Getting a rough mix going is half the battle.
Once you’ve got all your tracks balanced together with levels, EQ, compression and space you’re already 80% there.
Remember the 80/20 rule. 20% of the effort creates 80% of the results.
So here’s the step by step process that will get you 80% done with your mixes.
1. Find the Busiest Part of the Mix
Find the spot in the mix where most, if not all of the instruments are playing at the same time.
This is the densest part of the mix and therefore the hardest one to balance together.
2. Do Levels and Panning
It’s amazing how much a mix can come together if you just take the time to fine-tune the levels of your tracks.
Trust me, a dB up and down on the fader can make a difference.
The same goes with panning. Just moving certain instruments away from each other in the stereo spectrum cleans up the mix.
3. Filtering and Subtractive EQ’ing
Here’s a hard exercise for you, and one I know you don’t want to do:
Don’t boost at all.
We’ll get to that. In this step you only filter out all the unwanted frequencies you don’t want and cut annoying resonances and frequencies you don’t like.
Refer to my One Minute EQ Trick: The Best Way To EQ Out Offending Frequencies for a quick and easy demonstration on finding the frequencies that you don’t want.
4. Add Compression
Don’t try to use every compressor you’ve got. I wouldn’t even recommend using a specialty compressor like an LA2A or an 1176 because of their limited parameters.
Use a compressor you can really tweak. My go-to these days is the Fabfilter Pro-C because of its excellent metering.
At this point you just want to use the same compressor on every track, specifically one you’re really comfortable with.
Think of this compressor as your “balancer.” Use it to keep uneven tracks in check and to add tightness to your tracks.
Word of advice: Really spend time tweaking your attack and release settings. It’s amazing how much you can sculpt a sound by just moving the attack and release around.
5. Add Character EQ
Once you’ve gotten rid of all the frequencies you don’t like and tightened up your tracks with compression, it’s time to add some character.
Grab a different EQ that has some character to it and use it to sweeten your tracks. My go-to EQ for this sort of thing is usually the Waves V-EQ, because I like the blind interface and how it makes you rely on your ears.
6. Saturation or Tape Emulation for Color
At this point your mix should be pretty well put together.
However, using saturation is a common way to take it to the next level. Just slight tape emulation can add warmth to tracks. I use the Kramer Tape on almost everything these days, and when I’m not using it I’m using Fabfilter’s Saturn. At this point I realize that this article is becoming an ad for Waves and Fabfilter. That’s not my intention, that’s just my workflow!
7. Space and Parallel Processing
Your mix might sound very good already if you’ve followed these steps so far. However, your tracks might all sound pretty one-dimensional because they don’t have any space to them.
This is the time you start sending your tracks to reverbs and delays.
This is also the time you can send your tracks to parallel busses for further processing such as compression or saturation.
I’m not going to tell you what you should or shouldn’t do. If you only want to use one reverb then go for it. If you want to use different parallel processing and spaces on all your tracks then go nuts.
If it sounds good in the end then all the power to you.
Congratulations. You’ve got a great rough mix.
Where to Go From a Rough Mix?
Of course, other parts of the song will now need rebalancing.
One aspect of that rebalancing is getting the EQ just right, and learning effective filtering techniques to clean up your mixes.
Lucky for you, I put together a free EQ Course to teach you exactly that.
Image by: Iñaki de Bilbao