Are you familiar with that exhilarating feeling when a song stirs up your emotions, enveloping you in its magic? Let’s raise a toast to the skilled mixing engineers behind such captivating musical experiences. Without their exceptional talents, it would be nearly impossible to create the delightful tunes we enjoy listening to. Without them, songs might resemble those late-night voice note singing sessions recorded during bouts of insomnia.
If your aspirations lie in crafting high-quality songs in the future, it’s time to delve into the art of music mixing. Becoming a professional mixing engineer requires time and dedication, but fear not! This comprehensive guide is here to provide you with a solid head start on your journey.
So, keep reading and prepare to kickstart your path toward becoming an exceptional mixing engineer!
What is Mixing?
Mixing is the art of combining audio tracks from various instruments, such as vocals, guitar riffs, drum beats, and piano. Skilled mixing engineers adeptly blend these tracks during the music production process.
However, the role of a mixing engineer goes beyond merely combining tracks. They employ various techniques to create a harmonious and enjoyable musical experience.
In the mixing process, engineers utilise techniques like adjusting levels, equalisation, and panning. Moreover, they skillfully apply effects such as reverb, delay, echo, and more.
To accomplish these tasks, mixing engineers rely on a mixing console or a digital audio workstation (DAW). They assemble all the recorded tracks, making adjustments and applying effects to each one.
The process of mixing, which involves combining and modifying multitrack recordings, brings out the full potential of the music. You can listen to it on different devices like speakers, headphones, or even in your car, and it will sound amazing. No more weird and off-key singing recordings at midnight, that’s for sure!
Is Mixing a Part of Music Production?
Mixing and producing are two separate things that are often used interchangeably. This is because some music producers and mixing engineers work in a way that seems to be overlapping, especially to those who aren’t familiar.
For example, a music producer may go beyond arranging compositions, running recordings, making changes to instruments, and all of their core responsibilities. They may adjust the equalisation or apply effects to the sounds, which is theoretically the role of a mixing engineer.
However, there’s a key difference that should be highlighted. When a music producer does what seems to be a mixing process, they do it merely to shape the specific essence of the sounds. They won’t bother thinking if the sounds fit with the rest of the tracks.
So, even after running equalisation adjustments or adding effects to the sound, they will still need a mixing engineer to enhance the entire track. The only difference is the mixing engineer is made aware of what the producer wants, and they can easily pinpoint what to improve from what’s already given.
The mixing engineer, for example, can understand what kind of nuance of the sounds the producer is aiming for. They will then proceed to glue the audio tracks altogether and transform them into a cohesive stereo track before sending it out for the mastering process.
What is Mastering and How does it Differ from Mixing?
Many people are left questioning why there should be a mastering step if mixing is there to enhance instrument tracks into cohesive music. If you’re part of those people, the answer is mastering serves to give a final touch to a stereo track.
A mastering engineer works on the stereo track and polishes it by raising the loudness of the track. Other times, they may also provide subtle hints of ambience or mood into the track, be it warmth, clarity, or colour.
The ultimate goal of audio mastering is to make sure that the stereo track is ready for a variety of playback systems. Since there are certain standards set by the publishing platform, mastering can be a great help to enhance what’s missing from the mixing part.
On the other hand, mastering can also be useful if a song is intended to be published as an album. The mastering engineer will be the one who’s responsible for taking each individual song and making sure that they’re consistent when presented as a full album (i.e., by considering the fades, song order, etc.)
However, unlike the mixing process, mastering is a macro process. A song may skip this step at times, especially if it has been mixed well enough to play on a variety of playback systems, with each track tailored to meet the key ambience of the song.
What does Music Mixing Involve?
As we know, music mixing aims to produce a final stereo mix that is pleasant to hear. The process involves enhancing the tracks obtained from the recording process respectively.
At this stage, a mixing engineer may use different enhancement techniques depending on the music genre standards and audio recordings’ qualities. Here, we’ll explain what mixing involves in general, regardless of the factors mentioned earlier.
Organising Recorded Tracks Into the Digital Audio Workstation
The first step for a mixing engineer is to organise the multi-recorded tracks into a digital audio workstation (DAW). The recorded audio tracks are key for the mixing process, hence why consolidating them in one place enables quick access whenever needed.
To ensure a smooth mixing process, a mixing engineer typically uses colour coding to differentiate between tracks. This practice enables them to work on the tracks more efficiently and with less risk of accidentally mixing them up, as it can be easy to overlook written track labels.
