How To Mix Music is our essential guide to becoming a music mixing professional. In this series I explain and teach you – musicians, producers, and aspiring mixing engineers – how to mix music. I 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.
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 organising your mixer, setting up your signal flow, and understanding the essential plugins (EQ, compressor, reverb, and delay).
In this third part we will cover how to improve your stereo image and make your mix sound wider. Also, we cover how to use the essential plugins to mix kicks and snares, the backbone of a song.
Whenever I help people with their mixing, I always tell them to imagine they are mixing in a space. In this space you have three dimensions: stereo image, frequency spectrum, and depth.
If you are unfamiliar with this principle concept, please click the big orange button above and download the complete PDF for free. In these seven slides you will learn how this mixing space works, and how it helped me and many other engineers, musicians and producers to achieve better mixing results.
Stereo image is the difference between left and right, and mid and side. The center of the mixing space is also known as “mid”. Left and right are also known as “sides”.
A few years back I could not understand why my mixes sounded so narrow in comparison to the reference tracks that I was listening to from my idols. I was using stereo-wideners and big reverbs hoping to get a wide and big-sounding mix, but instead it sounded messy and actually not that wide at all.
It was only after the realization of a very simple concept that I finally understood how a stereo image actually works.
This simple concept is that people listen to music in stereo. Two ears: one left and one right. Two speakers: one left and one right. Two earbuds: one left and one right.
If the left speaker emits a sound louder than the right speaker, this sound appears to come from the left, and vice versa. If both speakers emit a sound at the same volume, this sound appears to come from the center.
Stereo is the difference between left and right. To create a wide sounding mix, you need to establish differences between what sounds come from the center of the space, what sounds come from left, and what sounds come from right.
The easiest way to achieve this is by panning.
With the panning knob you can move a sound horizontally in the mixing space. Turn the knob to the left and the sound will appear from the left. Turn the knob to the right and the sound will appear from the right. Easy.
With this knowledge you can place different elements of a song at different places in the mixing space. By doing this correctly, your mix will sound much wider as you are now creating differences between left and right.
We will discuss how to place all different elements of a song correctly in the mixing space further in this article and in future episodes.
Pro Tip: Make sure that elements with low frequencies – say, all frequencies below 100Hz – are placed in the center of the mixing space. By keeping the sides of your mixing space clear from low frequencies, you prevent your mix from sounding muddy.
Mixing different elements of a song (part 1)
So far in this series we have covered:
- the basic equipment and tools you need to be able to mix music;
- tweaks in song composition for a better mix;
- the understanding of the mixing space with frequency spectrum, stereo image and depth;
- how to organize your mixer;
- and how the essential plugins work (EQ, compressor, reverb, delay), and how you should line these up in your signal flow.
In other words, we covered about everything you should know before you start mixing the actual music elements.
Below I start explaining step by step how I and my fellow mixing engineers go about mixing different types of elements of a song.
Please note that every song is unique and each mix should be treated accordingly. However, below we describe the universal techniques we have found to be contributing each time to achieve a great sounding mix.
We start by mixing the kick and the snare – the backbone of almost any song. Let’s go!
Placement: Kicks (or kick drums) are most often rich in low frequencies, therefore it is natural to place the kick in the center of the mixing space.
EQ (cut): While it heavily depends on the sound of the kick that you want to achieve, kicks are often an important element of a song (especially in most electronic music) and require their full frequency range. To define its frequency range we add a high-pass filter (HPF) at around 20Hz to 40Hz, and a low-pass filter at around 15kHz to 20kHz.
Compression: As kicks are most often rich in low frequencies, we often compress kicks heavier than other drums. This often makes it easier to achieve a loud master later on.
We compress kicks by 2dB to 8dB with a ratio around 4:1. For a punchy sound, we set the attack time of the compressor right after the attack time of the kick. This is often somewhere between 10 milliseconds and 25 milliseconds.
As the sub-tails of kicks often differ, you should play around with the release time of the compressor and find what sounds best. However, do make sure that the compressor is back to 0dB before the next kick sound occurs.
