After having understood the fundamentals of your DAW, chosen some hardware devices to complete your set up, gone through the basics of music theory, understood the structure of a song, you are ready to understand how to mix music.
Easily described as “the last process in a long chain of production ethics”, mixing still comes before mastering…
Knowing how to mix music is an important step in music production. However, mixing in itself should never be seen as something more than final touches to an already completed piece of work…
Mixing is not a magical step which will erase the mistakes you could have made earlier!
A good track will be a track where the main elements (bass, drums, vocals, lead) fit together.
Understanding how to mix music could definitely improve your track in some regards, but in terms of final adjustments, it should not be seen as ANYTHING more than a repositioning tool for instruments!
This article contains excerpts of Rick Snoman’s “The Dance Music Manual (3rd Edition)”. We strongly recommend you to check it out! It’s a great guide for beginners.
Initial mixing considerations
Mixing is an entirely creative enterprise.
There are no right or wrong ways to approach mixing!
There are no rules set in stone on how to mix music.
NONETHELESS, there is common practice and processes that work most of the time…
Some modifications and repositioning of instruments should correspond to the ethics of mixing.
The ultimate goal of mixing should be a transparency between all instruments. In order for each element to occupy its own space within the soundstage.
Levels and dominant frequencies
To fully grasp how to mix music, you need a deep understanding of soundstage, monitoring environments but and of our own hearing limitations!
As listeners, we perceive different frequencies at different volumes. The volume at which we listen to music will determine the dominant frequencies.
Why you should not use headphones when mixing…
There is a noticeable difference if you use headphones over studio monitors!
Headphones tend to emphasize the lower-frequencies, and make sound inaccurate..
You will experience a different perception of frequencies and volume levels. As a consequence, music will rarely translate well on your pair of monitor speakers.
For your mix, the goal should be to achieve an equal loudness of all elements. You should also always mix just above normal conversation level to produce a proportionally balanced mix.
Mixing with headphones is not recommended.
The soundstage is key to understand how to mix music. Every producer should imagine the soundstage as a “three-dimensional box” where you position various instruments differently;
1. In the back or in the front and anywhere in between.
2. Left or right using the panning knobs.
3. The volume and frequency of a sound will determine whether it is perceived at the top of the stage (high frequencies), the middle (midrange frequencies) or the bottom (low frequencies)
How To Mix Music: Basic Considerations
1. The kick and the bass are usually sit in the front of the mix.
2. If the lead, pluck or vocals are important elements, they should be placed at the forefront.
3. To make certain elements pop out, the easiest option is to increase the gain over other instruments.
4. If you apply a cut of 1 or 2 decibels at a higher frequency, the sound you mix might appear more distant. Conversely, if you increase the higher frequencies of a sound, the sound appears closer.
5. With a fast attack, compressors can reduce transients, removing high-frequency content, offering a new positioning in the mix.
When a sound wave comes out of your speakers, it doesn’t directly reach your ears. It propagates in all directions and de-intensifies according to the distance (“inverse law”). Therefore, the louder an instrument is within a mix, the closer it will appear to be…
Electronic music give a very frontal impression. This results from a mix where all the elements have their own space.
Accordingly, it is simply IMPOSSIBLE that all elements are at the front of the soundstage!
Why? Because in that case, all the tracks would have the same volume and this would result in a cluttered mix.
Gain can alter the way we perceive sound.
Stereo placement is dependent on 2 elements: 1) Volume/Intensity between sounds 2) Respective timing
As a technique, panning provides one of the most straightforward methods for a producer to create space for 2 instruments that share a similar frequency range.This method allows the producer to slightly pan a sound left or right.
To deliver a quality mix, ideally, an equilateral triangle (same distance) should be formed between the producer and the speakers.
An equilateral triangle should be formed between the producer and the speakers.
When listening to instruments in the context of a mix, various harmonic frequencies make instruments clash. Whenever this is the case you should eliminate unnecessary frequencies.
The process of finding the problematic frequencies and remediating to the latter is called “frequency masking”. This process is not always as straightforward as it seems because it requires calculations and compromises on the producer’s side.
To help producers with this process, frequency charts are available on the internet. However, most of the time these are not accurate because they rely on synthesized timbre. Instead of relying on a frequency range of instruments, you should rely on 7 fixed EQ octaves!
Fabfilter Pro Q2, one of the most famous EQing plugins.
The 1st Octave – from 20 Hz to 80 Hz
40 Hz and under = lowest frequencies of a kick drum and the bass.
NEVER boost these frequencies!
Instead, you should boost at around 50 to 65 Hz area.
Cut some of the bass frequencies to create space for the kick drum.
This octave range is one of the most tricky. Make sure to A/B your mix!
The 2nd Octave – from 80 Hz to 250 Hz
In this range, the best frequency to boost or cut is to be found (generally) at 120 or 180 Hz.
A sound can be rendered heavier by boosting in that frequency range.
Conversely, cutting in that area will make a sound thinner.
This frequency has the biggest part of the low-frequency energy of most instruments and vocals.
It is where the “bass boost” of home sound systems lies and where much of the bass energy can be found.
The 3rd Octave – from 250 Hz to 600 Hz
This area is crucial in the sense that if harmonic frequencies are clashing in this range, most elements will appear cluttered and indistinct. Most of the elements that sit in this frequency range are located between 300 Hz and 400 Hz. When an engineer proceeds to boosts in this area, it is to accentuate the presence and clarity of a sound. If you want to make a sound less boxy, cuts in that range will be useful.
