NOVEMBER 9, 2023

How to Mix Music: A Complete Guide to Audio Mixing

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You've already taken significant steps learning how to make beats and record music. Now, it's time to explore one of the next stages of music production: audio mixing. This process transforms raw tracks into one polished, cohesive sound. Without proper mixing, your tracks may lack clarity, punch, and that professional touch that brings the best out of your music.

When it comes to getting your music mixed, you have two paths to explore: hiring an experienced mixing engineer or embarking on the rewarding journey of learning to do it yourself. Regardless of your chosen approach, gaining a firm grasp of the fundamentals can prove highly beneficial. It not only enhances your ability to collaborate effectively with others but also empowers you to oversee every aspect of a project, from its inception to its final, mixed form. Within this guide, we'll assist you in developing a deeper understanding of the art of mixing, while also providing insights into the tools and techniques that will enable you to craft pro mixes with confidence.

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What Is Mixing in Music?

Mixing in music refers to the process of combining and adjusting individual audio tracks or elements of a song to create a final stereo or multichannel audio mix. It is a crucial step in music production and is typically done by a mixing engineer or producer. The primary goals of mixing are to achieve a balanced, cohesive, and sonically pleasing sound that translates well across various playback systems, such as speakers and headphones.

5 Elements of Mixing Music

Before diving into the world of music mixing, it's essential to grasp the fundamental elements that constitute the art of mixing itself. While mixing might seem like a complex maze of tools and techniques, at its core, it revolves around shaping five key elements: balance, stereo image, tonal balance, dynamics, and space. These elements are the building blocks of every great mix and every decision you make is based on shaping each one.

  1. Balance

    Achieving a balanced mix involves setting appropriate levels for each audio element, ensuring that no single element overpowers the others. It's about establishing the right blend of instruments and vocals to create a harmonious sound.

  2. Stereo Image

    The stereo image refers to the spatial placement of audio elements within the left-to-right auditory field. It involves panning instruments and sounds to create a sense of width and localization within the stereo mix.

  3. Tonal Balance

    Tonal balance focuses on the frequency content of the mix. It involves shaping the sound by adjusting equalization (EQ) to ensure that different instruments occupy their respective frequency ranges without clashing, resulting in a clear and well-defined mix.

  4. Dynamics

    Dynamics control variations in volume and intensity within a piece of music. It includes techniques like compression to even out volume fluctuations, ensuring that no element is excessively loud or quiet, leading to a balanced and controlled mix.

  5. Space

    Creating space in a mix involves simulating depth and dimension. Techniques like reverb and delay are used to add a sense of distance and position to audio elements, making them appear closer or farther away within a three-dimensional soundstage.

    These elements are fundamental to the art of mixing and collectively contribute to crafting a polished and professional audio mix.

How to Mix Music

Understanding the fundamental elements of music mixing sets the stage for diving into the art of mixing itself. Now, let's explore how to put them into action with a step-by-step workflow you can adapt to your mixing practice.

Mixing begins by setting levels, panning, and organizing tracks to create balance and clarity. Then, you refine the mix using tools like EQ, compression, and spatial processing to enhance the music's depth, dimension, and impact. Let’s explore each step in more detail:

  1. Choose the right tools

    Like any craft, mixing requires the right tools. Make sure that you have the essentials:

    • Digital Audio Workstation (DAW): Your DAW is the central hub for mixing. Choose a DAW that suits your workflow and budget. Popular options include Pro Tools, Logic Pro, Ableton Live, and FL Studio.
    • Audio Plugins: Audio plugins are audio processors that enhance the functionality of a DAW. In mixing, you’ll need processors like EQ, compression, reverb, and other audio effects to help bring your mix to life.
    • Studio Monitors or Headphones: Quality monitoring is crucial for making precise judgments about your mix. Invest in studio-grade monitors or headphones that provide accurate, flat frequency response.
    • Audio Interface: An audio interface connects your instruments and microphones to your computer. Look for one with sufficient inputs and outputs for your needs.
    • MIDI Controller (Optional): If you're working with virtual instruments or synthesizers, a MIDI controller can be a valuable addition to your setup.
    • Acoustic Treatment (Optional): To create a sonically neutral environment, consider acoustic treatment for your workspace. This can include bass traps, diffusers, and acoustic panels.
  2. Organize your session

    A clutter-free and organized workspace leads to a more efficient mixing process. Here's how to set up your DAW session for success:

    • Track Labeling: Label each track in your session clearly and descriptively. This will save you time and reduce confusion during mixing.
    • Track Grouping: Group related tracks together, such as drums, vocals, and guitars. This makes it easier to apply processing and automation to multiple tracks simultaneously.
    • Session Organization: Arrange your tracks logically. For example, place your drums at the top, followed by bass, guitars, vocals, and any other instruments or effects returns.
    • Backup Your Project: Before you begin mixing, make sure to save a backup of your project. This ensures you can revert to a previous state if needed.
    • Aux Tracks: Set up your aux (auxiliary) tracks for effects and bussing. Aux tracks will allow you to route multiple channels to a single aux track for adding reverb, delay, or other effects efficiently, streamlining your workflow.
  3. Listen to the mix and take notes

    During the mixing process, the goal is to create a blended mix of all your sounds. To do this effectively, you need to understand each track first. Before adjusting gain, panning or effects, take a moment to listen through each track individually. This is also a chance to note unique characteristics of the tone and dynamics of individual instruments that you can factor in when mixing. Taking a moment to listen to each track individually and in relation to other instruments can be an opportunity to inform your decisions when adjusting EQ and panning to add width, depth and balance to your mix.

  4. Set instrument levels

    Now that you've prepared your workspace and gathered your tools, it's time to delve into the exciting world of music mixing. This initial step is about setting your instrument levels and ensuring that no single element overwhelms the mix.

    Start with the busiest section of your song

    Begin your mix by looping the busiest part of the song, such as a chorus or a section with many instruments playing simultaneously. Mixing in the context of a busy section allows you to hear how different instruments interact with each other during the most intense moments of the song. The busiest section serves as an anchor or reference point that defines the energy and intensity level to which the rest of the song builds. By getting this section right from the start, you establish the sonic benchmark for the entire mix.

    Zero out the mix

    Begin by zeroing out your mix—move all the faders on a mixing console or in a digital audio workstation (DAW) to their lowest position. In this state, no audio from the tracks is audible, and all settings are effectively at their starting point. This allows mix engineers to begin the mixing process from a clean slate.

    Adjust the most prominent element

    Identify the most prominent or dominant element in your mix. This is often the lead vocal or the primary instrument that carries the melody. Adjust its fader first to a level where it's comfortably audible but not overwhelming. Use your ears as the primary guide. Aim for a balance where the loudest elements, like drums, peak around -12 dB to -6 dB on your mixer or DAW meter. This provides enough headroom for later processing while preventing distortion.

    After setting the prominent element, gradually bring in the supporting instruments one by one. Focus on the rhythm section (drums and bass) next, as they provide the backbone of the mix. Balance them with the lead element so that they work together harmoniously.

    Compare level relationships with your reference track

    Compare your mix to reference tracks from professionally mixed songs. Listen for the levels between different instruments in the reference tracks and apply similar principles to your mix.

  5. Set your instruments in the stereo field

    Now that you've dialed in your levels, it's time to position each instrument within the stereo field. Panning is a fundamental mixing technique that dictates where each instrument or sound is heard in the listener's left-to-right auditory spectrum. By adjusting the panning, you can create the illusion of a guitar coming from the left, a keyboard centered, and a backing vocal from the right. This spatial manipulation is integral to the mixing process, ensuring that each instrument occupies a unique space in the stereo field for optimal clarity and balance in your audio mix.

    Panning offers several benefits:

    • Enhanced Clarity: Proper panning prevents audio elements from competing for the same sonic space, making it easier for listeners to distinguish each instrument.
    • Creating a Soundstage: It allows you to craft a virtual stage where instruments and vocals are positioned, giving the mix a 3D quality.
    • Emphasizing Key Elements: Panning can be used strategically to draw attention to specific instruments or create interesting movements within the mix.
    • Balancing the Stereo Image: It contributes to a balanced and immersive stereo image, which is essential for a professional sound.

    Consider panning conventions like keeping bass and main elements centered for a solid foundation while placing other instruments and effects strategically left or right to create a sense of space and width. Be mindful of maintaining balance so that the mix doesn't feel lopsided. After panning, revisit your track to ensure that instrument volume levels and EQs still complement the overall mix, as panning adjustments can impact the perceived balance.

  6. Use EQ for clarity and cohesion

    Once you've established a rough mix with levels and panning, it's time to focus on tonal balance and frequency separation. While panning helps position sounds in the stereo field, EQ (equalization) is equally crucial for creating sonic space. EQ allows you to shape the frequency content of audio signals, removing unwanted frequencies, preventing clashes, and enhancing desired sonic characteristics. Here's a step-by-step approach to using EQ effectively:

    Address Frequency Issues First

    Start by tackling any frequency problems that may be present in your tracks. This initial cleanup is vital to prevent the amplification of problematic frequencies and to lay the foundation for a smoother, more controlled mix. Begin with subtractive EQ techniques, involving the reduction of specific frequencies:

    • Tame harsh frequencies: Identify and reduce piercing or harsh frequencies that can make your mix unpleasant.
    • Removing excessive Low-End: Eliminate unnecessary low-end frequencies in non-bass instruments or vocals for a cleaner mix.
    • Attenuate resonances: Target and reduce resonant frequencies that could lead to ringing or muddiness.

