Mixing is a creative art form, and while sometimes creativity is stifled by over-organization, I strongly believe that following a consistent workflow will allow us even more opportunities to be creative in our mixing endeavours.
So then, what are the step-by-step actions we should take when mixing, generally speaking? They are as follows:
- Prepare, organize and route the mix session
- Get the initial balance
- Process and refine
- Automate and add special production effects/techniques
- Finalize the mix
We'll go over each of these general steps in this article. However, if you want a deeper dive into this workflow (and much more), I'd recommend downloading a free copy of my Mixing Guidebook here!
So get that guidebook downloaded, and let's get into this article to go over the broad steps of the mixing process. Note that there is tremendous room for creativity within each of these general steps, though they're important to get right in a broad sense.
Step 1: Prepare, Organize And Route The Mix Session
I cannot overstate how important this first step is in mixing. Getting everything organized sets us up for success throughout the rest of the mix.
I think it's so important that I wrote an entire ebook on the subject, aptly titled ‘Preparing The Mix'. It's volume 1 of my 9-part ‘Mixing With' series, and you can check it out here.
So before we ever start moving faders, we should go through the following action steps:
Order the tracks in an order that's familiar to you. For example, I consistently put all my drum tracks at the top, followed by bass, guitar, keys, synths, horns, other instruments, special effects, lead vocals, and background vocals.
Going a level deeper, I'll have my drums laid out in the order of kick(s), snare(s), tom(s), hi-hats, overheads, other cymbal close mics, auxiliary percussion, and room(s). Similarly, I'll put the rhythm guitar(s) before the lead guitar(s).
Because I regularly set up my track order the same way, it's easy for me to find a track I'm looking for while mixing.
Beyond the order, I'll also colour-code my tracks. Similar tracks will be subgrouped together via a common bus, and the subgroup and each track will share the same colour. I'll also put the subgroup track right after the selection of tracks feeding into it. My typical colour scheme is as follows:
- Drums (Red)
- Bass guitar/synth (Purple)
- Electric Guitar (Lighter Blue)
- Acoustic Guitar (Darker Blue)
- Keyboards/Piano (Orange)
- Horns (Yellow)
- Orchestral Elements (Gold)
- Synths (Pink)
- Lead Vocals (Darker Green)
- Background Vocals (Lighter Green)
Some DAWs allow you to go even further and add icons to the tracks if you'd like even more visual aid in finding the tracks within your sessions.
From there, I’ll check phase alignment and go through the process of gain staging each of my tracks.
If there are timing and tuning issues, I’ll either go back to the production session (if it’s my own music) or edit the timing and tuning in a separate session before bringing the tracks back into the mix session. I’m a big proponent of using dedicated mix sessions to avoid the distractions of tracking, editing and production sessions while mixing.
At this point, we can consider cleaning up our audio tracks a bit. Cut out regions of noise between vocal lines and other instruments, ensure audio files are crossfaded properly, and high-pass low-end rumble from tracks that would benefit from such processing.
As mentioned, I'll also route similar instruments (or groups of tracks that represent a single instrument) to their own subgroups. These subgroups are then bussed to the mix bus.
In addition to subgroups, I'll also set up auxiliary channels for my effects returns. Typically by the time I'm done with the steps above, I'll have a pretty good idea of the song and will set up my initial effects returns accordingly (without sending any tracks to them just yet).
Common effects returns I'll use include (with links to my videos for more information on the effects):
- Parallel compression (commonly fed into from drum shells or vocals).
- Parallel saturation (commonly fed into from lead instruments or vocals).
- Snare plate reverb (commonly fed into from the snare and tom tracks).
- Stereo delay (I like having 180 ms on one side and 220 ms on the other with no feedback).
- Mono delay (having a nice 1/4 mono delay with a bit of feedback can help anchor elements to the mix).
- Vocal delay (often made as a “dynamic delay” with sidechain compression afterward controlled by the lead vocal).
- Vocal reverb (often made as a “dynamic reverb” with sidechain compression afterward controlled by the lead vocal).
- Guitar verbs (often spring reverbs panned to the opposite side of the track(s) feeding them).
I'll sometimes add a few more effects returns throughout the mix. However, this gives me a great starting point to work from and helps me get into the flow without having to set up my standard effects returns while mixing.
If you're unsure about routing whatsoever, I'd encourage you to check out the following video I put together outlining the routing options we have in detail:
Now's a good time to mention the importance of mix templates when it comes to saving time. A lot of the actions mentioned above can be set up in a mix template, helping us to get our mix preparation, organization and routing done much more efficiently.
To learn more about the top benefits of mix templates, you can check out this video—and if you're a Logic Pro user, I have a made-for-you template you can download from that video!
