The simple guide to mixing.
Audio mixing is the process of blending and combining audio tracks so that each element has a pleasing sound and distinct space in a finished stereo recording.
The goal of mixing is to bring out the best in your multi-track recording by adjusting levels, panning, and audio effects for each individual track. The aim is to sculpt your arrangement to make sense of all your sounds in relation to each other.
A multi-track recording refers to a technique in which each sound source is recorded on its own. When blended together, individual tracks can be manipulated without altering the characteristics of other sounds.
The final output of a multitrack recording is known as the mixdown. This is the last step before mastering, where the finished mix is prepared for the medium where it will be released.
Mixing is both a technical process and a creative art form. It has a significant effect on the sonic texture and aesthetic experience of the music.
Mixing music is one of the essential creative disciplines in music production.
Think of your favorite songs or albums. They almost certainly have specific sonic qualities that appeal to you.
Learning to mix is your chance to craft your own sound that expresses your vision as an artist.
Not only that, mixing has never been more accessible than it is today.
Before digital recording technology, mixing required a full studio’s worth of expensive equipment to be done well.
Now many of these technologies are available as software plugins inside digital audio workstations.
In fact, today’s high-quality audio production software is inexpensive and easy to use. You can learn the basics quickly and build on your skills as you make more music.
Finally, music creation, recording and mixing have become intertwined. If you use a DAW to compose or jot down ideas, you already have the basic skills needed to mix.
In a modern producer’s workflow, mixing can begin during the creation phase and lead to greater inspiration throughout.
Now that you’ve decided to take the plunge with mixing, the first step is to choose a DAW.
Getting the right DAW for your needs is important, but don’t let that intimidate you. All the major recording apps are capable of professional-sounding results once you learn to use them well.
That said, you may prefer the features and workflow of one over the others, so make sure to research the options available.
If you need help with this step, visit our guide to the best DAWs for emerging producers for the full breakdown.
If you just need the basics, here’s a simple list of what to look for in a DAW:
When it comes to mixing, some DAWs may have a slight advantage, but it’s not worth worrying about if you’re just getting started on your journey.
It’s better to focus on learning your DAW of choice and becoming comfortable and proficient with its mixing workflow.
When you start working on your first mix, you may find yourself with an intimidating project file with dozens of tracks.
In a dense session with lots of material, it’s important to set your session up properly.
Make sure you label your tracks with short descriptive names to avoid getting confused. Add color coding for better visibility on track groups, aux returns and important channels.
Your goal is to quickly navigate around your DAW project without getting lost or overwhelmed.
With your session organized, you’ll need a basic idea of how you want your mix to sound.
There are a lot of possibilities, so it’s best to start out with a plan.
Here are some questions to ask yourself to to help you develop a vision for your mix:
What kind of textures are you looking for in your song?
Where do you want to create space, and what elements should occupy it?
What sonic qualities are important to which sounds or instruments?
If you’re just getting started, it may not come easily to think like a mix engineer, so focus on listening critically to music you love.
The more you listen and appreciate great mixes, the more you’ll feel your own instincts develop.
In fact, the best engineers start thinking about their mix process well before they begin adding plugins to a track.
With time and experience, you’ll come to understand how to capture your sounds at the source so that they do what you need in the mix.
It’s always best to think about the big picture early!
With that in mind, most mixing workflows follow a recognizable pattern. Here’s a step-by-step breakdown of the typical stages in a professional mix:
1. Choose the right sounds and elements to form your basic
2. Edit the material to clean up the recordings and fix any issues
3. Create a static mix by adjusting the levels and pan position for the basic sound
4. Apply EQ and compression to integrate each sound source
5. Add reverb, send effects and master bus processing
6. Clean up the tracks in your session and export the mixdown for mastering
The fundamentals of any mixing workflow lie in manipulating your raw tracks to make them fit together in the sonic texture.
It’s done using a set of common tools in your DAW along with third-party plugins.
I’ll break down each process and explain how it contributes to your finished sound.
Your DAW mixer hosts many of the functions that form the foundation of any mix. Each track in your session has a mixer channel with individual controls for key operations:
Faders are used to control the overall volume of the track relative to the others
Panning determines the spatial position of the sound between the left and right speakers
Aux sends and returns control how your signal is routed between channels
The tools in your DAW mixer will form the foundation of your mix as you define the relative level and position of each sound in the texture.
