how to finalize your mix

How To Mix Music (Part 7): Finalizing your mix (Side-Chaining, Leveling and Delay & Reverb)

Tim van Doorne
July 5th, 2017

Ever mixed a track where all music elements sound great individually, but when listening to them all together things just seem not to fit with each other?

I’ve been there many times myself. Luckily, there are a number of things you can do to create room for each element, and make your mix sound harmonious and beautiful as a whole.

In this episode I explain step by step how you can use a few different techniques to make all elements sound great together in your mixes. Also, if you stick around, I will show you how to prepare your mix perfectly for mastering.

How To Mix Music is our essential guide to becoming a music mixing professional. With this series I help explain and teach music mixing to you – musicians, producers, and aspiring mixing engineers.

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

The first episode covers setting yourself up to become a great engineer. We discussed monitoring, DAWs and plugins, composition, and stem preparing.

The second episode covers organizing your mixer, setting up your signal flow, and understanding the essential plugins (EQ, compressor, reverb, and delay).

The third episode covers how to improve your stereo image and make your mix sound wider. Also, we covered how to use the essential plugins to mix kicks and snares, the backbone of a song.

The fourth episode covers how to mix drums and how to mix bass. We covered how to mix bass sounds, claps, percussions, toms, crashes and hi hats.

The fifth episode covers mixing instruments and synths. We covered how to mix saw synths, lead synths, pluck synths, atmospheric synths, pianos, guitars, strings and horns.

The sixth episode covers mixing vocals and sound effects. We covered stereo placement, equalizing, compression and de-essing.

This episode we will gather all the knowledge of these previous episodes and explain how to make your mix sound great as a whole. We cover side-chaining, levelling, delay and reverb.

Mixing the whole

If you’ve followed this mixing series with us, you now know all the basics how to make the elements of your song sound good individually. It is time to discuss how to make these all sound good together in the mix.

There are 3 main objectives when finalizing your mix:

  1. All musical elements need to be clearly audible at every moment of the song.
  2. The most important elements need to be the loudest.
  3. The mix needs to sound good as a whole.

When these 3 main objectives are achieved, the song is mixed properly as a whole. Piece of cake, right?

After that, the final step of the mixing process is to prepare your mix for mastering.

If you want to learn how to prepare your mix perfectly for mastering, consider grabbing my free checklist. It outlines 8 easy steps to prepare your mix that make a world of difference for mastering. Grab it here:

Pro checklist: How to finalize your mix & optimize for mastering

In order for you to achieve these 3 main objectives in all your mixes, we have to get a clear understanding of the following subjects:

  • Side-chaining
  • Levelling
  • Reverb
  • Delay

How side-chaining works & how to use it

Side-chaining works as follows…

Say, you have 2 channels in your mixer, channel A (kick-ass kick) and channel B (gorgeous synth).

You grab a plugin that reacts upon volume — like a compressor (remember? only when the volume goes over the threshold the compressor reacts) — and place it on channel B.

Regularly, this compressor on channel B reacts upon the volume of the gorgeous synth which is playing on channel B, and thereupon changes the sound of the gorgeous synth.

With side-chaining however, we can let the plugin react upon the sound signal of a different channel.

In other words, we can make the compressor on channel B react upon the volume of the kick-ass kick of channel A. This means that every time kick-ass kick of channel A is apparent, the gorgeous synth of channel B gets compressed based upon the volume of the kick-ass kick.

This is side-chaining. And in this case with the use of a compressor, it’s known as side-chain compression.

How to use side-chain compression to enhance your drums and rhythm

You know that head-banging flow in songs where the kick or snare just punches through the song and creates this rhythm?

This is most of the time created (or enhanced) with side-chain compression.

This “Tennis Court” remix by Flume is a good example of side-chain compression. Every time the kick and snare appear, the volume of the other elements is decreased, creating this head-banging rhythm and allowing the snare to come through clearly.

If you are mixing a song with drums, you most likely want the kick and perhaps the snare to cut through the mix clearly. Also, you might want these to create this kind of “head banging” flow to the song.

Here is how you set this up…

You want all non-drum elements (instruments, synths, vocals, effects, etc.) to be side-chain compressed by the kick and the snare.

Like we discussed in episode 2 you can set the output of all non-drum channels in your mixer to go to a side-chain bus.

On this bus you add 2 compressors that have a side-chain functionality: one for the kick and one for the snare.

Select the side-chain function on the compressor and select the kick. Set a hard knee and a ratio between 2:1 and 4:1. Use a short attack time so that the compressor reacts fast when the kick appears.

With the release you determine the time it takes for the sound to rise back to it’s regular volume after the kick sound has ended. You can play around with this to create different rhythm flows. The shorter the release time, the cleaner the sound.

By moving the threshold down, the compressor attenuates the non-drums heavier. We often set the threshold to attenuate somewhere between 2dB and 12dB. This depends entirely on the song and your personal preference.Side chain compression
Listen to what sounds best!

