The Mixing Process Explained - A Step By Step Guide to Radio-Ready Mixes [With Video Guide]
If you make your own music or engineer for other artists, chances are you spend a great deal of time on the internet, watching videos and reading articles just like this one, looking for ways to better understand the mixing process and elevate your work to the next level. Well, the good news is that you’re doing the right thing — absorbing as much information from reputable sources as you can is key to developing your skills as a mix engineer. But in even better news, by following the process outlined in this post, you will immediately see improvements in not only your finished mixes, but your workflow as well!
This article is intended to be used as a step by step guide to getting better mixes by explaining how to approach a mix from start to finish, not just from a processing perspective. Anyone can take 300hz out of your kick drum, but that’s not what makes them a better mixer. Applying these steps to your current workflow should not only result in better mixes, but it will also make mixing faster, easier, and more enjoyable!
Step 1: Importing Audio & Organizing Your Session
Mixing is every bit as much about being organized and establishing an efficient workflow as it is making the right mix decisions. This probably seems obvious, buy many people tend to take shortcuts here or skip the process entirely because they underestimate just how big of an impact it has on your end result. Organizing your session in a way that makes it easy for you to make quick mix decisions on the fly will become an invaluable skill. You want to be able to make changes as you think of them without needing to hunt down a certain track, figure out where something has been bussed, etc.
When it comes to organizing your session, everyone has their own personal tastes. The bottom line is that whatever works for you personally is the right way to do it. But if you aren’t sure where to begin, here’s my organizational process broken down for you.
a. Setting up my Pro Tools session
• When I open up Pro Tools (though this is applicable for any DAW), I have a couple of options. I can load up a template which can take care of pretty much all of the next steps in this organizational process for me, or I can start setting up some Aux inputs, a master fader, etc. before I ever import any audio.
• If I’m not using a template, the first thing I do is set up a master fader, aux inputs that will act as busses for drums, bass, guitars, vocals, keys, etc., as well as 2-4 miscellaneous aux inputs that I can use for time based effects or any other purpose that comes up in the mixing process. I also take this time to set up yet another aux input, specifically a stereo aux input that will act as my Mix Bus, feeding the master fader. This is optional, but I find it helpful because it allows me to easily check my mixes in mono (more on that later).
• After my aux tracks and master fader are set up, it’s time to import the audio for my session. Hopefully all of the tracks are labeled by the artist — or if you are working with your own music, you should be labeling them! — but we aren’t always that lucky. If the tracks aren’t labeled, the first thing I do is take the time to label them properly.
• After importing the (hopefully labeled) tracks, it’s time to organize them by instrument, color code the tracks, and set up some basic bussing. In my case, I tend to put all the drums towards the top of the session followed by bass, guitars, keys, other instruments, and finally vocals and backing vocals. I color code each of these groups in a way that makes them easy to distinguish. Next, I’ll set up groups and subgroups in Pro Tools that allow me to control individual aspects of the session at the same time. Finally, I start routing tracks to busses. For things like drums, I’ll route kick mics/samples to a kick bus, then route that Kick bus to my overall drum bus. I’ll repeat that process for snare, toms, etc. Bussing deserves a whole article in itself, but simply put, you should bus tracks together in a way that makes sense to you and gives you the flexibility you need to work on tracks in isolation and as a part of a group.
• Once all of the tracks are properly named, arranged, color coded, and bussed, it’s time to actually start mixing.
Step 2: Gain Staging
Even when people are organizing their sessions well, many of them still jump way ahead in the mixing process. As soon as your session is organized, spend some time with the gain staging process, which can have an enormous impact on the way you go about mixing from that point forward.
Gain staging simply means raising or lowering the volume of the individual tracks. If you’re in Pro Tools, using the clip gain fader on the actual track itself is the best way to go about this. If you’re in another DAW, it’s important to note that in the gain staging process, you want to make these volume adjustments PRE-FADER, that is, you’re raising the volume of the actual recorded track/clip itself, but the fader still starts at unity gain.
So how do you determine what tracks need attention? Take a listen to your session with everything at unity gain. It probably doesn’t sound all that great at the moment, but it should give you a pretty good indication as to what might be too loud and what might be too quiet. Obviously, if a track is clipping, turning down the gain on that track is important. Likewise, if something is barely audible, it may be worth increasing the gain on that track.
Of course, sometimes you may not need to make any gain staging adjustments, and that’s fine. This process is mostly reserved for obvious problems like clipping as opposed to addressing a track that isn’t sitting well in the mix — most likely nothing is sitting well at this point! So just take care of any obvious issues and move on to the next step.
Step 3: The Static Mix
When people think of “mixing,” they likely immediately picture pulling up plugins or twisting knobs on analog gear to alter the recorded sound. While that’s obviously a huge part of mixing, it should come after what I like to call “the static mix.”