Step 2: Get The Initial Balance
Next up is getting the initial balance using our primary tools of faders and pan pots. This is an essential step, as achieving a proper balance is the technical goal of mixing.
Much like Step 1, Step 2 is so important that it warranted its own ebook in the ‘Mixing With' series. The second volume is titled ‘Mixing With Faders And Pan Pots', and you can check it out here.
Although you can start from anywhere, I'd recommend starting with all the track faders down and developing consistency by beginning by pushing the faders of a particular group of instruments up first.
For example, you could start every mix by balancing the drums first, starting with the kick and snare before moving on to the rest of the kit. From there, you could move on to the bass, other instruments and finally, the vocals.
Alternatively, you could start with the vocals and move through a different order of instruments. My point is that developing a consistent workflow can help you move more naturally throughout the mix as you practice more and more.
I talk about getting the initial balance right in the following video:
Get a great static mix and make notes of issues you'll be addressing later in the mix. A bit of coarse volume automation can help maintain a solid balance in this step, though we'll get to more advanced automation shortly.
As an aside, it's also worth considering the section of the song to start with. I recommend beginning with the high point of the song with as many elements playing at once. Get a great balance there and it'll likely translate decently to the other regions (at least until we get to steps 3 and 4).
Step 3: Process And Refine
Alright, here's where we get into the bulk of the mixing process. We're going to process our tracks, subgroup and even mix bus, and take advantage of the effects sends we've set up (and will set up during this phase).
There is far too much to get into in this step, and there are no set rules on where to start with processing, so I'll briefly go over the 5 most important processes and add links to find more information on each here at My New Microphone:
- EQ: Equalization (EQ) is the process of adjusting the relative level balance between frequencies within an audio signal. This process increases or decreases the relative amplitudes of some frequency bands compared to other bands with filters, gain boosts and gain cuts.
- Compression: Compression is a dynamics processor, meaning it processes the dynamic range of a signal. More specifically, it reduces or “compresses” the dynamic range of the signal running through it.
- Saturation: Saturation is an audio effect fusing soft-knee/program-dependent compression with harmonic generation/distortion. It produces new harmonics and enhances pre-existing harmonics in a signal in a sonically pleasing way.
- Delay: Delay, as an audio effect, is the process of recording an input signal to a storage medium and playing it back (often along with the original signal) after a period of time.
- Reverb: Reverb, as an audio effect, recreates the natural result of reverberation, which happens when a sound wave hits a surface (or multiple surfaces) and reflects back to the listener at varying times and amplitudes. This process creates a complex echo that holds information about the physical space.
Step 4: Automate And Add Special Production Effects/Techniques
Automation can take a boring static mix to a professional-standard mix that engages the listener throughout the song.
Volume/fader movement is the most common parameter to automate, and we may have made some crude rebalancing moves in the session already.
However, now's the time to add excitement by pushing fills and embellishments, gaining even more control over the vocals, and even ducking certain issues you may not have been able to entirely fix in the processing stage.
Beyond volume automation, we can automate effect parameters and effect throws (where we automate the send level going to a particular return channel for a momentary effect). We can also automate the levels of effects, the overall depth, width and height of the song, the panning of elements, and much more.
Have some fun with automation, and make the mix exciting to listen to.
Automation is the topic of volume 8 of the ‘Mixing WIth Series'.
As for special effects, we have the aforementioned effects throws that rely on automation. However, we can also add audio effects to the mix, such as risers, reverse snares, bass drops, etc.
I put together a video discussing my top 11 automation tips, which you can check out below:
Step 5: Finalize The Mix
So we've gone through Steps 1-4. It's time to bounce our mixdown and be done with it.
But not so fast. Before we can finalize the mix, we need to know what exactly the specs are for our bouncedown. Are we sending the mix for mastering, and if so, what are the required deliverables for the mastering engineer? Are we “pseudo-mastering” our mix for loudness and calling it at that, and if so, what platforms are we sending it to?
Related article: The Complete Guide To Louder Mixes (11 Strategies)
It's important to know the technical specs of our mix before we finalize it.
But even before we complete the mix and wrap things up, it's worth taking it out of the studio and referencing it through multiple different playback systems to hear how it translates. Compare the mixdown against your reference(s) in the car, on earbuds, through a Bluetooth speaker, on a PA system, and anywhere else you regularly listen to music.
Make notes and re-adjust the mix as necessary.
Beyond your own due diligence here, there is also the aspect of sending the mix off to the client and receiving revision notes. It's important to address any revisions before the mix can be truly finalized.
I talk about this topic in great detail in ‘Finalizing The Mix', the ninth and final volume of the ‘Mixing With' series of ebooks that you can check out here.