I have spent many years trying to get to grips with the art of mixing, and it's taken me a very long time to get there. I would like to present an article that should hopefully cover some of the basics to get you on your way to really improving the quality of your mixes.
This article is about explaining the basic steps that you should go through to make your beat sound as good as you can make it. You should really go through these steps with every beat you make, so that with practice it will all start coming together.
I'm going to cover these basics. Where I feel some visual help is required to explain each concept I will use existing YouTube videos that I think cover the topic very well. Mixing isn't genre specific, the methods are universal across all genres, all that changes is the sonic balance overall which you shape with the mix to suit the specific genre. Also the quality of what comes out depends on the quality of what goes in. Try to use high quality sounds whenever possible.
- GAIN STAGING/ PANNING
- BASIC FX ie REVERB/DELAY
Step 1. GAIN STAGING.
This is the very first step in any mixing process. Its purpose is to make sure that none of the channels peak and to ensure that the master bus doesn't peak when all the channels are summed to it. Before we get to the limiter, which I will discuss last, you want to make sure that at no point there is any clipping on any channel. If you use FL Studio, turn off the Fruity Limiter on the master bus to prevent it from hiding your clipping.
Gain staging is achieved by lowering the input level to each channel, not by dropping the faders. The reason for this is because the faders are far more subtle when the faders are nearest the top, the more you bring it down, then you gain less fine control as the smaller amounts of fader movement have much more effect. Some DAW's make this process very easy, others not so easy. FL Studio and Cubase make this very easy to do. In FL Studio you can just lower the volumes in the channel rack before they reach the mixer. With Cubase each channel on the mixer has its own gain which controls the input level for that channel.
I wasn't sure where to put the panning part as some people mix in mono, others mix in stereo. Personally I mix in stereo, but watch my phasing using SPAN, which is a great free spectrum analyser plugin. With panning you can get channels that complement each other to play off of each other by using the stereo field, for example two different sounds might clash when played on top of each other, but with one panned left to some degree and the other panned right, they can really find their own place in the stereo field.
Now that you have made sure that all clipping has been eliminated its time for...
Step 2. EQUING/FILTERING
The first step of equing is to go through every channel and cutting everything below 20hz. This is to prevent the buildup of inaudible frequencies in the low end that can really suck the energy out of your mix and leave you wondering why you cannot achieve a loud mix. The human ears cannot hear below 20hz, so to have this high energy sound in a range that you cannot hear, and have it build up across lots of channels will ruin a mix. Similarly you might pay attention to cutting some of the very high frequencies too for the same reason. The older we get the less able we are to hear in the very high frequency range so it's wasted energy going into the master bus that could be better used in getting a louder mix.
To do this you can use a parametric equaliser, they usually have a low-pass filter and a high-pass filter and some bell filters. A low-pass filter only allows everything below its level to come through, hence low pass. A high-pass filter on the other hand only allows the frequencies higher than its setting to come through.
Another goal of equing is to prevent frequency clashes. When sound accumulates in one particular frequency it can start to make that one frequency very loud and it makes that frequency range muddy. Each sound in the mix needs its pocket, using subtractive (only cutting) EQ you can remove the unwanted frequencies from one mixer channel, to allow the sound you want to be upfront be heard clearly. For example, bass and kicks share pretty much the same frequency range, a bass line goes down lower than a kick, but still shares the region from 80hz-110hz which is where the kick usually sounds best. So a common trick to not lose a kick behind the bass line is to use a bell EQ, and cut from the bass line at between 80hz and 110hz, using the ears to fine tune it. This creates a little frequency pocket where your kick has its own space. This can also be achieved using side-chained compression which I will come to later.
The human ear is very sensitive to the frequency range of speech, so in that frequency range, smaller adjustments are necessary as the ears perceive that range far more clearly. But likewise, frequency clashes in this range are not pleasing to the ears and can sound harsh. Equing these frequencies to take away the harshness and give each sound its own pocket in the frequency range is the goal here.
