Mixing checklist: Step By Step

when I was starting out as a beginner producer one aspect of my music that was severely lacking was my mixes. For years the mixing stage of my productions held me back, making my productions sound dull and boring. My main problem was that mixing honestly confused me at the time, I could never quite get my head round what needed to be done to improve my sounds and my overall mixes. This learning curve literally took like a year to get round and i honestly wouldn't wish it on anybody, So to help you guys out ive put together a checklist of the main points of mixing to look at. This should give you a good foundation for you mixes, and help improve your overall workflow. 

 

Organise:

When it comes to mixing time is everything, we all know that when listening to audio for too long out ears can become fatigued and can warp our perception of what we are hearing. This means that when we actually sit down to mix our track we want to be able to do the important things in a timely manner. This is where organisation really helps out. In my eyes how you organise your project before you start mixing, can literally make or break your mix. so we start by organising the project!

 

Tracks and Groups:

The first thing we want to do when organising a project is assigning all the tracks to their proper groups. The groups that I usually assign my tracks to are:

- Drums

- Bass

- Strings

- Chords

- Leads

- Vocals

- Pads

- etc

The way you group your instruments usually doesnt matter too much but Drums, Bass and vocal groups are the most important. Once you have all your tracks into their chosen group you now want to make sure the groups are colour coded for ease of use. If you pick a colour for each type of instrument and stick to these colours every time it will make each part of your project clear and easy to use. 

 

Structure:

Next you need to take some time to analyse the structure of the song. On most DAW's you can make notes on the timeline meaning you can easily mark down the structure of the song. analysing the structure basically means taking some time to work out what each section is and how the elements such as verse, chorus and intro's are spread out in the song. By doing this you can easily breakdown how the energy needs to flow in the track and will make each section clear and precise which will improve your workflow.

 

Busses:

Another way to keep your tracks organised is through bus channels. Using busses on sounds that work together such as drum busses and vocal busses, will give you greater overall control over the mix and make levels easily changeable. for instance if you want all the drums down by 2db you simply have to turn down the drum bus volume rather than each drum track individually.

Levels

Now that you have you tracks organised and everything is visually easy to find we can now look at the levels. We start with a static mix. A static mix is where you set the levels of each track in your mix at the start of the mixing process. By doing this first you can make your initial decisions around which sounds need to be more forward or back in the mix and will show you which sounds are more important in your mix. To do this we start with the kick level, as this is the main heartbeat of the track i usually suggest setting the kick so it at around -6db. The reason i like to do this is because we tend to set our levels in relation to how loud the kick drum is, so by setting our kick to -6db it allows the rest of the levels to be set around this but will also provide enough headroom for our mixing process.

Once we have set the level of our kick its then time to set the levels for the rest of the drum section. This is done by ear as each track will require different levels. We then set the levels of the rest of the tracks, this is the order we recommend:

- Drums

- Bass

- Vocals

- Piano's / Chords

- Strings 

- Brass 

- FX / Anything else

 

Analyse

Now that we have a good static mix and we are happy with our levels its time to analyse the track. We want to analyse and take notes on the parts of the tracks that need changing or adjusting. The types of things we are looking out for are things like these:

- Is there any instruments clashing / Masking in the mix?

- is there any muddiness in the low end? 

- is there any harsh frequencies we can hear?

- what sounds need to be more present than others?

These types of questions can help you get a better understanding of the problems we are looking to sort out, and will help give you a game plan of how to go about your mix process.

EQ

One of the most useful tools that we can utilise as producers or engineers is our EQ. The EQ tool helps us better understand the frequency characteristics of each sound in our mix. Personally i like to use an EQ that also has a frequency analyser such as my go to EQ, the Fabfilter pro Q 3 but any Stock EQ will do the same thing. With the EQ we are looking to do two different things, 1. Remove any frequencies that we dont want (e.g. Harsh high puitch frequencies, low rumble or resonant frequencies) 2. shape the sound using frequency manipulation. Before jumping into your EQ and destroying your sounds i suggest researching the frequency charts of each instrument so you can better understand how where each section of the sound lies in the frequency spectrum. 

Compression

Now we have carved our sounds with EQ its time to look into compression. To use compressors to their full effect we need to understand how they work. So compressors are dynamic control tools that work by reducing the dynamic range of a signal in order to increase the overall loudness of the signal. This works by compressing the peak levels of a sound in order to raise the lower aspects of the sound. Compressors have 4 main controlls:

- Threshold: the level in which the compressor starts working.

- Ratio: The amount that a signal will be compressed over the thrshold. for example if my threshold is set to -10db and my ratio is 2:1 the compressor will bring down the level of any part of the signal that goes above -10db  and will bring it down by 2db for every 1db over the threshold that the signal goes.

- Attack: how long the compressor takes to start compressing/

- Release: how long the compressor takes to stop compressing.

Compression can be used for 3 different reasons: 1. To control the dynamic range of an instrument. 2. To shape the sound of an instrument. 3. To glue "instruments" together. Get to know how a compressor works and try it out on each instrument for better sounding mixes. 

2 incredible techniques to look into are:

- Parallel compression

- Side chain compression

Reverb / Delay

Reverb and delays are 2 great ways to get more space in a mix and will help create a better all round stereo image. The types and intensity of the reverbs we use is very dependant on your track and the individual instruments but some good rules of thumb are:

- Dont apply reverb to any Sub instruments 

- Keep the kick either totally dry or with very little reverb.

- make sure not to over reverb anything.

Bear in mind that more reverb will push an instrument back in the mix but will also glue the instrument more in the mix. Get to know what types of reverbs are good in different situation and learn how your chosen reverb plug in works. 

Stereo Imaging

Stereo imaging is the manipulation of the stereo field in your music. This includes things like panning or stereo expanding. For stereo imaginf we are using stereo imaging tools to make our sounds wider and more full in the stereo field. We need to make sure kick and bass are always mono so will not use these instruments in stereo imaging but its quite common to make instruments such as background vocals, guitars or piano's wider in order tov make the track more "full".

A great tool to use for this is the Xfer Dimension expander which is free to use and incredible for this job. Another good thing to look into is the Haas effect which is great for stereo imaging.

The other go-to tool in this section is the use of panning. Panning can be a powerful tool in making a wider overall image. By moving sounds from left to right you can more room for instruments while giving the effect of instrumwents coming from different directions.

Conclusion:

These are the main ways to edit your mix in order to create a professional sounding product. You need to get to know these techniques and learn the best ways to use them for your intended outcome. if yo master these points you will have yourself a professional sounding mix in no time. 

 


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