Updated: Mar 22
Mixing is an essential part of any music production process from the home recordist to the professional audio engineer. But how do you improve your mixing skills? Whether you are a beginner or an experienced engineer, there are practical strategies and tips you can use to take your mixes to the next level. In this article, we will explore some proven strategies for improving your mixing skills in no time. From adjusting the volume levels to using compression and effects, these strategies will help you create a truly dynamic mix. So let's get started!
SETTING the FADER volume: The core of the mixing process
Adjusting the volume is the most basic cornerstone of mixing music, and with it, you can begin to shape the sound you’re trying to create. To understand how to adjust the volume, you’ll need to become familiar with the different components of your song.
In the simplest terms, you can think of volume as the amount of energy each element of your mix creates. Different elements create different levels of energy, and understanding how each element contributes to the overall sound is key to creating the perfect mix. Different instruments have different energy levels and cover different parts of the audio spectrum
For example, when you mix vocals, you want to ensure they’re heard loud and clear so the message of the song comes across, but you don’t want them to overpower the other elements in the mix. As you adjust the volume of the vocals in the mix, you can also adjust the other elements in the mix like the bass, drums, and synths, so they all contribute towards a great, balanced mix.
The tricky thing here is music is subjective, but from listening to commercial releases you'll start to get a sense of how each of the parts of a mix makes up a song. In addition to setting the right fader volume levels, you’ll also need to consider various effects, such as compression and EQ, when you’re mixing. Compression can help you reduce the excessive peaks to bring out detail and EQ can help you pinpoint specific frequencies and boost or attenuate them to create a more balanced mix. There's a longer article on making a basic balanced mix also on the blog you may wish to read later.
Finally, you’ll want to think about automation when you’re adjusting the volume levels of your mix. Automation allows you to make subtle changes in volume levels as the mix progresses, keeping the mix consistent and allowing you to shape the desired sound. Automation also allows you to create dynamic changes that can help bring life and energy to your mix.
By understanding the concepts of adjusting volume levels, employing the right effects, and using automation, you can improve your mixing skills in no time and create the ultimate sound.
HOW TO EQ
EQ is one of the most powerful tools for creating a great mix. It allows you to shape the frequencies of individual instruments and can help make them stand out from the mix. Here are some tips for using EQ to achieve distinctness and clarity.
First, understand the frequencies of each instrument. Every instrument has its own tone colour, with certain frequencies contributing most to its character. For example, kick drums live mostly in the low end, while snare drums and hi-hats will have more presence in the mid and high frequencies. Knowing this will help you isolate these frequencies and sculpt them with EQ - if you need to at all. Many people over-EQ and the pros are often pretty minimal.
Use EQ to add space for instruments to breathe or enhance character. Once you have used EQ to make sure that each instrument has its own distinct space, you can use it to enhance the vibe of the mix or instrument. Boost the low end to give it more weight and bass, or cut the high end to make it more mellow. Small adjustments to the EQ can make a big difference. You can move sounds forward and backwards in a mix simply with tone.
The key is to use balance first, fix issues if there are any, and then enhance. If the balance doesn't fix a problem, you can also use EQ to remove clashing frequencies. Every instrument will have some frequencies that are similar to others. If two instruments have overlapping frequencies, they can compete and make it harder to distinguish them. Sometimes you may EQ to move them away from each other. Cut or attenuate the clashing frequencies on one instrument, and boost them on the other. This will make it easier to differentiate the two.
By understanding the frequencies of different instruments and using EQ to create distinction and clarity, you can improve your mixing skills in no time. With practice, you can use EQ to craft a mix that is more impactful, musical, and engaging.
Use panning to create the stereo image
Panning is a key element for creating a professional-sounding mix and it is often overlooked by inexperienced mixers. Panning is the ability to balance the sounds in the stereo image by adjusting their volume and positions in the left and right channels. This is one of the most basic yet important skills for creating a good mix, and it is essential to know how to use it correctly.