The static mix is the process of mixing the song with the faders and pan knobs only. Simply put, listen to the song and start moving the faders around to achieve the best mix you can with just the raw recording. Using the pan knob to make some basic planning decisions works great here as well, and I even do some amounts of volume or pan automation at this point too. You aren’t stuck with these decisions for the rest of your mix, of course, but they can really help set up a better foundation to work from.
When I first heard about the static mix process, I found it to be a little bit overwhelming because I would open up a session with all these tracks at unity gain and nothing really sounded all that great like that, so it was difficult for me to know where to start. But fortunately, I have some strategies I like to use to get a good static mix.
• The first thing I like to do is pull all of the faders down completely. Then I’ll highlight a section of the song that has all (if possible) or at least most of the tracks. Playing at the same time, and I will loop that section. I typically start with the drums. I’ll push up on the Kick faders and start shaping a basic kick sound by blending whatever live/sample kicks were recorded. Then I’ll move onto snare and do the same, followed by the rest of the drum kit. I repeat that process, moving throughout the song, essentially building it from the ground up. In the case of things like blending kick drums or guitars, I’ll listen to the tracks in solo to get the basic blend that I like, then I’ll tweak it by listening in context of the mix, repeating that process until I’ve got what I think is the best mix I can do without pulling up any plugins or using any outboard gear.
• One thing that I keep in mind during the static mix phase is headroom. I tend to shoot for a static mix that peaks at slightly above halfway on my master fader. Sometimes achieving this is as simple as using a mix bus like i mentioned earlier and pulling the volume of that mix bus down so it isn’t slamming the master fader so hard. The reason you want to keep this in mind is that when you start processing — especially adding compression — things are going to get louder, so you want to make sure you have headroom to do actual processing.
• It’s also key that you DO NOT RUSH this process. I tend to set aside about 30 minutes to an hour for my first pass at a static mix (the exact length of time depends on the song, how complex it is, how many tracks there are, etc., so adjust accordingly). If I’ve got a particularly dense track, I’ll take frequent breaks throughout that hour of working on the static mix. When you’ve finished the static mix, take a few minutes away from the track — go grab some food or take care of something else on your agenda, then come back to it and take a listen. Is there anything you feel you could adjust to make the song sound better without using plugins or outboard gear? Make that adjustment. If it’s several adjustments, take another break once you’re done and repeat the process until you feel comfortable with your static mix.
• Another thing I find incredibly helpful is checking the static mix in mono. This is yet another benefit of using a stereo aux as a mix bus. By panning the left and right parts of the stereo signal to 0 (center), each element of the mix comes out as if it was panned to the center. This will reveal problem areas in the mix — if something sounds too quiet or too loud in mono, it’s too quiet/loud in stereo, so address it here. This concept can be applied throughout the entire mixing process, not just the static mix.
Seriously, don’t skip over this step. Your mixes will definitely improve, and at a minimum, you’lll make your life much easier when you start to use processing because the track is already sounding much better than when it started. If the song you are working with was well recorded, you’ll notice that your static mix will often sound really good — that’s a great thing!
Step 4: Mix Bus Processing
Now we can get into some actual processing — everyone’s favorite part. If you’ve put together a good static mix, you’ll immediately have the freedom to make creative mix decisions instead of corrective mix decisions, and you’ll be able to enhance what already sounds good. This is so much easier (and more enjoyable) than jumping straight into processing.
But before we start putting plugins on the individual track, we should focus on our mix bus — yes, you read that right. You may have heard that you should avoid doing any processing on your mix bus because you can really mess up a good thing if you’re too aggressive with it. Well, that last part is definitely true. You can destroy a perfectly good mix by putting a ton of effects on your mix bus, and it makes the mastering process a nightmare. But if you go about mix bus processing in a subtle way, you can actually improve your static mix even more before ever putting a single plugin on an individual track.
So what mix bus processing should you do? I would say 99% of the time — if you’re dealing with a well recorded song and you have completed your static mix — you’ll be doing small amounts of EQ and gentle compression; emphasis on small and gentle. Take a listen to your static mix. What areas of the mix sound particularly good? Are there any parts that seem to be too busy, muddy, or unpleasant? How about parts where different elements of the song are conflicting, for instance the bass and kick drum? If you aren’t exactly sure or nothing really sticks out, open up your EQ of choice and starting moving around the bands, boosting and cutting aggressively so that you can hear what isolated areas of the mix sound like. You’ll likely find a couple of areas that could use a boost or a cut. When you make this boost or cut, I would generally recommend 1 - 3db adjustments. Remember, you’re not looking for a night and day difference here, just something subtle that helps your static mix pop or feel a bit more cohesive.
