So you got a rocking song written and you’re ready to move it over to the mixing stage. There are many technical steps as well as room for creativity in the mix down process. After years of being a professional mixing engineer and musician I have found a basic guideline that helps me insure a solid mix. Below is a checklist / cheat sheet I made to help visualize the steps needed.
Download a hi-res version for print. I love having a binder of images like this I can reference along the way. If you find the information helpful and want to see more checklist like this, then donate. Thanks!
Here is deeper run-through of the steps and ideas in the Infographic. If you use Ableton Live then check out the Mixdown Toolset. It is packed with tools to help your stereo imaging, advance EQing, and more.
Step 1 – Setup
It’s a really good idea to have your session prepared, cleaned up, organized, and good to go before you jump down the rabbit hole.
To start it is best to not have any effects or limiter on the Master Track. This will insure you are not accidentally hitting a limiter or have an effect that is coloring your mix. If you are using audio effects then you can add them to the groups of return tracks.
Another important step is to organize your session / Live Set. Once you put on your hype geek mixing engineer hat, it is nice to know where and what things are instead of getting lost looking for that one sound. Here is an example of a chaotic Live Set and one that is ready for Mixing.
If you are mixing down to another DAW, check out this article on exporting your individual tracks for a mixing.
The last thing to look at to prepare your session is to get reference tracks. Sometimes your judgement and objectivity can get cloudy after working on a track for a while. Having other tracks you like and respect helps keep you on track. I usually put 2-3 reference tracks directly into my project. There are other aspects of your hearing and referencing as well. Check out this article on your listening environment and the k-system.
Step 2 – Balance
Once we have our session ready to go we can dive into mixing. The first thing I like to do is create a cohesive and balanced mix. For this step I am looking at a very clinical and technical mix. This is a totally different mindset then the creative part of songwriting.
I generally start by turning all the volumes down to -inf (or nothing). I then bring up the different tracks and pay close attention to the overall volume versus the single track. This helps me get rid of any assumptions I have and start dialing it in. I will then look into using compression for the dynamics of the different instruments, such as a compressor on the vocals to add more punch. After that I look into giving space with EQ and panning. A good mix is more than just a clinical mix, but this gives me a clean slate to work with.
To me this feels like a dentist’s office. Everything is clean and in its place, but I don’t know a single person that loves to hang out in the dentist’s office. This is where our personal expression comes in with Step 3.
Step 3 – Expression
Once our baseline is clean we can start subtly adding color and interest to the mix. With this step I like to add a unique sound to the mix. I usually do this by adding some very subtle effects like harmonic exciting.
A good mix is balanced, a great mix is not. A great mix plays with balance with an artful hand. It’s important to think of what are the priorities of this track. Maybe the vocals should be more upfront, or perhaps back as if being washed out in the rain. Playing with the ebb and flow of the track with dynamics will really take this track to the next level. I feel this is the final frontier for mixing engineers. You might be able to pick up the basics of mixing, but the expressive part of mixing has a lifetime of exploration.
Step 4 – Polish
During this step I get back into the heady engineer brain. An important aspect of a mix is that it translates. In other words, it will play well on headphones, iPhone, and club system. It might not be 100% optimized for just the club system to make sure it sounds good with ear buds.
This is where checking on headroom, final volume tweaks, and referencing comes in. At this stage it is very important to check your work compared to others in your genera and on other systems. You are looking to make sure nothing comes out too strongly, harsh, or annoying. A great example of this is a CD I have in my car. First of all… yes, I still listen to CD’s. I must be old or something.
I have this CD from a band that I love. The vocals and recording is so good. The issue is there is a very high pitched twinkle / synth sound. I get that it’s supposed to add a nice sparkle, but it drives me crazy. It is way to high pitched and sounds like a dog whistle. Over time I noticed I stopped playing the album. If that engineer checked in car speakers (I have noticed this on two other cars) then they might have saved the mix. Point being, double check your tracks before sending out for mastering.
Once you have that all squared away you can do the final export. I have found these steps to really help me organize my thoughts around mixing. It also makes me feel more efficient with what and how I do things. If you have comments or techniques you like to use on your mix, please comment below. There is no 100% right way to do things. This is but a suggestion and pathway I have found to work with my professional mixes.
Update: I have had a lot of people hitting me up about other mixing techniques. Here is a list of a few articles I’ve written on mixing.
You can also check out the Mixdown Toolset for an easy to use and fast way of adding dynamics and life to your mix.