How To Mix Music – Audio Mixing 101
Have you ever wondered who mixing engineers are? And how to mix music in general? Don’t you just tweak the volume knobs while acting like you know what you are doing? Alright, it’s a joke.
However, you should understand that mixing a track professionally can be as hard as making a beat and recording. Why? Let’s just dive right in!
What Is Audio Mixing?
It’s a process of blending different tracks together. Think of it as combining all the percussions, instruments, vocals, etc.
There are many processes and plugins to do this. The most popular ones would definitely be EQ and compression.
EQ is a process of changing the frequency balance of different components of a song.
Most plugins let you tweak the 20 Hz to 20 kHz range. This is the frequencies our ears are able to detect.
Compression is a process of changing the dynamic range between the highest and the lowest volumes parts.
Usually done by boosting the quietest parts and attenuating the loudest components.
Besides adjusting the levels and panning, some audio effects are usually added. For example, reverb and delay are often used to make the track more “present.”
A little introduction here.
The goal of mixing is to bring the best out of the multi-track recording in your DAW (digital audio workstation).
In other words, you want everything to be blended into a nice consistent volume track.
After that, you’d only have to master it.
It doesn’t matter how perfectly the instrument was tuned when recording or how expensive and high quality your microphone is, you still need to know how to mix.
If the input quality is already high, just imagine how much better it would sound after you carefully compress it, trim the unnecessary frequencies, and add a few effects.
Why Learn To Mix Yourself?
Honestly, you don’t have to. You can always pay someone to do this for you, no problem.
Why do people buy cars when they can just take a cab or a bus all the time? So they don’t have to wait for anybody and can go wherever they want anytime.
Same applies to mixing.
The mixing engineer will tell you it sounds amazing, but you find the high hats to be a little off. If you don’t know how to mix, you can’t do much about it.
And this will haunt you for the rest of your career.
Just kidding. But seriously, learn at least the basics, it’s not that hard.
Anyways, let’s start.
How To Choose Mixing Software?
Most DAWs already have mixers built in. You don’t need separate software. Some of them are better for mixing than others, but you can mix with almost any big digital audio workstation.
For example, Ableton is better when mixing than, let’s say, FL Studio, but the difference is minor. Other music production and mixing software include Pro Tools, Logic, Reaper, Cubase, and others.
Get To Know Your DAW
Don’t try to be all over the place at once. All music production software has their own pros and cons, and that’s your job to find your perfect workflow.
Switching from one to another just because you liked one YouTube video or you found out that your favourite DJ uses a different one is just a waste of time.
Stick to one and reap all the benefits it offers.
This will pay off in the long run.
How To Set Up The Mixing Session?
Even though some digital audio workstations have a bunch of presets that you can use, you still have to tweak them to get the desired results.
Sounds like a lot of work already.
The best bet would be to start creating your own templates and developing your mix style as you go.
Starting your mix from scratch lets you go over everything step-by-step as opposed to doing it the way someone else does it.
Name Each Track
You don’t have to name them if you only have four or five instruments in there. Most people also want to add busses, effects, etc.
It’s not a bad idea to start naming your tracks. A good habit to learn in the beginning, you know.
Colorcode If Necessary
A lot of producers like to separate different instrument categories from each other.
It’s a common practice to colour your drums, guitars, keyboards, vocals, pads, etc. It’s a lot easier to work with them after each category has its own colour.
What’s A Basic Mixing Workflow?
Each producer has his or her own techniques and tricks, but the fundamentals don’t usually change much.
Mix Before You Start Mixing
This statement does sound silly to an extent. However, there is a simple explanation for this, so don’t worry.
You have to think of how different elements of the track will sound together. Every sample may sound amazing by itself, but will it fit with the rest?
That’s something you should ask yourself.
If both the kick and the bass cover the same part of a frequency range, you’ll end up with both of them sounding pretty dull.
Cut frequencies and compress if necessary.
Also, note that some samples are louder than others to start with. Try to maintain similar volumes throughout the track, without any “ear-hurting” sounds.
Think about the big picture.
You want your music to sound a certain way and probably have a vision. Therefore, start mixing while making the beat and recording.
This will save you a lot of time in the long run as you won’t have to tweak it infinitely later during the mixing session.
Not a lot of beginners out there know how to use buses. And they get away with that just fine.
However, it’s necessary to understand at least what busses are and what is their purpose.
What’s A Buss In Music Production?