To begin, you should decide the position of the sounds in the stereo image. This means that you should decide which sounds should be at the centre, slightly off-centre, or completely panned left or right. There's a whole school of mixing that ONLY uses left, right and centre often called LCR mixing! Generally, it is a good idea to keep the lead vocal, kick drum and bass at the centre, while other instruments such as guitars and background vocals can be slightly off-centre, but this is all highly subjective. If you ever see one of those panning cheat sheets ...RUN! Basically, you want to ensure that the sound doesn’t become too cluttered in the centre, so you might want to pan certain instruments to the left or right to create more room in the stereo image, and create the overall picture.
Once you have decided on the placement of the sounds in the stereo image, you can start adjusting the panning knobs on your DAW. You should gradually adjust the panning so that the sound moves from the centre to one side and then to the other. You should also avoid setting absolutely everything too far to either side, as this will create an unnatural-sounding mix that falls apart in mono.
Another important element to consider when mastering panning is automation. Automation isn't just for volume - can also allow you to make small adjustments to the panning of certain sounds over time. You can use automation to create interesting stereo images, ear-catching effects and to make sure that different parts of the mix have interest and movement.
Finally, experiment with different panning techniques to create a unique sound. For example, you can try flipping the panning of certain sounds or using wider stereo images. Also, try combining different panning techniques to create a unique sound.
Using panning correctly can open up a whole new world of mixing possibilities. It is essential to learn how to use panning correctly if you want to achieve a professional-sounding mix. The key is to experiment and find out what works best for your particular mix. Or, hey just go mono. It worked for Phil Spector, right?
Use Compression FOR CONTROL AND TONE
Compression is one of the most important tools for the modern mix engineer. It can help to shape your mix and improve its overall sound. Using compression strategically can be the key to a great mix. Here are some tips and tricks on how to use compression strategically in order to improve your mixing skills:
1. Manage dynamics to your advantage. Compression can be used to bring out the energy in a performance, while also helping to keep tracks at a manageable level. It can also bring out lower-level detail of a part once you tame the transients. This will help you to create a more balanced and full mix.
2. Experiment with the attack, release and ratio settings. These settings will determine how effectively and quickly the compressor works. By experimenting with different settings, you can find the right combination to bring out what you're looking for in the mix. During mix coaching, I have a particular method I teach people which makes the dark art of setting up a compressor easy!
3. Pay attention to the transients. Transients are one of the most important elements in a mix. Compression can be used to control wild levels of transients, thus taming peaks and allowing a consistent level, bringing out their impact without overwhelming the mix. You can also do the opposite, for example adding attack, fatness and power to drums.
4. Focus on the low end. The low end of your mix is often the hardest to control. The first key is to actually be able to hear it, and using compression strategically can help to maintain the depth and power of your low end without making it sound bloated or boomy.
By applying these compression techniques, you'll be able to take your mixing skills to the next level and create better-sounding mixes. Keep experimenting and practising often, and you'll soon see the results.
ARTFULLY Use reverb to create dimension and space
When it comes to improving your mixing, one of the best strategies is to master the use of reverb. Reverb is an audio effect that allows you to create dimension and space within your recordings. By using reverb, you can make your audio recording sound more natural and give your tracks that extra space, shimmer or character they need to stand out.
Reverb is created by using an artificial or natural-sounding echo that can be heard when a sound is made in a large or enclosed space. Reverb adds resonance and depth to an audio recording, making it fuller and more vibrant. When used correctly, reverb can make a recording sound natural and lifelike...or explosive and fake like an 80's snare drum!
When adding reverb to your recording, you want to make sure that it’s not overpowering, as this can create a muddy sound. Instead, you want to find a balance between the mix and the reverb so that both elements are complementary, rather than dominating one another.
To achieve this, you can use an aux to send the signal to a track with a reverb plugin set to 100% wet and use the low-pass and high-pass filters to reduce any overwhelming high-frequency or low-end components. You can then adjust the reverb’s decay, tone and mix level to find the ideal balance.
