How To Mix Music (Part 5): Mixing Instruments & Synths

How To Mix Music (Part 5): Mixing Instruments & Synths

Tim van Doorne
July 4th, 2017

In this episode I explain to you step by step how we go about mixing instruments and mixing synths. I understand that big mixing projects can get quite overwhelming, especially when you are not completely sure how to treat each sound, and having to choose from all your plugins. That’s how this was for me at least, when I started out 5 years ago.

There are so many different types of sounds, and they all need to be treated differently. Fortunately, over the years we have created universal guidelines that help us time and time again to create beautiful mixes and make all instruments and synths find their place nicely in the mix – and I’m going to share these guidelines with you in this article.

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.

#2ea3f2″>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.

In this article I cover the exact workflow we use at Heroic Audio for mixing instruments and synths. I explain step by step how we place these different elements in the mixing space, go over our compressor settings, and give equalising tips to achieve a clean and crisp mix.

Ready? Let’s go!

If you’re looking for quick fixes for your instruments and synths, consider grabbing my free cheat sheet. In this cheat sheet I outline easy step-by-step solutions to the 19 most common problems for mixing instruments and mixing synths:

Cheatsheet: Quickly improve the mix of your Instruments & Synths

 

Mixing Synths

There are many different types of synths. You’ve probably heard of lead synths, saw synths, plucks, atmospheric synths, and a dozen others. Each of these has a different wave shape and frequency content (which may also change depending on the note played).

Each synth will need to be mixed differently according to its sound. I will now explain how to mix a variety of these different synth types and how you can treat them best to improve your song.

Lead Synths

Lead synths are very important in a track. They may vary greatly from one to another, but are most often used to play the lead melody of the song.

Placement
As they are usually a focal point in the track, lead synths sound great when placed in the center of the mixing space.

In some occasions you can also experiment with stereo placement of lead synths. This could be possible in emptier mixes, where the lead would not be in danger of being masked by other elements.

EQ (Cut)

Lead synths often play their part above chords played by saw synths, keys, or other synths/instruments. Therefore, they rarely have low frequencies.

Nevertheless, stay consistent and always clean up the mix by setting a high-pass filter right before the key frequency. For lead synths this is often somewhere between 300Hz and 600Hz.

Set a low-pass filter at around 12kHz to define its high frequencies. This way you keep the high-end aspect of the lead synth, while saving enough space for the hi hats and crashes to come through cleanly.

Mixing Instruments & Synths - Lead Synth - EQ Cut

Mixing Instruments & Synths – Lead Synth – EQ Cut

Compression
Same as with saw synths, lead synths can have either a short or a long attack and release.

If the attack of the synth is short, you can set the attack time of the compressor slightly after the attack time of the synth to give it a punchier impact. This is often somewhere between 15 milliseconds and 40 milliseconds.

We often set the release time of the compressor somewhere between 60 milliseconds and 200 milliseconds.

We compress synths about 2dB to 4dB with a ratio in between 2:1 to 5:1.

If the lead synth has a long attack and release you might want to give the compressor a lower ratio to keep a subtler dynamic sound. With a long attack of the synth, the attack of the compressor can be shorter and with a softer knee.

Mixing Instruments & Synths - Lead Synth - Compressor

Mixing Instruments & Synths – Lead Synth – Compressor

EQ (Boost)

Same as with saw synths, only boost lead synths if it is really necessary. Boost frequencies around 1kHz to bring the synth more to the foreground. Boost frequencies between 6kHz and 10kHz to enhance its brightness.

Mixing Instruments & Synths - Lead Synth - EQ Boost

Mixing Instruments & Synths – Lead Synth – EQ Boost

Reverb
Depending on the style of the song, lead synths can sound great with some reverb. Sending the lead synth to the main reverb can give a bigger and more spacious feel to the track.

Saw Synths

A saw synth may be used as the lead in a track, but these versatile synths can also be used as support layers to fill out the frequency spectrum.

Placement
Saw synths are often used to give a song more body in the mid frequencies. Especially when the saw synth is used to play the main chords throughout the song, it sounds great when placed in the center of the mix. When placing them here, make sure they don’t get in the way of any other leads.

When the saw synth is played for shorter instances or in higher keys (with higher frequencies), there is opportunity to experiment with placement on the sides of the mixing space.

EQ (Cut)
Saw synths tend to get muddy very quickly, make sure to set a high-pass filter right before the key frequency to cut a way any unnecessary rumble. A rule of thumb here is to never have frequencies below 100Hz.

Depending on the type, the saw synth can be rich in high frequencies. This might give the synth the edge you’re looking for, but it is highly dangerous in cluttering the high frequencies of your mix.

