As any seasoned musician knows, recording a great track is only half the battle. Mixing the track well is equally as important, and someone needs to do it! Knowing how to mix music will certainly set an audio engineer apart from the pack.
If that someone is you, then this article is the right one for you. In it, we will give you an explanation of how to mix music, different techniques, and provide a ton of helpful and interesting beginner tips to produce the best tracks!.
What does it mean to mix music?
Before we can hope to improve our mixing skills, we must first be familiar with the basics of what mixing music even means.
Putting it simply, the mixing stage is when the separate components of the audio track are put together. However, this is not as simple as it may seem on the surface. To mix effectively, a series of considerations need to be kept in mind.
A good mixer will balance the various tracks and keep anything from sounding off. Moreover, they will add or remove different effects to make the final product sound exactly what the musician intended.
All this requires a sharp artistic sense as well as good ears.
Moreover, mixing music also requires a series of software tools that you must master. For example, to cover a wider range of frequencies, you may have to use EQ effects or plugins to edit your tracks. Whereas to fix dry tracks, you could have to introduce reverb or distortion in the music digitally.
The result of this long process, however, is well worth it. All the instrumental and vocal tracks combine into one to produce a piece of pleasing music. Thus, a mixed engineer has one of the most crucial jobs in the entire music production process.
Mixing Music vs Mastering Music
Very similar to music mixing is the mastering stage. Often, these two get confused and are used interchangeably as people are under the impression that they are one in the same thing. This, however, is not true, and the two processes have multiple differences.
For starts, mixing involves multiple tracks that have to be added, subtracted, and timed. Mastering, on the other hand, takes place after an entire song has been produced. This is the final step of the process as the editorial and creative stages have already been completed.
Moreover, generally, songs are mastered if they have a new release in a different format or are a re-release of an old song. Thus it can be considered as the finishing touches on the music, the final layer of paint. In comparison, mixing is the art of building the track piece by piece, akin to laying the bricks of a building.
Another thing to note is that mastering requires a different set of skills to do well. The typical mastering engineer spends hours upon hours listening to the music from different models of speakers and on different websites with different compression algorithms.
This is done so that the mastering engineer has an idea of what the track will sound like on different audio setups. This allows them to adjust the music such that it provides an optimum listening experience to as many people as possible.
In comparison, a mixing engineer is more concerned with balancing various tracks. Moreover, they must manage the tracks so that they sound good without interfering or clashing with one another.
How to Mix Music And Make It sound great
Now that you know the basics of mixing, you may be wondering, how exactly do you go about it?
The first thing to note is that mixing is a creative process. Like any other art form, it requires subjectivity and an acute understanding of the tools at your disposal. You must be aware of the limitations of your software and have a sound understanding of audio mixing.
If you feel a little overwhelmed, then fret not; this is perfectly normal! Mixing music has a lot of depth to it, and no one becomes a professional at it overnight. Rome wasn’t built in a day, as the old saying goes!
Fortunately, as with many other things, the more you practice your abilities and test your limits, the better you will become at music mixing. A good way to start your journey is by understanding the plugins at your disposal.
Each of these tools performs a different function, which in turn helps you reach the right mix of individual tracks to sound good. The following are some of the most common and useful plugins.
Whenever you mix a song, you will likely encounter issues with the frequency of the tracks. Often, this may even result in having to add to remove a specific frequency. Fortunately, this can be accomplished very easily with the help of an Equalization tool.
Equalizers are also sometimes referred to as EQs. You can find these very easily on the web in the form of plugins. In fact, many DAWs have these plugins on their website. You can download these for free.
After you have your EQ plugin, the process of fine-tuning your frequency range can finally begin.
How to use EQ plugins
The first and most important thing to understand about EQ is that it is an ‘insert’ plugin and not a ‘send’ plugin. Due to this, each of the tracks’ EQ effects needs to be applied one by one. In comparison, ‘send’ plugins can be applied to all the tracks at the same time.
Another consideration is the fact that EQ does not apply uniformly to all instruments or audio files. Instead, you have a great deal of wiggle room to edit the tracks exactly as you need them through the different forms of EQ available.
Hi-Cut/Low Pass EQ
This form of EQ removes frequencies above a certain threshold set by the user. This is a useful feature, especially when applied to targeted tracks within the song.
