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Learn to mix music: Make a Balanced Basic Mix

Updated: Mar 22, 2023

What is a basic, or static mix?

As you learn to mix music, one of the first things is making a "static mix"- just a balance of all the individual tracks in a session, set with just fader level, panning and no automation. After you take care of your basic organization and routing which I’ll cover below - making a static mix is the next step and is the core of the mix. In some cases, with a few effects, EQ and compression, it more or less IS the mix.

Creating the basic mix allows you to get familiar with the song, learn all of the components and start to get ideas about your next, more creative moves. So, ready to begin?

1. Prep and organize your session

Most experienced mixing engineers don't dive into a mix randomly, they have a plan! Like many things in life, being ready to begin requires being prepared, so I'm afraid there's a little housekeeping to be done. Here are a few things to consider:

Name your tracks: It may seem obvious, but clearly naming your tracks can help you understand what each track is and where it belongs in your mix. This can be particularly helpful if you are working on a bigger session with a large track count. Audio23 or SteveBridge isn't as useful as “Kick In” or “BV Bridge Hi Harmony” for example. Be practical, consistent and descriptive.

Creating Groups: Grouping similar racks together, such as all drums or all vocals, can make it easier to adjust the levels and effects of those tracks together. At the same time you are making groups, it's time to think about colour coding your tracks: using colour coding to differentiate between different types of tracks can help you quickly identify and locate specific tracks in your mix. For example, you might use one colour for drums, another for bass, and another for vocals. It's even better if you can be consistent to the point that you always use the same colour for the same tracks, that way you have an instant visual cue without having to think.

Busses: Busses are audio channels that allow you to route multiple tracks together and in a DAW, apply effects to them as a group. This can be useful for working or treating a group of tracks, such as a drum kit, multi-mic guitars or groups of backing vocals. It's also a great way to be able to easily export stems of sub-mixes later If you plan ahead.

Track folders: Some DAWs, like Logic X for example, have the functionality to create track folders, which is a way to group tracks together in a sensible way, with the ability to collapse or expand the folder to show or hide the tracks inside it.

2. Only use a few tools

Your basic mix won't need very many tools to get the job done. At this stage just use the fader, the pan knob and something that allows you to flip the phase of a channel, like a channel strip - which is the starting point I suggest.

A common use of the phase button is with a snare drum which has both top and bottom mics - the bottom mic is often out of phase with the top, and needs to be checked and flipped if need be. Whichever way gives you the fattest tone is the one to use! Stereo overheads are another place things commonly go wrong, so always check.

Start with the fader level, and build a rough balance as you go, also use the pan control to place each track somewhere appropriate in the stereo field. Learning what appropriate is takes time to develop, and draws on your stored knowledge of what well-mixed music sounds like.

At this stage, if you find issues with individual tracks you may also wish to use clip gain, or trim on your channel strip to get crazily loud tracks down to a decent working level or raise the volume of severely under-recorded (too quiet) tracks.

We aim to build a basic mix using as few moving parts as possible, with fader and pan, fixing issues as we go. Many things people might consider to be EQ problems go away once we set a great internal balance to that the tracks work together.

3. Start with the loudest part of the song

One of the most common mistakes I hear when people are learning to mix are mixes that start off well, then by the time they get to that big massive final chorus, the song is like a completely distorted mess where you can't hear anything and the vocal is buried. They simply ran out of headroom, and by pushing up faders and adding parts to the mix, it ends up being horrible when everything is in.

Here's the key: when setting up the basic static mix, try starting with the densest, busiest or loudest section of the song first—or the one with the most parts and vocals playing at any one time. This section of the song is going to be the most complicated to balance and give space to all of the instruments and vocals, and we want it to sound big as it's supposed to - so if we work backwards, we can more likely achieve that result.

If the drums are working in the densest sections, and the vocals are still sitting well, you can be sure when you go back to the more sparse sections that they’ll work too, perhaps with some minor level changes. Because you organized and grouped earlier as described above, it’s going to be easy. The static mix is not your forever mix, but it’s establishing a place to start.