After organising the tracks, the DAW displays them vertically and offers the option to listen to them either simultaneously or individually. This makes it easier for the mixing engineer to identify any issues with the tracks and make the necessary adjustments.
Now is the time for you to learn the examples of tracks that are typically organised in the DAW, as listed below:
Vocal instrument refers to the sounds produced by the human body. Lyrical music will have vocal instruments, which range from lead vocals and backing vocals. The vocals are often the centrepiece of the song, and the mixing engineer will take great care to ensure they are well-balanced and prominent in the mix.
A percussion instrument includes any musical instrument that produces sound when struck, shaken, or scraped. Examples are drums, cymbals, and tambourines, among other instruments. These instruments provide a sense of rhythm and groove to the music, and they can be used to create complex patterns that enhance the overall sound.
Stringed instruments produce sound through string vibrations. Examples of stringed instruments are guitars, basses, violins, and cellos, among other instruments. Usually, there are multiple stringed instruments obtained from the recording process. It will be the mixing engineer’s responsibility to work on these elements to achieve the desired sound.
The wind instrument is played by blowing air through a mouthpiece to produce sound. Some examples of wind instruments are flutes, saxophones, clarinets and trumpets, among others. These instruments are commonly used in many types of genres, such as classical, jazz, rock, and folk.
A keyboard instrument is a musical instrument that is played using a keyboard, which is a set of keys or levers that the musician presses to produce sounds. The most common keyboard instruments are pianos, organs, and electronic keyboards among other things.
These instruments give a melody to the song. Keyboard instruments are known for providing melodic and harmonic support to a song. They are often used to create complex chords and harmonies that add depth and richness to a composition.
Electronic instruments can produce a wide range of sounds, including sharp and metallic tones, smooth and sustained pads, or distorted and glitchy effects. These sounds are usually produced by synthesisers, MIDI controllers, and samplers, among other electronic instruments.
Depending on the music genre, electronic instruments may or may not be significantly present in a song. Regardless of that, a mixing engineer will ensure that the elements blend with the rest of the tracks, resulting in a final mix that sounds good.
Adjustments, a Lot of Adjustments
Now that you’re familiar with the different types of instrumental tracks, it’s time to explore how mixing engineers synchronise these tracks within the DAW. The main goal here is to provide clarity and harmony to all of the tracks without one overpowering the others.
However, clear and harmonious tracks come in different shapes. Mixing engineers must consider the intended vibe of the song before working on the tracks. This is why they use a variety of approaches to mix the tracks, as we’ll list them below:
Level balancing involves adjusting the volume levels of each recorded track. Mixing engineers do this to ensure that no instrument dominates the mix, resulting in a balanced and harmonious overall sound.
Equalisation (EQ) is a process of adjusting the frequency of audio signals. It involves increasing or decreasing specific frequency ranges to shape the sound of individual tracks.
These individual tracks often have different frequencies that contribute to their unique characteristics. Mixing engineers will decide whether to highlight or reduce the ranges, which contributes to how the final mix will sound.
Panning involves spreading the audio signals within the stereo field. The audio signals can be placed either in the left, centre, or right channel of a stereo mix to create a sense of space between the instruments.
The track placement affects how it’s perceived. When a track is panned to the centre, it is audible in both the left and right channels. Otherwise, it sounds more prominently in the left channel when panned to the left, and louder in the right channel when panned to the right.
Adding Effects to the Instrumental Tracks
The last part of mixing music is adding audio effects to the instrumental tracks. It’s a creative process that involves enhancing or modifying the sound of individual tracks to achieve a desired sonic character or mood in the mix.
The following is the list of audio effects that are commonly used in the mixing process:
Delay creates a repeating echo effect that adds texture and depth to a sound. It’s usually used to create rhythmic patterns or to create a sense of movement in a mix.
Distortion creates a sense of grit and edge to a sound by clipping the waveform and adding harmonic content. It’s commonly used to create a more aggressive or distorted sound to a stereo mix.
The chorus adds a slight pitch variation to an audio signal, resulting in a thicker and richer sound. It’s typically used to create a sense of width and depth in a mix or add a shimmering effect to a sound.
Compression controls the dynamic range of a sound. It automatically reduces the volume of the loudest parts of a sound and increases the volume of the quietest parts. This results in a more consistent volume, which makes the final stereo mix sounds polished and professional.