Plugins are third-party software you can use inside your DAW. They’re virtual instruments and audio effects you’ll use to create and mix your music.
Your DAW will come with at least some plugins built-in. And while you’ll eventually want to curate your own unique selection of sound processing tools, you can do just fine with built-in plugins to start.
In fact, some producers swear by the built-in plugin suites in DAWs like Ableton Live for covering all the bases needed to mix a song.
The most common plugin formats you’ll see are VST, AU and AAX. AU is only available for Apple computers and AAX is only for use inside Avid’s Pro Tools DAW.
VST was one of the early standards for audio plugins, so many producers use it as a generic term to refer to all plugins. However, the term was coined by Cubase inventors Steinberg and specifically refers to their “Virtual Studio Technology.”
No matter what format you use, audio plugins will be your main tools during your mix process.
Here’s an overview of the major types used for mixing.
EQ is the plugin type you’ll use to shape the frequency balance of sounds in your mix. It works by boosting or cutting sonic energy in specific ranges.
By setting the filter type, Q factor and frequency and gain you can clear up space for each element in your mix to be heard.
Compression controls the dynamic range of the sounds in your mix. This term refers to the difference between the loud and quiet moments in recorded audio.
In order for a sound to be heard clearly throughout its duration, the initial burst of energy at the onset often needs to come down in volume compared to its decay.
Reverb is short for reverberation. It refers to the acoustic reflections of sound in a physical environment.
While it’s important during recording to control the influence of your acoustic environment, many sounds need a sense of space to blend well in a mix.
That’s where artificial reverb comes in. This type of mixing tool adds the sound of natural acoustic reflections to help situate a sound in a recognizable space.
If you’ve ever heard a distant, haunting vocal that sounds like it’s inside an enormous cathedral or warehouse, you might know what I mean!
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While the three processes I described above will make up the bulk of your mixing workflow, most engineers use some additional techniques to address the finer points.
I’ll outline the most common ones to know and how they can help you get a better sound overall.
Most engineers prefer to edit their tracks well before the mix process begins.
But at the end of any project, it’s important to comb through each region on your timeline to make sure it’s not contributing any extra noise to the finished sound.
That means trimming each clip so that only the important audio information remains and adding short fade ins and outs (5-10ms) on each one.
You’ll also need to craft the song’s fade in and fade out so that it works musically with the material.
Sometimes, you need more control over specific details than conventional mixing tools can provide.
If your tracks are already EQ’d, compressed and carefully treated with reverb, there’s still one more technique you can use to situate them better.
It’s called automation. It means changing mix parameters over time according to breakpoints on your timeline.
Automation can be drawn in using your mouse or recording in real-time using a DAW controller.
It’s most frequently used for making subtle adjustments to fader levels, but it can be used to animate every parameter in your mix.
Remember all those mixing techniques you used on your individual tracks?
You can apply similar types of processing to the song’s master output. This approach is called master bus processing.
Its use is slightly controversial among mix engineers. Some swear by it while others claim it does more harm than good.
When you apply effects to your entire mix it’s very easy to take it too far. This can be especially problematic with compression, since heavy gain reduction can quickly suck the life out of a track.
If you don’t have a clear goal for your master bus processing, consider leaving it out and focus on making your tracks sound as good as they can on their own.
With all this processing, you’ll have to remember to keep the big picture in mind.
At the end of your process you should be left with a musical mix that enhances the impact of the song.
Even if you do have a clear goal in mind with your mix, how do you know if you’re moving in the right direction to achieve it?
One helpful tool is called mix referencing. It means comparing your mix against reference tracks to get perspective on your progress.
Check back often with your reference track as you move through your mix. Try to assess what needs to change in your mix to bring it closer to your goal.
Listen critically and think like a mix engineer!
Mixing isn’t where the process of perfecting your recordings ends.
Once your mix is dialed in, you’ll need mastering to prepare it for release.
Mastering ensures that the fine details of your mix will translate everywhere your listeners experience it. It brings up the level so that it plays just as loud as other releases and enhances its best qualities.
Through a specialized version of the processes I described above, mastering fine-tunes your finished mix to present its best face to your listeners.
In the past, mastering was an expensive process that only well-funded musicians could access.
But today, instant AI mastering has leveled the playing field. If you’re an emerging producer with a mix that’s ready for primetime, it's among your best options for quality results at low cost.