“Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.” This quote is attributed to the late-great Jazz pianist Thelonious Monk. We could modify that to read “Writing about mixing music is like dancing about architecture.”
Regardless, it’s difficult to describe the art of mixing music using mere words, and it can be even more challenging to attempt to mix music in an unfamiliar style.
That’s our job today—to share two basic approaches to mixing music, no matter what genre or style. Learn to use these tools and your mixes will potentially sound better than ever.
Calibrate your ears
We 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’s a semi-apocryphal story about a famous mixer who listened to Def Leppard’s “Pour Some Sugar On Me” every day to tune his ears before mixing. I tried it. It wasn’t my jam. We must each find our own “Sugar.”
Here’s a Spotify playlist to get you started (Yes, I know it’s a compressed format, but it’s a place to start):
Oddly, the studio version of Peter Gabriel’s “In Your Eyes” is not on Spotify. That’s okay, go find a hi-res version. (This song was my “Sugar.”)
Try to use uncompressed source material, since MP3s and streaming services use data compression, which can alter the frequency response and add unwanted artifacts.
It’s also a good idea to use an RTA (Real Time Analyzer plug-in) like iZotope Insight to study the frequency response curve; you can learn a lot about the general frequency content of a particular style of music by comparing commercial releases to the particular work you are about to undertake. (If you’re using Neutron Advanced or Ozone Advanced, check out Tonal Balance Control to make a visual comparison between reference material and your mix, and fine-tune your results.)
For example, I was recently mixing a pop/dance track and discovered that many current releases in this style have a notable dip in the 150–200 Hz range. This observation helped me shape the frequency response of my mix to reflect the competition, and it actually gave the mix greater impact when listening on smaller speakers.
Listen to the individual recorded tracks
Your mix will only sound as good as the raw tracks. Many live recordings have stage leakage from other instruments, or maybe too much room sound that needs to be managed in the mix. Jonathan Wyner, mastering wizard and iZotope director of education, opined: “a few minutes cleaning up tracks before mixing will save hours in agonizing over EQ and balance decisions later.”
Studio recordings may exhibit cleaner tracks, though I’ve encountered recordings in which headphone click track bleed has ruined a perfectly played acoustic guitar intro. Tough to fix that in the mix, right?
Not so fast. Check out this RX tutorial on using the De-bleed module for music to reduce microphone bleed from one signal into another:
In each of these instances, you will have to make choices about balance, editing, EQ and dynamic processing, tuning, panning, effects processing, and using other techniques to feature the right parts of the mix at the right time.
2 ways to approach your mix
There are plenty of variations on these two tried-and-true techniques, but these basics work for most popular styles.
Build a house (in the following order)
Rock, country, pop, jazz, rap, Latin—if you’re mixing anything with a groove, you start by building the foundation of the house. That foundation is made of drums, and if you can get the drums to sound good, you’re well down the road toward a good sounding mix.
Each style of music has its vocabulary of drum sounds: pop drums are often recorded dry and mixed with little or no reverb; hip hop drums are mainly stereo loops or drum samples; rock drums may have exaggerated compression; some recent jazz recordings use aggressive drum sounds that would be right at home on a Pearl Jam record from the 90s; Reggaeton songs seem to use the same kick drum sample. Study reference recordings to see which vocabulary you want to employ.
You’ll want to get a good balance between the kick, snare, and hi hats. These are the big three for creating your groove. (Take a listen to Steely Dan’s “Jack of Speed” or Metallica’s “Master of Puppets” for examples of effective kick/snare/hat balance in rock music.) Add the toms and overheads until the kit sounds balanced as a whole instrument.
When your drums are sounding good, it’s time to move on to…
2. Bass (electric, acoustic, or keys)
Your bass needs to co-exist with the kick drum in the low frequency world, and you get to decide who rules which frequencies.
Compress if you need to control dynamics, and continue working up the frequency range from there with…
3. Piano or keyboards
Keyboard sounds are pre-programmed in stereo with lots 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 the other instruments. Don’t be afraid to tailor these sounds to meet your needs.
4. Electric guitar
Pan each electric guitar pretty far to one side or the other. That way you’ll hear them more distinctly without having to crank them up.
5. Acoustic guitars
Try panning acoustic guitars opposite the electrics, this can really enhance the stereo image.
6. Strings, horn sections, and other accompaniment
Strings and horns can easily sound harsh if you aren’t careful with EQ and compression, especially if they have been closely miked. Pay close attention to your source tracks.
7. Background vocals
The approach here is more like a horn or string section accompaniment—so EQ and compress accordingly. Use plenty of reverb if appropriate for the song.
8. Check your meters
At this point, the instrumental mix should sound pretty good, but your stereo bus levels should not exceed 0 dB VU. (Or, -14 to -16 dB when using a full-scale meter.) Save some headroom, because the next step will add 3–6 dB to the overall mix level. If your levels are too hot, bring all of the faders down together in 3 dB increments until you get the levels under control.
9. Lead vocal
This is the focal point of your mix—the part of the song that listeners will find most memorable. The vocal has to be balanced to sit comfortably atop the instrumental bed you have so carefully crafted without sticking out. Consider it the roof of the house. Or the Bugatti in the driveway.
The current trend is to compress vocals heavily, so that breathing becomes almost as loud as singing. (Listen to Julia Michaels “Issues.”)
Use reverb/delay/effect plug-ins on a send rather than directly on the track. This will prevent level changes as you vary the amount of the effect.
10. Melody and solo instruments
This includes brass, woodwinds, strings, kazoo, or any featured instruments. Treat these instruments as you would treat a lead vocal.
Create a sculpture
In our second basic approach to mixing, it’s important to first develop an idea of what you’d like your sculpture to look/sound like, or you’ll be chipping away aimlessly.
Start with a general blend of all tracks, keeping your stereo bus master levels between -6 dB and -12 dB VU. (Again, -14 to -16 dB when using a full-scale meter.) Listen to the raw tracks to get a sense for their potential and which direction you’d like to take the mix.
Adjust fader levels by turning down louder tracks to achieve a good balance, rather than by turning up quieter tracks. Pan individual tracks within the stereo field according to your vision for the song.
Your mix should now be taking shape. Using some of the EQ and compression processing notes in the “Building a House” section above, refine each instrument’s place in the frequency and amplitude domains. Use subtractive EQ where possible to create space in the frequency domain.
Add finishing touches, using level automation to finesse balance; select reverb and other effects to enhance the sound of your mix.
Note—it’s okay to solo tracks during this process, just be sure to A/B in context with the rest of the mix.
Overall mix levels
Do you have a reliable stereo meter? Using a VU meter, aim for an average of 0 dB VU with peaks of +3 dB. On a digital peak meter, that means peaks of no more than -6 dB.
Preserving that degree of headroom gives you freedom to retain the transient peaks in your tracks, while controlling the dynamic range of the entire mix during the mastering stage. Your song will sound better, and will translate better on various playback media and sound systems.
Speaking of which, before you call it done, turn your monitors way down and listen while walking around the room. If anything sticks out too much (snare drums like to do this), you may want to revisit your balance.
One of the great joys of my gig is getting to work on a wide array of music from different artists and genres. Not all of the techniques discussed here get used in every mix, but you’d be surprised how often they are pressed into service. Try these tips, see how they work for you. Then you can add them to your toolkit and whip them out when you encounter a challenging mix.
We’ll dig deeper into the technical details in a subsequent article, but in the meantime, happy mixing!