What is mixing?
Before you start mixing your track, let's talk about what mixing is all about and what tools you need to create a proper mix. Mixing your song isn't simply about slapping some effects on the individual tracks, but more so about achieving a balance between the vocals and individual instruments, creating a mood.
So the red thread doesn’t get lost in the mix, it is recommended to organise your song session in your digital audio workstation (DAW) first. For this purpose it is important to label each track clearly, sorting them by instrument, e.g. arrange all drum tracks together, guitars, vocals, etc. This will make your work much easier later on. Additionally, you can assign different colours to the tracks to get an even better overview.
Next, you should clean up your tracks - delete unused tracks and remove unwanted or annoying noise from your individual regions. Use fades and crossfades to eliminate clicks and pops. Create subgroups to group specific types of drum for example. This will allow you to apply effects to multiple channels at once, saving time and giving you more options when mixing.
Panning and volume
Volume is the most important tool in your arsenal for achieving the necessary balance in your track.
There are different approaches and every mix engineer has their own concept of how to start tuning the volume for each track. It’s a good idea to begin with the drums, as they are usually the foundation in the song, but the vocals are an equally good starting place. Let's start with the drums this time and adjust the faders of each drum element, so that the signals settle about -5dB below zero. When you are satisfied with the sound of your drums, add the other instruments by gradually raising the faders in the virtual mixer (Mixer view) until the appropriate volume of the other instruments is reached.
Now you can pan the different instruments to the left and right and place them in the stereo panorama. This will give the whole mix more depth and spaciousness. The kick, vocals and bass will mostly stay in the middle.
Audio Plug-In: the equaliser takes care of frequencies!
When it comes to creating a good mix, EQs are useful tools that help you cut or boost specific frequencies. You can change the frequencies of each track so that they fit perfectly into your mix. There are several reasons why you might want to use an EQ in your audio mix, such as to create clarity and definition between instruments, remove unwanted or annoying frequencies from a track, or add more character to the overall sound.
Your DAW should be equipped with the most common EQs:
- High-pass filter: lets through all frequencies above the set frequency and cuts frequencies below it
- Low-pass filter: does exactly the opposite - it lets the low frequencies through while cutting the high frequencies
- High-shelf filter: allows frequencies above the set frequency to be boosted or cut
- Low-Shelf Filter: frequencies below the set frequency can be boosted or cut
Parametric EQs are often found built into channel strips and mixing consoles. Parametric EQ offers gain, frequency, and Q factor adjustments that can be used for smooth transitions between frequency bands or targeted surgical tweaks with a high Q factor.
Equalizers can be used to further emphasise the character of individual instruments in the mix or to use them creatively as an effect. It's best to simply try out the different types, switch them solo and find out for yourself what you like best and what serves your song best.
Using a compressor reduces the dynamic range of your audio signal. This is done by setting a certain threshold for the transmissibility of your signal, above which the quieter parts are turned up and the louder parts are turned down.
Compressors can be used in a variety of ways, from subtle level adjustment to outright distortion. Used sparingly, they help add depth and richness to a track. When used more aggressively, they can create pumping, such as sidechain compression on the kick and other types of rhythmic effects.
Compressors lend themselves to any type of instrument and are fun to experiment with. Since compressors are affect the sound in a relatively subtle way, you should give yourself some time to be able to make out the differences.
Other important effects: Reverb and Delay
Reverb is an important effect when it comes to creating the illusion of space and natural depth and can add a certain three-dimensionality to your mix.
Without this your song risks sounding synthetic. Reverb can be used on all instruments, and vocals in particular benefit greatly from it.
A delay basically works like this - an input signal is recorded and played back after a user-defined amount of time. Depending on the setting, the signal can be repeated once or several times and even fed back into itself to create an echo that repeats.
Delay is another great way to add space to your track. Similarly to reverb, delay can be used to create the illusion of depth. It can also be used to make tracks sound wider in the mix, by applying a stereo delay to a mono signal for example or by panning the delay signal to the opposite side of the track.
There are no limits to your creativity, whether you use it more as a slapback echo as often heard with bands like The Black Keys or make it sound more rhythmic and flat à la Radiohead is up to you.
It is always recommended to work with a reference track. This is the best way to check your result. This way you can slowly approach the sound you have in mind for your recording and get an additional source of inspiration regarding the use of the different mixing tools we discussed above.
When mixing, it's important to find your own way and try out a lot. Don't get frustrated if it doesn't sound the way you wanted it to the very first time. Take your time, take breaks and listen to your mix again a few days later with "fresh ears". Also test it out on different stereos - in the car, on your cell phone and with headphones, to see how your mix sounds in different environments. This way you can still change and fine-tune subtleties. Ideally, your mix should sound good on any playback medium.
With every mistake you learn something new and can perfect your personal workflow. You can also find a lot of useful videos on YouTube that explain each of the effects discussed here in more detail.
If mastering is also of interest to you, read the MusicHub feature "Introduction to digital mastering: finalise your track".
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