for further processing.
Bus processing allows us to use fewer inserts/plugins to affect the sound.
But more importantly, it gives a better sense of cohesion between similar elements because all the tracks within the bus are being processed by the same inserts/plugins.
Focus On Width, Depth & Height
We naturally hear sound in three-dimensional space. A proper mix should also have three dimensions:
- Width: to the differences between the left and right channels and the perceived soundstage from left to right stereo field.
- Depth: the virtual separating of elements based on the perceived distance from the listener.
- Height: the range of frequencies, from high to low, that are present in the mix.
Of course, a mix doesn't have to be maximally wide, deep and tall. However, these dimensions should always be in the back of our minds as we mix.
Width is largely influenced by panning individual tracks and stereo effects (delay, modulation, reverb). Doubled instruments and vocals, when panned, can create notable width.
Depth is largely influenced by relative levels and reverb (particularly by the reverb time and early reflections parameters). EQ in the top-end also plays a role in perceived depth (brighter translates as closer while duller translates as further).
Heigh is largely influenced by arrangement but also by EQ.
Focus On Balance
This is Mixing 101.
Get a solid balance between the individual tracks before you do anything else in the mix. It's the foundation of a good mix.
A mentor once told me mixing is 90% about balance and 10% remembering it's about balance. There are so many production techniques and mixing tricks to be aware of, but the bulk of our results come from getting a proper balance between all elements.
Not only do we get a great sounding mix by getting the balance right at the beginning, but we also set the initial gain staging so that we won't have to re-balance with processors (plugins/inserts) later.
Focus On Contrast
Although the term “mixing” gives us the sense of everything blending together, it's also important to consider the contrast between elements in the mix.
Bring out the differences between elements to give extra sonic interest.
Give some thought as to how you can process similar sounds differently to provide some differentiation between them (EQ, panning, and effect parameter adjustments are all worth considering to produce some contrast.
As the name suggests, serial compression is the process of sending a signal through multiple compressors, one after another.
Serial compression is a fantastic way to apply more compression without the drawbacks of overcompression with a single compressor (pumping, artifacts, etc.).
Compression is one of several essentials discussed in my article Essential Processors/Processes For Mixing Music & Audio.
Serial compression also allows us to get more perceived volume as we gently squeeze the dynamic range and bring up the lowest levels. This is an effective strategy for getting LUFS levels up in the mix bus.
Serial compression could be set up as two compressor plugins inserted on a single track, a compressor on each track and subsequent bus, or any other scenario where a signal path contains two or more compressors.
Another benefit of serial compression is that we can utilize different compressor types to “colour” our signals differently. The various compressor types (gain reduction circuit types) act and sound differently, so using them in series can yield interesting results as they impart their sonic signature on the signal.
As the name suggests, parallel compression (also referred to as “New York” or “Manhatten” compression) is a parallel processing technique.
A track (or multiple tracks) is sent to a parallel bus (so that they're effectively doubled—the original tracks are still outputted through the mix bus).
The parallel bus is then compressed heavily (high ratio and low threshold) so that there's a massive amount of gain reduction (20 dB is a good starting point). The attack and release are adjusted to taste, though the dynamics are largely squashed.
The overcompressed bus is then mixed in under the original tracks, thickening up the sound.
This mixing/production technique can make drums sound massive!
Interested in the top compressor plugins? Check out the resources below:
• Top 11 Best Digital Compressor Plugins
• Top 11 Best FET Compressor Emulation Plugins
• Top 10 Best Multi-band Compressor Plugins
• Top 10 Best Optical Compressor Emulation Plugins
• Top 11 Best Variable-Mu Compressor Emulation Plugins
• Top 11 Best VCA Compressor Emulation Plugins
Though the audible range of human hearing is universally accepted as 20 Hz to 20,000 Hz, we're really not sensitive to the extreme high or low-end frequencies.
The low-end sub-bass frequencies are particularly tricky, as they're mostly low-end rumble. High-pass filtering such frequencies will help reduce such inharmonic noise.
Furthermore, low-end frequencies require a lot more energy to be heard. Removing such energy-heavy (but nearly imperceptible) frequencies will give us more overall headroom in the mix.
But this isn't only about high-pass filtering.
The very high-end of the frequency range can also cause issues of over-brilliance if there's too much going on.
Try low-passing some elements in the high-end to reduce the brilliance if the mix is too bright. Opt for particularly harsh elements or elements that belong further back in the mix (see the section on depth).
Better yet, consider a band-pass filter for the sources that require this low-pass and high-pass filtering.
Of course, there are no hard rules for this. Adjust to taste.
Bonus tip: try putting a band-pass filter on the mix bus from 200 Hz to 6,000 Hz to simulate listening to the mix through phone speakers. This range is super-important for translatability in the mix, so pay attention to balance when this filter is engaged. Don't only mix with this filter on. Be sure to alternate between the full spectrum and this shortened range.
To learn more about band-pass, high-pass and low-pass filters, check out the following My New Microphone articles:
• Audio EQ: What Is A Band-Pass Filter & How Do BPFs Work?
• Audio EQ: What Is A High-Pass Filter & How Do HPFs Work?
• Audio EQ: What Is A Low-Pass Filter & How Do LPFs Work?
Surgical EQ On Resonances
Resonance, in acoustics, is the building up of particular frequencies within an acoustic environment, typically due to the dimensions of the room being equal to a fundamental frequencies' wavelengths.
In simple terms, resonances in sound create unnatural amplification of certain frequencies.
This translates directly to audio. Sometimes our recordings, samples, or programmed sounds have rather nasty resonance peaks that can make the sound muddy, boxy, harsh, sibilant, or overly bright, depending on the specific frequencies.
Narrow band-stop/notch filters (or heavy bell filter cutting) can be used to surgically target these resonant frequencies and pull them from the audio. This works wonders in removing resonant frequencies and cleaning up the track and overall mix.
To learn more about band-stop filters, check out my article Audio EQ: What Is A Band-Stop Filter & How Do BSFs Work?
Use Saturation & Distortion
Distortion often gets a bad wrap in digital audio. Of course, digital clipping distortion is best to avoid (unless for special effect).
However, distortion is simply any alteration in the waveform between an input and output. These changes in the waveform create additional frequencies in the overall sound.
Saturation is a subtle form of distortion that adds pleasant-sounding harmonics.
Saturation and distortion are inherent in analog equipment, from tape to tubes, transistors to circuits, and even in cables (to some extent). It's been part of recorded music for years and has a wonderful warmth when used correctly.
So use distortion and saturation to taste. We can get results ranging from subtle warmth to all-out signal mangling. It's a balancing game.
Furthermore, distorting bass-heavy sources has the effect of enhancing the upper harmonics and providing a greater perceived level (our ears are much more sensitive to mid-range frequencies than bass and sub-bass frequencies).
Maintain Low-End Clarity
This tip ties into the section on band-pass filtering, where I stated the importance of eliminating low-end noise and rumble.
Maintaining clarity in the low-end is essential for the overall health of the mix.
First, the low-end requires a lot of energy. Clutter in the low-end, whether from harmonics elements like bass instruments, kick drums, or noise/rumble, will eat up headroom and take away from a mix's perceived loudness.
Clarity in the low-end, like any other frequency range, is also an essential part of a good mix because it's paramount that the listener can hear the important elements of the song.
There are a few tips for maintaining low-end clarity.
The first tip is to high-pass filter all noise out of the bass and sub-bass ranges. What this means is that we pretty much HPF everything around or above 100 Hz except for the bass elements (bass guitar, bass synth, kick drum, etc.).
The next is to use EQ to “mirror” the bass elements. For example, find the fundamental frequency of the kick drum and the sweet spot frequency range for the low-end of the bass guitar. Boost the fundamental range of the kick while cutting the same range on the bass. Likewise, boost the strong frequencies of the bass guitar and cut the same range on the kick.
Finally, sidechain compression can help tremendously with low-end clarity. To keep with our bass guitar and kick example, have the bass's compressor sidechained by the kick so that the bass is ducked slightly every time the kick hits. This will help the kick punch through the mix while keeping the bass at an adequate level between kick attacks. Use this technique subtly for the most natural results.
To learn more about EQ and sidechain compression, check out the following My New Microphone articles:
• Complete Guide To Audio Equalization & EQ Hardware/Software
• The Complete Guide To Sidechain Compression In Audio
Pan Tracks Appropriately
Balancing levels is essential for a great mix, which includes balancing the levels between the left and right channels in stereo mixes.
Panning tracks is a creative art, but there are a few rules of thumb to be aware of.
Pan bass frequencies to the centre. Bass is naturally omnidirectional (not directional), so panning low-end information will sound unbalanced and unnatural.
Pan doubled instruments to opposite sides for width.
Do your best to maintain the balance of levels between the right and left channels throughout the bulk of the mix.
Use Stereo Widening
Piggybacking on the importance of panning and stereo width, we should discuss stereo widening. As the name suggests, it's a process of widening the stereo image.
Widening is generally done by producing differences between the right and left channel waveforms. This can be done in production by double-tracking and hard-panning elements and can be achieved in a variety of ways in the mix, including (but not limited to):
- Doubling, hard-panning in opposite sides and altering EQ
- Doubling, hard-panning in opposite sides and altering pitch
- Doubling, hard-panning in opposite sides and altering time/phase
- Doubling, hard-panning in opposite sides and altering distortion/saturation
Alternatively, there are dedicated stereo widener plugins (link to check them out at Plugin Boutique) that are worth considering to give your mix extra width.
De-essing is a technique used to reduce the sibilance, or “esses,” of an audio signal (often a vocal track).
