Mixing a music track is not an easy task for a beginner there are multiple concepts to understand and this article will broadly explain what will be required to produce a competent mix down. We will focus on the use of a digital audio workstation (A sequencer such as Pro Tools, Fruity Loops, Cubase, Logic, Ableton Live, Reason, Nuendo) as opposed to a large mixing console.
I will make an assumption that you have arranged your tracks musical progression and we will focus on the sound and balance of the various components of the mix.
You will require a good set of studio monitors with a nominally flat frequency response. The idea behind having flat response speakers is so that no specific frequency range is enhanced or subdued so you are able to make judgements about the spectral content and balance of instruments. Studio monitors typically employ 6.5 inch drivers and 1 inch tweeter. (They can of course be smaller or larger depending on model) You should place your speakers away from your room corners where possible and/or install plenty of acoustic treatment. This will further enhance your acoustics for mixing and reduce any standing waves and reflections which can reduce the effectiveness of your decision making.
All about balance:
When mixing a music track a fundamental aspect is listening of course. i highly recommend listening to other music tracks in the genre with which you are working. So if for example you are working with dance music or rock tracks it is very wise to listen to current releases ( or notable big releases) in this genre on your mixing speakers to solidify an internal reference. This way you will learn how these tracks sound on your own reproduction system. This will stand you in good stead. The goal is not exact emulation of your favourite artist but the goal is storing within your mind a mental reference for a good mix balance. This is essential in order to become a competent mix engineer.
Listening volume matters:
Before listening it is a very good plan to understand the volume you are listening to your music at because the listening volume affects the human ears own internal frequency response. (to find out more search for “Fletcher Munson equal loudness contours”) Ideally you will have an SPL meter so you can determine 75dB SPL which is a good starting point for listening sessions. This is important because as volume changes the ears own internal response will change and as such having a target volume for listening will help ensure that you have a reference from which to judge balance and tonal content. When you listen to professional mixes consider the following aspects :
1) Spectral balance… take note of the bass content in the kick drum and bass line. Consider the snare drum and the tone of it, listen to all the mix elements and consider the high frequency content.
2) Instrumental balance – this is one of the most critical aspects of a music mix. It is here where you must have some approximate references in mind. As you listen to reference music it is important to make a mental memory of approximate instrumental balances so you can recreate such balances in your own work. Once you have an acceptable approximate balance (rough mix) you can make fine adjustments and automated fader adjustments to tailor the balance to your own unique production.
3) The stereo image of a piece of music is very important listen to it with care and consider it’s width, depth and how the different sounds are panned and balanced. Consider the spread of instruments and space and try and solidify this balance in your mind. By doing so you are likely to not make your own mix too monophonic or too stereophonic (overly wide)
4) Listen for the dynamics in the tracks mix…. mixing can enhance specific musical sections by dynamic manipulation. Dynamics largely relate to the soft and loud sections within a music track. These dynamic volume swings can help enhance a musical or emotional message in a track and communicate intent.
5) Transients are the attack (start/beginning) portion of sounds, the ear expects different attacks for different sound sources. Kicks and snares should ideally be quite punchy/fast sounding in their attack. Kicks and snares (along with bass/vocals) often give a mix power and energy.
6) Well balanced vocals are key, ensure the tone is well balanced and there are no popping noises and that there is not excessive sibilance in the “esses” in words.
It is a lot of sonic information to take in and consider and when you listen to your reference tracks I recommend doing so for at least 1 week each day to attune your ears. It takes time and it is not possible to expect to be able to mix like a professional in a couple of days. Most professional mix engineers have been doing so for 10 years and above. Listening to well mixed reference music is very important before you even move a mixer fader in your digital audio workstation.
Starting your own mix:
When starting to mix I would initially check the levels of the tracks and ensure they comply to a generally accepted gain structure, please read this article here for details:
Gain structure is a technically important matter which ensures that you do not distort your mix down and clip the stereo master output of your digital audio workstation.
So with your musical reference tracks (of similar genre) in mind select set of instruments and balance them. You can start balancing the instruments in any order but many engineers I know will start with drums and bass. So align the faders till you have a pleasing balance between the drums themselves, consider what is “normal” ….so you would would not want a snare that sounds 4 x louder to the ear than the kick drum, or a hi hat that sounds 4 times louder than a snare. Make judgements about how a drum kit would sound if it was being played in front of you. Then you can bring in your bass line and consider it’s balance against the drums. Consider the groove and the bass lines audibility and balance with the kick drum. You can make small adjustments to any and all instruments as you go.
Remember we are building what is known as a rough mix balance. bring in your guitars or synths and vocals one by one. followed by other instrumental sources. Find a suitable level where you can hear all the instruments in a such a manner that they approximate your professional music references and communicate their musical message.
Digital audio workstations offer volume automation. (amongst other parameters) Get to understand the automation capabilities of your sequencer/DAW. This allows you to finely tweak your faders throughout your song in a linear manner and your DAW will remember them and replay your fader movements back automatically. Most professional mixes have lots and lots of automation to control and hold the instruments of the mix in place. Mix automation is fundamental but dynamic control can be applied by inserting compressors as well. Dynamic control is a big topic and beyond the scope of this article but my article here explains the basics of compression and offers good exercises for you to practice with:
Search “Resound Sound effective techniques to learn compression”
You should now be able to get together fairly competent rough mixes and once you know how to automate the faders of your own workstation you will be able to improve your mixing competency as you practice. Remember mixing is a profession in it’s own right and can take many years to learn effectively and as such you must not expect to be at expert level for some considerable time. But as we know practice makes perfect and it is a fun journey in the meantime.
Safe&Sound mastering includes free mix appraisal for those who require (request) it when a mastering job has been scheduled.
By Barry Gardner