Saturation adds character and colour to an individual track. It can be used on drums to give a sense of punch and excitement, on vocals to add warmth and grit, as well as on guitars to add a slight distortion.
EQ alters the frequency ranges of a track. It’s used to create a tonal balance or boost certain frequencies to sound more prominently in the stereo mix.
The phaser makes the sound move and swirl. It works by splitting the sound into two paths (i.e., a dry path and a phase-shifted path) and making one of the paths go back and forth in a repeating pattern. This results in a sense of peaks and valleys that make it as if the sound is moving around in space.
Limiter controls the peak levels of a sound. Its primary purpose is to prevent distortion and clipping that can occur when a sound exceeds a certain level, known as the ceiling.
Reverb simulates the sound of a space and creates a sense of depth and dimension in a mix. It’s commonly used to add warmth and natural sense to a dry sound or create a feeling of space and distance in a mix.
Tremolo modulates the amplitude of a sound signal at a specific rate, which results in a pulsing or wobbling effect. Music genres that commonly use this effect include surf rock, psychedelic rock, and electronic music.
Vocoder uses the characteristics of one sound to modulate the sound of another instrument. This results in a robotic-sounding effect that can be creatively used to enhance the mood of a piece of music. Common genres that use this effect include electronic music, hip-hop and pop.
Mixing Music for Beginners: Let’s Get Into It!
Understanding what mixing music entails gives you a clearer idea of what mixing engineers do daily. However, it may not be enough to give a picture of what the process is like.
Hence we’ll delve into the step-by-step process of mixing music for beginners. If you’re a fresh starter or an aspiring mixing engineer, the following tips will help you make your kickstart towards being an expert in the near future.
Listen to the Rough Tracks
Listening to the rough tracks will help you understand how to approach the mix. It allows you to identify the strengths and weaknesses of each track, making it easier to enhance later in the mixing process.
Furthermore, listening to the rough mix repeatedly allows you to identify the song’s vibe or ambience. An upbeat song will require a different approach than a rhythmic song, as will a distant and haunting song.
Overall, rough tracks provide you with the big picture of the song. It’s a critical part that you need to pay careful attention to as it determines the mixing quality you’ll create in the end.
Organise Your Tracks
Taking the time to organise the tracks saves you the effort of trying to find the cluttered tracks. You can do so by labelling, arranging, and colour-coding your audio files. Most DAWs out there come with these features, allowing you to organise your tracks efficiently.
Labelling Audio Files
Labelling audio files is an underestimated step when it comes to organising tracks. Yet skipping this step could cause complicated problems in the future.
For example, if you let your audio be named ‘Audio01.wav’ up to ‘Audio101.wav’, it will be difficult to find a specific track. Scanning from ‘Audio01.wav’ to ‘Audio101.wav’ for a file is akin to looking for a needle in a haystack.
Arranging Audio Tracks
Make yourself used to arranging your audio tracks before moving on to the mixing process. For example, you can arrange your tracks in the following order:
Vocals -> Guitars -> Keys -> Pads -> Drums -> Bass
Colour-Coding Audio Tracks
Once you have your tracks stacked, it’s time to colour-code them. For example, vocals can be blue, guitars yellow, keys grey, pads red, drums green, and bass purple. The goal here is to help you locate the tracks at a glance.
Filter the Noise
Not all audio recordings have a smooth sound. Sometimes there is still some noise in the tracks, such as taps, clicks, and pops. These are the noises that you must eliminate to produce a clear final mix.
These unwanted noises can be removed using noise gates. Noise gates work by filtering out sounds that do not reach the minimum volume you set. As a result, mixing the tracks will be much easier.
Bussing is the process of grouping similar sounds into one track. Think of a folder that holds several files, that is what a bus is like.
The purpose of bussing is to make it easier to process multiple tracks at once. You can use a bus to make volume or EQ adjustments on multiple sounds without having to do so on each track.
Including gain staging in your mixing process is crucial. It helps you minimise distortions and noises, as well as maximising headroom and dynamic range.
The key to effectively run gain staging is by paying attention to the signal-to-noise ratio. When you use digital systems, you may want to perform the following:
- Start the faders at their default level of 0 dBFS
- Set the peak of each track at -18 dBFS to -10 dBFS. Avoid going for a level higher than -6 dBFS
- Implement gain staging on individual tracks
You can have your desired signals sound strong enough while making the noises insignificant if you properly set the peak of each track. Besides, the process also allows you to create a headroom and dynamic range in the song you’re working on.
