The Mixing System

A broader article about mixing, in this module we’ll be integrating our mixing plan and we’ll put the mixing template into perspective. After reading this you will understand the importance of being bold when making mixing choices whilst using references in order to maintain control.

Why a system?

Right, first of all: why should we be using a “system” in the first place? Is it necessary? No, it’s not, but it helps. It’s safe to say that nothing is “necessary” in music production and the only thing that matters is the final result (i.e. the sound we get) how we get there is less important, so if you choose to mix without a system and just go with the flow it’s fine as long as you’re happy with how your mixes sound. Having said that, more than a few musicians come to the same conclusion along their journey: that if you get as many technicalities out of the way before you start creating, you can then feel free to create rather than spend time messing around with the settings.

This is where our mixing template and mixing plan come into play: the first one will save us the time to set up the routing from scratch for every single track and the second one will give us a simple method that we can follow step by step each time for consistent results.

There’s now a few bold concepts that we need to introduce:

  • mixing is a creative process
  • references are important
  • A/B testing helps
  • second guessing doesn’t
  • contrast makes the mix.

Let’s discuss each one of these points:

Mixing is a creative process

Here’s where we make bold decisions and shape the overall sound of a track…what instruments will be more prominent, what’s going to sound far and what’s going to be close and focused instead etc…whether we’re mixing our on music or someone else’s we must have a very clear artistic vision of what we want from the mix because everything, from the reverbs we choose to the transients profile of the track will add up and help convey the message of a song. It goes without saying that “The System” won’t undermine the artistic component of mixing, in fact the opposite is true, our method will cut out the clutter and it’ll give us the opportunity to have fun while mixing.

References

Have three reference tracks per mix. These tracks will be your “reality check”, they’ll be telling you things like “the snare is too loud”, “your Hi-Hat needs de-essing”, “the vocals are too dry” and so on. Pick your references carefully for the music you need to mix and trust them because they will turn your listening environment into a reliable source of information. This is even more important if you’re mixing something you didn’t compose/produce in the first place, references give you a snapshot of the artist’s musical vision and you can both have a chat, based on the given references, to try and understand a bit more about the desired outcome

Do A/B testing

This is where the template becomes super helpful: having prepared stuff like a parallel bus for the drums, a split signal for the bass and things like that enables you to try things on the fly and quickly test them…blend some ultra-processed drum signal in to see if it adds consistency or try some saturation/distortion on the high end of the bass and compare the sound with/without it to check that it makes the bass more audible in the mix. As you eq an instrument try a boost or a cut and then quickly switch the band on/off to hear if it’s doing what you want….it sounds obvious but it’s very easy to carry on cutting in the wrong region or fiddling with a compressor that isn’t actually doing much at all. A/B testing is a simple but powerful tool to confirm that our sound is being changed the way we want.

Stop second guessing

Once you move from one phase of a mix to the next one (e.g. you’ve balanced all the levels and proceed to the panning – see mixing plan) stop thinking about the previous step, one more reason for being more experimental at each stage: try everything you want whilst you’re working on a certain aspect and then, once you’re done, just move on and don’t look back. Of course you can always tweak parameters on the go but for example if you decided that the drums are the most predominant element in a certain song and you’re still on the fence, just try other options whilst you’re balancing the levels, try putting the vocals first, try the guitar! Don’t move on to the panning and then eq if you’re not sure about the previous task. This compartmented approach is the key for a better quality of life and a better mix as well.

Use contrast

Possibily the biggest concept of all: in a mix we can’t have only bright, punchy and loud instruments. Period. Mixing is a game of contrasts, of lights and shadows….where something needs to be quiet for something else to be loud, something has to be dark and allow something else to be bright, also some elements need to sound close and focused so that some other elements can be perceived as diffused and far. Use these contrast to make things stand out more! Let’s say you have lead vocals and some backing vocals as well: simply rolling off a little high end from the backing vocals and giving them a higher reverb send can make them sit at the back and allow the main vocals to become more noticeable. You can create contrast with the eq, compression, reverb, panning and in many other ways, but variations in volume are the simplest and often most neglected tools to create contrast: don’t be afraid to make one element more evident by simply lowering down its main competitor just a tiny bit, -1dB on your rhythm guitars can go a long way if your lead guitars are struggling to stand out, of course you can use eq and many other things to make the lead guitars more prominent but don’t forget how powerful a simple volume automation can be and of course you can always use it in conjunction with all the other tricks.

All these concepts work together and make a complete mixing system, which is best summarized by the following checklist:

  1. talk to your client
  2. discuss the references together
  3. have a clear idea of how the mix should sound
  4. have your template ready
  5. import all the tracks
  6. check the audio material before you mix (is editing needed?)
  7. follow the plan step by step
  8. use contrast, be creative
  9. A/B test rather than second guess
  10. trust your ears and be open-minded.

Once you have practiced this for a while, it will become second nature and you will find yourself applying these concepts spontaneously whilst getting good mixes consistently and having fun. And if you somehow struggle, a little feedback from a second pair of ears (a peer, or a mastering engineer) can put you back on track.

Do you have any questions about this article? Contact Francesco.

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