Getting a good mix of your song is important for many reasons. You'll want your beats and instrumentals to sounds good on any system they get played on, from studio quality speakers, to personal mp3 players. That said, it's not always easy to know what you should be doing when you're just starting out producing. It's because of this that we're giving you this guide full of mixing tips for all levels of producer (But especially useful for beginners).
In this guide, we take a look at some theories behind the art of mixing which could help you improve the sound of your song. After all, you want to hand off the best finished mix to your mastering engineer so they can properly master your song.
So, without any further ado let's get on with it.
Note: This guide was written by Simon Sauter. If you need someone to help with the mastering stage of things, check them out.
But first, if it's your aim to do music professionally, you'll want to check out our free ebook while it's still available:
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What Mixing Is and Isn’t
Mixing is an instrumental part of the production process. However, a lot of people often misunderstand the real purpose behind the mixing process and final mixdown. Some producers sometimes believe that the mixing process will make a horrible sounding track, the next dancefloor filler. This could not be further than the truth. Often, a poor sounding track is due to a number of factors throughout the production process as a whole and before the actual mixdown.
Before tackling the mixdown, if your track is sounding off there are some things you could look out for, such as:
- Wrong choice of sound / timbre / sample.
- Unideal use of effects.
- Rough programming of midi notes or poor arrangement.
The mixing process must be kept in mind throughout the whole production process. This makes it much easier to get things done once you actually reach the mixdown stage. You have to be more or less happy with your production before moving onto the mixdown.
A lot of beginner producers often fall victim to the hope of the mixdown magically making the song much better musically, only to find that this is not the case.
With that in mind, let’s move on to what mixing actually is. It generally consists of:
- Minor EQ and volume adjustments.
- The use of effects.
- A set of processes that focus on each element in the mix and how it sounds when played with all the other elements in the track.
Mixing is mainly about making all the elements in your track sit nicely in the mix and work well together. The beauty of mixing is that it is pretty subjective in most cases. Subjective in the sense that what sounds good to one person or mix engineer might not sound the same to another. A very experienced and talented sound engineer once told me that you could give the same mix to 10 different mix engineers, and the result would be different in each case.
Before tackling the mixing process from the practical side of things, it really helps to know certain theories behind the art of mixing that will enable you to make better decisions and improve your mixing skills.
Mixing Tip: Getting The Right Frequency Ranges In Your Mix (Equalization)
Equalization is at the heart of the mixing process. In order to apply proper EQ and thus enable the elements in our mix to work well together, we must be familiar with the basic frequency ranges that certain elements occupy. With time, we must also train our ears to recognize certain timbres and the frequencies that they occupy.
For your convenience, here's a list of those frequencies. Be sure to bookmark this article so you can refer back to it easily in future:
Range Below 50Hz.
Lowest areas of Kicks and Bass.
Range 50 – 250 Hz.
Main parts of Bass. EQ here to add presence to Bass and Kick Drum.
Range 200 – 800 Hz.
Dubbed the Muddy Area. Many elements occupying this range could make your track sound muddy.
Range 800 – 5000 Hz.
The range our ears are most sensitive to. EQ with care.
Range 5000 – 8000 Hz.
Hi-Hats and Cymbals occupy this band. Boost here for a brighter sound.
Range 8000 – 20000 Hz.
Higher frequencies of Cymbals and High-Hats.
Did You Know?
That the reason we perceive different frequencies to be at different volume levels could be traced back to a time when we lived in caves. Since all forms of speech within a cave result in some reverberation, our hearing naturally got used to concentrating on the frequencies in which speech is most pronounced. What this means today is that our ears are naturally most sensitive to frequencies occupying this mid-range, and thus frequencies lower or higher than this range must be amplified to be perceived at the same volume.
Practical application of this notion comes in the form of Bass monitoring. Were you to balance the bass elements in your mix at a low monitoring level, then upon increasing the volume you would experience huge bass increases. This is because bass elements naturally need to be louder in order for us to perceive them to be at the same level as their mid-range counterparts.
Mixing Tip: See Your Mix As A Soundstage
Before approaching the mix, it is often recommended to imagine the track as a 3 dimensional room, or Soundstage. All the sounds, instruments and elements in your track should be placed somewhere on this stage. Therefore, using the 3d room analogy we can place sounds:
- Volume: At the Front, Back or anywhere in between.
- Panning: Anywhere between the left and right walls of the stage.
- High Freq / Low Freq: At the top of the stage, or at the bottom.
The idea of using the 3 dimensional room is to helps us form an image where we could place sounds in their own space in the room. This is to ensure that they can be heard properly, not clash with other sounds and thus work in harmony with all other elements in the room (mix).
Here's a break down of those three elements of the soundstage:
It doesn't matter if you're mixing rap beats or rock instrumentals; the louder sounds are in the mix, the more presence they have and the more we could feel and hear them. Certain sounds will obviously need to have more presence than others to create a sense of depth and balance.
If all sounds were at full, volume this would result in a cluttered mix lacking a sense of depth. Sometimes when some sounds are anchored at the back, it allows us to determine that other sounds are more in front…
Classic Example: Cutting a few decibels at the higher frequencies of a sound can send it further back and make it sound more distant in comparison to the other elements.
2. Incorporating Panning In Your Mix
By fading a sound in volume from one speaker and turning the volume up in the other, we create the impression of the sound moving from left to right or vice-versa. Directional clues could also be received through the timing difference in which our ears hear a sound. A sound coming from the left speaker will most likely reach your left ear before your right and this slight timing difference creates a sense of directionality.
Panning different elements in the mix could free up some much needed space and further create a sense of depth.
One thing to note here however: Since kick drums are often the most powerful parts of the mix, we want them to be dead center (at least up to the first 150Hz). Were we to use stereo, the main energy would be spread across the soundstage which is not ideal.
3. Frequency Range
An extremely important part of the soundstage, the vertical perspective. While most elements naturally sit within a certain band of frequencies as we saw in the table before, they will also occupy frequencies that could be done away with since they make no contribution to our sound when placed in the mix.
Example: The Bass element in a track might contain some mid-range and higher frequencies that through EQ could be removed to make space for other important mid-range elements. This will most likely not have an effect on the bass’s low-end energy and will also clear up the mid-range for more important sounds occupying that band.
EQ at mixdown can also be used for:
- Bringing certain ‘dead’ sounds to life by boosting some frequencies.
- Boosting the attack portion of a sound to bring it further front.
- Prevent the mix sounding muddy by smoothing out the frequencies that individual elements occupy.
To make efficient use of EQ we need to understand that each sound or timbre is made up of the fundamental frequency as well as various other harmonics or overtones, all at varying volume or amplitudes. With regards to mixing, we need to understand that sometimes we only need to keep the basic frequencies of a given sound when EQing. This is because when played along with other instruments, our mind will still think the less important frequencies are there, while in reality they are just being masked by the other instruments.
Through trying to visualize the soundstage and place the different elements of your track somewhere on the stage, you can dramatically improve your mixdown and enable your mastering engineer to really bring the best out of your track at mastering stage!