Do you struggle with mixing? Have you ever found yourself wondering where to start...or where to end? Fear not. In this article, I'll teach you how to mix music by providing a simple system that you can apply to achieve results, every time.
It's no secret - mixing is hard. It can seem really complicated, especially when you're first starting out, and for good reason. There is so much to learn, and everyone has their own opinion and their own way of approaching a mix.
To top it off, there's always something new to learn, or some new way to improve. That's simultaneously the downside and the beauty of this art form - no matter how good you get, you can always get better.
Wouldn't it be great if there was some kind of mixing walkthrough or manual to guide you through? Have you ever wanted to know how to mix music in a step-by-step way? If you want to stay on track, you need to know where you're going - you need a roadmap.
Look no further.
How to mix music in 15 stages
I've mixed a lot of music and learned a lot about music production over the years. Every mix is different, but I've tried to boil my process down to the most essential steps.
This system is made up of 15 stages. If you move through the system in order from stage to stage and apply each step correctly, you'll know precisely how to mix music consistently and get a complete mix every time.
In this article, I'll go through each step of this 15-stage mixing process and provide explanations in detail, so that you know why each one is necessary (or not so necessary, depending on what works best for your music).
No one guide is perfect for every situation, but I've intentionally aimed for a balance of versatility and simplicity, so that you have as much flexibility as possible.
One of the first things you'll notice is that Panning and stereo positioning doesn't occur until Stage 9, and that I advise that you conduct the foundational stages entirely in mono. This is a different approach to the one advised in most books and guides, where Panning normally crops up straight after Balance.
This difference, however, is critical. Although it may feel limiting and frustrating at first, mixing in mono will magnify any issues and force you to sculpt a solid foundation for your mix. That's why I recommend tackling this right from the start.
Even when you're in the later stages, you should consistently check your mix in mono throughout by switching the output, either within your DAW or using an external interface.
Remember to listen to your reference track(s) throughout to provide perspective and prevent yourself from going down a psychoacoustic rabbit hole.
I haven't broken down techniques for mixing individual instruments because that requires a lot more explanation and is very personal. The point of this process is that it's an overall system that you can apply to any mix.
Before mixing, make sure you've optimised your room acoustics as much as possible.
[Please note that the order of the initial stages in this process may change slightly depending on whether you're mixing your own track from scratch, or if you're mixing on behalf of a client, pulling in their files to a new session.]
Stage 1: Setup
It's time to start as you mean to go on - here you'll be performing the necessary technical tasks to set up your project for the best results. Nothing creative yet, but fundamental.
1) Set the project sample rate and bit depth - you should use a minimum of 44.1 kHz and 24 bit, but you may require a higher sample rate depending on the project (e.g. video, high-fidelity).
2) Set a high buffer for more processing power. You're mixing, not recording, so you should allocate as much of your computer's available horsepower to your DAW and mix processing as possible.
3) Set delay compensation. Since you're not recording, there's no need to worry about latency. Apply delay compensation to account for any latency/synchronisation issues with processor-intensive plugins.
4) Change the master output to mono. I know this may sound like a crazy proposition but, trust me, beginning your mix in mono will be extremely rewarding. Restricting yourself to monitoring in mono will force you to focus on balancing dynamics and frequencies more effectively. It will magnify any issues and you'll reap the benefits when you make final adjustments.
5) Set your monitoring level to a fixed value. Consistency is everything when it comes to mixing, and you need a reliable monitoring level for referencing with accuracy.
6) Add metering to the master channel. Although you should ultimately rely on your ears, it's important to have a visual reference of your output for checking the balance and assessing any issues.
7) Import 1-3 reference tracks and route them directly to master. Don't skip this step whatever you do - reference tracks are fundamental to a successful mix. Following this process will help you to stay focused and on track, but it's still so easy to get caught down the rabbit hole. You need to constantly A/B with your reference track(s) for perspective. It goes without saying that you should choose tracks that you admire and that are in the same genre.
8) Check the audio file format of all of your session files before importing - they should be at least 44.1kHz / 24 bit depending on the purpose. If you drag in files in a different sample rate, your DAW may automatically reset the project sample rate to compensate.
9) Import your session files. Pretty self explanatory, feel free to drag and drop.
10) Match the DAW project tempo to the track/song so that everything is in sync. If you're unsure, you can use a BPM counting plugin (like BPM Counter in Logic) or equivalent, or tap the tempo manually.
Stage 2: Organisation
Moving on from the technical setup, it's time to do some all-important housekeeping. This will help to keep you organised, on track and working quickly and efficiently.