You can also use reverb to create different textures and ambiences in your recording. For instance, if you’re looking to create a more dramatic and suspenseful atmosphere, you can use a longer reverb time and a lower mix level to add a subtle sense of mystery and tension. Remember you can always ride the level of the reverb too, depending on the section of the song, for example, less in verses, then swooping into a luscious chorus.
By using reverb in your mix, you can create a more engaging and realistic recording. From adding dimension and space to creating different textures and atmospheres, reverb is one of the most effective ways to improve your mix quality.
Add Subtle Effects AND EAR CANDY
Adding subtle effects to your mix can be extremely important in order to give it the edge and make it sound more professional. Crafting the perfect sound is like a puzzle where each piece is vital; effects like reverb, delay, and EQ can help to bring it all together and create a more unified sound.
One of the best ways to start experimenting with effects is to use them sparingly. Rather than adding lots of different effects to your mix, it works best to focus on just a few and use them subtly. This can help to create a more cohesive sound and will ensure that your mix isn't overpowered by any particular effect.
Furthermore, it's important to focus on the context when adding effects. Different genres and styles of music need different types of effects to achieve the desired sound. Experimentation is key, so try out different effects on different tracks and see which ones work best for your mix. Start with a limited set for each mix, perhaps think about the overall style and what you'd typically hear in big productions.
It's also a good idea to learn about the different types of effects and how they affect the sound. Reverb adds depth and atmosphere to a track, delay can help to add accentuation to a track, and EQ can help to shape the overall tone. Understanding when and how to use these effects can help you to create interest and ear candy.
Finally, it's important to remember that effects should be used tastefully and with discretion. Too much of any effect can be detrimental to your mix, so be sure to use them in moderation. With a little practice and experimentation, you can soon master the art of applying effects and crafting the perfect mix.
Automate YOUR Volume Levels
Automating volume levels is a key mixing strategy that can make a huge difference to your overall sound - that many people totally ignore! With automation, after your basic mix levels are set in your static mix you can adjust the volume of tracks in the mix as you go, allowing you to dial in the perfect balance and levels of each element, section to section.
The process of automating volume levels is relatively simple. All you need to do is select the track you want to adjust, then use the automation controls to adjust the levels for various points in the track. For example, you might often increase the volume of a vocal at the choruses and then lower it through the verse, or ride the level of a guitar part, allowing the track to increase or decrease in volume over the course of the entire track.
When it comes to automating volume levels in your mix, there are a few tips and tricks that can help you get better results. Firstly, maybe try using your instinct and writing fader automation "live" through a pass of a mix, then go in and refine it manually. When you write it in with a mouse, make sure you’re using enough automation points so that the volume changes you make can be accurately represented. Secondly, use gain or volume automation points to make the most out of your mix; for instance, make sure choruses pop instead of keeping the whole mix static. This allows you to make subtle volume adjustments that give your mix the right balance and texture. Finally, experiment with different automation curves to create interesting sounds and achieve different levels of intensity throughout your mix.
Overall, automating volume levels is a key technique for improving your mixes. With the right approach, you can make adjustments to individual tracks that can have a big impact on the overall sound. With some experimentation and practice, you’ll soon be able to dial in the perfect balance for your mix.
Mixing is a blend of art and science that can be intimidating for beginners but now you're armed with the strategies discussed in this article you can overcome the fear and start your journey towards becoming a better mixer. By adjusting the volume, using EQ for distinctness, panning to create the stereo image, strategically using compression, adding reverb for depth and space, and finally automating volume levels, you can drastically improve your mixing skills in no time.
Mixing should always be a creative and enjoyable process that allows you to express yourself and bring your music to life. Keep experimenting, be creative, and most importantly have fun! It may take some time and practice to become a skilled mixer, but by using the ideas discussed in this article, you can be well on your way to unlocking your creativity and producing more professional-sounding mixes.