When we're first starting to learn how to mix, we can be overwhelmed with different concepts, strategies, tips and techniques. Even learning the fundamentals can be a bit confusing when we try to think about mixing holistically. So, then, it's important to periodically consider when the main, overarching goal of mixing is so that we can reference everything we learn against this singular objective.
What is the goal of mixing? The goal of mixing is to achieve the optimal balance of a recorded song that maximizes that song’s impact on the end listener. In other words, our job as mixers is to understand the song from an emotional level and to have the technical abilities to enhance that emotion for the listener.
Of course, our personal goals or the goals of the artist will vary from mix to mix, but in my opinion, the above statement holds true for every mix. Be sure to exercise both your subjectivity and objectivity during the mix. Remember that mixing is both creative and technical work.
In this article, I'll expand on what I believe to be the main overarching goal of mixing and touch on how our processes tie into this goal.
I did a video a while back discussing my thoughts on the goal of mixing if you're interested:
The Goal Of Mixing
The goal of mixing, as I would define it, is to achieve the optimal balance of a recorded song that maximizes that song’s impact on the end listener.
Presented with the raw multitracks of a [hopefully] well-recorded and well-produced song, it's our goal as mixing engineers to balance the tracks in a way that serves the song and yields the best-sounding result.
It's about understanding the song itself and the vision the artist and producer have for the song and having the technical prowess to make that happen in the mix. That's the goal.
Now, those of us interested in music production and mixing are likely creative people. Mixing is certainly a creative aspect of music production, especially when it comes to troubleshooting issues to make everything fit together in the mix. However, it's sometimes the case that we need to check our egos and focus on serving the song — this is especially true when mix revision notes come back from the client.
We should be aiming to mix the song as if it's the final product that will be heard around the world. Yes, mastering can do a lot to enhance the final product, but it can't mix the song for us. We need to get the right emotional impact and balance of elements right in the mix before we can confidently finalize the mix.
I teach a lot of the technical aspects of mixing because they're easier (though not simple) to teach. However, a big part of our job as mixers is to have the right taste first and then have the skills to bring that vibe, energy, emotion, etc., into the mix. This is especially important if and when you put yourself out there as a mixer for hire — your selling point will be your taste. There's a certain bar you need to pass in terms of technical proficiency, but past a certain point, people don't care — what they want is your taste.
So to repeat it once again: the goal of mixing is to achieve the optimal balance of a recorded song that maximizes that song’s impact on the end listener.
What Mixing Is Not
I love producing music and teaching music production, and there's a lot to know. However, in some cases, the things we learn and implement in our work can distract us from what's the most important in the mix. So in this section, I want to touch on a few points that are close to, but ultimately not, what mixing is all about.
Mixing is not necessarily about hearing every single element clearly all the time. We need contrast in our mix elements to have a sense of dimensionality. Not every track deserves to be heard clearly, though we may believe this to be the case when learning about the power of EQ. If everything is mixed up from and centre, then nothing will stand out, so beware of spending too much time attempting to make every single element clearly audible at all times. The exception to this would be in sparser mixes like singer-songwriter material with a single vocal and acoustic guitar, but in denser mixes, we don't need everything loud and clear.
Mixing is not about using the most advanced techniques. Yes, advanced techniques are important to know, but only if we're using them in a way that helps us achieve the maximal impact on the end listener. Using advanced techniques for the sake of it will use up our precious time and energy in the mix and will often lead to worse results than keeping things simple, to begin with.
Mixing is not about making the song as loud as possible. Loudness maximization is a process for mastering, but even still, it's important not to sacrifice dynamics for the sake of loudness if those dynamics are important to the sound of the song. Note that some genres can be pushed a bit harder than others in terms of compression and loudness.
Mixing is not about making any individual track sound perfect in solo. A great mix is made up of imperfect parts. Spending time perfecting tracks in solo will often backfire when it comes to mixing them all together, as they'll all be competing for important space, loudness and frequency content within the mix. No one's going to hear the individual tracks (even if they get their hands on the multitracks, which are typically offered without mix processing), so there's no sense in worsening the mix to make these individual tracks sound perfect on their own.
Mixing is not about using presets and cookie-cutter processing. Yes, I do highly recommend finding a consistent workflow and setting up your mix sessions as similarly as possible, but that's for improving our mix methodology and our interface with our DAW (assuming we're using a digital audio workstation). When it comes to actually mixing, we should realize that every mix is different and will call for different processing. There's no one-size-fits-all approach for mixing, which is a big part of the fun and also the difficulty in becoming proficient. Make as much as you can the same from mix session to mix session, but know that every mix will require different processing.
Balancing Is The Top Priority In Mixing
The most important part of a mix is the relative levels between tracks and how they interact with one another. Compression, EQ, effects, etc., are secondary to getting the balance of levels right (though they certainly help with balancing).
I'd argue that over 80% of mixing is just getting the right balance across the entirety of mix. This is done primarily with faders and pan pots (level balancing and balancing across the stereo panorama).
In terms of level balancing, we often learn that a 6 dB difference is a doubling or halving of energy, which is correct. Additionally, a 3 dB difference is a doubling or halving of power.
However, the way we perceive sound and loudness is much more complicated, and at most frequencies, it’s actually a 10 dB difference that accounts for a doubling or halving of perceived loudness.
Louder tracks will be perceived as being closer and more prominent in the mix.
In terms of panning, in stereo mixes, we have the left channel and the right channel. Panning elements around the stereo panorama will give us separation and a sense of width in the mix.
