In this guide we're going to give you a full overview on how to start with a good mix!
What is mixing?
Mixing is the process of blending multi track recorded audio using various processing, such as dynamic levelling, equalisation, stereo imaging and time based effects. Mixing today has never been more accessible, thanks to affordable plugins emulations of otherwise ludicrously expensive outboard equipment. Just over 20 years ago a compressor, EQ and effects unit would've set you back thousands.
Now you can get entire plugin suites for under £25 per month, thanks to companies like Slate Digital, Plugin Alliance, MCDSP and many more. Mixing 101 is a general overview of a new series which we will be releasing each month in more detail. The aim of this article is to give you a broad understanding of what the process entails and how you can get started mixing music.
Today music producers, mixers and composers uses a DAW (Digital Audio Workstation). Think of it as Adobe Photoshop for musicians. It's where you write, mix, master and even perform your music. DAW software has been inspired and evolved through the earliest advancements in recording, such as tape machines and four track cassette recorders. A DAW also houses all of your plugins, which can be either stock or third party.
Stock plugins are bundled with the DAW when you purchase it. Logic, Studio One and Ableton all come with some excellent stock plugins meaning you really don't need to buy many third party plugins, if any! Third party plugins are created by developers and you can then use these in your DAW of choice. You might want to branch out into third party plugins for specific tools, such as AI eq's, specific emulations of sought after hardware and artist series plugins created by legendary mix engineers.
House keeping (naming, colouring & grouping)
Once you've purchased your DAW and delved into your first session its very easy to start stacking up tones of virtual instruments, audio tracks and midi channels. The best way to look after your session is to name, colour and group your channels. This way you'll be able to control volume, EQ and effects a lot easier afterwards. You can also disable any plugins and/or virtual instruments that you're not using but still want to have in the session to preserve CPU power. Even better than this you can print (or bounce in place) midi tracks to audio, and then delete the virtual instrument/soft synth. This will make your session run a whole lot smoother and also make mixing and automation easier.
Workflow (inserts, sends & busses)
When first starting out mixing its good to be creative and try new plugins and techniques. A big common error however is inserting effects such as reverb onto an insert, as opposed to a send. An Insert is when you place a plugin directly onto an instrument channel strip. A channel strip is the fader in your mixer window which has empty slots for 'inserts', as well as other routing possibilities. Some modern plugins now have a dry/wet mix knob which means you can control the amount the plugin is affecting the overall signal. This is very similar to the routing signal of send and returns.
A send/return involves creating a dedicated FX channel to which you 'send' your dry (unaffected) audio to and then blend that plugins affect into the mix by taste. A send gives you greater flexibility over tone shaping, automation and level control. If you place a reverb plugin onto a send channel, you can then place an EQ or compressor after the reverb to change its frequency range or even side chain the reverb to the audio signal.
Essentially what all of this means is, a send allows you to have better control over a plugins sonic behaviour in the mix. A bus can also be quite confusing at first, but the basic purpose of a bus is to control multiple tracks at once. A great example is a drum kit. Sending your kick, snare, cymbals, toms and overheads to a 'bus' channel means you can control their entire EQ and dynamics on one channel strip. It's very common practice to use bussing all over your mix and on all instrument groups, as it helps control and 'glue' a track together.
The console (gain staging, balancing & panning)
Now we've covered the function of DAW's and plugins, we can begin with the first step in mixing. Gain staging means getting all of your channels sitting at the right level. If your channel is lighting up orange or red, it means you audio is clipping which is the worst case scenario. You want your faders metering to be hitting green and roughly half way up the gain strip. This allows for 'head room' when you start to process the audio with plugins.
Using a clip gain tool can trim any audio that looks too hot on the meters and bring it down to a good level for processing. It's very important that you do this before you even touch any fancy plugins, as it sets the foundation for a solid and professional mix. Balancing is very similar to gain staging but it's more useful for automating your song after you've processed your audio.
Automation can mean many things in mixing, but the most common example is when the volume of a channel changes throughout the song. Panning is probably one of the most effective ways to create a good mix without touching any plugins. Panning simply means placing sound sources in different areas of the stereo field (or 5.1, 7.1 & Dolby Atmos). By panning different channels in your mix you'll create space for parts so they don't become all lost down the centre of stereo spectrum. You can also automate panning positions throughout your mix to create psycho acoustic effects.
Processing (EQ, Compression, Saturation & FX)
Processing is the most creative and fun part of mixing. It also requires an immense amount of skill and practice, so don't be discouraged if your mix doesn't sound as good as you'd like. Many a list mixers say they're still learning, and the art form is a process of discovery through trial and error. We recently published an article of preamps/eq's and compressors. These are slightly more advanced and in depth but they're still relevant if you'd like to learn more.
EQ stands for equalisation and involves removing and adding frequencies to a sound source to carve and enhance its tone. EQ also plays a big role in allowing your mix to breathe and evoke energy. The best type of EQ to learn is a parametric EQ. This is because it will teach you about the frequency spectrum, interaction, tone shaping and different filters. Most good DAW's come with a great stock parametric EQ and some even have an in-built graphic equaliser to show you what frequencies are coming from the sound source. There's a general rule of thumb for which frequencies you should boost and cut on specific instruments, however its very dependant on the style of track you're working on - so we'll leave this for an upcoming article.
Compression is the process of reducing the dynamic range between the loudest and quietest parts of an audio signal. This is done by boosting the quieter signals and attenuating the louder signals. A good example would be to compare a scream to a quiet whisper, one is going to be too loud and the other too quiet.
Compression helps level out your instruments performance in the mix so it's even and balanced against other elements. There are many different types of compression; FET, Optical, Valve, VCA, Delta MU and Digital and they all work very differently. We just published an article on this exact topic, so go check that out for more information!
Saturation is what essentially sets apart the digital world of recording from the old analogue methods. Real outboard hardware had character and harmonic distortion which is often described as 'musical'. Developers have now found methods to impart saturation into plugin emulations with tolerance modelling technology.
This means that plugins such as tape machines, compressors, eq's and even reverbs now carry some form of low level harmonic colouring which helps enhance and warm a digitally recorded signal. Some great saturation plugins for adding distortion, grit and character to a sound source are the Waves J37 tape machine, Sound Toys Decapitator and the Plugin Alliance Black Box Analog.
FX are probably the most familiar form of processing for a newbie mixer. This is because many musicians have experience with effect pedals which manipulate the tone of your instrument. The most common FX are reverb, delay and modulation (of which there are a plethora of sub categories). Reverb is the natural result of sound waves bouncing off surfaces, hard, soft, tall, short, etc. that we then hear and perceive as the room's acoustics.
Think of how your voice changes in a tiled bathroom, or huge church. Delay is the repetition of the sound wave after a period of time and the number of repetitions is dependant on the feedback level. Modulation is by far the most vast and complicated effect on this list as it can mean so many different things. Essentially, modulation is a particular category of audio effect which can modify the sound in a certain way: by adding a time-delayed version of the sound to itself, and then varying the size of that delay over time. Guitarists and synth players may already be familiar with modulation effects such as: chorus, flanger, phaser and envelope filters.
Final notes - there is no right or wrong...
One final thing to take away from all of this is that there is no right or wrong in mixing. It's purely taste and creativity. There are certain principles in regards to levels, panning and processing decisions, but many of the best songs ever produced were created by breaking the rules or happy accidents.