Regardless, it's difficult to explain the art of mixing music using mere words, and it may be even tougher to try and mix music in an unfamiliar style.
That's our job today—to fairly share two basic approaches to mixing music, no matter what genre or style. Learn to utilize these tools and your mixes will potentially sound a lot better than ever.
Calibrate your earsWe calibrate input levels when recording, and we should calibrate our ears before mixing. It's a good idea to familiarize yourself with quality reference material, so cue up some music that's well performed and expertly mixed. There exists a semi-apocryphal story about a popular mixer who paid attention to Def Leppard's “Pour Some Sugar On Me” everyday to tune his ears before mixing. I tried it. It wasn't my jam. We should each find our personal “Sugar.”
Attempt to use uncompressed source material, since MP3s and streaming services use data compression, that may alter the frequency response and add unwanted artifacts.
Additionally it is a good idea to utilize an RTA (Real Time Analyzer plug-in) to examine the frequency response curve; you can learn a lot about the overall frequency content of a certain design of music by comparing commercial releases to this work you're about to undertake.
For example, I was recently mixing a pop/dance track and discovered that many current releases in this style have a distinctive dip in the 150–200 Hz range. This observation helped me shape the frequency response of my mix to reflect your competitors, and it actually gave the mix greater impact when listening on smaller speakers.
Listen to the individual recorded tracksYour mix is only going to sound as good as the raw tracks. Many live recordings have stage leakage from other instruments, or maybe too much room sound that requires to be managed in the mix.
Studio recordings may exhibit cleaner tracks, though I've encountered recordings in which headphone click track bleed has ruined a properly played acoustic guitar intro. Tough to correct that in the mix, right?
How to mix a songYou will find two approaches.
Build a house (in the following order)
1. DrumsRock, country, pop, jazz, rap, Latin—if you're mixing anything with a groove, you begin by building the building blocks of the house. That foundation is made of drums, and if you will get the drums to sound good, you're well in the future toward a great sounding mix.
Each design of music has its vocabulary of drum sounds: pop drums in many cases are recorded dry and blended with little if any reverb; hiphop drums are mainly stereo loops or drum samples; rock drums could have exaggerated compression; some recent jazz recordings use aggressive drum sounds that would be right in the home on a Pearl Jam record from the 90s; Reggaeton songs seem to use the same kick drum sample.
So drums are the first to ever mix.
2. Bass (electric, acoustic, or keys)Your bass needs to co-exist with the kick drum in the low frequency world, and you're able to decide who rules which frequencies.
Compress if you want to manage dynamics, and continue working up the frequency range between there with…
3. Piano or keyboardsKeyboard sounds are pre-programmed in stereo with a lot of processing and EQ—maybe too much for your mix. Perhaps wide panning isn't what your song needs, or maybe the EQ needs to be thinned here or there to be compatible with another instruments. Don't be afraid to tailor these sounds to meet your needs.
4. Electric guitarPan each electric guitar pretty far to one side or the other. Like that you'll hear them more distinctly and never having to crank them up.
5. Acoustic guitarsTry panning acoustic guitars opposite the electrics, this may really improve the stereo image.
6. Strings, horn sections, and other accompanimentStrings and horns can very quickly sound harsh in the event that you aren't careful with EQ and compression, especially if they have been closely miked. Pay close attention to your source tracks.
7. Background vocalsThe approach listed here is more like a horn or string section accompaniment—so EQ and compress accordingly. Use plenty of reverb if right for the song.
8. Check your metersAt this point, the instrumental mix should sound decent, however your stereo bus levels shouldn't exceed 0 dB VU. (Or, -14 to -16 dB when employing a full-scale meter.) Save some headroom, because the next phase will add 3–6 dB to the general mix level. If your levels are too hot, bring all the faders down together in 3 dB increments until you have the levels under control.
9. Lead vocalThis is actually the focal point of one's mix—the part of the song that listeners will discover most memorable. The vocal needs to be balanced to sit comfortably atop the instrumental bed you've so carefully crafted without sticking out. Contemplate it the roof of the house. Or the Bugatti in the driveway.
The present trend is always to compress vocals heavily, so that breathing becomes almost as loud as singing.
Use reverb/delay/effect plug-ins on a send as opposed to on the track. This may prevent level changes as you vary the amount of the effect.
10. Melody and solo instrumentsIncluding brass, woodwinds, strings, kazoo, or any featured instruments. Treat these instruments as you would treat a lead vocal.
Create a sculptureIn our second basic approach to mixing, it's very important to first develop a concept of what you'd like your sculpture to look/sound like, or you will be chipping away aimlessly.
Step 1Begin with an over-all blend of all tracks, keeping your stereo bus master levels between -6 dB and -12 dB VU. (Again, -14 to -16 dB when employing a full-scale meter.) Tune in to the raw tracks to get a sense for his or her potential and which direction you'd like to take the mix.
Step 2Adjust fader levels by turning down louder tracks to reach a good balance, as opposed to by turning up quieter tracks. Pan individual tracks within the stereo field based on your vision for the song.
Step 3Your mix should now be taking shape. Using a few of the EQ and compression processing notes in the “Developing a House” section above, refine each instrument's invest the frequency and amplitude domains. Use subtractive EQ where possible to generate space in the frequency domain.
Step 4Add finishing touches, using level automation to finesse balance; select reverb and other effects to improve the sound of one's mix.
Note—it's okay to solo tracks during this technique, just be sure to A/B in context with the remaining portion of the mix.
Overall mix levelsAre you experiencing a dependable stereo meter? Using a VU meter, aim for an average of 0 dB VU with peaks of +3 dB. On an electronic peak meter, meaning peaks of only -6 dB.
Preserving that amount of headroom gives you freedom to retain the transient peaks in your tracks, while controlling the dynamic range of the entire mix through the mastering stage. Your song will sound better, and will translate better on various playback media and sound systems.
Speaking of which, when you call it done, turn your monitors way down and listen while walking around the room. If anything stands out too much (snare drums like to do this), you may want to revisit your balance.