There are multiple technical methods of achieving de-essing, including multi-band compression, sidechain compression, dynamic EQ, and more. All techniques, however, aim to reduce the level of the signal (particularly in the sibilance range around 4-6 kHz) when the sibilance is too high/harsh.
Using proper de-essing is a surefire way to make your mixes sound more professional and less harsh.
There are plenty of dedicated de-esser plugins (link to check them out at Plugin Boutique) worth checking out!
Use Delay & Reverb For Depth
As mentioned before, depth is one of the key dimensions in a mix.
Reverb is one of the best methods of achieving depth in a mix (based on reverb time and initial reflections).
Delay can also mimic initial reflections and give a track a sense of depth, especially when the high-end EQ slowly fades (as is the case with BBD analog delays).
Use reverb and delay for dimensionality (especially depth) in your mixes. Experiment with individual track inserts and dedicated delay and reverb sends/buses. Apply to taste.
Interested in the top delay and reverb plugins? Check out the resources below:
• Top 10 Best Analog Delay Emulation Plugins
• Top 10 Best Digital Delay Plugins
• Top 10 Best Tape Delay Emulation Plugins
• Top 12 Best Reverb Plugins (Spring, Plate, Algorithmic, Convolution)
Use Delay For Doubling
Stereo slapback delay with relatively short delay times can give a greater sense of depth to a mix without the need for doubling.
If you can't double-track an instrument and aren't interested in the “double, hard-pan and effect” techniques mentioned above, give delay a shot.
Delay can thicken a sound and give it the sense of doubling. Try panning the track to one side and having the delay on the other for added width and interest.
Correct Phase Issues
Phase issues are often the silent killers of an otherwise great mix.
If you feel the mix is lacking, especially in the low-end, there could be phase issues at play. Phase issues can be exacerbated by clutter in the mix but can happen any time two or more audio signals are out-of-phase with one another.
If you're layering/stacking samples, have a look at their waveforms, one on top of the other, to see if the phase matches up constructively or deconstructively.
Utilize a phase switch function to flip the phase of one channel. The mix should immediately sound worse if there's a strong phase correlation. If the mix sounds roughly the same or better, there are phase issues to be solved.
Focus On The Hierarchy Of Importance In The Arrangement
More often than not it's the vocal, or the lead instrument that is the main element of the arrangement. It can also be the kick drum in some electronic genres of music. Be sure to give this element special attention to make it the centrepiece of the mix.
Next, consider the supporting elements and treat them as such, having them well represented in the mix with ample space. However, be careful to mix them in a way that doesn't cause too much competition, especially with the lead elements.
Now, in terms of the arrangement, consider making it dynamic by dropping and raising levels of certain elements in certain sections. Which part is the climax of the song? Which parts of the song break down and which ones build? Ask yourself these questions and mix accordingly.
Related article: What Are The Differences Between Audio Mixing & Producing?
Static mixes are boring. Professionals use automation to make a track breath, where that's for individual elements or entire sections of the song.
Use automation to build between sections and enhance certain sections (the chorus could use an extra dB or two, for example). Automate individual elements to allow them extra space within the greater context of the mix.
Use More Than One Limiter
This is similar to our conversation on serial compression but is perhaps even more important, considering the use of limiters on mix and master buses.
It's generally better to have two limiters with 2-3 dB of peak gain reduction than one limiter with 4-6 dB of peak gain reduction.
Limiters aren't absolutely perfect at limiting audio levels to a certain point. The audio level could potentially surpass the limit. Even if the limiter does cap the level perfectly, there are often unwanted artifacts and pumping that come as a result.
Therefore, using two subtle limiters can give us an additional layer of safety while also providing gentler limiting to the overall mix.
Interested in the top limiter plugins? Check out my article Top 10 Best Limiter Plugins.
Use Reference Tracks
Reference tracks are key. Find a professionally mixed track in the same or similar genre and reference your own mix against it.
We can get lost in our own world of mixing, especially if we're mixing the same track for a long period. Taking regular breaks and having a reference or two to compare our work against is a fantastic strategy for improving our results.
Be Neutral In The Loudness War
It's often beneficial to be neutral during conflict. The “loudness wars” are no exception.
The loudness war is a trend of increasing audio levels in recorded music, which is accomplished at the expense of dynamic range, damaged clarity (due to distortion) and reduced audio fidelity.
The goal of being the loudest isn't completely misdirected, as humans naturally like louder music (to a point). That's why we tend to turn up our favourite songs when we're listening!
But this competition isn't necessarily worth winning. It's best to get a strong level (the best mastering level for streaming is an integrated -14 LUFS) so that our mixes aren't too quiet compared to standard mixing. However, it's best to preserve some life in the mix by not overcompressing and distorting our mixes for the sake of a few extra dB.
That said, if you want to produce louder mixes, be sure to check out My New Microphone's Top 12 Professional Tips To Make Audio Mixes Louder.