Creating a clean mix is like playing a game of chess. Every move you make has repercussions that can either move you closer or further away from your end-goal. Chess masters don’t just plan one move at a time; they take into account the vast combination of moves they’re going to make after their first one to beat their opponent. Skilled mixing engineers work in the same way. They’ll listen to a mix, and they’ll then plot out all of the moves they’re going to make to finish a mix.
Some engineers take mental notes, but a lot of them write down what needs to get done. Not only does this keep your thoughts organized, but it also creates a goal to work towards, step-by-step. If you do client work, providing the client with a summary of the work you’ll be doing is good practice; this lays out what’s to be expected of you, and also defines when the mix is to be considered complete.
Planning out the mix for a song entails identifying issues, and providing solutions. Let this sink in for a moment because I bet you didn’t realize mixing was this simple…
Alright, so although the concept is simple, if you’ve tried to mix your songs before, you’ve probably realized that there’s a lot more to it. In this guide, I’ll be providing the top mixing tips to help you achieve a clean mix.
1. Cheat with Sample Selection and Arrangement
Regardless of your skill level, it’s 100% possible to achieve a clean mix. Sample selection and arrangement reign supreme in the world of mixing. If the sounds you choose work together throughout the song’s arrangement, then you won’t have much mixing that needs to be done. You can essentially cheat your way out of mixing to some degree.
To take advantage of sample selection, use samples that already sound how you want them to sound. Knowing which types of sounds will sound good with one another is a skill that’s developed through trial and error. You can make this easier on yourself by using samples that sound like those used in a reference track.
Most samples that you download off of Splice are already processed in one way or another; it’s not always necessary to process them further. In the majority of the songs I write, I don’t do anything to my drums other than apply some light buss compression. Make sure you listen to the material you’re working with and avoid applying processing just because you think that’s what you’re meant to do. Think critically, trust your judgment, and make the educated decision yourself.
To take advantage of arrangement, you need to lay out the elements of your song in a way that they complement one another, as opposed to conflict with one another. For example, having 3 subs basses playing at the same time isn’t a good idea; you’ll end up with phase issues that no amount of “mixing” is going to fix. This is an extreme example, but the point is that some arrangement ideas won’t translate well through your monitors because of the physics of sound.
As a producer, you can make or break your song with the arrangement. Even if you send your track off to get professionally mixed and mastered, an unsatisfactory arrangement can prevent the engineer from doing their best work. A good mixing engineer will tell you that you have arrangement issues and that you need to revise the song.
The benefit of having a profound knowledge of mixing techniques is that it opens up your creative options. Instead of relying on pre-processed sounds, you can use sounds you’ve recorded yourself or sounds you’ve downloaded that require additional processing.
2. Record Like There’s No Mixing
You need to record as if you weren’t going to be mixing afterward. It’s a lot easier to swap out a microphone or move its position than it is to treat a recording that doesn’t sound good in the mix. Vocals are notorious for causing issues if the performance or recording isn’t of significant quality. Instead of spending 15 hours processing horrendous vocals, book another recording session with a different vocalist; this will save you so much time.
Not only does the vocalist’s performance need to be exceptional, but you also need to be capable of recording the performance correctly. Vocals should sound great before you apply processing to them, and amazing after you’ve applied processing. I wrote a guide on how to record professional quality vocals at home if you’re struggling with this.
3. Set Your Track Levels Properly
At this point, you’re using a cohesive selection of quality samples, and the track’s arrangement is flawless. The only issue now is that your levels are all whacked out and you have no idea how to set them correctly.
Generally speaking, you want the prominent elements of your song up front and center, and the less critical elements tucked behind them; this varies tremendously from genre to genre and based on personal taste. I recommend picking up a copy of The Art of Mixing: A Visual Guide. It has excellent visual references for different genres that will help you set track levels, and orient elements within your stereo field.