By removing higher frequencies, you can make the audio sound as if it is far away from the listener. This creates interesting results when employed in a song creatively. Moreover, this form of EQ also allows you to reduce the overall loudness of frequencies above a certain amount. Thus, there are even more avenues to improve your vocal or guitar tracks.
If employed creatively, this form of EQ can also help emphasize the lead singer’s vocal track or the lead musician’s instrument by making the other tracks sound more distant.
Low Cut/Hi Pass EQ
This type of EQ is the polar opposite of Hi cute EQ. Low cut EQ, instead, cuts or reduces the loudness of frequencies below a certain threshold.
This is a particularly useful feature as it helps create a good balance of sound. For example, if the background vocals are being drowned out, then cutting some low frequencies may provide more clarity to the track.
Moreover, by reducing the loudness of low frequencies, more audio room can be created for bass effects to do their job. Without Low Cut EQ, low-pitched beats run the risk of sounding muddy and unclear. However, fortunately, this form of EQ can solve that problem!
Last but not least, Bell EQ is the third form of EQ that you can use when you start mixing. This form of EQ has a big difference from other types. This is because the EQ plugin can be set to a specific frequency along with a range of frequencies above and below the target frequency.
These frequencies can then be removed or decreased in volume by the mixer.
Bell EQ is thus very suitable for separating different tracks on the frequency spectrum. For example, if two tracks are using similar frequencies, they may interfere with one another and sound flat. Bell EQ can prevent this by separating the two tracks from each other so that the listener can hear all the sounds in the audio recording.
Equalization is not the only weapon in a music mixer’s arsenal. Another tool that will be available to you is compression. To understand why compression is so useful we must first understand the issues that can arise after a track has been put together as one.
Even if the music has been well balanced so that no one track drowns out the others, parts of the song may be louder than others. This high dynamic range can be annoying to listen to as the music will go from a really low volume level to a high one by itself.
To fix this issue, and make it so that the song has similar loudness throughout, compression is used. Compression can be applied through a plugin. However, one thing that you should note is that learning to use compression has a bit of a learning curve. The 3-4 settings available in the plugin all have different impacts on the final product.
Thus we recommend that you spend some time practicing and experimenting with all the available options on reference tracks. This will provide you with valuable insight into how to best use compression during your mixing sessions!
After applying the first two tools, your music will have been sufficiently ‘cleaned’ to move on with adding effects. With the introduction of digital technology in music mixing, there is now almost an infinite number of possible effects and plugins available.
Fortunately, however, you do not need to become proficient with all of them to mix good music. Instead, you need to only learn about some of the most useful plugins. Reverb is one such plugin that is used in a plethora of music due to its interesting and pleasing effects on songs.
Reverb is essentially the amount of time a musical note or sound in your track remains audible after it has been struck. This helps recreate an effect seen in real life where sounds tend to bounce off of walls and reach us with lower loudness after the original note has been struck. This phenomenon is called reverberation.
By introducing reverb into your music, you can add a sense of space to the song. This is important as most normal sounds people hear already have reverb built-in due to the room or natural landscape. Thus adding reverb to your own songs can help them come off as more natural and pleasing to the listener.
Panning is an effect that has been gaining a lot of popularity recently. Similar to reverb, panning is used to create a sense of space behind the music. However, the way this is accomplished is different.
Through panning, you can use the stereo sound feature in most modern listening devices to imitate different sources of sounds in different directions. For example, the main vocals may be placed ‘in front of the listener to create emphasis, whereas an electric guitar riff may emanate from the right or left side to create an interesting effect.
Thus, a good music mixer will be able to use panning as a means to add an additional spatial dimension to their music.
5: Distortion and Saturation
Distortion and saturation can add a unique effect to the sound, which is hard to replicate with other tools. Using these can give the music an attractive character and also increase the overall volume of the track.
Generally, however, you should be extremely reserved with this option and apply it sparingly. This precaution helps avoid some of the noise that distortion and saturation can potentially cause, especially to bass frequencies and background vocals.
If these effects are applied too liberally, they end up overpowering the track and ruining the sound quality; the listening experience suffers as a result.
However, if you fine-tune this setting appropriately, it can be a powerful tool to improve the quality of your track.
A limiter is a simple tool that does what the name suggests. With this plugin, you can set a sound limit for your entire track. The plugin will then manage the volume of the track such that it does not exceed the limit set by you.
