How to Mix your Tracks

Posted by James Cullen on

As a producer, there are a range of specialities available to you, with many different avenues you can go down on your musical journey. 

Some producers are far more technical, with interests in sound design, studio techniques, or recording theory for example. Just look at how complex Max for Live is, and how you have to be a technically minded producer to get your head around that!

Others prefer a more creative route, actively composing music, learning music theory as well as how to write songs or tracks. It’s a whole different skill set to be able to compose a melody, harmony and rhythm than it is to be able to master an audio track.

Despite there being such a vast scope of possibilities, there’s one area where these two ends of the spectrum connect, and that is the realm of Audio Mixing. Whether you’re a technician or a composer of electronic music, a fundamental understanding of mixing is an essential part of your skill set. 

Knowing how to mix the elements of a track to create a cohesive and balanced mix is the first step in creating music that’s ready to be released for public consumption, and it’s full of dos and don’ts, as well as room for creativity and trends. Just look at the loudness war, or how certain 1960s recordings would pan the entire drum kit hard right. Sound of Silence, anyone?

The point is, while there’s definitely a lot of room for experimentation, there are also some core concepts that anyone mixing a track needs to know.

So, today with Top Music Arts, we are going to explore some of these concepts, and take a dive into the concept and fundamentals of audio mixing.

What is the aim of mixing?

Firstly, we need to establish what the goal of mixing a track is. While this may seem obvious to many, it’s useful to ensure you constantly ask yourself questions about this kind of concept. Challenging what you think you know about music production can lead to interesting results when you decide to step out of your comfort zone. How many hit records have come from people going against the norm?

The goal of mixing is to take an unpolished but finished recording of a song, and turn it into a polished and clean mix ready for mastering, and eventually, the general public’s ears. The process of mixing can surprise you with its ability to refine and polish a rough sounding song, elevate a poorly composed track into something better, and truly achieve the perfect results of a well written and recorded piece.

The general public listens to professionally mixed songs every day, so they are used to how music should sound. Have you ever finished a song and think it sounds good, but it’s also missing something? This is often a problem that a good mix can overcome. There are subtle but noticeable ways in which mixing brings out the individual elements of a piece of music to create the final product.

In this respect, there are certain cultural expectations that dictate what a good mix sounds like and differentiates this from a poor one, but there are also trends within genres, as well as over decades, to achieve certain sounds in the mix. The balance between tradition and creativity is a fine one.

An experienced mixing engineer will have tricks up their sleeves to work magic into any recording, but a core point is that the better recorded or written a track is, the better the final mix will sound.

Where to start with a Mix?

From a basic starting point, the mixing of a track is setting out to achieve a cohesive sound by paying attention to these elements:






Each of these must be balanced accordingly with everything else, both in its own category (all volume levels must be relative to each other so nothing stands out too much) as well as with the others. Nothing should be a glaring distraction from any other element.

The first step then, is to get the basic volume levels of the elements of your track balanced in a way that you’re happy with.

Mixing Volume Levels.

Your first task when mixing should be to balance your volume levels.

A good place to start with this can be to set one track as a guide, and adjust everything else in relation to this track. For example, you may have a drum loop, or a vocal line that you want to be prominent, so mixing everything in relation to this can be a good place to start.

A tip for achieving results if you aren’t sure how loud or quiet an element should be, is to turn the volume all the way down, close your eyes, and slowly bring it up in the mix until you hear it and it sounds ‘right’. There is often a sweet spot where something sits comfortably balanced with everything else. Closing your eyes can be a good way to make sure you’re mixing with your ears and not your eyes.

It’s tempting to start panning your mix before sorting out the levels, but this can be problematic further down the line for a number of reasons. Many hit records in the early days of recording were mixed and released entirely in Mono, when Stereo panning wasn’t even an option. So mixing your volume with everything panned down the centre should be your starting point. 

Most DAWs or mixing consoles have a control to switch your mix from Stereo to Mono, so make sure you regularly do this to check there are no glaring issues. These can hide in a Stereo mix that would be far more noticeable in Mono, and since some radio stations still broadcast in Mono, you don’t want your mix sounding terrible to the listeners hearing it in that format.

When you’re happy that everything is balanced -roughly, since there are dynamics to consider later on- you can move onto the next stage of the mix.

Panning in the Stereo Field.

The wonders of Stereo allow you to create a virtual three dimensional space that your mix is situated in. You can experiment until your heart’s content with this, as there are no right and wrongs here, apart from a few core concepts that are generally (though not always) adhered to.