    Carve Out Sonic Space

    During the EQ phase, another key goal is to create distinct sonic spaces for each sound in your mix. This is crucial because when multiple instruments occupy the same frequency range, it can result in frequency masking—a buildup of frequencies that leads to a harsh or muddy mix. EQ helps establish separation and clarity by identifying and reducing overlapping frequency ranges between different tracks or instruments.

    Enhancements

    In addition to problem-solving, EQ can be used for enhancements by boosting specific frequency ranges to emphasize desired qualities in an audio track. For instance, boosting high frequencies can add brilliance and clarity to vocals, while enhancing low frequencies can bring out the punch and warmth of a kick drum.

  7. Control dynamics with compression

    Dynamics in music refer to the variations in volume or intensity, spanning from the gentle rise of a singer's voice to the thunderous crash of drums. Managing these dynamics is pivotal for achieving a balanced, cohesive, and polished mix. Without proper control, certain elements may become excessively loud, drowning out others and resulting in a chaotic mix.

    To maintain precise control over dynamics, your primary tool is compression. Compression works by smoothing out volume fluctuations, reducing audio levels when they exceed a set threshold. This ensures that no element is overly quiet or loud, resulting in a more balanced and controlled mix. Additionally, compressors are valuable for shaping the impact of an instrument, such as adding punch to drums or a bass guitar. They play a crucial role in sculpting the envelope of a sound, defining how its volume changes over time.

    Advanced uses of compression

    In addition to these fundamentals, you can explore more advanced compression techniques, such as:

    • Bus compression: In a mix, you often have related instruments or elements that can be grouped together for processing. Group bus compression enhances the cohesion and dynamics of the grouped instruments. It can help these elements sit together more cohesively in the mix, making them sound like they belong together and reinforcing the musical context.
    • Sidechain compression: Sidechain compression is frequently used to create space for specific elements in the mix. For example, it can be applied to a bass track, causing it to momentarily lower in volume whenever the kick drum hits, allowing the kick to cut through more prominently.
    • Multiband compression: Multiband compression divides the audio signal into multiple frequency bands, each with its own compressor settings. This allows for precise control over different frequency ranges in a mix.
  8. Create space, depth, and dimension

    Now, let's add ambiance and character to your mix by creating the illusion of space and depth, transforming your flat audio recording into a three-dimensional soundscape. To achieve this, we'll apply spatial processing techniques using modulation and time-based audio effects.

    Create depth with reverb

    Reverb is a fundamental tool for adding depth and cohesion to your mix. It achieves this by creating the illusion of distance and space. Main elements are often kept in the forefront of the mix, while supporting elements can be placed further away by adding more reverb and reducing their volume. This technique not only enhances the perceived depth but also helps glue the mix together, creating a more unified and immersive listening experience.

    Add delay for dimension and rhythm

    In addition to reverb and delay, effects like saturation and modulation can contribute to spatialization and dimension. Saturation adds warmth and character, while modulation effects like chorus widen the stereo image and provide a lush, dimensional quality.

    Other effects

    There are more tricks to make your mix sound 3D. Saturation adds warmth and character, while modulation (like chorus) spreads the sound wide. Start with just a bit of these effects and see how they transform your mix.

  9. Add expression with mix automation

    You can breathe more life into your mix by using automation to change various audio parameters over time. Mix automation allows for precise adjustments to elements like volume, panning, effects, and EQ on individual tracks or the entire mix. The primary purpose of mix automation is to enhance the expressiveness, movement, and overall impact of a piece of music.

    For example, consider a vocal track in a song. During a quiet, intimate verse, mix automation can be used to gradually increase the vocal's reverb and delay effects as the singer's emotional delivery intensifies. As the song transitions to a powerful chorus, automation can boost the vocal's volume and add a touch of distortion to create a more impactful and dynamic sound. This creates a sense of movement and allows the producer to emphasize emotional impact when necessary.

    When mixing, you can automate changes in any parameter including:

    • Volume: Adjust track levels to balance dynamics and emphasize key moments.
    • Panning: Move sounds across the stereo field for a dynamic, immersive experience.
    • Effect Parameters: Modulate parameters like reverb wetness, delay feedback, or chorus depth to add movement and tonal shaping.
    • EQ: Fine-tune the tonal balance and eliminate frequency clashes to enhance clarity.
    • Mute/Solo: Silencing or highlighting specific tracks or instruments at precise times for musical impact.
    • Instrument Parameters: Automate parameters on virtual instruments, like synthesizers or virtual pianos, to change their character and expression.

