Sitting down to mix songs can be a daunting prospect, especially when you’re new to mixing. You’re faced with tons of tracks, each of which need to be equalized, compressed, panned etc.
Many producers start by setting up some basic routing such as group tracks and a mix bus. They will likely then make a rough mix using levels and panning. Next, they’ll move onto compression, then EQ and so on. (You can read more about this approach here). Once you’re confident about things like EQ and compression, then this is a great method to use. But when you’re new to mixing and you’re still learning each of these processes, this type of method to mix songs may seem like a difficult prospect.
Often, when we’re not super confident about how to EQ or compress a channel, we’ll start to work on the mix, but then break off to try and find info from somewhere on how to do it better when we’re not getting the results that we’d hoped for. Unfortunately, this approach can be messy. You can start to jump from one track to another without a clear vision of what you’re working on. Soon, you can end up with a half mixed song and little idea of what you’re happy with and what you’re not.
In this article, I’d like to share with you a different approach to mixing. This method incorporates this research time into your mixing sessions, and does so in a clear and organized way. It’s a simple, step by step method which allows you to work at your own pace and ensures that you don’t start to feel overwhelmed by elements of the mix that you might not yet feel completely confident about. This method will take longer, but it allows you to learn about things like EQ and compression as you go. It doesn’t require you to already be super clued up on each of these processes. Instead, you’ll learn them as you mix.
Mix songs step by step:
You should start by organizing all the tracks in your mix into a logical order. This will probably look something like this:
- Kick Drum
- Snare Drum
- Rack Tom
- Floor Tom
- Stereo Overheads
- Bass Guitar
- Acoustic Guitar
- Electric Guitar
- Lead Vocal
- Backing Vocal
There are two things that you need to do to get your session ready. Firstly, you need to use trim plugins to turn down each of your signals to avoid clipping. This is really straightforward to do. There’s an easy to follow guide on how to do this here. Secondly, you need to make a basic mix. Just make the best mix you can using only the volume faders and pan pots. At this point, your mix won’t sound amazing. It will be hard to put faders in a position where their level remains suitable for the entire song. But don’t worry, just make the best mix you can.
Mix songs one step at a time:
Now, where this method starts to differ from the usual way of doing things, is that instead of going through each track and applying compression, then going through each track and applying EQ, you’re going to spend time learning about common ways of equalizing and compressing each track, one at a time. Instead of having your whole mix finished by the end of a day’s mixing, you should expect to spend a few individual sessions on your mix. With each session, you should focus on learning the common processing procedures associated with each track.
In the example list above, there are ten different tracks, so you could plan to do this over ten separate sessions. If you aim to do one session per day on your mix, then it would take about ten to twelve days to complete your mix, taking a couple of extra days as there are two more jobs to do at the end to complete the mix.
Mixing songs session by session:
On session one, focus on learning about the kick drum. Take as much time as you need to watch YouTube tutorials, read as many blog posts, and read through as many book chapters as is necessary to find out all that you need to know about how people commonly equalize and compress kick drums. Then, take what you’ve learned and put it into action to make the kick drum sound good in the context of the whole mix. On session two, learn only about the snare drum. You can even use things like cheat sheets to give you a starting point for EQ and compression settings.
Use each session to learn about the next instrument and then apply what you’ve learned. An important differentiation to make here, is that although you’re learning about each track individually, you shouldn’t apply the EQ and compression to that instrument without listening to the rest of the mix. Don’t solo each track and concentrate on making it sound good on its own. Instead, apply your compression and EQ to each track to make it sound good as part of the whole mix. Compress each track so that, as a whole, the dynamics are pleasing across the entire mix. EQ each track so that each instrument has its own space in the mix alongside all of the other instruments.
Using the example track list above, by session nine you should be working on your vocal track. Again, spend as long as you need to learning about how to treat vocals with EQ and compression. Spend time learning about which frequencies you need to pull out of the vocal track if it’s not cutting through the mix properly. Learn how to compress a vocal track so that it sits nicely in the mix. Then, carry out what you’ve learned.
After you’ve taken the time to research and then implement the EQ and compression for each track in the mix, there are two more jobs to do. Spend a further session setting up an effects send and return and do some research on adding reverb to your session, then implement it. It’s best to do this on a global level rather than dealing with the reverb on a track by track basis like you should with the EQ and compression. In addition, spend one final session learning about automation. Then, automate your levels a little to add some enhanced musicality to your mix.
Mix songs slowly and steadily:
Following this slow and steady approach allows you to learn whilst you mix. Whilst the standard way of managing a mixing session that I mentioned earlier in this article is a great way to work when you’re confident about mixing songs, this method allows you to take things step by step at a time when you’re still learning about the different elements of mixing. Whats more, it allows you to do so in an organized way, in which you focus on one track at a time to get a great sounding mix.
Will you benefit from this slow and steady approach to mixing songs? Leave your thoughts in the comments section.
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Very enlightening article! I use to not like using reverb in my mixes because I’ve heard some people abusing it and it sounded bad to me. But I guess that going completely dry will make the track sound very unnatural. So it’s a question of knowing when to stop adding reverb.
Very true! Reverb can bring a mix to life, but too much can ruin it. Here are a couple of lessons on reverb that I think you might find helpful: