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Mixing Music: The Knowledge You Need to Mix Like The Pros

March 25, 2024 - Read on to learn how to mix music like the pros, refining your skills and achieving professional-quality sound in every track.

Man in music studio

Music mixing is a crucial part of production, and it can be pretty baffling for newbies. In a nutshell, mixing is all about setting volume levels and adding effects like reverb, delay, and compression to blend sounds together.

So, what is mixing? Even though it sounds simple, mixing is often seen as the toughest part of making music. For beginners, this stage can be quite challenging. Many aspiring producers have a killer track recorded but struggle to make it sound like their favorite records during the audio mixing stage.

Usually, this is because they're making some basic audio mixing mistakes. This article will dive into the most important aspects of mixing music and explain key techniques to help you create quality mixes that make your tracks sound like they were meant to be heard.

What is Mixing?

Mixing music is both a technical skill and an art form. Mixing a track is a bit like building a house. You have a lot of creative freedom about how the house should look, but the building needs to have a solid foundation that stands up to various technical standards, otherwise, the whole thing will fall apart.

When you record a band, you'll end up with a collection of audio tracks that contain the sound of each instrument. The role of a mixing engineer is to combine all these sounds into a single, harmonious track.

When this is done correctly, the mixing engineer builds on the work of the songwriter and the performers to create something with real emotional impact. A good mix can really help bring a band to life by perfectly balancing the various elements together into a cohesive piece of music.

On the other hand, a bad mix can detract from the songwriting. If the levels are off-balance, you might find that certain sounds are overpowered and drowned out by others or some sounds might sound unpleasant and abrasive. If a mix is bad enough, it can make a good song sound awful. That's why as an artist, you simply can't afford to overlook the mixing stage.

The Role of the Mixing Engineer

A mixing engineer knows how to mix music and balances levels of instruments and sounds in music. They use effects and techniques to create a cohesive atmosphere.

There's debate about a mixing engineer's responsibilities. Some believe they should capture the essence of an artist's live sound, doing no more or less.

Steve Albini, known for bands like Big Black and Shellac, advocates this hands-off approach. He believes the mix process isn't for showcasing a mix engineer's creativity. For Albini, the main responsibility is creating an accurate representation of how the band sounds live in the studio.

Not everyone agrees with this philosophy. Nirvana's final album, In Utero, had conflicts over its raw sound. Record executives wanted it to sound more like Nevermind.

Producer and mix engineer Butch Vig took a different approach on Nevermind. He convinced Kurt Cobain to double-track his vocals, reminding him that John Lennon did it. Vig also contributed to the guitar tone by convincing Cobain to layer guitars through various amps and pedals.

This mixing style is the opposite of Albini's hands-off approach because, in this approach, the engineer directly influences the sound of the record.

Knowing how to actually mix is of course essential, but you'll also need to figure out your stance on this philosophical debate. It'll fundamentally impact your approach to mixing.

What You'll Need

Sadly, mixing isn't cheap and requires special tools. Your hifi stereo and fancy headphones won't cut it. You'll need studio monitors for speakers and headphones. They're designed to be flat and neutral, unlike commercial speakers that hype up certain frequencies.

Mixing with studio monitors means your track will sound similar on different playback systems. If you're Mixing on commercial speakers, your track might fall apart in other settings.

But wait, there's more! Studio monitors alone don't guarantee perfect sound. The room affects what you hear too. Sounds bounce off walls before reaching your ears.

Some rooms can mess with bass frequencies, making them vanish or even make some bass notes seem louder than others. If you mix in such a room, your track will sound off elsewhere.

Fear not! Acoustic treatment and proper speaker placement can fix most issues. But let's be real - if you're running a bedroom studio, there's only so much you can do. Pro studios build mixing rooms with very specific dimensions, but you probably can't go knocking bedroom walls down at home.

The good news is that you can use headphones to dodge those pesky room issues. With headphones, there's no need to stress about sound reflection problems.

But hold up! Headphones might not give you that important "sonic space" vibe speakers do. So, try not to rely on them exclusively, they won't necessarily help you get better mixes. You can also learn to compensate for any issues in your playback system overtime. For example, if your room sounds excessively bassy, you can simply turn up the bass in the mix to compensate.

Balancing Levels

Balancing sound levels is key in mixing music. You'll need to manage volume control, setting the volume of each instrument to ensure clarity. Some instruments may drown out others, like distorted electric guitars overpowering bass or vocals.

Creating a Sense of Space

But mixing isn't just about volume levels. Creating a sense of space helps too. Mix engineers use reverb and delay for a 3D sound and a real physical space feel. For instance, apply a hall or church reverb to a dramatic choir pad for a wide space effect. A big reverb pushes the sound back, while a subtle reverb on vocals brings them front and center.