To prevent this from happening, set a low-pass filter at least somewhere between 10kHz and 14kHz. This way the synth has still a sharp impact while you save space for your hi hats and crashes to come through cleanly.

Mixing Instruments & Synths - Saw Synth - EQ Cut

Mixing Instruments & Synths – Saw Synth – EQ Cut

Compression
Saw synths can have either a short- or a long attack and release. If the attack of the synth is short, you can set the attack time of the compressor slightly after the attack time of the synth to give it a punchy impact.

We compress synths about 3dB with a ratio in between 2:1 to 5:1.

If the saw synth has a long attack and release you might want to give the compressor a lower ratio to keep a subtler dynamic sound. With a long attack of the synth, the attack of the compressor can be shorter and with a softer knee.

Mixing Instruments & Synths - Saw Synth - Compressor

Mixing Instruments & Synths – Saw Synth – Compressor

EQ (Boost)
Only boost saw synths if it is necessary. Boost frequencies between 100Hz and 300Hz to enhance the sound of a round, and full body. Boost frequencies between 6kHz and 10kHz to enhance the brightness of the saw synth.

Mixing Instruments & Synths - Saw Synth - EQ Boost

Mixing Instruments & Synths – Saw Synth – EQ Boost

Reverb
Be hesitant on giving saw synths reverb, they often have a big frequency range and easily clutter the reverb space. Wait until the end of the mixing process to evaluate whether your saw synths need reverb or not – they often don’t.

If you decide to give the saw synth some reverb, send a send/auxiliary/bus signal to the main reverb bus – as we discussed in episode 2 of this series.

Pluck Synths

Pluck synths are also quite versatile, as they can be used as leads or to provide some “ear candy” for the listener as support layers.

Placement
Pluck synths are usually short in length. Therefore, they are rarely used to play the main chords of a song. Because of their shortness, pluck synths can sound great on the sides of the mixing space.

EQ (Cut)
Set a high-pass filter right before the key frequency to prevent the mix from getting muddy. This is especially important if you pan the pluck synth to the side of the mix.

This is often somewhere between 180Hz and 1kHz.

Pluck synths often need their higher frequencies to have their impact in the mix. Set a low-pass filter around 12kHz to allow this, while still keeping enough space for your hi-hats and crashes to come through cleanly.

Mixing Instruments & Synths - Pluck Synth - EQ Cut

Mixing Instruments & Synths – Pluck Synth – EQ Cut

Compression
Generally, pluck synths have a short attack and a short release. It sounds great to set the attack time of the compressor after the attack time of the pluck synth to enhance the punch of the sound.

This is often somewhere between 20 milliseconds and 40 milliseconds. The release time of the compressor can be short as well, between 35 milliseconds and 100 milliseconds often sounds great.

We compress synths about 3dB with a ratio in between 2:1 to 5:1.

Mixing Instruments & Synths - Lead Synth - Compressor

Mixing Instruments & Synths – Lead Synth – Compressor

EQ (Boost)
In some occasions you can boost between 5kHz and 10kHz to enhance the higher frequencies and make the pluck synth cut through the mix a little more.

Mixing Instruments & Synths - Lead Synth - EQ Boost

Mixing Instruments & Synths – Lead Synth – EQ Boost

Reverb
If the song and mix allow, pluck synths can sound beautiful with a little reverb. Use the main reverb for this.

Atmospheric Synths

Atmospheric synths do a great job at supporting the rest of the track, filling the frequency spectrum and stereo space nicely.

Placement
Atmospheric synths are used to create the atmosphere of a space that is not (or cannot be) created by reverb or by recording. These synths often have big frequency range and a wide stereo image.

Used wrong, atmospheric synths can ruin your mix. Used right, atmospheric synths create that special atmosphere you are aiming for.

EQ (Cut)
With a low-pass filter you can cut away the high frequencies of the atmospheric synth. If you choose to let these synths keep their high frequencies, they will appear closer and brighter.

Mixing Instruments & Synths - Atmoshperic Synth - EQ Cut Bright & Close

Mixing Instruments & Synths – Atmospheric Synth – EQ Cut Bright & Close

If you choose these synths to have less high frequencies they will appear deeper and further away.

Mixing Instruments & Synths - Atmoshperic Synth - EQ Cut Deep & Far

Mixing Instruments & Synths – Atmospheric Synth – EQ Cut Deep & Far

With a high-pass filter you can cut away the low frequencies of the atmospheric synth.

If these synths have low frequencies they will appear deep and heavy, if these synths have less low frequencies they will appear lighter and more breathable.