It’s considered common practice to mix your kick, bass and vocals in the centre. These elements of your track comprise the ‘main’ body when it comes to frequency, and you’ll want these evenly distributed across both speakers in a stereo set up. Of course, you can experiment if you want to, but bear in mind the results this will have for the end listener.

Panning is particularly important in drums. There are two schools of thought when it comes to panning a traditional drum kit; one of those is to pan from the audience’s perspective, the other is to pan from the point of view of the drummer.

The difference here is that the stereo image of a drum kit would be flipped from one perspective to another. Since most drummers are right handed (sorry lefties) that means that the drum kit from the audience’s perspective has the Hi Hats, Snare and Crash on the right,and the Toms and Ride on the left. This would be the opposite if you were panning from the drummer’s perspective, as a right handed drummer has the snare drum and hi hats placed on their left side.

You have the rest of your instrumentation to consider as well. If you’re mixing traditional band recordings - guitars, bass, drums and vocals, you might consider where you want to pan these. Listen to Four Kick by Kings of Leon for an example of creative stereo imaging. There are two distinct guitar parts, and while they aren’t panned hard left and right, they each occupy a very distinct space in the left and right of the stereo image, respectively. This effect is most noticeable on headphones. Try taking one off and listening, and then repeating the same section of the song with the opposite headphone removed.

If you’re mixing electronic music, you may not have to worry about guitars or drums in the traditional sense. You’ll still want your kick and bass down the middle, of course, but you can get creative with drum parts, as electronic music often has a whole range of percussive sounds. For a great example of a stereo image, check out Cirrus by Bonobo. There are a tonne of subtle percussive parts, both in the drums and the harmonic elements, and these are panned really nicely to create quite a wide and full bodied stereo mix.

It’s worth noting the perceived change in volume that panning can have, so if you notice something sounds quieter when you’ve panned it, make sure you account for this in the volume.

You can also automate elements to change where they sit in the mix, often used as a creative effect called Auto Panning. But don’t get ahead of yourself here. The stage you should be at when you’ve mixed your volume levels, is creating a cohesive stereo image with where your parts are panned.

EQ and the Frequency Spectrum

Frequency is the space in the sonic spectrum that each individual instrument or element of your track sits. Each one will occupy a set range, some of which will overlap and potentially clash.

The goal of Equalising your Frequencies (EQ) is to do exactly that; make sure each instrument or element sits correctly in its own band of frequency, while not clashing or interfering with any others. You also want to make sure that every element of your track is placed correctly, if groups of instruments are panned together, make sure none of their frequencies are clashing or causing problems.

Solo each element and you’ll initially hear the unwanted frequencies. Anything that lies extremely out of the fundamental range of an instrument can be reduced; you don’t necessarily always need the super high frequencies existent in a bass track, for example. A core concept here is subtractive, not additive EQ. 

You want to be removing the issues, such as hum, sibilance or unwanted noise, and only ever slightly boosting interesting or pleasing resonances. The overall aim is to make sure that each of the elements sits with its own clarity, as well as fitting nicely into the mix to create a cleaner overall sound.

You’ll notice I said to Solo each element and tackle its EQ individually. This is a must if you want them all to sound good together. Frequencies overlap, as we have said, and can often disguise or hide issues that are present. Ensuring every instrument is EQd individually means that when you bring them all back into the mix together, each will retain its clarity so there are no problematic frequencies muddying the overall sonic landscape.

Once all of them sound good on their own, you need to consider how each instrument’s place in frequency range relates to all of the others. The aim of the game here is clarity as much as possible. As previously mentioned, make sure things panned in similar areas retain clarity when they are all playing at once. Make sure to reference in Mono so no lurking issues are hiding away anywhere. Once you’ve done this, you should be ready to move on.

Compression and Dynamics

At this point, you should have balanced levels, made full use of the stereo field and have a nice and clean sounding distribution of your instruments across the frequency spectrum. You should also have avoided any glaring issues in terms of hum, hiss, noise or muddy frequency clashes. But there’s still something missing.

That something is Compression.

We recently did an article about Compression, so if you’d like a more in depth look at the uses of the effect, head over and take a look.

The role Compression plays in mixing is to balance the dynamics of the individual instruments, as well as the track as a whole. Especially important if you have recorded live instruments in your track, you’ll want to pay close attention to the compression on these, as live performances ranging from vocals to guitars and drums have the tendency to range in volume due to the placement of the performer near the microphone. No one can stay a consistently perfect distance from a microphone every single time.

Compressing an audio signal, as we all know, tames the highs and boosts the lows when it comes to volume. There’s definitely a trend in modern times for more heavily applied compression than there was in decades gone by, largely due to radio stations competing for loudness. But despite this, there is still the right type of compression for the various scenarios. You don’t want to butcher a subtle piece of acoustic guitar work by absolutely killing it with a Compressor, and similarly, if you’re producing Trap music or Dubstep, you want to make sure your drums are heavily compressed to ensure they pack the right amount of power and punch.