Delay effects aren't always obvious. A small delay can create space while being nearly inaudible. Stereo sound also offers left and right speakers for independent output. Panning sounds left and right adds dimension. Previously, mix engineers used extreme panning, placing entire instruments to one side. This creates a dramatic sonic effect, making listeners feel surrounded by the band.

Pan With Caution

However, consider your track's playback system. Hard panning might not sound great on headphones, as sounds aren't traveling in the room. So, if a guitar's panned hard left, you'll hear it only in the left ear, which can be jarring. In some music genres, like house and techno, remember that DJs might play your tracks on mono sound systems in clubs.

Clubs often go mono because it makes sure people don't hear tracks differently based on their location. If a track has an instrument hard panned left, only those near the left speaker will hear it properly, making it inaudible to others.

So, if you're aiming for club play, ensure your mix sounds good in both mono and stereo. You should still pan elements to create space that sounds great in stereo, but make sure the mix doesn't fall apart in mono.

Dynamic Range and Compression

Also, consider your track's dynamic range. Balance the quietest and loudest parts using compression. Compression reduces loud peaks and brings up quiet levels. Don't aim to eliminate dynamic range entirely - that can make your mix sterile and lifeless. Focus on reducing problematic peaks and quiet parts.

Compression is especially important with live musicians. For instance, a drummer might occasionally hit a snare drum hard, making the sound jarring and eating up audio headroom. Applying compression to the snare drum mic ensures the loudest hits are reduced in volume for a more balanced sound.

With synthesized sounds, you can set dynamics correctly through the synthesizer's settings, so you don't always need to resort to compression to reduce dynamic range.

A good rule of thumb? If you're always itching to change the volume, that signal's probably under-compressed.

Learning to EQ Effectively

Mixing techniques include equalization (EQ), where you cut or boost parts of the audio frequency spectrum. It's handy for eliminating harsh frequencies and helping sounds blend together. For instance, if an electric guitar has a harsh mid-range, you might cut a few decibels around the 2kHz to 3kHz range.

EQ helps avoid muddiness by reducing frequency overlap, especially in the bass range. Say you've got a keyboard player and a bass guitarist-apply a low cut filter to the keyboard to give the bassist some sonic space. You can also boost certain frequencies to emphasize the best parts of each track.

However, don't go overboard with EQ; it can make your track sound unnatural. This issue is worsened if you don't have a good playback system, causing unpredictable results on other systems. Keep it subtle, and don't just EQ things for no reason.

Creative Effects

If you're stepping into a creative audio mixing role, you may need to explore beyond EQ, compression, reverb, and delay. There's a plethora of creative effects out there, like modulation effects such as chorus, which can transform an instrument's sound. Imagine adding a heavy chorus to certain vocal sections for that underwater, otherworldly vibe.

Distortion and saturation effects can also modify an instrument's sonic character post-recording. Let's say you've got a clean bass guitar tone that needs some grit. Whip out a saturation plugin and add some dirt.

With creative effects, consider automation - dynamically changing effect parameters over time. For instance, increase the mix depth of the chorus as the song transitions from verse to chorus, building up to a crescendo.

But remember, less is more with creative effects. Don't go overboard or use them just for the sake of it. Have a goal in mind when applying these effects and make your mix truly shine.

The Analog vs Digital Debate

So, you're wondering whether to mix in a digital or analog environment, huh? Well, as a beginner, you don't need to stress about this debate. The accessibility and convenience of digital options make it a no-brainer to start mixing digitally. All you need is a computer and a playback system.

Mixing analog, on the other hand, requires deep pockets to afford all the equipment. Once you've learned the basics, you might consider going analog. But unless you're starting in a pro studio, it doesn't make sense to invest in analog gear when you're just beginning.

The Problem of Perception

You can't always trust your own perception when mixing music. Our brains tend to compensate for sound deficiencies. If you listen to the same mix for hours, it might seem like your drums are balanced, but in reality, the cymbals could be too loud and harsh.

A solution is to take regular breaks from mixing. Mixing for hours on end doesn't work well. You just end up changing things without improvement. If you mix in short bursts and take breaks, you'll hear glaring issues in your project. It's a classic beginner problem to think a track sounds great after hours of mixing, only to be shocked at how awful it sounds the next morning.

To combat these perception issues, use reference tracks. Choose a professionally produced track with the sound qualities you want in your recording and compare it to your own track. You'll likely identify shortcomings quickly that you wouldn't otherwise have been able to perceive. Remember, though, that a commercial track has been professionally mastered, so your track might not sound as impactful during the mixing stage.

Use Soundtrap to Mix Better

So, now you know the answer to the question: "What is mixing?". First off, you'll need a system to mix music on. For beginners, a digital system is the way to go. They're flexible and forgiving, and you likely have most of the equipment already.

Soundtap offers a full suite of mixing tools in its online studio. Sign up for free and explore new and effective ways to make your songs sound better and cleaner.

Get started with Soundtrap today!