    Mix automation is an invaluable tool for music producers and engineers, allowing them to breathe life into a mix, create dynamic changes, and connect with the listener on a deeper emotional level.

  10. Take breaks, review, and iterate

    While mixing music is a creative and technical endeavor, and it's important to recognize that it isn't always a linear process. Instead, it often involves a cycle of listening, refining, and iterating to achieve the best possible outcome. Here are some things you can incorporate in your workflow:

    Take breaks

    Try taking regular breaks during your mixing sessions are essential. They help prevent listening fatigue and allow you to approach your mix with fresh ears and renewed focus. Here's how to make the most of breaks:

    • Step away from your mixing environment.
    • Listen to other music or engage in a different creative activity.
    • Return with a refreshed perspective to make more accurate judgments.

    Review and listen critically

    After taking a break, come back to your mix with a critical ear. Listen to your entire mix from start to finish multiple times, focusing on different aspects with each pass, such as individual instrument levels, tonal balance, and dynamics. Here's how to review your mix effectively:

    • Compare your mix to professionally mixed tracks for reference.
    • Solo and mute tracks to isolate elements for closer examination.
    • Listen through different playback systems, such as headphones and studio monitors, to catch any issues.

    Taking notes and iteration

    As you listen critically and review your mix, it's a good practice to take notes on aspects that need improvement. Note down specific areas, such as EQ adjustments, volume changes, or effect tweaks. Based on your notes, make necessary changes and iterate on your mix. Remember that mixing is an ongoing process, and each iteration brings you closer to your desired sound.

    By adopting a cyclic approach of taking breaks, reviewing your mix critically, and iterating based on your findings, while also keeping detailed notes, you'll ensure that your mix reaches its full potential. This flexibility and willingness to revisit and refine are integral to achieving a professional and captivating final product.

  11. Exporting and preparing for mastering

    Congratulations, you've crafted your mix! Once your mix is complete, the next step is to bounce your mix for the mastering stage. In this step, you’re checking for proper headroom and exporting your mix to a single stereo audio file.

    Checking for Headroom

    Before exporting, it's crucial to ensure that your mix has the appropriate headroom.

    • Peak Level: It's advisable to leave some headroom to prevent clipping and distortion during the mastering process. Aim for peak levels around -3 dB to -6 dB. This gives the mastering engineer room to work with without encountering digital overs.
    • LUFS (Loudness Units Full Scale): LUFS measures the integrated loudness of a track over time. The recommended LUFS levels can also vary depending on the genre and style of music, but a common target for commercial music is around -14 to -10 LUFS.

    File Format and Specifications

    Once you've checked for headroom, determine the appropriate file format and specifications for your export. Common formats include WAV, AIFF, and FLAC. Ensure the following:

    • Bit Depth: Use 24-bit or 32-bit for optimal quality and flexibility.
    • Sample Rate: Select a sample rate suitable for your project; 44.1kHz is standard for CD and online distribution, but higher rates may be necessary for film and hi-fi audio.

    Bounce your mix

    Now, you’re ready to export your mix. Create a stereo mixdown of your final mix. Ensure that all your tracks and automation are rendered into a single stereo file. Make sure no individual tracks or effects are bypassed or muted unless intentionally done.

    Communication with Mastering Engineers

    This is the stage to communicate with the mastering engineer if you plan to have your mix professionally mastered. Provide any specific instructions or notes regarding your desired sonic characteristics, references, and the intended platform for your music.

    Backup Your Project

    Before exporting, create a backup of your entire project, including all raw audio files, session files, and settings. This ensures you have a safety net in case further adjustments are needed.

    With these steps in the right order, you're now ready to export your mix and share your music with the world. Whether you're distributing your mix independently or collaborating with a mastering engineer, these preparations ensure that your mix retains its quality and impact as it moves forward in the production process.

Get started Mixing Music

As you approach the end of this introduction to audio mixing, please keep in mind that it's a broad subject with much more to explore. Mixing music is an art where your instincts and continuous learning matter. Every process, from setting levels to applying effects, offers its own world of knowledge. With that said, once your project is mixed, you’ll be prepared to move on to the next stage of audio production: mastering. During this phase, your mix will be refined and prepared for various playback devices and streaming services.

Ready to dive into the world of audio mixing? Explore Pro Tools, the choice of award-winning mix engineers, and discover the tools that can bring your mix to life.

Get Started with Pro Tools

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