4. Balance your levels and pan positions

Creating a basic mix is as easy as just setting the levels and pan positions, but where to start? Every engineer has a different way of setting up their basic mix. Some start by bringing in each track one at a time by instrument type and build from there, and some start with all faders up and try to juggle a quick balance to hear what makes up the session. Some people will even try to recreate the rough mix supplied by the artist or producer as a starting point so their mix sounds mostly like what was sent over in the first place. This seems counter-productive to me, but it works for some! It doesn’t matter what method you use to do this, but I encourage you to try them all and see what you connect with.

Sometimes it’s good to roughly internally balance groups of instruments, like drums, or backing vocal stacks for example - you can figure out good pan positions and so on before worrying too much about balance in the mix. I tend to use this method, balancing up sections and groups where appropriate, starting with the drums, then adding the bass, and so on but then putting the lead vocal in early making sure there is always space for it.

Both level and panning are a matter of taste and this is where the art of mixing starts to come into it, but there are some general matters of common sense as well as internal balance to consider. You don’t want the bass to be inaudible compared to the kick, and you want to be able to hear the vocal, for example. Panning itself can create space for individual tracks as you build up the picture of your static mix, and is also another way to provide balance, left to right or potentially in surround. We cover the more esoteric side of this in mix coaching as I help you refine and think about what you do and why when learning to mix.

5. Watch those levels

Every track you add to a mix will add to the overall level of your mix, so it's very easy to go from a mix that's working nicely to something with no headroom, clipping and distorting the stereo bus or master output easily. In the olden days, there'd usually be a couple of VU meters on the master section letting us know what the level was doing...and today you can easily do the same with a VU plugin.

There are many free VU plug-ins with 0 VU able to be calibrated to anywhere you need it to be, usually somewhere between -20 to -14 dBFS. If you work to “analogue” levels you may also be pleasantly surprised that all those “analogue modelled” plugins all of a sudden start to behave as they were designed. It also means that if you do integrate analogue gear at some point you won't be driving it into distortion the second you send a signal to it.

Try to make sure sure you’re not constantly pinning the meters, even if you’re working with a modern DAW that advertises a 32-bit floating-point internal audio engine. There’s always a sweet spot much like a mixing desk, and a super hot level at the master bus just isn’t important at the mixing stage. You can always trim levels by groups, or on the buses.

6. Work through the whole tune a few times

Once you’ve achieved a good balance of whatever the densest section of the song is, move on to the whole mix, starting at the beginning and working through to the end. As you move forward you may need to rethink some of your earlier decisions and that's fine - right now we are aiming for what works in most places, not everywhere, and no one fixed position is the right position. You can make notes about what moves you're likely to make and clean up as you go.

Sometimes you may wish to split out tracks sensibly that need vastly different levels or processing that wouldn't be taken care of by automation later, for example, snare drum rim shots often need vastly different treatment to the snare, or you may want to split some sections of the vocal as you become familiar and build a plan.

Feel free to improve the organisation, making sure that the choruses all have the same parts, and the same balance if the tracks weren't already laid out that way. Each time you run through and have spent time focusing on a specific track type - try to zoom out again to look at the big picture.

Just repeat this a few times, and remember it's ok to make mistakes, that's where we learn to grow. Keep going until you have achieved what you think is the best possible mix so far with the limited options you have been using.

7. A tidy mix is a happy mix

As more hobbyists have started recording, the overall recording quality of raw tracks has gone down. This is down to not being in an actual studio and also the DAW way of working, as in a lot of work, eq, the processing is done AFTER the recording instead of at the point something is recorded. This means before we can even get to the place where we can begin, often there is quite a bit of fixing and organization to do.

I’d advise you to fix every issue you come across at the start as it doesn't help your brain to swap between creative tasks and technical tasks. The type of things you’ll need to fix is usually split into two kinds of issues: Performance problems like out-of-tune vocals, or things like bad drum hits, badly played bass, or out-of-time guitars. There are often technical issues like clocks, pops, sibilance, noise and all of those fun things which also usually need to be cleaned up.

My thinking is that taking care of all of that is the job of the producer, but hey - maybe you're the producer as well, or as is often the case, most people calling themselves a producer has little real-world experience of record making so now as the person mixing - it’s your problem!

At the end of this process, you'll hopefully have a pretty solid basic mix ready for the next stage and the world of EQ, compression, effects and automation.

Want more? here's an article on mixing vs mastering

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