EQ (boost): Boosting frequencies should be done very delicately, we rarely boost frequencies more than 3dB.
All kicks sound different and can be in different keys, however often the following applies: boost around 50Hz to enhance the bass of a kick, and boost around 100Hz to enhance the punch of a kick.
Only do this if that specific kick really needs it, and if you decide to boost, try to do this in the note frequency of the kick.
Reverb: In these parts where I share our insights on mixing different elements of a song, I talk about reverb as an effect throughout the track in order to create a sense of space, not as a miscellaneous creative effect.
Also, I will mention reverb of the overall space. With this I mean the reverb that we have setup as main reverb to create one (large) space in the mix. We have covered this in part 2 of this series, and I will elaborate further on this in the coming episodes.
Having that made clear, we rarely add reverb on a kick, we often find this unnecessary and therefore resulting in a less clear mix.
If we do use reverb on a kick, we send it to the drum reverb bus where we setup a reverb of a small room, with a short reverb tail. In some occasions this might give certain drums more body and a more authentic feel.
Placement: As snares are often an essential part of the core beat throughout a song, they feel most natural when placed in the center of the mixing space.
Sometimes, however with acoustic drum kits it might be fitting to pan the snare slightly to the left to resemble the point of view of the drummer. If you would aim to resemble a point of view of the audience, you would pan the snare slightly to the right.
EQ (cut): Snares often have their lowest tones somewhere between 100Hz and 400Hz. To cut away unnecessary frequencies and create space for the kick, we set a high-pass filter (HPF) right before that frequency.
Depending on what sound you are going for, snares generally need their high frequencies to sound bright in the track. Therefore, we apply a low-pass filter (LPF) at the very peak of its frequency range, around 20kHz.
Compression: Depending on what sound we are going for, we compress snares most often somewhere between 1dB and 6dB with a ratio around 4:1.
The more you compress a snare, the tighter it will sound. The less you compress a snare, the more it will breathe. Aim for the sweet spot in the middle.
To enhance the punch of the snare, same as with the kick, you set the attack time of the compressor right after the attack time of the snare. This is often somewhere in between 5 milliseconds and 20 milliseconds.
It often sounds great to have a short release time of the compressor on a snare. We find that the sweet spot is often somewhere in between 20 milliseconds and 100 milliseconds.
EQ (boost): A great way to give snares more body and a rounder sound, is by enhance the ringtone with a notch filter. Slowly move the boosted notch filter through the frequency spectrum to find the ringtone, or identify the peak with a graphic visualizer.
Reverb: Snares often come really to life with a bit of reverb. This can be the earlier mentioned drum reverb, or it might sound great in the general space reverb.
You could also choose to create a new reverb especially for the snare to create a specific sound. Some large plate reverbs can sound great, as do large reverbs without low frequencies.
Side Note: If you’re using samples for your kick and snare, there’s a good chance they’re already pretty compressed. Be sure to take this into account when compressing these drums. Trust your ears! If something is sounding over-compressed, turn that compression down.
All musical notes have a specific frequency. In that regard, assuming the musical elements of your song are all in key, each sound will have volume peaks at these specific frequencies.
If you want to enhance the ringtone of a snare or another element of your song, but you have difficulties finding the ringtone (the frequency of the note that the snare is playing) by ear in your equalizer, here is a cheat sheet of all frequencies (in Hertz) of musical notes.
That concludes this episode of Our Essential Guide To Becoming A Music Mixing Professional series.
I hope you enjoyed this one. If this article was valuable to you and you want to give other music producers, musicians or aspiring mixing engineers a nudge in the right direction, feel free to share the link to our blog.
In the next episode we continue with how to mix: claps, toms, percussions, hi-hats, crashes and bass. More detailed mixing tips, and a step by step approach to achieving great sounding drums.
Thanks again for reading the articles and sharing the message.
I am Tim van Doorne, it’s an honour to serve you. Stay motivated to improve your sound, every single day!