Mixing is so often seen as an esoteric mishmash of techniques, one of the black arts of music production, where the methods and rationales are beyond the comprehension of mere mortals.
But mixing is actually grounded on fundamental sound principles, and the skills necessary to produce quality mixes can be learned by anyone.
So in this article we’ll cover a few of those essential skill sets — professional mixing tips you should be able to use in your home studio and audio productions right away.
Table of Contents
- 1 – Balancing the mix
- 2 – Create an optimal mixing environment
- 3 – Learn your tools intimately
- 4 – Back off and let your mix breathe
- 5 – Ease up on the effects
- 6 – Rely on reference tracks
- 7 – Develop critical listening skills
- 8 – Tame the low end
- 9 – Focus on the big picture
- 10 – Always strive to improve
- Final Thoughts
Read other mixing and recording articles:
- Proper Compression Settings for Vocals
- Proper Compression Settings for Bass
- EQ & Compression Settings for Drums
- Mixing Vocals Tips & Tricks
First… What is Mixing?
At its most basic, mixing involves ensuring that each individual element in a song exists in its own sonic space. In most cases, this simply involves proper adjustment of volume levels in relation to each other.
But there is more to mixing than that. Decisions will also have to be made with regard to panning, which places individual elements in their own position in the virtual left-to-right “sound stage”; and equalization, which determines the relative “brightness” and “darkness” of a sound.
Mixing also involves the proper application of effects to the various signals. Depending on the creative intent or technical goal, tracks may be sent to a delay or reverb, routed through a modulation effect such as a chorus, or have its dynamic range limited by a compressor.
Ultimately, the goal of mixing is to produce a cohesive piece of music where all the elements exist in an aesthetically-pleasing blend.
Professional Mixing Tips for Absolute Beginners
1. Balancing the mix
In any mixdown scenario, you should strive for the optimum balance between the individual elements.
The overall goal should be a cohesive piece of music, in which certain ‘lead’ elements stand out, whether it is the vocals or an instrument, while others serve complementary ‘support’ roles.
A good mix is one in which all the individual elements are properly balanced in relation to each other. At the end of the mixing process, what you should have ideally have is a balanced mix where the most important elements are sufficiently highlighted (whether that be your lead guitar, keys, or vocals), with the other elements serving complementary roles.
Achieving a balanced mix is often simply a matter of setting the right levels, but don’t neglect the importance of equalization, dynamics, and judicious use of effects as well.
2. Create an optimal mixing environment
Your mixes are only as accurate as the environment you work in. A properly treated mixing environment will enable you to hear things more accurately, and enable you to make the right mixing decisions.
Not everyone is fortunate enough to work in a professional mixing facility, with proper sound proofing, room treatment, and high-end monitors and mixing equipment. But there is a lot that can be done in terms of establishing an environment that is more conducive to effective mixing.
Room treatment is one of the most important–and yet most often neglected–aspects of setting up a mixing room. In fact, many experts feel that spending on room treatment will have a more significant effect on improving the quality of your mixes than spending thousands of dollars on high-end monitor speakers.
It can be quite costly to reduce standing waves, installing sound dampeners, and treating a room for optimal monitoring and critical listening. That’s why suggest starting out with some good bass traps, as that would be your first and biggest problem, especially in a small room.
In all, you’ll find that the initial cost is undeniably worth it, and it will pay for itself many times over in the course of your mixing work.
3. Learn your tools intimately
More than focusing on acquiring more equipment, your mixes might be better served by learning the tools that you already have. Unless you are working only with the most basic gear, you might find that you already have everything you need to produce great mixes.
This applies to anything and everything from your DAW to your speakers, to your room, and even your ears. Many novice mixing engineers are guilty of focusing too much on acquiring specific equipment without taking the time to maximize the capabilities of the gear that they already have.
While there is no doubt that investing in the proper equipment will help improve your mixes, one of the best professional mixing tips anyone can give you is learning your existing equipment inside and out is a more cost effective–and overall more effective–way to get better mixes. This will also show exactly, overtime, where you feel that your gear is lacking, and you will know exactly what you will need to get in time. Far better than having someone selling to you something you don’t actually need.
4. Back off and let your mix breathe
Dense and indistinct mixes with ill-defined elements (that is, you can’t distinguish the various parts of your recording or beat) typically results from overworking a mix past the point of good sense.
Oftentimes, giving each individual element room to breathe is the key to wide open and spacious-sounding mixes.
Another thing that many beginners are guilty of is working on a mix way past the point where it can do any good. Whether this means reworking a mix over and over, piling on way more effects than is necessary, or simply overthinking the entire process, this often results in an overly-dense and muddy mix wherein nothing stands out.
One of the most important things to keep in mind is that all sounds inherently occupy their own space. Unless certain elements are stepping all over each other sonically, it might be best to let the inherent tonal qualities of the different elements determine their places in the mix. This often results in a more “natural” sounding mix, with each element existing in its own sonic space.