1) Label all channels clearly. Yep, sounds boring doesn't it? Well, when you've got more than 100 channels (heck, even more than 20 channels) things can get confusing. Making sure that all your channels are clearly labelled will speed up your navigation and help you to work more quickly.
2) Arrange all channels in order. This is down to personal preference but, again, it's so important to stick with a familiar system so that you know where you are in every project. I like to start from drums at the top, moving up the frequency spectrum (but down the arrange window) through percussion, bass, synths, keys, guitars, vocals, effects and so on.
3) Colour-code all channels for quick visual reference. With your tracks labelled clearly and in a familiar order, adding colour will take your organisation to the next level. Your eyes will never get lost, no matter what zoom percentage you're at.
4) Create stem sub-group busses for each instrument group. Grouping your instruments into stems not only helps to keep things organised, but it also provides more control in the mix as you can manipulate dynamics, apply processing separately and mute/solo whole groups of instruments as needed. Typical stems could be drums, bass, guitars, synths, vocals etc. If you're using Logic, I highly recommend using summed Track Stacks because they're awesome.
5) Create a ‘Sub Mix’ bus and send the output of each instrument group to this auxiliary. This will enable quick A/B switching between mix and reference track(s). It will also allow you to process your mix separately to the master output, so you'll get a more accurate comparison between that and any reference tracks.
6) Create auxiliary effect sends. Common effects include, for example, triplet delay, quarter-note delay, eighth-note delay, short reverb, room reverb etc. Setting these up in advance will make mixing faster and also save processing power.
7) Map out the arrangement with markers throughout the session. Create markers and type the name of each section e.g. Intro, Verse, Bridge, Verse, Chorus etc. This will help you to navigate through the track quickly and approach the mix section by section.
Stage 3: Correction
In order to make the music really shine, you need to ensure that there are no anomalous issues or stray notes that can impact its quality.
1) Fix any mistakes and musical errors that are still present in the track. These could be incorrect notes, chords or performance issues. You can simply copy correct performances from other sections where needed (hence why mapping out the arrangement is so useful, as this makes it quicker to jump back and forth).
2) Remove unwanted anomalies. These may include pops, glitches, clipping, distortion, noise, coughs, page turns etc. Any errors will be even more exposed in the mix when tracks are balanced and compression is applied.
3) Fix any timing issues. Cut and move notes, making sure to crossfade audio. If dealing with MIDI, use transform tools and quantisation for fast editing.
4) Fix any tuning issues. An efficient method is to copy correct notes from other sections or apply pitch correction with tools like Auto-Tune and Melodyne, or stock tools like Logic's Flex Pitch.
5) Check the phase on multi-mic’d instruments. This will ensure that all audio is in correct alignment for maximum impact. Furthermore, be sure to assess the relationship between kick and bass, as this is integral to the groove and foundation of the track.
6) Use sound replacement if needed. Techniques include resampling, triggering (particularly useful for drums) and re-amping (guitars, keys etc.).
Stage 4: Vision
Do not - I repeat - DO NOT skip this stage. Your vision will determine every decision you make from this point on. Although this may sound arbitrary, it's what separates the great mixes from mediocrity.
1) Pit Stop: Before you dive into the mix, pause. Take a break away from the track after editing to refresh your ears.
2) Listen to the reference track(s) for perspective and inspiration. Ask: Why does it work? What's significant about the arrangement? How do the instruments fit together? What techniques have been used to achieve groove, balance, depth, polish etc.?
3) Listen to the rough mix if available (alternatively simply listen to a play through). Take notes simultaneously, going with your gut reaction to indicate where to improve.
4) Check the arrangement. Is it working? Is the track even ready to mix? Balance starts with the arrangement, so now is the time to go back and fix any issues in the music itself if necessary. There's no point trying to polish a turd here - a great mix is totally dependent on a great arrangement.
Stage 5: Balance
Now we're getting somewhere...it's time to begin the mix! It all starts with balance - this will set the foundation for the rest of the mix, so it's important to listen carefully and act with intention.
1) Keep volume faders at 0dB for maximum resolution. There is a lot more play at the top of the fader than the bottom, giving you much more control. Are your tracks clipping? Read on...
2) Apply gain staging. Decrease the gain on each individual channel to bring all tracks to around -18dB for plenty of headroom. You can use, for example, Region Gain in Logic’s Inspector, Clip Gain in Pro Tools, or a Gain/Trim plugin in the first insert slot. You can even adjust the output level of the instrument itself if it’s a software instrument, such as a sampler or synth.
3) Choose a focal point for level-setting for consistency and leave this at around -12dB throughout. Typical focal points include the kick drum, snare drum, drum overheads, bass or vocal. This will avoid your mix creeping up louder and louder, and save you wasting time compensating for each fader move.