Side-note: In this example I use the Fabfilter Pro C2. By selecting the side chain – ext mode you can set up the side-chaining.

To side-chain the non-drums by the snare, follow the exact same steps, but instead of selecting the kick as side-chain source, select the snare.

Ghost Triggers:

Alternatively, “ghost triggers” can be used as side-chain sources, instead of triggering the compressor with the audio of, say, the kick itself. These triggers are lined up with the kick, so side-chain compression will still occur when the kick hits. They’re put on their own channel in the mixer, which is then muted or set to have no output. It’s beneficial to use these triggers instead of the kick itself for clarity and control of the side-chaining.

The kick drum has an initial transient and a tail. If the kick drum itself is used as the side-chain source, the compressor will react to the whole length of the kick. Compression will continue if signal of the kick’s tail is still above the threshold. This is a problem, since we would like to have total control of the compression using the attack and release knobs.

To solve this issue, ghost triggers are generally super short (only a few milliseconds). The side-chain compressor will react as normal to the transient, but without the tail we now have total control of how long that compression lasts with the release knob. We can either fine-tune the compression to clearly let the kick’s transient cut through the mix, or we can crank up the release like in Flume’s “Tennis Court” remix.

How to level the volumes of all elements in your song

When you’re done mixing all separate elements, making them all sound great and (if applicable) setting up the side-chaining… it’s time to make sure all elements are in balance with each other.

The most important elements of the song should be the loudest. These are often the kick, snare, vocal, and lead melody.

Pro Tip: A great way to make sure you get the core of your levelling right, is by turning your listening volume all the way down until you can barely hear the music. If you can still hear the most important elements (kick, snare, vocal, lead melody), you’ve levelled the core of your mix correctly. If you can’t, recalibrate.

If you’re mixing your own track, it’s generally a good idea to separate the production stage and the mix stage. When you’re ready to start mixing, save your project as a new file, bring all channels down to – infinity dB, and start bringing them up one by one. It’s best to start with important elements like the kick and bass, and then mix the rest of your channels to the level of those.

This will give you a fresh take at the balance of everything, and you will still have your previous mix saved in the other file if you want to go back and check anything. At the end of the day, the goal is to make sure that all elements are clearly audible at every moment in your song, which can get lost in the production stage of a track.

If an element sounds too loud, you can simply bring its volume down. But what if you can’t clearly hear an element? That might be more tricky…

How to level the volumes of all elements in your song?

Follow this model:

If you discover elements in your mix that don’t really matter, but are just “kinda there in the background”… remove them.

Seems logical right? But you wouldn’t believe how many mixes I’ve worked on with redundant elements in them, like melodies or sound effects that were so soft you couldn’t really hear them.

When I asked the producers of the songs what the purpose was of these specific elements, they couldn’t really say. When I removed them, they didn’t even notice.

I personally love this quote:

”Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away”– Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

All unnecessary elements in your mix will only clutter it, and detract focus from the elements that are important to the song.

Increase its volume.

A good mix means that you can clearly hear every single element in your song.

If you can’t clearly hear the element, first try to bring it up in volume. Logically, when it is louder you should be able to hear it better.

However, this is not always the case. Sometimes, increasing the volume of an element you can’t clearly hear unfortunately doesn’t solve the problem, nor makes it sound nicer overall.

This means that the element is being masked…

What to do when one element masks another

When the element is not clearly audible in your mix, this means that it has the same stereo placement and frequency range as another element.

There are 3 great ways to fix this:

1. Place the elements differently in the stereo image.

By panning either the masking element or the unclear element differently in the stereo image, you might be able to create more room for the other element to be apparent.

2. Equalize the masking element differently

Use a bell filter to decrease the volume of the masking element at the frequencies where the unclear element is most present.

Masking Equalizing

3. Use side-chain compression on the masking element by the unclear element.

This means that every time the unclear element is apparent, the masking element is decreased in volume and therefore making the unclear element more clearly audible.

Set a compressor on the masking element with a hard knee, a 3:1 ratio and the attack and release as short as possible. There is no need to increase the output gain (or make-up gain).

Select a side-chain function on your compressor and make sure the compressor only reacts to the signal of the unclear element. This way, the compressor attenuates the masking element every time the unclear element is apparent.

Listen how much gain reduction sounds best. We often find that somewhere between 1dB and 6dB gain reduction sounds best to bring out the unclear element in a natural way.

Masking side chain compression

What if none of these tricks work?

If none of these 3 steps work, it’s time to rethink your production. Should both these elements be playing at the same time? On the same frequencies?

It may help a lot to listen to similar professional tracks that you like, and use these as reference tracks.

Often you find that each element has a well thought through purpose and a distinct place in the mixing space.

Also, focus on the way their mix is balanced, to the way you have balanced your mix. Listen closely to the volume of the kick, the snare, the hi hats, the vocal, the bassline and compare that to your mix.