5. Ease up on the effects
Think of effects as the icing on the cake: a little bit goes a long way and they can really enhance the overall flavor of a dessert.
Lather it on excessively however, and the results can get cloying and unpalatable pretty quickly.
Effects are great. Applied judiciously, they can really liven up a mix and give the listener a good dose of ear candy to latch onto. But there is such a thing as too much of a good thing, and this is often applicable to the overuse of effects.
Unless you are going for a radically unique or obnoxious effect, it might best to ensure that your mix stands strongly on its own even before you add signal processing. If you feel that your mix needs a little more ‘pizzazz’, you can then begin adding effects a little at a time, and then ease off when it becomes too apparent or too dominant.
6. Rely on reference tracks
Apart from room treatment, probably the single quickest way to improve your mixes significantly is to compare your work against reference tracks.
With careful comparison, you could be cranking out pro quality mixes in no time, while picking up essential skills that you won’t learn anywhere else.
The benefits of using reference tracks to compare your mix against cannot be overstated. The best reference tacks are those in a similar style as the music you are trying to produce. If you are mixing a rock track for instance, referencing it against a well-recorded rock song you are familiar with is the logical course of action.
7. Develop critical listening skills
You need to know what it is you are trying to achieve before you can achieve it, which is why developing the ability to listen critically is important.
This means listening to a lot of music, and identifying how every element sits in that track, from the individual drums, to bass compression with the kick, to the background are panned, and how the lead vocals are compressed. See if you can hear these things in the tracks you listen to to train your ears.
Just as boxers might watch videos of their opponents prior to an upcoming match, so too should you strive to learn from what has already been done. Although there is something to be said about developing mixing techniques and methods on your own, there is little to be gained by reinventing the wheel.
As with reference tracks, you don’t necessarily want to mimic or recreate what some other mixing engineers or producer has done. Rather, you simply want to have a base point of reference from which you can head off into your own sonic explorations.
Critical listening is more than just about figuring out what it is about a certain piece of music that you like or don’t like. It would also be helpful to know what specific methods are being employed in order to achieve certain results. In particular, you should pay close attention to how standard mixing techniques are employed in the service of creating a distinctive sonic tapestry.
8. Tame the low end
This is such an under-utilized technique for clearing up a mix that it might as well be a best-kept secret! Get a handle on this essential technique, and you could put an end to muddy and ill-defined mixes forever.
This is perhaps one of the most important things that you could do to avoid muddy and indistinct-sounding mixes. Most every sound has a certain amount of low frequency component, even trebly sounds such as high-hats, strings, pads, and vocals. The problem is that although this low-end content is typically inaudible to the human ear, they remain present in the signal, and take up valuable headroom. This prevents you from boosting the signal to optimum levels.
Excessive low end also has a way of taking up the same frequency ranges as other essential elements in the mix. Bass instruments–whether bass guitars or synthesizers–often fight for space with the bass drum, resulting in the loss of punch and low-end weight in one or both tracks.
By carving the low end out of tracks wherein low frequency energy isn’t essential, you leave a lot more space for the bass instruments to happily exist. This allows you to boost the overall signal to optimal levels without clipping, while retaining essential low end body and energy.
9. Focus on the big picture
During the course of striving for the “perfect mix,” we are often guilty of neglecting the big picture. It might be helpful to remember that what you are trying to produce is a properly-mixed, finished piece of music, rather than a perfectly rendered solo track.
Have you ever heard the expression “Losing sight of the forest for the trees”? Nowhere is this more applicable as in the context of a mixdown scenario, where we often focus excessively/obsessively on the details to the detriment of the overall mix.
While there is something to be said about listening to specific elements of the mix in isolation, remember that the end result will always be the sum of the individual parts. It might therefore be important to focus more on how specific techniques will impact on the overall mix, rather than how perfect you can make an individual element sound.
10. Always strive to improve
The road to mixing perfection is a long and arduous one, but you can only get better over time. Even those at the highest level sometimes mess-up. But by staying committed and focused on improving your abilities, achieving professional-level mixes is only a matter of time.
The ability to produce great mixes doesn’t happen overnight. Just like anything else that involves skill, mixing requires frequent and constant practice if you hope to get better at it.
Don’t be content to simply keep cranking out mixes at the same level of quality either. No matter how good you get, there is always room for leveling up on your game. There is always some new method, some esoteric technique, and even just some fundamental principle that you may have neglected.
Remember that complacency has no place in achieving perfection. By constantly setting goals for yourself and trying your best to surpass them, you will eventually work your way up to becoming the best mixing engineer that you could possibly be.
In many ways, mixing is as much about creativity as it is about technique. The best professional mixing tip there is would be to rely on your own good judgment, backed by a firm knowledge of fundamental sound principles. You achieve these sound principles by learning your craft, and exposing your ears to the best that exists in the industry, not just out of pure entertainment, but critically. The ability to produce quality mixes can be learned and developed by anybody who is truly committed.