When you send a number of sounds to a track, you can tweak them all at once as opposed to doing them one by one.
Let’s look at drums, for example.
Applying some reverb, delay, and compression is very common when working with drums. If you have five instruments and no buss, you have to set the effects up five times on each of the drums.
Let’s say you did that, but you feel like there is too much delay. Well, now you have to go to every single drum and tweak the delay setting.
You just create more work for yourself.
With a bus, you can adjust the effects, volumes, and panning for all the sounds that are connected to the bus at once.
And if you feel like the kick needs more compression than the rest, feel free to go to its own mixing track and add another compressor.
Which Sounds To Send To The Bus?
There is no right and wrong here. Everything depends on your workflow.
The rule of thumb would be to avoid mixing different categories together. For example, vocals and keyboard. The soundwaves look different, and they take up different frequencies, so adjusting them all at once won’t sound good at all.
More common sense than anything.
Balance Everything In The Track
This step is a little hard for beginners to master. They either don’t do it enough or overdo it.
Balancing is essential in music production. You don’t want one element to clip and the other to barely be heard. Unless this is your intention, of course.
You do want your pads to be a little quieter than the main melody and the drums. However, balancing has to be done anyways.
Think About Headroom
Let’s say you are done the mixing and are about to send your track to be mastered to a professional engineer.
If there is no headroom and you’ve clipped almost every possible instrument, there is not much he can do.
Even after he does his best, if there was very little headroom left, you won’t hear a significant difference. You may ask for a refund or something, but mainly it was your fault.
Because you haven’t mixed the track properly in the first place!
Avoid all the issues by balancing your levels, and it’s that simple.
Is Panning Required?
Panning is very common when producing music. If everything were centred, the song would sound boring and dull.
Think of an orchestra.
Each instrument has its own “space.” If all the player would’ve not been placed strategically, the symphony won’t sound “right” anymore.
Same applies to panning the instruments in your mixer tab.
Pan your tracks to the left, to the right, and to the middle. The heavier ones sound the best near the centre, kick and bass samples for example.
Main vocals are usually centred with second vocals, and vocal snippets panned left and right along the track.
How’s Audio Processing Done?
Mixing is an art, and it takes hours and hours of hard work to master. Start from learning the three fundamentals of mixing which are equalization (EQ), compression, and reverb.
Why Using EQ?
Equalizers are mandatory on each track a.k.a. every instrument of the mixer. A lot of samples are already equalized pretty good, but you would usually want to tweak it to your liking.
Little note here.
Even though frequencies are divided into ranges, you would more often see them being called lows, mids, and highs. Pretty simple.
Also, a logarithmic scale is usually used when it comes to scales. So instead of going 1, then 2, then 3, you would go 1, then 10, 100, 1,000 and so on.
Don’t worry if you don’t get this.
Honestly, you don’t have to. It’s handy, but you don’t have to.
Anyways, the easiest place to start is high-pass and low-pass filters. When applying the filters, you set the limits for the sound signal.
Each instrument has its own frequency range, so you can’t just apply the same EQ settings for every drum. Kicks and bass are in the lower frequencies, while hi-hats and snares are more in the mids and highs.
If you apply an EQ filter to the percussions’ buss track, you will high likely mess everything up, as each drum has its own frequency range. And drums are just one example.
This becomes common sense as you produce more, but in the beginning, a lot of producers struggle to grasp the EQ fundamentals.
Trust your ears, and you’ll be fine.
What’s Does Carving EQ Mean?
Well, after you’ve done the first part, all the tracks should sound fine when played solo. Now ask yourself if they will sound good together.
You have to have other tracks in mind!
Your primary goal is to make all the tracks mesh better. Sometimes you will even have to cut the “good” part of a track. It will sound bad when soloed but will fit right in the mix.
So this is all about seeing the bigger picture.
Often your synths and keyboards will occupy similar frequencies as the recorded vocals. Then you will have to cut one and boost another, so they don’t clash.
You can leave both, but at the end of the day, neither will sound the way they were intended to.
Can I Be Creative When EQing?
Yes, creativity is not just okay, but encouraged.
There are so many equalizers available on the market with a bunch of features and perks included.
Back in the days, you won’t have much to choose from, but now you do.
So take advantage.
Some EQ can be vintage and “warm,” while another one is progressive and a lot more “sharp.”
There’s only one way to find an EQ plugin that works for you. You have to experiment constantly.