Since these synths often have low frequencies while being very stereo, they are a danger in making your mix muddy. If the low frequencies are not an important aspect of the sound, make sure to cut these out with a high-pass filter.

If you want to maintain the low frequencies, you can control the stereo image of the atmospheric synth by using a multiband stereo imager.

In this example I use the iZotope Ozone 6 Stereo Imager. I make sure all frequencies below 100Hz are completely centered (mono), and frequencies between 100Hz and 500Hz are not too much on the sides. This prevents the mix from sounding muddy.

Mixing Instruments & Synths - Atmoshperic Synth - Stereo Imager

Mixing Instruments & Synths – Atmospheric Synth – Stereo Imager

Compression
It often sounds great to compress atmospheric synths subtly. Use a soft knee and a low ratio of about 2:1. The attack can be short, but the release time of the compressor can be long.

We often compress atmospheric synths by 2dB to 3dB.

Mixing Instruments & Synths - Atmoshperic Synth - Compressor

Mixing Instruments & Synths – Atmospheric Synth – Compressor

EQ (Boost)
We rarely boost atmospheric synths. In some occasions however, you could boost frequencies between 5kHz and 10kHz to enhance the brightness of the synth.

Mixing Instruments & Synths - Atmoshperic Synth - EQ Boost

Mixing Instruments & Synths – Atmospheric Synth – EQ Boost

Reverb
Atmospheric synths already create a sense of space and do not necessarily need reverb. You could choose to apply the main reverb to your atmospheric synth, to make it more part of the space of the rest of the song. But be careful, as this might clutter the reverb space too much.

Cheatsheet: Quickly improve the mix of your Instruments & Synths

Mixing Instruments

Mixing Keys, Pianos and Organs

Placement
Keys (or piano or organ) can sound great both in the center as well as on the side of the mixing space. Find the best spot for them by avoiding the place where they might mask, or get masked by other elements in the mix.

Masking is a mixing problem that occurs when two (or more) elements are using the same frequencies at the same time. When this happens, one element will be less audible than it should be – it is being masked by the other element.

EQ (Cut)
Make sure to cut away any unnecessary low frequencies, especially when the keys are placed on the sides of your mix. Set a high-pass filter right before the key frequency. As a rule of thumb don’t have frequencies below 100Hz.

Set a low-pass filter at around 10kHz to ensure enough space in the high frequencies for your hi-hats and crashes to come through cleanly.

Mixing Instruments & Synths - Keys - EQ Cut

Mixing Instruments & Synths – Keys – EQ Cut

Compression
The compression on keys often sounds great with an attack time between 25 milliseconds and 60 milliseconds, and a release time between 50 milliseconds and 120 milliseconds.

We often compress keys by 2dB to 3dB with a ratio of 2,5:1.

Mixing Instruments & Synths - Keys - Compressor

Mixing Instruments & Synths – Keys – Compressor

EQ (Boost)
Keys rarely need any boosting of frequencies. In some occasions you could boost frequencies between 1kHz and 6kHz to enhance its brightness and definition.

Mixing Instruments & Synths - Keys - EQ Boost

Mixing Instruments & Synths – Keys – EQ Boost

Reverb
Wait until the end of the mixing stage to evaluate whether or not the keys need reverb. Your mix could sound much cleaner without reverb on the keys.

However, in the emptier mixes, or emptier moments in the mix, keys can sound beautiful with a little of the main reverb.

Mixing Guitars

Placement
If the mix allows, guitars sound great on the sides of the mix. If done correctly this can really change your song’s stereo image for the better.

EQ (Cut)
Guitars can quickly make your mix sound muddy. Make sure to cut away any unnecessary low frequencies by setting a high-pass filter before the key frequency of the guitars.

Often, guitars don’t need frequencies below 180Hz.

Set a low-pass filter at around 12kHz to save enough space in the high frequencies for your hi-hats and crashes, while maintaining the brightness of the guitars.

Mixing Instruments & Synths - Guitar - EQ Cut

Mixing Instruments & Synths – Guitar – EQ Cut

Compression
Guitars often sound great with the attack time of the compressor between 10 milliseconds and 40 milliseconds.

Depending on the guitar sound, the release time of the compressor can be short or mid-long between 30 milliseconds and 120 milliseconds.

We often compress guitars by 3dB with a ratio of 2:1 to 4:1.

Mixing Instruments & Synths - Guitar - Compressor

Mixing Instruments & Synths – Guitar – Compressor

EQ (Boost)
Only boost guitars if necessary. In some occasions it can sound great to boost frequencies around 350Hz to enhance the body.