The 4th Octave – from 600 Hz to 2 kHz
This octave is often used to give instruments presence. Small boosts can also be made at 1.5 kHz to increase the attack and body of some instruments. Most commonly, cuts and boosts in this range happen between 2.5 kHz and 3 kHz.
The 5th Octave – from 2 kHz to 4 kHz
The fifth octave is the one that expresses attack of most rhythmic elements. Most commonly, cuts and boosts in this range happen between 2.5 kHz and 3 kHz.
The 6th Octave – from 4 kHz to 7 kHz
This octave is a distinctive range for most instruments. 5 kHz is the frequency to look out for. Boosting at this frequency will increase air and sonic features. Cutting is employed to reduce sonic harshness.
The 7th Octave – from 7 kHz to 20 kHz
This octave pertains to higher frequency elements such as cymbals and hi-hats. A common technique is to apply a shelving boost at 12,000 Hz to make the music seem more hi-fidelity, detailed and to prevent aural fatigue. Popular frequencies are 8 kHz, 10 kHz, and 15 kHz. When boosting here, the purpose is to increase timbre clarity and add air. Cuts are used to remove resonance from instruments, as well as vocal sibilance.
Basic mixing mistakes to AVOID!
1. Mono vs. Stereo: By using only stereo signals, it is impossible to locate all the instruments! The choice of which elements should be mono or stereo belongs to the producer. It is common, however, for the kick drum to be mono since it is the leading element in electronic music.
2. Applying effects: When trying to create a sense of depth in their mix, many beginners will inundate their sound with reverb (and other effects). To avoid this, a solution would be to employ a mono reverb signal with a long tail. In order to clean up the sound, an EQ can be added to reduce the higher frequency content of reverberation.
3. ‘Creeping mix faders’: It corresponds to the gradual increase of the volume of each channel, with the (impossible) aim of hearing one instrument clearly over another. When a novice engineer does this, he does not take headroom into consideration. Maximum headroom is a level which should not be reached if you want your mix to retain a defined sonic definition.
#1. Make sure that you save the session. That way, you will always have an original version with unaltered audio tracks where you can go back to!
#2. Set correct monitoring levels through your audio interface. You should be able to hear your music clearly whilst being able to have a conversation over it. Any mix should sound great at a low volume!
#3. Only use track volumes at first with no additional plugins. A whole song can be balanced just by using the volume faders.
#4. Editing is often underestimated in mixing. It is common to have to cut, paste or even remove certain sounds from the mix for it to sound good.
#5. Next up is EQing… one of the most important steps in the mixing process. EQing should improve the way different musical elements coexist sonically. They should create space for each other and not fight for the same frequency range (low, mid and high frequencies)!
#6. When EQing, move around frequencies by setting a high “Q” and gain and listen to different frequencies. Frequencies that are harming the overall mix should be cut sharp. Useful ones should be boosted gently.
High-passing is very common to remove the useless low-frequency content when not needed.
EQ is used to fix tracks but should DEFINITELY NOT be seen as an end in itself!
#7. Panning is useful to create more space. Vocal, bass, kick and snare should always be kept in the middle (mono). Everything else can be panned left or right.
#8. It is now time to use compression! Compression gives balance to the dynamic range of a track. You should mostly use it on bass and vocals. The trick with compression is to not overuse it!
#9. Compression reduces the gain of any signal above a decibel “threshold” according to a “ratio”. A higher ratio results in more compression.
- Attack = how long it takes to start this reduction
- Release = how long it takes to stop it
Faster attack = less “punchy” and more “fat” because you’re reducing the attack transient.
Makeup gain allows the now-compressed signal to return to its previous level. Manipulate and experiment with these parameters to create energy and consistency.
Rule of thumb -> 3:1 ratio is a good place to start, look for about 4 dB of gain reduction!
Use compression to bring life to tracks!
#10.Check your volume levels and additional Eqing! You should start with the least important instruments and finish with the most important ones in your production.
When adding a plugin to a track, always make sure that it sounds better than before adding it.
Learning how to mix music also involves taking breaks…
It is equally useful to listen to the track at a low volume on hi-fi speakers to make everything sounds good!
#11. Only after general EQ, you can start using reverb, delay, saturation, harmonic exciters you use to create particular tones. Nonetheless, you should not entirely rely on effects to make your tracks sound better!
Effects can make your mix sound more interesting. HOWEVER, it is better to use a few plugins well than having tons of them which you do not know how to use!
#12. Find a reference mix! Professionally sounding tracks will give you an idea of the volume you’re aiming for. At this stage, master tracks (busses) are can be used for subtle “glue’ compression, EQ tweaks, or tape saturation and even a group reverb.
#13. Let your ears rest for a while and come back to the mix later! The next time you re-listen to your mix, you might want certain elements to be louder or quieter. If you have followed our steps on how to mix music, your song is ready for the last step, mastering.
Mixing can be a very daunting and complex process. Its theory is extensive and ever-changing. Its practice is not a science and benefits from personal approaches. Nonetheless, there is some grounding knowledge on how to mix music as there is with any other topic in music production.
Understanding how to mix music is (without a doubt) a step that you cannot skip if you want your track to reach the quality of professional ones. This article closes the cycle of how to start your music production journey? Over the course of this series of articles, we have tried to cover the basics of DAW’s, hardware setups, music theory, arrangement, and how to mix music.
Sources: "How to mix Music?"
1. Snoman, R (2012), Dance Music Manual: Tools, Toys, and Techniques (Chapter 26 & 27)