Starting to mix music is exciting and I wanted to produce a short document that gives some good starting advice. Of course it will be impossible to teach someone how to mix perfectly in such a short time but this guide will point you in the right direction towards important concepts to understand.
Optimize your levels
Gain structure is important, in a nutshell we are talking about recording levels and subsequent mixing levels. Always operate your DAW (digital audio workstation) at 24 bit and peak the sources at -14 to -12dBFS when recording and again when you start mixing. This will build in both analogue and digital headroom and avoid dreaded distortion which is virtually impossible to remove 100pct after the event.
Don’t limit yourself
I recommend not mixing into a limiter, a limiter is often put on the stereo master output bus for various reasons. Most people put one on there so the track sounds as loud as other material. The problem is this affects every decision you make in your mix. If you proceed as outlined above and peak your kick drum at -14 to -12dBFS when you start mixing and use that as a reference to balance other instruments you will not need a limiter to protect the master output against clipping. There will be sufficient headroom already built in. As a bonus you will then be working at the same electrical levels as a professional mix engineer on a big console like an SSL or NEVE as 0Vu equates approximately to -12dBFS. If it seems quiet just push your volume control up. Then your track is perfectly ready to be exported at 24 bit for self finalizing or professional mastering.
Mix at the right volume
Buy an SPL meter and ensure you mix your music at around 85dB SPL for at least part of the time. The Fletcher Munson equal loudness curves mean that the ears natural response does not even out until around 85dB SPL. Doing this important check will help ensure your mix is not bass heavy. Search for the Fletcher Munson curves for more detail.
A phase you are going through
Phase is a very important aspect of making a good mix, by and large it will relate to multiple miked sources and stereo imaging. I recommend understanding phase as it is a very important and valuable concept and I wrote an article explaining the basics on this very website, it’s here:
Mixing is often hard work
Ultimately mixing has a taste element but it is all about communicating a musical message. Mixing is not easy work, it is a highly skilled craft, so if you are not creating world class mixes within a week of practice do not be disheartened. A professional mix engineer might spend an entire day riding vocal levels for a top 40 hit and I hope that puts it in perspective as to what level of hard work goes into crafting a quality mix down.
Over using dynamics processes such as heavy compression and limiting can make mixing seem easier because it locks down the level of various tracks. However dynamics is what gives music impact both in terms of excitement and often conveying emotions. Over compressing and limiting music will rob the mix of life and cause a lack of openness, detail and interest. I will say it again, tweaking automation and riding faders is what mixing is really about. Quincy Jones and Bruce Swedien would never have limited every track in the mix and made a squashed mix down, they spent, hours days and weeks crafting the mixes and multiple takes into audio master pieces.
Other useful advice
I recommend finalizing a mix on fresh ears in the morning and not finishing at 3:30am when your brain and ears are at their most tired. This way you are likely to spot elements that stick out more easily and naturally. If you do not have a rush deadline a few days of not listening to the mix can be very revealing of what is not quite right yet.
Mix translation is important and that ultimately means good monitors, good acoustics and the all important use of a single driver mid range speaker. These 3 things will remove a lot of guess work from your mix translation to other reproduction systems. You can always check the mix in the car, on a PA system, small stereo system but the 3 professional basics will remove much of the guess work and ambiguity as to whether your mix will work well on other reproduction systems.
Always check your work on headphones after completion, this can reveal sonic defects such as clicks, lipsmacks, vocal pops and other details which might detract from the quality of the end results. This way you can employ edits, high pass filters and de-clicking software to make sure the sound is refined and free from annoying sonic distractions before it gets mastered or is released.
Finally it can be useful to import a commercially released master into your mix session. Choose a track in the same genre as your mix, pull down the volume of the mastered track to meet your mix volume (do it by ear) and there you have a useful reference which can help you shape the tone of your mix. Of course you cannot expect your mix to exactly equal the master sonically but it serves as a good tonal and balance reference.
Barry Gardner is the mastering engineer who operates SafeandSound Mastering, low cost online mastering services based in the UK.