The key to a professional-sounding song is a great mix. It gives the song balance, dynamics, and makes the mastering process so much more effective.
But mixing takes practice. Lots of practice. If you’re just starting out, you’re going to be bad at it. But it’s okay — you won’t get better until you first realize what you need to work on.
So to get you started on your lifelong journey of improving your mixing skills, here’s a starter guide on how to mix music. It’s tailored toward newbies, but I believe even intermediate mixers can learn from it.
What Does It Mean To “Mix Music”?
Mixing music is exactly what it sounds like — mixing sounds together in a way that makes them sound pleasant. By using things like EQ, compression, and volume levels, you can help the different tracks of your song meld together, to not cover each other up but help each other do their part.
Mixing is part of the creative process. This is where you shape the sounds you’ve recorded or sampled into what you’re hearing in your head. That’s why it’s so important you learn how to mix music on your own.
When you’re done with the mix, you render the multi-track recording into a WAV file (called “the mixdown”) so it can be mastered.
My point: mixing is one of the most important aspects of a great recording. People build their careers entirely on knowing how to mix.
So to properly tackle this topic, we’re going to get detailed (while still keeping it as simple as possible). Here’s what we’ll go over:
– The importance of knowing your recording software (aka a digital audio workstation or DAW)
– How to organize your audio and MIDI channels
– Why you should group similar instruments together in your DAW
– How to pick the main focus and element of your song
– A step-by-step process for mixing using gain levels, panning, effects
Know Your DAW
In order to get an efficient mix, you have to use a digital audio workstation (DAW) that can do what you need it to do (EQ, compression, reverb, crossfading, etc). And then you have to know how to use your DAW really well, to use it to do those things.
Intimacy — that’s the word that comes to mind. Learn where everything is in your DAW before you even hit record.
Here are the main things in your recording software that you should be familiar with — I strongly recommend getting to know the keyboard shortcuts for these:
– Where the record button is
– Where you set the BPM
– How to expand the tracks and zoom in
– How to add a new track, both audio and MIDI
– Undo recording
– Slice/cut recorded item
– Snap-To-Grid On/Off selection
– Copy/paste, specifically copying and pasting only certain sections of a song
It will take time to learn these things and how to quickly access them. But the only way to familiarize yourself is to practice.
If you’re not totally set on a DAW yet, check out our list of the best DAWs, both paid and free plan before you mix.
Plan Before You Mix
Before you start mixing, all of your tracks should be titled properly. Some people even like to make tracks with similar instruments the same color, others (like me) simply put those tracks next to each other.
For example, all of the acoustic guitars might be arranged next to each other. All of the vocals could be grouped. And the bass and drums are neighbors. This allows your workflow to be smoother. When you mix the vocals, you can start with one template for all the vocal tracks — and if they’re together, it will be much easier to hop between them.
The point is, try to stay as organized as possible in whatever way you prefer.
It may also help to imagine what you want the track to sound like before mixing. Do you want it to sound spacey, or more in-your-face and human? What instrument do you want to feature?
Is there another artist’s track you want it to sound like? If so, you should try mixing with a reference track. It’s one thing that has drastically helped my mixing skills as well as my production skills. Grab a professionally mixed and mastered song from an artist you admire and drop it in your DAW project. Then you can easily switch between that song and your mix.
Also, you should decide on what will be the main elements of the song. When people say, “I like your one song that goes…”, what do they sing or hum? Is it the beat? The melody? A cool guitar lick? That’s the main element and should be your focus when mixing.
Now For The Mixing Part
1. Set Volumes And Pan Stuff
Before you do anything else, set your volume levels and pan the instruments. Try to imagine the band is in a room. You’d hear the different players left, middle, and right — this is panning. And you’d hear things more forward and others more backward — the quieter they are, the further back in the room they are.
Gain levels and panning create space in your song, keep the mix from getting muddy, and help you avoid instruments masking other instruments. This first step should give you a good idea of how the song will sound. All the other effects should smooth everything out.
It’s also important to remember headroom, which is the space between the loudest part of your track and the gain meter. You don’t want any of the individual tracks hitting the red and you definitely don’t want red on your master track. Taming the volume levels early will really help the rest of the process flow.
2. Use A Bus
When I first learned about bussing, it was a little confusing. But all my confusion was cleared up when I heard the metaphor of a…bus.
Imagine you have an actual bus with a bunch of people on it. Those people are your tracks — your guitar, keyboard, vocals, and whatever else you recorded. Now you can apply an effect to all of those people (tracks) at once — just slap the processor on the whole bus.
This is what a bus track does. You send all your tracks to the bus track then apply whatever processor you need to the bus track, thereby affecting all the tracks on that bus.