Once this is done you can also use a tiny amount of additive equing (boosting a frequency) to just make each channel nice and clear. It's a bit like a sliding puzzle where you tune into exactly where that particular sounds sweet spot is and give it a little boost. And I mean little, small adjustments can have a big effect.
Step 3. BASIC EFFECTS.
The most basic effects that you should be using are reverb and delay. They really bring sounds to life and make a mix more realistic sounding, less electronic. For example, reverb on hi hats and snares can really make them pop and come to life. Reverb makes things sound bigger, but it also makes sounds sound further back in the mix. Using reverb correctly does take some time and practice to understand the different types of reverb and when you want to use each. I find small sized reverb like a room reverb works really well with snares and hi hats. While bigger rooms like a stage can be really good for strings and orchestral sounds. It all depends on the particular sound and what you wish to achieve with it.
Delays take an input and make it repeat, slowly fading out as it does, or quickly if that's what you are after.
A very fast slap back delay is often used as a replacement for reverb on drums. A slap back delay has a very fast timing, around 20-60 milliseconds, and a small amount of feedback. This can really make a snare sound big, without losing it in the mix as the reverb could do. But you also have to be careful to not make the sounds phase, as this will make it sound quieter, and the phasing doesn't sound nice.
Step 4. DISTORTION/SATURATION
Distortion can sound really great when added to bass lines, kicks, guitars and other sounds you may experiment with. Distortion/saturation creates the effect of running the signal too hot in an analogue recording medium or through a guitar amplifier. This can add some presence to a bass line or kick in the higher harmonic frequencies, it can make a sound sound thicker or warmer as it fills more of the frequency spectrum. It can be great on pads or to give digital sounds a more analogue feel to them.
Step 5. COMPRESSION/LIMITING.
I have included both here as a limiter is a brick wall compressor, that's a compressor with its ratio set to infinity, so whatever goes over the threshold stays at the threshold.
Compression is a great tool that is less understood by the beginner producer. What a compressor does is if a sound is very dynamic, i.e. it has loud and quiet parts, it will compress the loud parts down by the ratio you set at any given threshold. So say a vocal has two loud spikes in it, you could set the compressor at a threshold and ratio that will lower the volume at every point those unwanted spikes in volume appear, as a result you can then slightly raise the volume of the compressed vocal which will make it sound clearer in the mix despite being at the same volume it was before.
A more advanced topic of compression is side chained compression, which is a staple of genres like Hip Hop and House music/EDM.
Putting a compressor on a bass bus then triggering it via a side-chained kick is a great way to duck the bass so the kick can come through clearly without the combined sum of the bass and kick sounding muddy and losing the kick in the mix. It can make the bass pump off of the kick and add rhythmic and pleasing to the ear results as the bass pumps. This can also be used on other sounds - you could duck a sustained synth line for example so it pulses instead of being sustained. If you are using two basses to make your bass line, you can make one bass line cause the other to duck and prevent muddiness and too much loudness from the combined basses from ruining the mix. Once you understand the concept of the side-chaining technique you will think of many ways in which to incorporate it into your production. I use it a lot, it makes all the difference to a good mix and creating a pocket for every sound to be heard.
There is also multi-band compression, which only compresses within the frequency ranges you set for it, to give more control and allow the other frequencies not to be affected by the compression.
The limiter is the final stage of your song's production life, and can also be used within the mix and production stage of various tracks. It's at this point the song gets its final "master". I use the term very loosely. I call it a ghetto master because if you want a song mastered properly then you skip the limiter stage and send the track to a mastering engineer to do the rest. But for you to get your song finalised for public consumption, and have a rough copy without the expense of a mastering engineer, then you will use a limiter.
A final limiter should be set with a max peak of -1db. I mix to around -10 LUFS average, but it is recommended by sites like Spotify and other streaming outlets to mix to an average LUFS of -14db. If you put your final master through https://www.loudnesspenalty.com/ it will tell you how different streaming platforms will affect your master.
Final notes, only use mixing plugins for a specific purpose, each tool has specific roles which they are used for, dont just use them for the sake of it. You should EQ every single track to remove unwanted low or high end frequencies. Apart from that use plugins sparingly and with purpose.
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