Knowing the stages of mixing is the best way for an engineer to systemize the most complex phase of production. Without a system, it's all too easy to waste hours, even days, mindlessly tweaking plugins, complicating your mixdowns, and yielding a less-than-ideal result.
So let’s take a bird-eye view of it before going into more detail later on.
Before we dive into the nitty-gritty of each stage, you can download the free Hyperbits VIP Toolkit, which will help you out a lot while you’re working your way through the framework below.
Now let’s dig into it...
Newer engineers often overlook this, but one single introspective question can easily make the difference.
“Is this song ready for me to mix it?”
Modern plugins correct and remedy any issue with small effort. But even a small amount of effort shouldn't be taken if it's to fix a bad recording or poor quality sample. Focus on getting the best possible raw material at this stage and your final product will thank you for it.
Not every sound is even worth keeping. If a sound isn't vital to the composition as early, ditch it! The further into the mix, the more married to the mix you become and you don't want your choices being guided by sounds that don't even deserve to be there.
The added confidence this early due diligence gives you allows moving into the next stage of the process with certainty.
Avoid getting completely in the weeds mid-mix by doing a bit of early-onset housekeeping. This includes organizing, color coding, labeling, and bussing properly.
The organized project above removes all friction between what your ears hear and what your brain wants to do next. It might seem small, but you’d be astonished how much attention residue is consumed the moment your brain switches between mixing a sound and searching for what you need to do next.
Spend twenty minutes making your project and space within the DAW clear and concise at this stage and it will pay dividends in the end by keeping your brain locked into what matters most.
The first time you use a reference track is an opportunity to set up a “dry mix,” setting volume levels before adding EQs, compressors, and other effects. Reference tracks really are the secret sauce to mixing, so make sure you are taking full advantage of them.
Setting a dry mix such as this helps you set benchmarks in the volumes of many of your channels, leaving softer and subtler moves in the mix for when you bring in the EQs, compressors, and others. Tools like Izotope TonalBalance or Metric AB can act as good visual guides for this step as well.
A mix is already likely taking shape, as setting appropriate volume levels and initial gain staging can get you surprisingly close to where you want the mix to be.
But now it’s time to get technical...
EQs and compressors take many engineers years to truly master. As such, it will be near impossible to cover all the nuances of either of these tools though we will try to direct you towards relevant resources for those wanting to dig deeper!
In this section, we’ll instead focus on why these tools are needed and what they bring (or remove) from your mix.
EQs shape sounds by removing frequencies or boosting them. You can use them to start carving out space in one instrument to make room for another or use them to boost frequency bands to make them pop in the mix.
Simple concept right? It may seem so until you start unpacking everything that can be accomplished with one single EQ….
They can create width by varying the effect using left/right modes…
They can make sounds appear closer in the mix by boosting the 2k-10k frequencies…
They can remove inaudible sounds (that eats up headroom is not dealt with)...
They can help add analog warmth to bright and digital VSTS…
They can help create rising FXs instead of having to rely on stock FX samples….
And these are just a couple of examples that came into my head with little thought. EQs are simply that powerful!
Compressors help even out the volume of a sound by reducing the range between the loudest part of a sound and its quietest (also referred to as its dynamic range).
Humans are so used to both our ears and the world itself similarly morphing sound as compressors do, that many engineers fail to recognize how much compressors control how your listeners perceive a mix. Compressors can make sounds appear closer or further away, add attack and bite to a sound, and introduce forms of saturation that help tastefully thicken the sounds running through them.
Seeing as compressors have the potential to impart anything from dynamics control, emotion, power, weight, and even movement of a sound, the earlier you start to see compressors as instruments in and of themselves, and not just mixing tools, the better off you will be.
Now that we’ve used EQs to carve out unwanted frequencies and control the dynamics of the frequencies that remain, it’s time to apply a familiar trick in a different way...
A few hours into your mix is the point at which things can get dangerous.
Because the time and energy you’ve invested into the mix make you all the more likely to stay committed to the decisions that brought you to this point (even if they weren’t for the better). It’s a classic case of the sunken cost fallacy, and it might just ruin your mix.
But setting time aside to reset your ears and compare your mix to a commercially-released track will keep you grounded, knowing that the work you’ve put into so far is bettering the track.
This confirmation is critical because if the mix isn’t perfect at this stage, the next is going to introduce some serious problems….
Now it’s time to place your song in a space that “feels'' authentic. If a mix is missing this authenticity, the song will never achieve the sense of escapism that transports the listener from their headphones and into another vibe entirely. And what’s the point of music if not to achieve this end?
Even after your channels have been EQ’d, gain's been adjusted, and dynamics are controlled, sounds will compete for space.
Most people like to rely on the analogy of a stage to convey the concept of panning but we perceive panning and stereo placement constantly.
Sitting where I am now, the rain outside my window would be panned hard left, the delivery truck pulling up to the curb outside is panned center right, and my meowing cat is sitting front and center of the mix ( directly on my keyboard).
Mindfulness exercises like this take a few seconds but are a great way to attune your ears to how your brain perceives sound and space, giving you better stereo placement in your next mix.
These effects are the bread and butter of spatial effects for your mix, and once you have a firm handle on how they’re used you can replicate any space you want!
For example, you could give the impression that your mix was recorded in a dusty basement in the mid-60s even though it was made entirely in the box using modern-day VSTs and samples.
Is the natural phenomenon created from sound waves interacting with the air and surfaces around you, be they hard, soft, tall, or whatever. Much like panning, our ears are so attuned to the reverb all around us that the lack of reverb, much like panning, will throw us for a loop. I've heard that it could go as far as to drive us insane, though I can’t confirm this exactly.
Is the echo effect caused by noise ricocheting off the surfaces around us. It’s the call back we hear when we shout into the Grand Canyon or the slap-back screeches of basketball shoes during practice in an empty gym. Delays not only replicate space in your mix, but can also add rhythm, color, and texture to a sound; making it appear far more massive than it ever had before.
Once these are dialed in, you're probably starting to feel pretty good with your mix, and might even think you're ready to move on to the mastering.
While Mastering is beyond the scope of this article, humor me one last time as we do a final reference...
Your studio may make you think your mix is ready for the masses, but that doesn’t mean it’s ready for distribution. Because before we know that our mix is a wrap, we need to ensure the mix translates well across many different systems.
So give you back a stretch and listen to your mix on headphones on a walk, on your car stereo while running errands, on your mother-in-law’s JBL speaker, and as many other systems as you can. Keep track of what you hear on a notepad, and make the adjustments when you’re back in the studio.
After that, it’s ready to master!
Once you start to understand the nuances of mixing, you start to realize just how essential mixing is to what can be defined as “your sound” as an engineer or producer.
Getting to where you can consistently achieve professional-level mixdowns may take a while, but it shouldn't take forever. At The Hyperbits Masterclass, we teach everything you need to know to produce music at the highest possible level, and combined with regular audio ear training with SoundGym you can level up your skills in recorded time!
Download the free Hyperbits VIP Toolkit, which will help you out a lot while you’re working your way through the framework explained in this article.
Guest Article by Serik Slobodskoy AKA Hyperbits :
Hyperbits has done official remixes for artists like Beyonce, Tove Lo and Nick Jonas, signed record deals with Universal, Island and Sony, and worked with brands like Target, Samsung and Equinox. He is a health enthusiast and sunshine aficionado and has spent the past eight years of his life building an online music production school that doesn't suck that's helped over one thousand producers sound as good, if not better, than their favorite artists.
Audio Ear Training for Music Producers and Sound Engineers