The Ultimate Guide to Starting Your Mix
Let’s talk a little about what it means to “start mixing.”
You might struggle with knowing where to start.
What do you do after importing a session? Where does everything belong and how do you get going?
Let’s use a construction analogy to explain.
Say you want to build a house. Congratulations, you’re ready to custom make a house that’s all you, with everything you’d need. You can visualize the fancy interior, high vaulted ceilings, and the swanky kitchen that’s pulled right out of a fancy magazine.
Unfortunately, all that plush decor is far in the future because you’re still standing on a dirt lot that you haven’t even broken ground on yet. You won’t be buying fancy chandeliers, leather sofas, or smart appliances any time soon.
You’ll have to start at the beginning and dig the foundation.
Mixing follows the same thought process. You don’t start off with fancy vocal reverb tricks or parallel distortion on the solo. You start off with the foundation and go from there.
Think of the Pareto Principle when you’re mixing. 20% of the work results in 80% of the outcome. That means that you have to get through the basic mixing workflow that builds your mix before you can add fancy stuff on top of it.
The thing about modern mixing is that there are so many options and ways to do things that you end up getting confused by all the possibilities. That makes you more insecure about whether what you’re doing is correct, and often you’ll end up doing a bunch of different things that contradict each other.
Instead, stick to the basics and follow a workflow that you know from the start will get you to the finish line.
And what are these basics that comprise of 20% of the work?
- Depth and Effects
Those are the important things to think about, regardless of what plug-ins you use. If you focus on mastering those five concepts through practice and repetition, your mixes will get better.
Now that you know that those five principles work together to get you 80% of the way there, let me show you the workflow I use to take that information and apply it every time I do a mix.
Step 1 – Start in Mono on a Crappy Speaker
I try to make the initial part of the mix a little bit harder than it needs to be. I mix the entire song in mono on my Behringer Behritone mixcube monitor. This is kind of like exercising with weights. It’s really hard while they’re on, but once you take them off everything becomes easier. Getting a rough mix on shitty speakers in mono really makes you pay attention to what you’re doing in the mix.
I do this religiously, but it’s not necessarily the fastest way to get things done. If you are stressed for time or only have one pair of monitors then getting a rough mix in mono is a fine substitute.
Step 2 – 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. Start there.
Step 3 – 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 , the 1 dB rule can really help you finesse the faders into place.
The same goes with panning. Just moving certain instruments away from each other in the stereo spectrum cleans up the mix.
There is no one way to get the right levels, and there’s certainly no rule about where you should pan the instruments. Nobody’s lost a mixing job because they panned the shaker too much to the left.
The goal for the rough mix is to create as much separation between the instruments in the stereo field (even if you’re panning in mono) and create balance among all the different instruments.
What kind of balance you’re looking for is up to you. If you’re a guitar player chances are you’ll want your guitars loud. If you’re a self-conscious vocalist like me then you’ll probably make your vocals quieter than if you gave the song to a different mixer.
Don’t worry too much about getting a perfect balance to start. You want to move fast. There’s a reason we call it a rough mix. It’s rough because you haven’t added any processing to make those instruments jump out.
Step 4 – Master Bus Processing
After I get a rough mix going I like adding some master bus processing to enhance the entire mix before I start tackling the individual busses and instruments.
My master bus processing consists of:
- Analog summing or saturation plug-in.
- Multi-band compression.
- A second character compressor, like the LA2A if I’m feeling especially adventurous.
- An EQ, usually the Fabfilter Pro-Q2 in Linear Phase mode.
- Waves Vitamin. I’m a huge fan of this plug-in and it’s especially great on the master bus to add some overall sweetening. It’s really just a second set of EQ, compression, and saturation, but I love the multi-band aspect of it and how it lets me add the necessary character I need.
If you don’t have the exact same plug-ins, don’t worry.
Just use whatever EQ and compression you have to get started. You can search for free multi-band compression and saturation plug-ins on Google until you can justify spending money on premium plug-ins. For now, just use what you have to get started.
At this point I usually feel like I’ve done as much to the overall mix as I can. It’s usually sounding a little tighter because of the compression, and with some subtle EQing the mix sounds a little cleaner.
Step 5 – Mixing the Drums
On my drum bus I’ll have the usual plug-ins ready to rock: EQ, compression, and some form of saturation. At this point in time I’m a big fan of the API Vision Channel strip. Again, don’t get scared away because it’s a premium plug-in. It’s just a glorified EQ, gate, and compressor which you can easily put together yourself with separate plug-ins or a completely different channel strip of your choice.
I’ll use the EQ on the channel strip for broad strokes, cutting what I don’t want (usually the boxiness) and adding what is lacking in the lows and the highs.
I tend to use the compressor on the channel strip very subtly, just adding a few dBs of gain reduction to steady the drums a bit. The reason I don’t hit the compressor hard is because I’ll usually have a separate EQ and a multi-band compressor after the channel strip for some more detailed processing.
After that, I might use a character EQ to add any frequencies back that were squeezed too much by the compressor. Lastly, I’ll add an instance of the Vitamin plug-in to add parallel EQ, compression, and saturation to the signal.
If I have separate kick and snare busses I’ll treat them the same way, with a combination of analog summing or saturation, EQ, and compression. If the individual drums need specialized processing like transient design or sample replacement I’ll do that on the individual tracks. Drum mixing is a comprehensive subject and one I won’t be going in-depth right now because I’ve already covered it in-depth inside the Drum Mix Toolkit.
