How To Mix Music (Part 1): Fundamentals

How To Mix Music (Part 1): Fundamentals

Tim van Doorne
February 27th, 2017

Good mixing can make a good track sound great. It can create a huge difference in how a piece of music is perceived. It creates clarity in the sound. Gives it room to breathe. And creates definition that makes the individual elements stand out. Having your music mixed and mastered by a professional, or doing it yourself (with the right approach), can truly make a world of difference.

If you are about to release music or landed on this article because you were curious about how to mix music in general, or how to better mix your song or album, you have come to the right place.

In this series, I will share our years of experience and insight on mixing and mastering, our best mixing tips, mastering tricks, and music production strategies. Covering the necessary preparations, tools, underlying physics and insider tips and tricks to achieve the perfect mix and master.

We have been responsible for the majority of music released on Heroic, our sublabels, our artists and also for major labels such as Monstercat and Armada.

With this first article, we will talk about setting yourself up to become a great engineer.

Before you continue reading, make sure you get this free PDF. In this free PDF are 7 simple slides that make it super easy to understand how to mix music yourself – and explain it to others:

Mixing Fundamentals

Monitoring

In order to become good at mixing, you need to set yourself up to be able to hear all the details in the music.

Ideally, you want to have listening equipment that reflects the full frequency range that we (humans) can hear (20Hz – 20kHz) in detail. The best scenario would be having an isolated studio with proper monitors, however there are very good headphones on the market too. The Sennheiser HD600 and Shure SRH940 MKII headphones are examples of great low-budget options.

When you have acquired a new listening source, it will take you some time to be fully accustomed to the sound and details that they reflect. A good way to get used to the specific sound reflection of your source is to listen to music that you are very familiar with, frequently.

By listening to these signature tracks over and over, you will get used to how these are displayed and in turn these can be used as reference material for the music that you are going to mix.

Therefore it’s smart to listen to tracks that you could use to potentially reference the music with that you intend to mix or master. Preferably, you pick a perfectly mixed song of the same musical genre as yours, and compare these constantly (also called to as “A/B-ing”).

Through referencing you can better determine what you need to improve in your own mix, by spotting the differences to the tracks you chose for the perfect comparison.

DAW & Plugins

People love to discuss which digital audio workstation (DAW) is better, whether you are working in FL Studio (Fruity Loops), Logic, Ableton, Pro Tools, Reason, Cubase, Bitwig or others.

In terms of sound quality it does not matter. The difference is in the lay-out and work-flow of these tools and is mostly a matter of preference. You should work with whatever you are most comfortable with.

Before you dive in, download the Music Mixing framework.

At the end of the day it is about the results you can produce with the DAW. Some people are better with Fruity Loops, others with Ableton. One thing we will say though, is that from a live-performance perspective, Ableton Live is typically the safer bet, as it will allow you to effectively use your projects live (for shows).

What does however influence results dramatically, is what plugins (or virtual studio technology (VSTs)) you use, and how. Most DAWs come equipped with a selection of standard plugins, which are OK – however rarely outstanding.

We recommend that you expand your toolkit.

Our audio engineers love to use the following (affordable) plugins to improve their mixes:

Composition

At the core of creating a perfect sounding track, is an understanding of the frequency spectrum.

This allows you to think ahead, to craft the composition of a song in such a way that you perfectly utilize the frequency spectrum so that you can later achieve the perfect mix.

The frequency spectrum is the audible frequency range, that spans from the lowest frequency of 20 Hz to the highest frequency 20 kHz. In the image below, the lower frequencies are displayed on the left, whereas the higher ones are on the right.

A good mix starts in the composition of a song. Choosing elements that fill the frequency spectrum the right way.

You should save space in the low frequencies for the bassline and the kick drum, by not adding too many other elements that contain low frequencies. The same applies to high frequencies for the hi-hats, the crashes and the high-end of vocals.

Before you dive in, download the Music Mixing framework.

Another important aspect is utilizing the stereo image, which concerns the spatial placement of sounds. In other words, whether sounds are coming from the left, right, back or front. A well configured stereo image creates definition.

Many VSTs have stereo knobs or direction faders that allow you to adjust the width of an element.

An essential tip is to place the elements with low frequencies in the center of your stereo image, and to make the ones with higher frequencies more wide. This creates a sense of depth.

Whilst mixing, an effective way to make the lows centered is by making them mono. You can make specific stems wider by panning them wider in the mix. Then down the line when mastering, you can also center or widen specific frequency ranges, as you can see in the image below.

In this mastering plugin, I have solo-ed the lower frequencies and have centered their stereo width. You can see by the vectorscope that the lows are in the centre of the spectrum.

In this mastering plugin, I have solo-ed the higher frequency range, which has a wide frequency rage (as displayed in the vectorscope).

For making your whole mix blend together better, we have learned an effective trick from professional musicians. That is to put your drums and effects in the same key (tonic note) as the rest of your track.

Just like live players, whom tune their instruments to match the specific song they are going to play, you should be doing this too as an engineer. If your samples or stems are not already in the same key, use other samples that are, or use pitch shifting to transform them until they fully blend in.

Preparing stems

Before we proceed with the actual mixing, you need to make sure that your individual stems are well prepared. Create clarity in the mix by removing the standard reverbs and delays added by the VSTs.

It is better to send the signal to a reverb and/or delay bus after equalizing and compressing the sound, as the simultaneous use of multiple reverb spaces causes the mix to sound cluttered – More about this in a later post.

Before you dive in, download the Music Mixing framework.

Make sure that each stem has enough headroom (at least -6 dB) and that there is no moment of clipping in either the VST, the plugins or on the channel.

If you like distortion, for the best results plugins such as iZotope Trash 2 or Fabfilter Saturn. These professional plugins provide you with much more freedom, control and a better mix.

At this stage you have the option to export the stems in order to save CPU. Double-check the settings and export all separate stems in the highest quality wav format.

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That concludes this episode of The Essential Guide To Becoming A Music Mixing Professional series.
I appreciate you reading this post. I hope you put some comments down below and ask me any questions, we are all learning this together. Also, join our private mailing list and be the first to be updated with new mixing and mastering tips.

In part 2, I discuss everything that you need to understand to become great at mixing. Part 2 covers how to set up your mixer, stems and channels, how to setup a good signal flow and why. Furthermore I will discuss equalizing (EQ), compression (dynamics), delay and reverberation (reverb). Continue reading the second episode here.

I am Tim van Doorne, it’s an honour to serve you. Stay motivated to improve your sound, every single day!