This feature can be useful at the end of the mixing session when the final track is nearing completion. Through it, you can ensure that, at no part of the track, is the music too loud to be enjoyable for the listener.
How To Mix Music For Beginners
Now that we have gone over the different tools which can help you when mixing music, it is also important to go over a few additional tips you can use to streamline the mixing process.
These tips will help you avoid the common mistakes that many beginners make, such as working too much or listening to music that’s too loud. Moreover, these tips will also save you time and frustration by informing you of potential issues that can arise even before you encounter them!
- Keeping it manageable
During the recording phase, you may be tempted to add all sorts of instruments and sounds to your final track. However, it is important to note that just because a track sounds good alone, it does not necessarily mean that it will sound great when combined together with other tracks into one song.
Too many tracks put together can make the music sound unfocused and muddy. This will be because of the sounds all interfering with each other. Moreover, having too many things going on all at once will make it difficult for the listener to pick up on the beats or nuances in your music.
Thus we recommend that you do not try to put too many audio tracks into one song.
Instead, you should look at the exercise as a series of steps to gather the fundamental ingredients of a music track.
You should try to ensure that you have the fundamentals recorded, such as bass, guitar, and vocals. Additional instruments or rhythms can always be added in during the mixing process if needed.
- Take care of your ears
Oftentimes, when mixing music, there can be a temptation to listen to the track at a high volume to hear more ‘details’. You should avoid this temptation at all costs.
Firstly, loud music tends to be distorted and actually prevents you from accurately picking up on the details of the sound. This makes your judgment likely to be worse when you have been listening to the music in a really loud volume setting.
Moreover, as the listening session on high volume becomes longer, your ears also become more and more tired, affecting your ability to make accurate decisions about the quality of a particular track.
Thus we recommend listening to music on low volume while mixing. By making this change, you will be able to have sharp judgments and good decisions even after a long session of listening. Moreover, when you listen to the sounds on a lower volume setting, you will also be more likely to pick up fine details within the music as your ears will not be stressed by all the noise.
- Thorough Listening
Some beginner mixers may unintentionally end up listening to their music only on their headset. They may decide it sounds good and release it. However, when listeners hear on their speakers, the track will sound nowhere near as good as it did to the mixer on his or her headphones.
This problem arises due to the fact that not all music output devices are the same. Speakers, headphones, and earphones all tend to have different characteristics, and the same music played on these devices will sound different.
To help account for this problem, we recommend that you listen to your music on a series of devices before finalizing the mixing. It may be fruitful to place your speakers far away from you and hear how it sounds at a distance; you may also consider playing the sound through a regular pair of earphones and noting how it sounds.
Through these experiments, you will have a more thorough idea of the song’s characteristics on different listening devices. This way, you can make changes that improve the song not just on a pair of high-end headphones but also for regular Bluetooth speakers or earphones.
- Rest when needed
Rome was not built in a day, and neither will the perfect audio track. Mixing music is a process that requires a large degree of trial and error to see what works and what does not. Due to this, it is easily possible to spend dozens of hours and still not have the perfect track. This is perfectly normal.
To avoid musical blocks and encourage breakthroughs, we recommend that you take adequate rest before and after your mixing session. Moreover, short breaks to clear your mind and ears during the session will also be fruitful and help you make better mixing decisions.
Furthermore, if you are not well-rested, you also run the risk of accidentally discarding good ideas or variations simply due to a bad mood or imprecise listening. Thus, to extract the best value from your work, it is absolutely crucial that you go in with a fresh and rested mind!
- Have fun!
Sometimes you may feel frustrated during the process and want to throw in the towel. If that is the case, then that may be a symptom of not having enough fun.
Mixing music is a creative process where you have the opportunity to let your artistic sense take over and for you to experiment with new and novel sounds. Thus, we hope and suggest that you do not take the activity too seriously. Instead, treat it like a passion project, and the results will speak for themselves!
The job of a music producer is not easy. You have to go through dozens of versions of the track and experiment with a plethora of tools. However, for those who love mixing music, this can be an extremely fruitful endeavor, especially if it’s your own mix!
Now that you know how to mix music, you are ready to employ your artistic abilities and create tunes that are in line with your artistic vision. Good luck!