Step 6 – Mix the Bass, Guitar, Vocals and Other Instruments
The process I use on each instrument bus follow a very similar pattern: saturation, EQ, the compression style that fits the instrument, and a rebalancing character EQ if needed.
The reason my mixing template has every plug-in already in place is so that I don’t have to make a lot of software decisions and can focus on making the mix sound good instead. That said, if a particular instrument just doesn’t work with the processing I have in place, it will take more time to force it to work than to experiment for a few minutes with different plug-ins.
That’s why a workflow is so important. It helps you most of the time, but it’s never going to be perfect for every scenario. Making the workflow save you so much time also means that you can use some of that extra time to deviate and experiment when needed.
Step 7 – Add Effects and Parallel Processing
At this point I’m usually still in mono, trying to wrangle my mix together through my MixCube monitor and getting ready to give it all up.
However, I know that my mix is definitely sounding better than before because I’ve created enough separation between the instruments with EQ, and everything is sounding a lot tighter and nicer due to the compression and saturation.
At this point I’m ready to add effects. If you’ve created your own mix template similar to mine then you know that I already have most of the effects I need within reach.
- Parallel Compression for drums.
- Stereo spread for vocals and some instruments.
- A drum reverb.
- A snare reverb if needed.
- A general reverb for everything else.
- Vocal space bus.
- Short delay.
- Long delay.
- Random effects channel.
Sometimes all a mix needs is some space. When that’s the case, it’s just a matter of finding the right reverb (or using the same reverb preset you like all the time) and calling it a day.
Other times you want to take a little more time dialing in the parallel compression on the drums, adding some stereo width, and playing around with the various times on your delay to get the right feel.
However long it takes you, it still won’t take you as long as if you didn’t create limitations for yourself by creating your go-to effects. It’s much easier to make a mix sound like you want it if you’re familiar with the plug-ins that you use and you can use them effectively and fast.
Step 8 – Stereo Tweaks
At this point everything is sounding as good as it possibly can in mono on my MixCube. Meaning, not very good, but that’s more the fault of the mono MixCube than my mixing. When I change it over to my better studio monitors and flip it over to stereo I want to be impressed by the change.
There’s something wrong if the mix doesn’t come to life in both power and stereo width. If that’s the case I’ll look for the instruments that sound buried in the mix and try to bring them to life, either through effects, EQ enhancements, or parallel processing.
Step 9 – Translation and Automation
Now, all you need to do is listen to it on multiple speaker systems and change what jumps out at you as different. If the bass is really muddy on a certain speaker then try to EQ the bass so that it still sounds powerful on your studio monitors while staying clean on the muddy speaker.
I’ll usually reserve automation for this final step too because I don’t want to do too much manual mixing until all the processing is in place.
Give yourself a couple rounds of tweaks and then call it a day. If you’re constantly tweaking and rebouncing you’re wasting an awful lot of time that could be better spent otherwise.
If you’re working with your own band then let them have the final say. If they like it, stop tweaking! If you’re working with a band and they like the sound of the mix, your work is done. You don’t get paid extra for every tweak so why waste your time if everyone is happy?
All of the steps listed so far should define about 80% of your workflow.
Sticking to a standard workflow that works for you will help you know what to focus on next.
You can certainly do a fair amount of jumping around from one thing to another throughout the mix, but in general, sticking to these guidelines will speed up the entire process and help you complete your mixes faster.
Step By Step Mixing – How to Create Great Mixes With Only 5 Plug-ins
If you want an easy-to-use reference guide that you can follow every time you’re stuck with a problematic mix, check out my latest eBook, Step By Step Mixing: How to Create Great Mixes With Only 5 Plug-ins.
If you follow those steps above, and the tips and tricks inside Step By Step Mixing, you’ll become a better and more efficient mixer in no time.
Here’s What You’ll Learn Inside:
- Learn to get organized and simplify your mixing process to create more mixes that sound better in less time
- Learn practical EQ tips to make all of your instruments fit in your mix
- Learn to use compression to create punchy and tight mixes
- Learn to use reverb and delay to add space and depth to your mixes without cluttering up the song and making yourself sound like an amateur
- Learn everything you need to know about saturation to add that secret sauce to your songs that makes people take notice of your skills
- Learn an invaluable process to getting your mix to translate to any speaker or sound system
Here’s what one of my beta readers, Andrew Amelang, owner of Brenham Music Academy said about it:
“Awesome job! It’s easy to read, clear, concise, warm, and chocked full of tips while at the same time staying pretty accessible. You have a great writing voice. I’ve been buying music books since I was a kid (currently 58), and I can honestly say that’s one of the more useful and helpful books I’ve read. Does exactly what the reader should expect it to do, and does it thoroughly but in an easy to read and engaging manner. Kudos.”
#1 Best-Seller On Amazon
In fact, when it launched, Step By Step Mixing hit the #1 Best-Seller list in Music Recording and Sound.
It beat out Mixing Secrets for the Small Studio by Mike Senior, Modern Recording Techniques by David Miles Huber and Recording Unhinged by Sylvia Massey, all incredible authors, engineers and producers in their own right.
It’s an incredibly proud moment for me, and I’m grateful to my audience who helped me achieve it.
Here’s what Nathan Moser, a Step By Step Mixing reader, messaged me on Facebook when the book came out.
“Really enjoying the book. The way you organized it really helps me retain everything I am reading. I just want to say thank you for being one of the people who keeps me motivated to continue my dream to hopefully have a career in mixing.”
It’s great to hear that my work keeps people motivated! If you need a simple step by step guide to creating great mixes using only five plug-ins then grab Step By Step Mixing now.