The reason your song isn’t as loud as other songs is because it’s overall dynamic range is too large; this will prevent you from achieving loudness at a mastering level. If your goal is to create a mix that has a “tight” overall dynamic range, you need to be able to hear small differences in amplitude. The average person can hear a 3dBFS change in amplitude. Professional mixing engineers can hear changes of less than 0.5dBFS; because of this professional mixing engineers are going to be able to create tighter mixes.
If setting the levels of your mix is proving to be a challenge, consider using pink noise to set your track levels.
4. Learn Your Tools
Your mixing tools are the devices you’ll use to provide solutions to problems. Up until this point, you haven’t had any issues because you’ve been diligent about using quality samples, arranging your track, and setting your levels. In practice, this process doesn’t always play out so perfectly, and that’s where your mixing tools come into play. On top of that, even if the elements of your song sound good on their own, they’ll likely need some additional processing so that they playback together cohesively.
Instead of “messing around” with your audio devices and hoping for the best, you need to be able to identify mix issues and know ahead of time which tool is going to provide the most efficient solution. Not only do you have to select the right tool, but you need to know how to use the tool. Owning a bunch of plugins that you don’t know how to use is like owning a bunch of planes that you don’t know how to fly.
If learning how to use all of your tools seems overwhelming right now, start off by learning how to fully use one EQ, compressor, saturator, delay, and reverb. Make sure you know what every little knob, switch, and dial on these devices do. Mastering a few tools is far more useful than owning a mountain of tools that you don’t know how to use.
Once you understand how one type of tool works, such as reverb, you’ll notice that other tools of that type function in a similar way. Another reverb’s user interface may be laid out differently, but a majority of the primary functions should be familiar.
Read user manuals. People often suggest this condescendingly when you ask for advice online, but it’s a great idea. Whenever I get a new piece of hardware or software, I make sure to look through the user manual. I won’t sit there and read every word, but I’ll browse through it to see if there are any unique features worth exploring.
5. Use Less Processing
There’s a good chance that you’re using way too much processing in your songs, and this is a result of trying to compensate for poor sample selection and arrangement. Another pit that people fall into is thinking that they need to always apply processing; processing for the sake of processing usually results in more harm than good. To avoid this, refrain from applying processing unless you can identify an issue that you’re able to confidently use your tools to provide a solution for. If you have no solution to the problem, revise your sample selection and arrangement.
I do mixing work for clients, and when they ask me why they can’t get a clean mix, I bypass all their processing and stare at them with a devilish grin on my face. Nine times out of ten they’ve processed their song to death. In an attempt to compensate for lack of simple and effective processing, people usually end up applying complex and destructive processing unintentionally.
The simplest way to check to see if you’re guilty of over-processing is by conducting an A/B comparison of your tracks with and without your processing applied. Have you ever noticed how most plugins have an output level control? That’s so that you can level match the output with the input to conduct accurate A/B testing! People will always favour a louder signal, making it extremely difficult to tell if the processing applied is having a positive effect.
Ensuring a balanced signal level running in and out of your devices is called gain staging; it’s essential to check your gain staging between devices on individual tracks, as well as between devices on your busses.
6. Mix Like There’s No Mastering
Having your song professionally mastered isn’t going to change how it sounds drastically. There are benefits to having your song professionally mastered, but it won’t turn a lackluster mix into commercial quality gold. If you don’t feel like you could release the mixed version of your song with some light limiting on the stereo buss, professional mastering isn’t going to change that.
As I’ve demonstrated in this article, mixing doesn’t need to be overwhelming; unless you make it that way. Avoid shooting yourself in the leg with poor sample selection and arrangement. When you apply processing, make sure it’s with confidence and intent; you’re providing solutions to problems. Perform A/B tests to keep your processing from getting out of control, and don’t rely on a mastering engineer to fix your mix; they won’t.
I want to invite you to join me in the Black Ghost Audio group on Facebook; it's full of producers currently working in the music industry who are more than happy to help you improve your mixes. Leave a comment below if you have any questions regarding this article. Your feedback is always appreciated and we'll take it into account when we publish future articles.