When I first heard the word “mixing” I thought about cooking. I was brand new to production and thought putting sounds and drums together was all there was to it. I had no idea how to mix music and couldn’t understand why my amateur beats sounded so different from what was on the radio.
Little did I know that a rabbit hole was opening up that I’m still in today.
Mixing is the process by which sounds in a song are blended together with the goal of creating a final product that is pleasing to the human ear.
If your guitar part in a song is 10x louder than everything else, it won’t sound good. Similarly, if you can’t hear the vocals in a song you probably are a bit annoyed and wonder why.
Mixing cleans up audio signals to get the best out of each part while keeping in mind the relationship each part has to the other parts. So before you win that Grammy or get your music placed on TV, you want to have a great mix.
We could write 100 pages on mixing and still not cover everything. Let’s start slow so you get a good understanding of the basics first. In this article we’ll cover the 6 main components of mixing.
Of course there are other effects and ways to manipulate sound than the 6 mentioned below, but that is a more advanced topic for another day. Let’s get to it!
Equalization or EQ, is simply the process of manipulating frequency information in a waveform of sound. A frequency is a fixed point on a sound wave and is measured in hertz. The human ear can hear from roughly 20Hz (low sounds) up to 20,000Hz (very high sounds).
EQ’s main objective is clarity. For example, if two or more instruments or sounds are playing the same part and have fundamental frequencies that are the same, you can use EQ to separate how the sound sounds to the ear.
EQ uses filters with various settings to manipulate frequencies. The type of filter used can be a pass filter (high pass or low pass), bell or notch filter, and shelf filter which raises frequencies above a certain starting point.
EQ uses something called quality factor or “Q” to determine how wide or narrow the band will be. This is the main setting to pay attention to when using EQ for tone shaping.
Gain is how much boosting or reduction occurs at a specific point of EQ.
A compressor is basically an automatic volume adjuster. It reacts to audio signal dynamics to reduce peaks and smooth out a performance. Using a compressor is sometimes referred to as “glue” because its job is to do just that – bring everything together cohesively.
When using a compressor the main controls you will work with are:
- Input gain – used to determine how much signal will be sent to the compressor
- Threshold – determines the level at which the compressor will start working to reduce signal
- Output gain – used to determine how much signal will be boosted after compression takes place
- Ratio – this control determines the slope of the input-to-output reduction, for example 4:1. All this means is that for every 1 decibel above the threshold, 4 decibels of reduction will take place.
- Attack – determines how quickly the compressor starts to effect the audio signal
- Release – determines how quickly the compressor will restore a signal to its original dynamic level, or “let go” of the signal.
Okay okay, so all of that sounds super technical and doesn’t make sense right? Here’s the deal – jumping in and testing various audio signals with a compressor is the best way to learn how they work.
Most compressors come with great presets to help get you used to using them, so grab a few different sounds (for example a hi-hat and a bass guitar) and start going through each setting on the compressor to see how it affects the sound.
Delay alters the parameter of time. Simply put, delay stores audio signal for a defined length of time in memory and then reads the signal out from memory for further processing. Delay units and plugins sometimes have additional effects like saturation or EQ filtering built in to make the affected audio sound different from the original signal.
Delay can be used down to the millisecond which creates various effects like chorusing and flanging. The perceived spacing of the sound is altered as well when short term delays are used. This is sometimes referred to as a slapback delay.
The main settings you’ll be using with delay are feedback and delay time. Feedback is the number of times the signal is repeated while slightly fading in volume with each repeat.
Delay time is the wait period the signal gets held in memory before being played back. The most common time delays are 1/8th, 1/4th, and 1/2nd delays from quickest to longest.
Pro tip – use delays on a separate channel or “send” to blend the amount of delay signal with the original signal in a more fine tuned way. You don’t want your delay sounding sloppy and overbearing compared to the main audio.
Reverb creates a natural acoustic space for a sound. Reverberation which is the word reverb comes from, is the natural way sound waves interact with surfaces.
When a sound wave hits a wall, floor, or other object, a natural reflection or diffusion takes place which alters the way we perceive the sound.
Reverb provides space and depth to a sound so when using it in the mixing process, keep in mind the type of reverb you’re using. The main types are:
- Hall – used for lush, open spaces mimicking a concert hall
- Chamber – mimics an echo chamber for bright reflections
- Room – room reverb adds space that would be found in a live room
- Plate – puts sound vibrations through metal reflections. Usually sounds closer and tighter than other reverb types
The main settings to keep in mind when working with reverb are:
- Size (controls the space of the room and how large the reverberations are)
- Decay (how long it takes the reverberations to run out of energy)
- Early reflections (the first arriving reflected audio signals that give you a sense of the room and space)
- Mix (how much wet signal is blended with the dry signal)
A final word about reverb – this is the most natural “ear candy” you can use to make your mixes sound appealing. Looking to add character, depth, and warmth to your sounds? Then pick your favorite reverb and get to work!
It may seem strange to mention volume as a mixing component, but honestly if I had just 1 tool to use it would be volume.
Getting levels right in a mix is half the battle – especially with drums and vocals. The most common mistake I used to see when I taught production was drums and/or vocals that were too low in the mix.
If you can’t “feel” the drums (specifically kick and snare) the whole song feels disjointed and puny. Similarly, having a loud top end (hi-hats, cymbals, etc…) is another common pitfall that turn mixes into harsh, piercing experiences that are unpleasant to listen to.
So how do you achieve a good balanced mix? One trick I use is to start with the basics. Solo each part in a section and then solo sections until you’ve built up the whole song.
Dial in a great kick drum sound and then slowly build in the other drums, making sure the volume is relative to the parts you want loudest in the mix.
Usually this is the kick, snare, and vocals, but depending on the style of music that might not be the case. I do a lot of Hip-hop production so for me, typically this is the way I mix.
You might be different though and the good news is there are no rules. Just be deliberate about volume choices and you will be fine.
You can use the other mixing components in the process of getting good volume levels too since many of them affect how loudness is perceived.
Panning is another spacing tool to give your mix a real world feel. Our ears hear sounds from all sides so having everything up the middle in a mix usually isn’t the natural way we hear.
Panning means the left / right direction a sound is coming from. “Up the middle” just means mono dead center or stereo full left and right. This means the sound is equally coming from both sides so your ear perceives it as such.
With panning, you can achieve wider, clearer mixes. Typically lower frequency sounds such as bass and kick drum will be in the center of the mix to give it a solid foundation.
Vocals are also typically “up the middle”, but affected vocals or background vocals sound great panned hard left and right to accentuate vocal melodies or harmonies.
So what else can you do with panning?
If you have a guitar part that is competing with a synth part either at the same frequency or volume level, try panning on to the left and one to the right. This gives them each their own playpen so they won’t fight with each other.
One cool trick to use with panning is automation. You can gradually move a sound from left to right or visa versa over time using automation. That’s more of an advanced topic, but just know that where you pan a sound doesn’t have to stay that way forever.
Okay there you have it – the 6 components of mixing that will give you a solid foundation to clean up your mixes and feel more confident with your approach. Whether you’re a self producing artist, or just want a better understanding of the process, you now have the tools to talk the talk when it comes to mixing.
As I said at the start, mixing is a lifelong process that never ends, so don’t stop learning, experimenting, and working hard to become a better mixer. If that’s what you want of course. Otherwise, you just read an entire article that isn’t relevant to you which makes me concerned about your time management skills.
Looking for help with your songs or have questions about mixing? Hop on over to Sounds Sphere and click the “Contact Us” link.