4) Begin mixing around this focal point. Listen to the song through a few passes and balance channels to create an initial mix. Spend no more than 10 minutes, work quickly and trust your initial instincts.
5) Optional: Add mix bus processing. Mix bus processing is a controversial topic, and you should only attempt this once you have some experience under your belt. But if you're going to use it, this is a good point to set it up. Add any plugins that you’d like to use so that you can mix into them throughout. Use subtly and apply no more than around 3dB of gain reduction when compressing. If you prefer not to process your mix bus, feel free to skip this step and leave it to mastering.
Stage 6: Corrective EQ
Now that your tracks are well balanced in relation to one another, it's time to get technical again and hone in on any problem areas in the frequency spectrum.
1) Are all frequencies represented correctly? Listen for issues and locate these on individual tracks.
2) Load up a Parametric EQ (this should be the default in your DAW) on channels with problem frequencies. Issues could include: rumble, resonant frequencies, room resonance, muddiness in the low-mids, ’boxiness’ or ‘honk’ in the upper-mids, harshness in upper-mids and highs etc.
3) Apply surgical EQ to remove problem frequencies. Use roll-offs for low- & high-end and a narrow Q for cutting finer frequencies.
Stage 7: Dynamics
By this point you should have achieved an overall balance of levels and frequencies, and all of your instrumentation should be pretty in line. However, the dynamics of certain instruments may vary greatly, so it's time to get those under control.
1) Assess the volume envelope on dynamic tracks. Listen for elements that vary greatly in volume - are they too loud or too quiet at different points? Don't compress every channel! This will lead to a fatiguing, lifeless mix. Listen carefully and be strategic when applying compression - it should only be used where required. Note that most electronic instruments and pre-processed samples won't even need it. Live recordings, however, such as vocals, will be a lot less tame, so it's best to reign them in.
2) Apply a compressor where needed. Lower the threshold and raise the ratio to extreme settings to make the effect more prominent for listening purposes.
3) Find the right attack and release settings.
4) Bring the ratio down and adjust the rate of compression to taste.
5) Adjust the threshold until the right amount of gain reduction occurs.
Stage 8: Tonal EQ
Having applied surgical, corrective equalisation, it's time for some broader brush strokes to add character and tone.
1) Pit Stop: Listen to the reference track(s) to refresh your ears and perspective. Consider the overall frequency balance - are some elements brighter than others? What's the overall shape of the EQ curve on your meters? Can you replicate the techniques used?
2) Listen back to the mix and identify areas that can be enhanced with subtle tonal EQ. Examples include sculpting more focus in the low-end, adding warmth in the low-mids, reducing harshness in the upper-mids/high-mids, adding ‘air’ to the highs and so on.
3) Apply parametric EQ to the identified channels. This should preferably be an analog-modelled EQ if applying additive adjustment (such as those by Waves Audio, Universal Audio, Slate Audio etc.). However if you don't have access to these, don't worry, your stock EQ will do the job.
4) Apply subtle cuts/boosts to improve the tone. Use a wider Q for more nuance.
Stage 9: Panning
The mix is really taking shape at this stage, with all of the key elements locked in. If you committed to mixing in mono up until this point as recommended, you're going to find this stage very satisfying indeed. It's time to open up the mix and create width by arranging instruments within the stereo field.
1) Reset the master output back to stereo. Now that you have a solid base and a balanced frequency spectrum, you’re ready to start adding width.
2) Go through each instrument group and position sounds in the stereo spectrum. For example, open up the drum overheads, position toms and cymbals, and continue by placing percussion, guitars, backing vocals etc.
3) Key elements such as the vocal, kick, snare and bass should remain centre with a strong mono presence.
Stage 10: Depth
Having added width, now you can create more contrast between instruments by generating depth with time and spatial effects.
1) Create further clarity and separation between tracks. Focal elements should remain ‘forward’ (present) and accompanying elements should be sent ‘back’ to add contrast. For example, the kick, snare, bass and vocal should normally cut through the mix with greater presence. Supporting instruments such as keys, pads, synths and backing vocals can be sent backward using more ambience.
2) Add ambience where needed by sending tracks to auxiliary delays and reverbs.
Stage 11: Interest
The core foundations of the mix are in place and it's time to take the track to the next level. Here you're going to hone in in greater detail and seek to enhance specific areas where possible. This stage will help to differentiate your mix and set it apart from the competition.
1) Pit Stop: The foundational mixing stages are complete. So, firstly, take a break to freshen up.
2) Listen to the reference track(s) to renew your perspective and gain inspiration. Take note of the finer details - what creative techniques have been used to set these tracks apart? What are their differentiating factors? Listen to specific sections and transitions - are there any tricks that you can replicate?