Now, if you want to tweak the effect, you don’t have to tweak it on each individual track. Just tweak it on the bus track.
So just create a new track, title it “[EFFECT] BUS,” then there will be an option on the track that may say “route” or “send/receive.” This option allows you to send your other tracks through this bus track. You can then control the prevalence of the effect on those tracks with the bus track’s volume.
An equalizer (EQ) is a plugin that allows you to cut and boost frequencies (lows, mids, and highs) so you can reduce weird or distracting sounds and bring out the beautiful tones.
For example, bass guitar is going to have an output that’s mostly in the lower frequencies. On the other end of the spectrum, you can have a hi-hat that shows up in the mid to high frequencies. In the mixing stage you can use an EQ plugin to “cut,” (reduce) frequencies that compete with each other, giving your mix a more crisp and pristine sound overall.
When working with EQ, it’s best to not solo the track you’re working on. The point of EQing is to make all the parts of the song meld together. In fact, your guitar may not sound super amazing soloed, but it may sound great once you bring in all the tracks — you EQ for the greater good, not for the individual sounds.
I like to first get rid of any unnecessary low end with a high-pass filter (also called a low-cut filter). I like to remove the stuff you don’t hear but your headphones or speakers will waste energy trying to push out. It depends on the instrument, but unhearable and unneeded low frequencies are typically around 50 Hz and below.
Next, I use the middle EQ bands with a narrow range to find the weirdest sounds in the spectrum and then do a cut of about 1-3 dB at that point. And if you hear a pretty frequency, try boosting it 1-3 dB. Whatever sounds best!
You also want to use EQ to make room for all the instruments. If the kick and bass are masking each other, then you know they both can’t occupy the same frequency. You’ve got some decisions to make and some carving to do so they can sit nicely together.
Audio compression “reels in” the extremes of the frequency range (i.e. the dynamic range). It makes the quietest parts of your recording a bit louder and tames the loudest parts. This gives the audio more consistency across the whole track and makes it a little more balanced.
But it’s easy to overdo the compression. You want consistency because you want each part to be heard and not lost. But you don’t want to totally squash your recording. It’s something that takes a lot of practice.
Depending on the instrument, you’ll want to set your compressor’s ratio between 2.1:1 and 2.9:1, especially if you’re new to compressors. The attack time can be anywhere between 3 ms and 15 ms to start, and then you can adjust to your ears.
Once these settings are in place, pull down the threshold until you see 1-3 dB of gain reduction, or more if you like a more processed, pulsating sound. Because you’ve compressed your track, you’ll have room to turn up the gain (compression helps give you a louder mix).
Reverb is another way to say “sound reflecting off of stuff and coming back to your ears.” All sound reverberates. And on top of the reverb of your room, you can add as much or as little reverb during the mixing process.
In other words, you can make your song sound like it’s in an old church with high ceilings.
With a decent reverb plugin, you can set the room size, stereo width, the initial delay, and some other things to help you get that full, big, and 3D sound. When in doubt and just starting out, use presets. Then you can edit the settings from there until your ears are happy.
Remember how we talked about bussing? This is an effect you should bus. Create a new track, apply your curated reverb, and send whatever tracks that need reverb to this bus track.
Like all of the plugins on this list, go easy on the reverb. Start out light and see how it sounds. It’s better to do a bunch of little mixing moves than a few big ones.
Delay will take what you’ve recorded and repeat it a certain amount of times, each repetition fading into the distance. You can make things sound like they’re in a big cave or canyon. This is an effect you may just need to experiment with until you get the sound you want.
Here are some general tips for using delay:
- Like the other plugins, go easy. Start small.
- Use delay to give a song some fullness.
- Try a ping-pong delay to transition from one part of the song to the next.
- Experiment with delay to get weird/cool sounds.
Putting It All Together
It’s easy to get lost in the details of mixing, so remember this: it’s all about the song. Try to zoom out and remind yourself of the overall sound you want.
Where is this track going? Does it sound like your reference track? Are you getting the sounds you’re hearing in your head?
Again, I highly recommend using a reference track. It’s sort of like a map you use to make sure you’re on the right path to a professional-sounding song.
Also, mixing is not a quick thing. It will take time, redos, undos, deletes, and start-agains. You’ll find yourself making little tweaks, listening, making more tweaks, listening again, and making even more adjustments.
Just know you shouldn’t get discouraged if this is your workflow — that’s a sign you’re moving toward a great mix.
Once you’ve learned all these “rules” and you’re comfy with them, break them. Be creative and experiment. Trust your ears, even if what you’re seeing on the screen is unfashionable.
The whole point is to end up with an amazing mix, which is the key to a great master and a song that can stand up to any other.
Caleb J. Murphy
Caleb J. Murphy is a songwriter and producer based in Austin, TX.