When you have achieved the 3 main objectives when finalizing your mix…

  1. All musical elements are clearly audible at every moment of the song.
  2. The most important elements are the loudest.
  3. The mix sounds good as a whole.

… you can focus on optimizing the sense of space with reverb and delay.

How to set up your reverbs

When everything is nicely designed in your mixing space, it is time to design the reverbs.

We set up reverbs on busses, remember? We’ve talked about a few different types of reverb to set up in your mix:

  • Drum reverb
  • Snare reverb
  • Main reverb

Drum Reverb

Drum reverb is reverb specifically designed for the drums in your mix. Drum reverb can often sound great on percussion, toms, hi hats and claps. We rarely use reverb on kicks.

On your “Drum Reverb” bus, set up an equalizer and a reverb plugin, in that order.

First, however, start with the settings of the reverb plugin. Set the plugin on 100% wet and 0% dry to make sure that the reverb bus only contains the reverb and not again the original sound.

Many reverb plugins have preset spaces that are perfect for drum rooms. Examples are: drum room, small room, snare room and studio.

For a drum reverb we aim for a small space that can give the drums just a little more body and a sense of depth.

Make sure to set a short attack, mid-short decay and a short reverb length.

Reverbs create the atmosphere of the mix and are often very stereo. It is therefore important to remove the unnecessary low frequencies of reverbs in order to prevent the entire mix from sounding muddy.

Set up a high-pass filter (low-cut filter) between 150Hz and 300Hz to remove these unnecessary frequencies. Listen to what sounds best.

Snare Reverb

For snares you can design a specifically dedicated reverb. You want the snare to sound big and impactful, yet not very spacy and echoey. Here is how you do it…

Set up an equalizer, a reverb plugin, and a gate.

Start with designing the reverb. Set it on 100% wet, 0% dry. Choose a big sounding reverb such as a hall reverb or a church reverb. Or design your own reverb from scratch by using a long reverb length, a short attack and a long decay.

Snare reverb

This will sound really muddy and spacey, but don’t worry we will fix that with the equalizer and gate.

Remove all unnecessary low frequencies with a high-pass filter in the equalizer. This is often somewhere between 100Hz and 400Hz.

You also have the freedom to play around with boosting and cutting frequencies to change the sound here. For instance, boost the high frequencies to get a crisper reverb, or boost the mid frequencies to get a more roomy reverb.

This will remove the muddy sound of the snare reverb.

Now it is time to shape the reverb to fit more tightly with the snare. Last in this signal flow is the gate. We use the sound of the original snare to trigger this gate. How? Yup, side-chaining!

We use the sound of the snare as a trigger to determine the length and shape of the reverb in a more drastic way than is possible when designing the reverb in the plugin.

Set the side-chaining input of the gate to be the snare. Set the attack and hold as short as possible (often 0ms). Set the release somewhere between 200ms and 1000ms. Bring the threshold all the way up to 0dB, and then slowly bring it down until you can hear the reverb clearly.

Play with the release time to make the reverb longer or shorter and find the best sound.

Main Reverb

Set up an equalizer and a reverb plugin.

For the main reverb it sounds often best to use a big space. Option examples that many reverb plugins provide are: Hall reverbs or Church reverbs.

Set the reverb on 100% wet, 0% dry. It often sounds best to set a reverb length of around 2 to 6 seconds, and set a long decay time.

Use a high-pass filter on the equalizer to remove any unnecessary low frequencies. It often sounds good to set this up somewhere between 200Hz and 500Hz.

In order to have crisp elements with high frequencies in your mix, it works great to save space for them by removing high frequencies from the main reverb. Set a low-pass filter at around 10kHz to achieve this.

Side-note: Remember that if you use side-chain compression in your mix for the kick or snare, you route the output of your reverb busses to the side-chain bus. This way the the kick or snare cut through the reverb nicely.

How to set up cool delay effects

You can use a delay as a cool effect on sounds. We’ve talked about this more in depth earlier.

Since delays are such creative effects, you can try many different things. Use ping-pong delays to create interesting stereo effects, or try slap-back delays to get interesting echo effects.

Since delays often tend to go wide in the stereo field, it is important that these don’t clutter the mix or make it sound muddy. Make therefore sure to always set up an equalizer on your delay buses.

Set a high-pass filter to remove all unnecessary frequencies. The settings for this very much depend on the sound of the elements and the rest of the mix.

This concludes our How To Mix Music series! Interested in learning how to finalize your mix and optimize it for mastering? Grab my step-by-step outline here:

Pro checklist: How to finalize your mix & optimize for mastering

If you have followed this series from beginning to end, you now understand the main tools and techniques of mixing.

Next? We’ll go more in-depth on specific techniques, mixing and mastering tips, and all the advanced stuff to bring your music to the next level.

Would love to hear any thought you might have on the article (or the free download) in a comment below 🙂