3) Listen to the mix a couple of times as a whole and note where it can be enhanced further by adding interest and flare. You may wish to spice up transitions, use 'creative muting' (such as dropping out drums at set moments) to add drama, adding filters and modulation to generate movement, and creating tension with effects like reverse cymbals, white noise and risers. Don't forget about saturation and distortion - these tools will help specific elements to cut through the mix (whether subtly, or not so subtle!).
4) Go through the arrangement, section by section, and add these points of interest.
5) Apply automation to add variation and excitement throughout the mix. Don't skip out on automation, this is one of the key differentiating factors that will set your mix apart from the competition. It takes time, but it's worth it. Even if people don't directly hear the subtleties, they'll sense them.
6) Use subtle volume/gain automation to address any further dynamic discrepancies. Reign in any remaining problems during several last passes.
Stage 12: Review
Once you've made it through the first 11 stages, give yourself a hard-earned pat on the back! You're almost there, with the initial mixing stages complete. However, the work isn't quite over yet - let's take it up another notch.
1) Bounce out the mix as both WAV and MP3 files.
2) Pit Stop: Take an extended break to rest your ears, your mind and get a new perspective. I recommend at least a day, if not a few days to a week if possible.
3) Listen to the mix on different systems to observe how well it translates. During this time, reference the mix on your phone, in the car, through headphones (over-ear, earbuds), on your home stereo, the TV, a friend’s system etc.
4) Listen to the track in mono. Check that all instruments are clearly audible and the mix still sounds balanced. Check for any phase issues, and that wider elements (like synths and effects) aren't getting lost.
5) Send the draft mix to a trusted friend or mentor (or both) for their thoughts. You know the mix inside out, and it's almost impossible to get that first impression back. Run it by some trusted sources for fresh ears and a different perspective.
6) Listen back to the reference track(s) for yet another comparison. You really can't rely on your reference track(s) enough.
7) Make notes on the track as a whole, as well as focused notes on specific elements. Note where to improve and any additional issues or anomalies that need to be addressed.
8) Collate your notes with the feedback from others. Organise them, moving from general points to micro points, section by section, through the instrument groups, all the way to effects.
9) Use these structured notes to generate an adjustment checklist. Again, this checklist should move from big picture changes to finer details.
Stage 13: Adjust
The icing on the cake, the jewel in the crown. Here's where you add the polish to separate your mix from the crowd by going the extra mile.
1) Duplicate project using the ‘Save As...’ function. This will ensure that you have a backup that can then be revisited if needed. Label all project versions appropriately for future reference.
2) Go through your adjustment checklist to systematically address all of the feedback points in order.
3) Reference your meters throughout to ensure controlled dynamics and frequency balance.
4) A/B with your reference track(s) throughout to compare and gain perspective. As mentioned previously, be sure to analyse reference track(s) with metering to compare performance.
Stage 14: Finalise
By now, you're almost at the finish line. Let no stone go unturned - make sure all bases are covered and you'll have a powerful mix on your hands.
1) Repeat stages 12-13 until complete. If there are issues that you can solve, keep making notes and keep adjusting.
2) Remember: don’t chase perfection. If there are areas that you can't fix right now (for example, if you need to research/study specific techniques where you're lacking), simply take note so that you can practice at a dedicated time, and move on.
3) Make any final adjustments. Ensure that the start and end of the track have no anomalies or glitches. In particular, check crossfades, delay/reverb tails and fadeouts.
Stage 15: Format
Your mix is complete. Congratulations! All that's left to do is prepare it for mastering.
1) Set cycle/loop parameters around the track ready for bouncing. Take account of decays, effect tails and fadeouts.
2) Bounce the track. Set file format in preparation for mastering e.g. WAV at 44.1kHz / 24 bit (unless requested otherwise).
3) Export the track. Label it appropriately in readiness for mastering and save in a clear location.
4) Collate any relevant notes for the mastering engineer (or yourself!) and store this together with mix file.
5) Backup all of the project files (if not carried out automatically e.g. Time Machine, cloud storage etc.) in case of recall or amends.
The beauty of a systematic approach
I hope this breakdown on how to mix music proved useful to you! Mixing can be a confusing process and, although there as many approaches as there are mix engineers, it's important to stick to a system, especially when you're starting out.
I'll be honest - your mixes won't be great at first, and that's ok. It's like learning a new language - you need to start with the basics when learning how to mix music successfully.
However, that doesn't mean it needs to take years before you see any real progress. By applying this process consistently for each of your mixes and keeping track of your progress, your results will improve exponentially.