Any single audio track in your piece of music is going to have natural differences in the volume, there may be a louder section followed by a quiet section, and the goal is to decide how even you want the volume to be. 

Tip: If a certain track is causing you problems; maybe there’s a really loud peak at a single point, treat this with volume automation instead of compression. You want the compressor to have a broader effect on the whole track, not working hard to tame a super loud spike in volume.

Once you’ve applied compression to all of the elements of your track, you can get a real sense of how they all mix together and it should be starting to sound like a nice clean mix. Remember to always apply EQ before Compression, as a compressor works across an entire frequency spectrum. So if you’ve missed a glaring frequency issue on an instrument, you don’t want it being brought under the spotlight by the compressor.

Applying Effects

What you should have at this point is a very clean (but therefore very clinical) sounding mix. Everything should be balanced in terms of volume, frequency and dynamics, and should be placed correctly in the stereo field to create a three dimensional orientation for the listener.

Now you need to think about Effects. What role are they going to play in your mix?

Effects can be used to create a sense of ‘wetness’, especially when it comes to reverb and delay. These effects are great for putting your music virtually into a physical space, and creating a sense that the song is being performed there rather than a listener hearing a sterile sounding collection of various instruments recorded playing the same song, separately.

The effects applied are going to be largely down to how you want the track or song to feel. Remember though that if you are using reverb, it can often sound dead when applied after Compression, so route an uncompressed signal to a separate reverb bus channel to allow the dynamics to be present in the reverb.

Another great tip is to apply subtle delay on vocals to thicken them, listen to a whole host of pop songs and pay close attention to the vocal parts, there are often subtle and filtered delays on the vocals that serve to add warmth and thicken the overall sound. Pipe It Up by Migos is a prime example, there is a very subtle filtered delay on the main vocal line, most obvious when they're repeating the chorus phrase in the left side of the stereo field.

It doesn’t stop there though, you can be as creative as you possibly can; this is a real chance to surprise your audience with some well placed effects. As long as they fit contextually, and don’t introduce any unpleasant sonic artifacts, the sky’s the limit!

That’s a wrap!

The above points are an overall guideline to help you get a clear sounding mix on your tracks. Obviously, every track is different and there are going to be issues that crop up in some tracks that are new to you, but as you work and practice you will develop an ear for mixing, especially if you work within one single genre.

You’ll get to know how to balance things without even thinking about it, you will know what effects to apply if you hear a specific problem. The main goal here is to keep practising if mixing is a skill you really want to learn. You could even offer to mix other people’s work for free, as long you’re able to retain a copy of the final mix for your portfolio, or if you’re a producer yourself, get into the habit of doing a final mixdown on every one of your tracks.  A good practice is to bounce all the tracks out as audio and import them into a new project, to help you get out of the mindset of writing the song, and into the mindset of mixing it.

Do you ever find that you’re never satisfied with your music when you compare it to music made by others? Yours never sounds finished but theirs sounds so much better? 

Why is this? Luckily, I have a handy explanation.

Okay so, it's Friday night, you're making a pasta sauce. You've decided to make a bolognese from scratch. Now think about when you smell it, just before you serve. You smell a beautiful bolognese sauce right? Now imagine how your dog smells it. Your dog smells the garlic, the salt, the pepper, the herbs, the onions. All at the same time and all individually.

You listening to your own music is the dog smelling the food. You hear EVERYTHING at once. That guitar part that took 3 days to get right, and then you scrapped it and changed it for another guitar part. That's in your head while you're listening. The frustration of getting your drums panned correctly, that's in your head when you're listening. The 47 bad takes you recorded of that synth part before you got it right. They're in your head too. Pretty hard to detach your mind from that.

When you listen to other people's music, though, you don't have that. You think ‘this is so much better than my music' but in reality you're hearing the finished product, not the finished product plus every single individual part that went into it.

This is annoying trick of the mind, where you can’t detach yourself from the process of writing and recording the song and see it as a separate product from the process itself. It’s funny how the perspective changes when it isn't your own music you're listening to. In a lot of ways it's pretty much impossible to take that step back from your music that's required to listen to it objectively, but on the other hand, if you train yourself to mix well, you should have the confidence in your final products as well.

Thanks for checking with us here at Top Music Arts, we hope this overview of mixing was as fun to read as it was to write! (I definitely reminded myself of a few techniques!) Make sure you comment down below with any mixing tips you have, and as always, check out the rest of our site for more great production resources!

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