Centre-panned elements will have equal energy in the left and right channels and will sound more solid in the mix, especially if the mix is ever summed to mono. Elements panned off-centre will sound directional but won't be as powerful during playback.
In addition to the balance of levels and pan positions, we should also become familiar with the idea of dimensionality in the mix. Just like in the real world, I like to think of the mix as having 3 dimensions:
- Height: the frequency content of the mix, notably the difference between the lowest and highest frequency and the content in between these two points.
- Width: the stereo information of the mix, notably the difference between the most left-panned and most right-panned element and the content in between these two points.
- Depth: the perceived depth of the mix, notably the difference between the most upfront element and the most pushed-back element and the content between these two points.
If we can get a strong balance in all of these aspects throughout the entirety of the mix, we can be sure that our mix sounds great. I'll be referencing these concepts throughout the rest of this article.
Related My New Microphone articles:
• Audio: What Are Faders? (Mixers, Graphic EQ & More)
• What Is Panning In Mixing And Music Production?
• What Does Summing To Mono Mean? (Audio & Mixing)
How EQ Helps Us Achieve The Goal Of Mixing
Mixing is primarily about balance, and EQ can be thought of as a frequency-dependent level balancing tool.
With EQ, we can boost or cut certain frequency bands, which effectively alters the balance of such bands and the overall balance of the mix.
EQ is a primary tool for adjusting the height of our tracks and, therefore, the height of the mix. We can really clear out space in the low-end, top-end and midrange frequencies for the tracks that serve those bands the best.
EQ is also an important tool for adjusting the perceived depth of our tracks and effects, notably in the high-end.
High frequencies (with short wavelengths) are naturally absorbed by the media they travel through (notably air) much more than their lower counterparts. Therefore, if we move further away from a sound source, we will hear less of that sound source's top end relative to its bottom end and midrange.
With that, we can use high-shelf filters, low-pass filters, and bell-type filters to adjust the high-frequency content of our tracks. Boosting the top end can make tracks sound closer to the listener, while cutting the top end can make them sound more distant.
I write about EQ in great detail in my ebook ‘Mixing With Equalization'.
How Compression Helps Us Achieve The Goal Of Mixing
Once again, mixing is primarily about balance, and compression can be thought of as an “automatic” or dynamic level balancing tool.
To simplify quite dramatically, compression effectively reduced the output of a signal as that signal level surpasses a set threshold and allows the input-to-output ratio to return to 1:1 as the signal level drops below the set threshold.
Of course, there's a lot more to know about compression and its inner workings, but this simple description makes the point that compression can be an invaluable tool for helping us reach out mixing goals.
Compression is an interesting one because, on one hand, it can make tracks that are already mixed “close” to the listener sound more upfront in the mix (notable on many pop vocals) while also making tracks that are already mixed “further” from the listener sound more distant.
Stereo compression, like mix bus and subgroup compression, can bring up the sides information relative to the mid information (because the mids typically have more energy and therefore trigger the compressor). This can help increase the sense of width in the mix.
I write about compression in great detail in my ebook ‘Mixing With Compression'.
How Saturation Helps Us Achieve The Goal Of Mixing
Saturation is an audio effect that essentially combines 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 while also gently reducing the signal’s dynamic range.
In terms of tying into the overarching goal of mixing, saturation's harmonic generation effect helps us balance the frequency content of our tracks, particularly in the midrange, and its soft-knee compression effect helps us balance levels.
We can think of saturation similarly to how EQ boosts and compression can help us balance the mix.
I write about saturation in great detail in my ebook ‘Mixing With Saturation'.
How Delay Helps Us Achieve The Goal Of Mixing
Delay is one of the time-based effects that we can use to enhance the sense of space in the mix. Notably, delay can help give us a sense of depth by giving elements a bit of echo, approximating real acoustic spaces with real reflective boundaries. Stereo delay (or panned mono delay) can help enhance the sense of width.
I write about delay in great detail in my ebook ‘Mixing With Delay'.
How Reverb Helps Us Achieve The Goal Of Mixing
Reverb is the other main time of time-based effect and is the primary tool for width and depth in the mix. Reverb effects aim, in many instances, to recreate the sense of a real acoustic space, and are invaluable tools in achieving our goals in mixing.
I write about reverb in great detail in my ebook ‘Mixing With Reverb'.
How Automation Helps Us Achieve The Goal Of Mixing
Automation refers to the automatic adjusting of parameters and switches during the playback of the mix. Common automated parameters include volume faders, pan pots, insert bypass (on/off) switches and mute buttons, and EQ filters, but virtually any parameter within the mix can be automated to our liking.
Remember that mixing is largely about achieving balance throughout the entirety of the song. Music is about sound changing over time, and a static mix likely won't cut it for all sections of the song. That's where automation comes in, allowing us to dial in the parameters (notably the faders) as we see fit to ensure we have an ideal balance throughout the entirety of the song.
I write about automation in great detail in my ebook ‘Mixing With Automation'.
What is the goal of mastering? The goal of mastering is to optimize the sound quality of a mix and to balance that song appropriately with other mixes (in the same album, for example). Mastering is often about enhancing the technical aspects of a mix, such as loudness, width and mono compatibility, and overall fidelity.
What is the role of a music producer? A music producer's role is to bring an artist's vision of their work onto record. Music producers often guide musicians to get the best performances possible, add their own musical touch to the record, and either delegate or do the work of the mixing/mastering engineer or even the artist themselves.