Learning how to mix music is an exciting skill to develop when you’re producing in your own home studio. It’s the time where all of the recordings you’ve made and all the parts you’ve created come together to gel into a whole piece of music. Mixing is definitely my own favorite time to be in the studio.
But it must be said that mixing can be one of the hardest skills to develop. It takes time and dedication to improve your skills, and you shouldn’t expect to be a great mixer overnight. You need both creative and technical abilities to mix your productions – there’s definitely an art and a science to the process.
There are lots of different ways to approach mixing in the studio. The main tool used is the audio mixer, which is used to balance and process all of the various tracks you have, resulting in a 2-track stereo mix at the end (one left channel, one right channel).
Most home producers start off mixing ‘in the box‘ – mixing their tracks using software inside their studio computer. Whatever DAW you choose to use, it will likely have a mixing part to it.
If you want to mix your tracks on a real, physical mixing desk (either analog or digital), you’ll be mixing ‘out of the box‘. I know many mixing engineers who prefer this way of working, but if you’re setting up your home studio on a budget you probably won’t have a desk to mix on (yet).
Either way, the ideas and processes are much the same for both forms of mixing. In fact, mixers who mix out of the box tend to also use tools that are in the box – an example would be to use a combination of Pro Tools for it’s editing features, and then to send the outputs from Pro Tools into the inputs of a real mixing desk for the mixing session.
Setting Up Your Mix
Before starting to mix, I always make sure that all the settings are ‘flat’ – that everything has been reset to zero (settings like EQ, sends, faders, input gain, etc.).
Inside your DAW, it’s a good idea to arrange your tracks in a logical order. Have all your drum tracks placed next to each other, followed by your bass track(s), then guitars, keyboards, vocals, horns, strings, etc. Then you can organize them into subgroups.
An example I always follow is to group together my drum channels into a stereo subgroup (I often have around eight or nine separate drum channels). This still allows me to process each individual track however I like, but it gives me overall control of the whole group for parameters like volume with just the stereo set of faders.
If I want to bring down the volume of the whole drum kit, I can do it just by controlling the two faders of the subgroup on the mixing board, instead of having to individually adjust all eight channels. It also allows me to compress the whole drum kit together across this stereo subgroup.
You can apply this process to other groups as well – for example, you could bring together guitars or backing vocals into their own groups.
Whenever you’re mixing your music, always make sure that your tracks don’t go ‘into the red’ – that they don’t clip or distort because the signal has become too loud.
When this happens in the digital domain, it can result in nasty and potentially harmful digital distortion. Adding effects to a channel can alter its overall signal level, so always be aware of where your signals are peaking.
How to Mix Music – What to Consider
There are a few different elements to a mix, and thinking of these elements can help you to get started and to focus on building the skill in each area:
- Volume levels
- Panning in the stereo field
- Editing your recordings
- Frequency content and EQ
- Dynamics and compression
- Space and depth using reverb and effects
- Automation and unique events in the mix
All of these factors go toward learning how to mix music, and it’s definitely worth developing your skills and techniques in all of these areas. Then you’ll really be on your way to becoming a great mixer.
Every time you mix audio in your own home studio, your skill level and the quality of your production work will get better. Mixing is one of the key areas involved in making your own music, and I think developing this skill is one the best investments of your studio time you can make.
It’s true that getting started can be quite hard at first, as there’s a lot to learn and take in during those initial stages. But mixing your music can bring a track to life and help to highlight the great parts in the song – which is probably why, for me, it’s one of the more exciting and interesting parts of music creation and production.
I’ve outlined some simple tips and techniques to help you get started on the road to becoming a great mixer.
Balancing the Mix
A question I often hear, especially from those who don’t yet have much experience in mixing sound or mixing a song, is ‘where do I start?‘.
Different mixers start from different places, so it’s hard to give a concrete answer to this question. But I think there are some common starting points that can be used to help you get started with your mixing:
- Start with the balance of the drums and the bass, as this can give your production a solid platform on which to build.
- Don’t mix audio too loudly, as your ears can tire quickly which can affect your judgement. If you can get your mix to sound good at a quieter volume, then when you turn it up it’ll sound even better.
- Check your mix in mono. If there’s anything in your mix that’s out of phase between the left and right channels, then summing them to mono will cause these signals to do funny things, maybe even completely disappear. You can fix these issues if they arise. You want your mix to sound good in mono as your production may eventually be listened to on a mono source, like on a small radio or an old car stereo.
- Pan your kick drum, bass, and lead vocals centrally, helping to stabilize the mix.
- Spread other instruments across the stereo field.
- EQ as required.
- Add effects as necessary to help with the space and depth of the mix.
- Here’s a useful little trick: check your mix from another room, but leave the door open between the rooms. Anything that is too loud or too quiet will immediately stand out, and you can then adjust them in the mix.
- Check your mix on a pair of headphones, where you can listen to the smaller details and you can check the sounds across the stereo field (don’t mix audio on headphones though – the results are usually pretty poor).
- If you have a particular song by a favorite artist that you’re trying to emulate the sound of, load it into your computer so you can listen to it over your studio monitors. A/B the two tracks – compare it to your own mix, which can help you to learn how these favorite mixes of yours were created.
Problems with Mixing Sound
Now and again you’ll come across problems and issues if you want to mix your own music. Here are some tips that I think may help:
- Take a break! Your ears can get tired easily when you’re actively listening to music for hours at a time.
- Get a rough initial mix without using EQ or effects and work from there.
- Is the mix too busy? Are all those parts needed? Try placing some elements of your production lower in volume or farther back using reverb, or maybe even cut them out completely.
- Is there too much going on in the mid-frequency range? This can happen quite easily. Try using EQ to thin some of these sounds out and to create more sonic room for vocals and instruments to sit in. Remember, the important thing is how a track sounds within the whole mix, not how it sounds when listened to in isolation (when the solo button is turned on or when other tracks are muted).
- If your synthesizers aren’t working, try out some new sounds.
- Take away some effects if your mix is sounding a bit messy.
- Try different panning positions, or use different effects. For example, if your guitar sounds too distant with the reverb you’ve used, try a delay setting instead.
- There’s nothing really stopping you remixing your own tracks so you can get more practice – try remixing an old track from a completely different starting point, and then compare the two to see the contrast and the variation that a new approach can produce.
- Experiment and try new things out!
Answering the question of how to mix music can be difficult, as there are so many ways to approach the task. Everyone will have their own favorite way to mix audio in the studio, and the only way to discover your preferred method is with constant mixing practice.