And don’t forget about hardware equalizers either.
Honestly, the only thing holding a music producer back from experimenting and trying new things is the producer him or herself.
This may be overwhelming, but doesn’t everything new you start learning seem hard?
Compressors And Dynamic
Compressors are essential when making a beat and recording.
What Are Dynamics Anyways?
Dynamics is nothing but a volume range between the quietest and the loudest parts of the entire song, or a separate sound.
To understand them better, think of a drum.
When you play any percussions, think of a kick, for example. The starting volume tends to be really loud, and then it vanishes almost immediately.
If you look at the soundwave, you will notice how wide the dynamic range is.
Now think of a piano.
As long as you hold the key, the volume stays in the very narrow range, which means that it has fewer dynamics.
Now think of a pop song.
There is a very high chance that the chorus is substantially louder than the verse. This is done to attract the listeners’ ears. The dynamics can be both high and low, depending on the genre and vocalists.
Why Are Dynamics Important To Know?
Nothing complex here. You can’t make your tracks and samples fit together if dynamic swings are too big. Some of them if be “right in your face,” and other won’t be heard at all.
If this happens, the song quality will suffer dramatically. And that’s why music producers use compression.
What Is Compression?
It’s the process of controlling the dynamic range. The main principle is boosting the low volume while taming the high volume parts.
There are tons of settings and presets that different compressors offer, but the main one is the compressor’s ratio.
The higher the ratio, the narrower the dynamic range.
The lower settings are often used for vocals and keyboards, while the higher ratio is used mostly on drums and bass lines.
If you apply too much compression, you will take all the life out of the track. It will end up being lifeless which is even worse than having too much dynamics.
The best thing to do is also to correlate compression and gain, because you usually have to make up for the volume that you’ve lost when compressing.
What Is Reverb?
Reverb is tricky. You may not realize that, but it’s nothing but the reflection of the sound.
The best part is that you can control it entirely.
How Can You Use Reverb?
Well, there are generally two things reverbs are used for. It’s either to create an unreal sound or to replicate a real sound.
What does that mean? Let’s take a look.
It’s mostly used in music production and movies. You can make any sample or recording to sound like something “out of this world.”
Do you like ambient, trippy, or acidic pads? Put some reverb on them to sound even more weird and catchy.
Want to “add some space” to your vocals? Do as you wish, the sky is the limit.
Little note here.
Make sure you don’t overuse reverb. A lot of beginners add a lot of reverb to pretty much everything thinking that they’ve discovered something new.
The reason you don’t hear heavy reverb in popular songs is that it doesn’t sound right and makes the tracks “muddy.”
Real Life Reverb
This one is also self-explanatory. With reverb, you can change the shape and size of the room. So if you want to make it sound like you are in a telephone booth or a church, reverb is the answer.
A lot of story-telling podcasts use reverb to change the environment their character is in.
Same applies to music.
You want listeners to have some kind of picture in mind when listening to your song. That’s when reverb comes in handy.
There is a lot of setting, and it can be hard to grasp everything at first sight. Well, most reverb plugins have presets built-in, so you shouldn’t worry about it too much.
Don’t Forget About The Big Picture.
You can add all the effects you want to a single track and make it sound outstanding. However, if it doesn’t fit in well with the rest, you just wasted your time.
Have a sense of where you are going with all your mixing. That’s the only way to mix a song correctly.
Mixing your music is nothing but a “trial and error” and “do, rinse, repeat” processes in the very beginning.
As you go, you’ll start seeing patterns, and they will slowly engrave in your mind.
Do you like the mix?
Go and master it and listen to the final version. If something sticks out too much, then go back and fix it.
After you’ve done it a few times, you will notice how the song has changed for the better.
Done With Mixing?
The best bet would be hiring an audio engineer to master your track. Most people don’t want to or can’t afford it.
Well, then you have to master it yourself. It’s not going to be easy, but worth a shot.
Conclusion: How To Mix Music
Music production involves an insane number of steps that you have to know. You start from making the beat to adding effects, to mixing, to mastering.
And don’t forget about releasing your music, promoting it, playing live, and a lot more.
You don’t have to be great at everything. That’s when building connections plays a considerable role. You can try being good at everything, but will likely end up being average at most.
It’s good to know how the music industry works.
Hopefully, after reading this article, you’ve learned something about mixing fundamentals and why mixing your tracks is essential.
Also, check out the guide on how to build a music studio if you’ve haven’t yet.