This is a very simple guide on how to structure a mix. Getting rid of the clutter is possible if you trust the process and keep it simple: all you have to do is follow these four simple steps each time, at least until you’re confident enough and you can hear what needs doing before you even pay close attention.
The guide below is not just for beginners: it’s for anyone who spends weeks mixing something that should be mixed in one day, i.e. most tracks.
These are the four steps you ought to follow each time to mix successfully and have a good time:
- balance your levels
- balance the panning
- work on eq and compression
- add effects
it really is that simple.
- Balancing the levels
We open our template and import all the tracks, we quickly check that everything is alright and then we start mixing: this is the most important phase of any mix, at this stage we establish relationships between the instruments and assign priorities that we will mantain throughout the mix.
Many will object that panning and eq will actually alter the levels: it doesn’t matter because (as long as we balanced our levels properly in the first place) whenever we process a sound we know how loud/quiet it should be in the mix and we can easily keep it at that level. It sounds complicated but it isn’t, it’s very easy and time efficient.
Most importantly, how do we balance our levels? We have to establish a hierarchy, something needs to be quiet so that something else can be loud. Many songs would have the vocals as their main instrument, followed by the drums, guitars, bass etc… but it doesn’t have to be like that every time: you will find commercial releases where the guitar is actually louder than the drums, or the vocals are quieter than the drums etc…so the best thing to do is check some references and try different options, see what works for the song in question.
Decide what’s your main instruments and gently add the others, one at a time, creating the structure and the hierarchy for your mix. If an instrument has a wide dynamic range you might not be able to find the “right” volume for it, you can either use volume automation or compression (or both) to control its dynamics.
Also, if you are not sure about certain relationships between levels just try different options and see what works: try for example picking a different main instrument and structuring your “volume hierarchy” in different a way, start from scratch a couple of times until you’re happy with the result.
Panning is a very powerful technique, when placing instruments in the stereo field bear in mind a few monumental concepts:
- hard panned instruments stand out
- low frequencies belong to the center of the mix
- too many stereo tracks will result in a tasteless blob
First decide what stays in the center: instruments with a big low end (kick, bass etc…) have to stay in the mid. For instruments that need panning, try hard panning (100% left or right) and see if it works, if it doesn’t you can move them towards the center until you’ve found the right spot.
Two similar tracks hard panned (e.g. two similar backing vocals, rhythm guitars etc…) will sound nice and have some depth, and you will hear examples of this in many mixes, however, they would stand out more and have real depth if they were recorded with different tones (e.g. backing vocals made by different people, guitar tones made with different amps), so if you have let’s say four backing vocal parts (two recordeby by person A. and two recorded by person B.) try panning the two A. to the left and the two B. to the right if you really want them to stand out, otherwise have one A. and one B. to each side if you don’t want them to stand out but rather blend them in the background. Be aware of both possibilities.
This introduces the concept that hard panning doesn’t really help if you have a specific instrument that needs to sound “distant”, in that case you will need gentle panning, obviously in conjunction with the right eq and reverb.
If you have a stereo keyboard but its stereo information is not relevant to the mix (even if it sounded nice on its own) make it mono and place it somewhere within the stero field, it will take less space and become more noticeable at the same time. On the other hand, if you have to keep it stereo (because it has built in stereo effects that really add something to the song) make sure that it doesn’t take too much space in the mix, if it does try a stereo imager to reduce its width.
- Eq and compression
When applying eq you want to trim off what doesn’t have to be in the mix and enhance what needs to be heard more. You definitely don’t want to have instruments competing for the same frequency so this in a nutshell means that you want to reduce/remove the low end on many instruments (making space for the kick and the bass) and generally carve space for some instruments by cutting the same frequencies somewhere else. Also when boosting, don’t boost the same region on too many instruments (e.g. if you’re boosting 2KHz on guitars, snare and vocals your mix will sound off balance). Always eq in context and not in solo, it’s the only way to know if what you’re doing is working or not. Don’t forget that you can eq bus channels too.
Use compression to control the dinamic range of a track, or to shape its tone (or both). When a certain instrument doesn’t sit in the mix because it has a wide dynamic range you can set a relatively fast attack, slow release and a high ratio to put it in its place…on individual tracks you can sometimes have several dB of attenuation (even 10 or more) before it becomes too obvious. You can compress groups and the mixbus but you’ll have to be more careful with the ratio and the threshold because the effect can become overwhelming. You can also use compression to add sparkle to an instrument, a bus channel or the mixbus…this can be done by setting a slower attack, thus bringing up more transient information.
Later in this blog I will discuss compression and eq in great detail, this brief explanation only serves the purpose of showing their role in the context of my mixing plan: once our levels and panning are set we can use eq and compression to shape the sound of the mix and we will (generally) make sure that we compensate these effects by adjusting their volumes, so for example if our snare sounds quieter after that we applied the compression we will add some gain to make sure it matches the level we set for it at the beginning of the mix.
- Adding FX and saturation
We may add effects for many reasons, to simulate a real space (reverb), to create depth or design an artificial space (reverb, delay), to add flavour (modulation, saturation etc..).
What matters is that we generally don’t want to add these until the previous three steps are completed. There are exceptions of course but in most cases if we simply trust the process at this point the mix will sound good already and we will have a very clear idea of what effects we want to use and why. We can expand a mono track by sending it to a mono delay on the other side of the stereo field, we can add more reverb to the backing vocals to make them sound more distant or add saturation to the main vocals (or to the high end of our bass guitar) in order to highlight them.
This is a general guide and it works for most mixes, however if you make orchestral music there are a few specific things to bear in mind, especially in regard to the use of reverb and panning. That’s why I also made an article about Orchestral Mixing and I strongly recommend checking that out as well.
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