You can tell how each track is related to the others by listening to the rough tracks. Aside from that, you might notice that some tracks are louder or quieter than others.
To create harmonious tracks in a stereo mix you’re working on, you’ll need to do volume balancing. This process requires your sensitivity to acknowledge which sounds need to be trimmed, as well as the parts that need to be enhanced.
You can use panning to spread audio signals within the stereo mix and add a dramatic effect to your music. This means you can place your audio on the left, right, or centre side, depending on how you want it to sound on playback systems.
However, panning requires strategic planning to achieve an excellent sound. As a rule of thumb, heavier or lower sounds like bass and vocals should be placed near the centre. Other instruments can then be positioned on either side of the centre.
Avoid placing all your sounds on the same side all the time. For example, if you place all your tracks in the centre, your mix may sound flat. Similarly, if you plan everything to one side, you’ll only hear sounds from one side of the speaker, which isn’t ideal.
Equalisation, or EQ involves tweaking sound frequencies to achieve a desired mix. Every sound is composed of frequencies measured in Hertz (Hz). By adjusting these frequencies, you can create space in your mix, delete undesirable elements, and enhance pleasing ones.
There are different types of EQ that you can use to adjust the volume of different frequencies, which include:
- Bell is used to boost a frequency at a set point as well as the frequencies around it.
- Shelves are used to add or take away a certain amount of dB above or below a certain frequency.
- Filters are used to cut sounds above or below a certain frequency threshold.
Compression is an essential part of mixing music that helps to control the dynamic range of a track. Dynamic range is the difference between the loudest and the quietest parts of a recording.
Applying compression will reduce the difference between the loudest and quietest parts of the tracks. It works by limiting the sounds exceeding the threshold to pass through, resulting in an enhanced overall level of your mix.
Compression Best Practises
Let’s say you have a vocal track that is quite dynamic, meaning that some parts of the performance are loud, while others are soft. You want to reduce the dynamic range of the vocal to make it easier to listen to and ensure that it blends well in the mix.
To do this, you need to insert a compressor plugin on the vocal track. Then, you need to set the threshold to a level slightly higher than the average volume of the track. Suppose the average volume is -12 dB, then you’ll have to set the threshold to around -10 dB.
The next step is to set the ratio to 2:1. By doing this, the compressor will lower the volume by 1 dB for every 2 dB that the volume goes above the threshold. This means that if the loudest part of the vocal goes 4 dB over the threshold, the compressor will lower it to 2 dB.
Last, you’ll have to change the controls for attack and release. For example, you can set the attack to about 10 milliseconds to make sure the compressor kicks in quickly when the volume goes over the threshold. Then, you could set the release to about 10 milliseconds to let the sound out smoothly as the compressor releases it.
Adding effects gives room for your creativity to manipulate the original sound in some way to enhance or modify its qualities. This can involve altering the tonality, dynamics, or spatial characteristics of the track, resulting in a more engaging and immersive listening experience.
As mentioned earlier, you can add a variety of effects to your mix. This includes the following:
- Delay: repeating echo effect that adds texture and depth to a sound.
- Distortion: a sense of grit and edge to a sound by clipping the waveform and adding harmonic content.
- Chorus: a slight pitch variation to an audio signal, resulting in a thicker and richer sound
- Compression: automatically reduces the volume of the loudest parts of a sound, and increases the volume of the quietest parts.
- Saturation: adds character and colour to an individual track.
- EQ: alters the frequency ranges of a track, resulting in a balanced tonality.
- Phaser: makes the sound move and swirl by creating a repeating sound pattern.
- Limiter: controls the peak levels of a sound, preventing sound distortion or clipping.
- Reverb: simulates the sound of a space and creates a sense of depth and dimension in a mix.
- Tremolo: modulates the amplitude of a sound signal at a specific rate, which results in a pulsing or wobbling effect.
- Vocoder: modulates the sound of another instrument into robotic sound.
Compare To a Mix Reference
Congratulations on completing the preceding steps! At this moment, you’re almost finished mixing your music. Now, you need to compare your results to your mix reference.
It’s an important step because it lets you know whether your mix sounds as smooth as the reference. Take notes on what you could improve before repeating all of the steps to ensure you create the most sonic mixing possible.