In other occasions it can sound great to boost frequencies around 6kHz to 8kHz to enhance the brightness and definition of the guitar.

Mixing Instruments & Synths - Guitar - EQ Boost

Mixing Instruments & Synths – Guitar – EQ Boost

Reverb
Same as with keys, wait until the end of the mixing stage to evaluate whether or not the guitars need reverb. Your mix can sound much cleaner without reverb on the guitars.

However, in the emptier mixes, or emptier moments in the mix, guitars can sound beautiful with a little of the main reverb.

Mixing Strings

Placement
If your strings don’t have (or don’t need) low frequencies, they can sound great on the sides of the mixing space.

EQ (Cut)
Strings can quickly make your mix sound muddy, especially when placed on the sides of the mixing space.

Critically evaluate if your strings need all the low frequencies they have – often they can do without. You can often set a high-pass filter somewhere between 100Hz and 500Hz.

Set a high-pass filter right before the key frequency. Set a low-pass filter at around 12kHz to save high frequency space for your hi-hats and crashes.

In some occasions it also sounds great to set the low-pass filter at a lower frequency to make the strings appear from a further distance.

Mixing Instruments & Synths - Strings - EQ Cut

Mixing Instruments & Synths – Strings – EQ Cut

Compression
Strings and violins often sound best when compressed delicately. Use a soft knee and a ratio between 1,5:1 and 2,5:1.

For strings you can use a long attack between 40 milliseconds and 80 milliseconds, and a long release time between 80 milliseconds and 150 milliseconds.

We often compress strings about 2dB to 3dB.

Mixing Instruments & Synths - Strings - Compressor

Mixing Instruments & Synths – Strings – Compressor

EQ (Boost)
Boosting strings can quickly sound ugly. Only in some occasions you can boost frequencies around 8kHz to enhance the brightness.

Mixing Instruments & Synths - Strings - EQ Boost

Mixing Instruments & Synths – Strings – EQ Boost

Reverb
Same as with keys and guitars, wait until the end of the mixing stage to evaluate whether or not the strings need reverb. Your mix can sound much cleaner without reverb on the strings.

However, in the emptier mixes, or emptier moments in the mix, strings can sound beautiful with a little of the main reverb.

Mixing Horns

Placement
Same as with strings, if your horns don’t have (or don’t need) low frequencies, they can sound great on the sides of the mixing space.

EQ (Cut)
Make sure to cut away any unnecessary low frequencies by setting a high-pass filter before the key frequency of the horns.

Often, horns don’t need frequencies below 150Hz.

Set a low-pass filter at around 10kHz to save enough space in the high frequencies for your hi-hats and crashes, while maintaining the brightness of the horns.

Mixing Instruments & Synths - Horns - EQ Cut

Mixing Instruments & Synths – Horns – EQ Cut

Compression
Same as with strings, horns often sound best when compressed delicately. Use a soft knee and a ratio between 1,5:1 and 2,5:1.

For strings you can use a long attack between 30 milliseconds and 70 milliseconds, and a long release time between 60 milliseconds and 130 milliseconds.

We often compress horns about 3dB.

Mixing Instruments & Synths - Horns - Compressor

Mixing Instruments & Synths – Horns – Compressor

EQ (Boost)
Boosting horns can quickly sound ugly. However, if the sound allows, you can enhance the body of the horns by boosting slightly between 200Hz and 350Hz.

Also, in some occasions you can enhance the brightness of the horns by boosting frequencies between 6kHz and 9kHz.

Mixing Instruments & Synths - Horns - EQ Boost

Mixing Instruments & Synths – Horns – EQ Boost

Reverb
Same as with keys, guitars, and strings, wait until the end of the mixing stage to evaluate whether or not the horns need reverb. Your mix can sound much cleaner without reverb on the horns.

However, in the emptier mixes, or emptier moments in the mix, horns can sound beautiful with the main reverb.

Did you grab my instruments & synths cheat sheet? If you haven’t already, grab it at the bottom of each post to improve your instruments and synths. Quickly solve the 19 most common issues:

Cheatsheet: Quickly improve the mix of your Instruments & Synths

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That concludes this episode of our How To Mix Music series. You can comment and ask any questions below.

The plugins I used for the examples in this articles are: Fabfilter Pro Q, Fabfilter Pro C and iZotope Ozone 6 Imager.

Next episode we continue with how to mix: vocals and sound effects.

Thanks again for reading the articles, for sharing the message, and all the kind emails I keep receiving. Everything is much appreciated and I am very happy these articles are useful to you guys.

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