Mixing is a complex process; even expert mixing engineers are unable to create the perfect mix in a single attempt.
For that reason, you’d have to go through the steps again. Listen to the rough mixing track, take notes on what you’re missing, and improve the track using a specific technique (e.g., volume balancing, noise filtering, or compression).
Recommended Digital Tools for Mixing Music
The advent of digital audio workstations has made music mixing easier than ever. Investing in analogue mixing setups is no longer necessary, as many DAWs now include the features you need.
Now comes the question: which DAW should I use for me to learn music mixing? Don’t be confused anymore; we’ve compiled a list of notable DAWs you can choose from to start working on your stereo mix.
Logic Pro is a widely used DAW that is exclusive to Apple’s macOS operating system. It is known for its user-friendly interface and powerful features, making it a popular choice for music producers and audio engineers.
- Beginner friendly interface
- Built-in virtual instruments and effects
- Supports a large number of VST plugins
- Limited to macOS operating system
Avid Pro Tools
Avid Pro Tools is a popular digital audio workstation (DAW) used by professionals in the music, film, and television industries. Its interface is designed for advanced audio editing, making it a powerful tool for sound post-production workflows.
- Clean audio editing workflow
- Large projects compatibility
- Industry-standard hardware and support policies
- Steep learning curve
- Subscription-only pricing
- Expensive plugins
Ableton Live, as the name suggests, is a DAW designed for live performances, DJing, and electronic music production. It is known for its intuitive interface and real-time looping and sequencing capabilities.
- Built-in virtual instruments and effects
- Real-time looping for live mixing
- Intuitive multitrack grouping
- Only runs smoothly with high computer specs
- Not so powerful as a post-production mixing tool
- Expensive pricing
FL Studio, formerly known as FruityLoops, is a popular DAW that is widely used for electronic music production. It’s popular for its user-friendly interface and extensive built-in virtual instruments and effects.
- Affordable pricing
- User-friendly interface
- Built-in virtual instruments and effects
- Steep learning curve
- Lagging auto-saving feature
- Confusing routing
Adobe Audition is a DAW designed for audio editing and post-production workflows. It is known for its advanced audio restoration and noise reduction features, making it a popular choice for podcasters, voice-over artists, and audio engineers.
- Seamless integration with Adobe products
- Excellent noise reduction plugin
- Meets film and television audio standards
- Steep learning curve
- Expensive monthly subscription
- Lacks of MIDI support
Improve Your Mixing Skills: Be an Expert Mixing Engineer
Becoming an expert mixing engineer doesn’t happen overnight. There are a lot of efforts and sacrifices you need to make to become a pro in this field. In this case, we’d like to suggest the methods you can do to improve your audio post-production skills.
Let’s take a look at the following methods and see which one suits you best:
Self-learning is the most affordable way you can do when it comes to learning mixing music. There are a lot of free music samples you can use, allowing you to experiment with mixing without starting from scratch.
Yet self-learning requires your time and effort to gather relevant information and to experiment on your own. You do all of these things without a mentor to give you clearer direction or help you figure out what you might do wrong.
Enrolling To Audio Engineering Courses
Enrolling in an art and music school that offers a professional audio mixing course complements your dedication to learning music mixing. It connects you with professional mentors who are eager to guide you through the entire mixing process, suited to your skill level.
In final words, music mixing is a complex and demanding form of art. It requires your patience, attention to detail, and most importantly, your passion for music.
But, with the help of this article, you can now get a head start to learn music mixing. Once you’re able to produce a stereo mix that meets your standards, it’ll be a rewarding experience that only you can feel proud of.
Should you need assistance in improving your music mixing skills, Orita Sinclair, a well-known music and art school in Singapore, is here to help you out. Our WSQ Mixing Music Professionally in the Home Studio course will connect you with expert mixing engineers and allow you to hone your skills.
Finally, you can also connect with peers of similar interests as yours. This, in turn, can be a great source of motivation, encouraging you to continuously strive to become an expert shortly.
Is it hard to learn to mix music?
What someone perceives as difficult may not be the same as yours. As long as you have an eagerness to learn music mixing, and possess an understanding of audio post-production concepts, there’s nothing that should ever stop you.
How long does it take to learn how to mix music?
The time it takes to learn music mixing depends on the individual. At Orita Sinclair, we offer a short WSQ Mixing Music Professionally in the Home Studio in 2 days for students to continue honing their skills at their own pace.