The next piece of processing is likely going to be a compressor. Even more than the EQ, we’re looking for subtlety here. Compression on the mix bus at this stage is mostly about gluing your static mix together a little more and making those slight EQ adjustments pop. Any basic compressor, though I recommend avoiding limiters, and you’re usually going to use a slow attack and a fast release — this will ensure the compressor isn’t overly aggressive. You’re looking for between 1 - 3db of gain reduction, generally speaking. All we want is for the mix to feel a bit tighter before moving onto processing on the individual tracks. If you’re finding that your compressor seems a bit too aggressive, try stacking a couple of compressors, each doing smaller amounts of compression (perhaps around a 1db of gain reduction) until you it where you want.
It took me awhile to see the value in mix bus processing because of how subtle it is. We have a tendency to get too aggressive with our processing sometimes because we want to hear a clear difference. But once you’ve done this several times, you’ll start seeing the benefits more clearly. So don’t worry if you aren’t sure exactly how it’s helping at first — it takes a bit to train your ear!
Step 5: Processing on individual tracks
At long last, it’s time to do some processing on the individual tracks! Hopefully by this point you have the freedom to make creative decisions instead of corrective ones, at least generally speaking. It’s difficult to give specific advice here since every song is different, but check out our blog for techniques on mixing various instruments, vocals, etc.
That said, there are a few general tips we can give here that are applicable across any mix.
• Don’t spend too much time listening in solo - That’s not to say don’t listen in solo at all, of course. Listening to individual instruments in solo can give you a better idea of how they are impacting your overall mix. In cases where you’re working with guitars or other groups of instruments that you’re trying to balance or blend, listening in solo can help immensely. But always make your final processing decisions based on how it sounds in context of the mix. The less you solo, the less you have to tweak in the mix.
• When in doubt, use the 4db trick - If you’re struggling to figure out where a track should sit in the mix, using what I like to call the 4db trick is incredibly helpful. Take the track that’s giving you problems and boost it 4db. How does it sound? Try cutting it 4db from where you initially had it. How does it sound now? If both sound worse than where you initially had the track, you know you have it sitting at least close to where it should. Obviously if the boost or cut sounds better, keep it!
• Don’t be afraid to mute - Whether you’re muting entire tracks or muting parts of tracks, it’s not always a bad thing. In the engineering process, we can sometimes get carried away with tracking; we’ll quadruple track guitars, add in tons of snare samples, etc. Sometimes that gives us great results, but sometimes it also just adds more work to a mix. If you’re working with another artist’s work, hopefully whoever produced it decided on what tracks should be kept in the session before they sent it to you, but many times that decision falls on the mix engineer. Mute elements that don’t add anything to the song, and don’t be afraid to experiment with muting certain parts of tracks if it makes the arrangement more exciting and dynamic.
• Don’t be afraid to do little to no processing on some tracks - As mix engineers, we sometimes fall victim to the idea that we have to do something. But a good mix engineer knows when to do processing and when not to do processing. Starting out, if we skip processing on a track, it sort of eats away at us because we think we should have altered it in some way. But at the end of the day, trust your ears! If a track sounds good as it was recorded or sits perfectly in the mix where it is, it is good! This is another area where the static mix step helps tremendously — the static mix makes identifying which tracks need processing and which tracks do not much easier.
• Check your mixes in mono - As I mentioned in the static mix step, check your mix in mono frequently. It will reveal parts of your mix that need work. Remember, if you can get a mix sounding great in mono, it will sound great in stereo.
Additionally, since much of the mixing process relies on EQ and compression, we have included a few tips on the process here as well — but you can check our blog for more in depth training.
General EQ Tips
There are three main ways you can think about using EQ. There first way is to think of EQing as away to carve out space in a mix for a track to sit in the mix. You can achieve this by eliminating frequencies you don’t need in a signal. For instance, on vocals, chances are you don’t need the low frequencies in the signal. This is why it’s common practice to high pass vocals, rolling off the low frequencies and leaving the highs and high kids. This serves two purposes. Firstly, it allows your vocals to pop by showcasing only the frequencies that you want, but just as important, it makes room for other tracks to sit in the mix by eliminating information in the low end. By EQing out the low frequencies in the vocal, you give more room for your kick drum, bass, etc. to occupy their own place in the mix without conflicting with other low end frequencies.
The second way to approach using EQ is corrective EQ. By taking the time to record tracks properly and, even more importantly, record them as you want to hear them, you can reduce the amount of corrective EQ you need to do. But sometimes there will be parts of the signal that you want to get rid of, like an air conditioner, bleed from another instrument, etc. By determining what areas these unwanted sounds are occupying on the frequency spectrum, you can reduce or eliminate them by cutting in that area with an EQ.
The third and most enjoyable way to use EQ is in a creative way. Creative EQ allows you to imprint your tastes onto a mix — boosting some top end on acoustic guitars or vocals, shaping your bass tone, or finding the perfect kick drum sound are all creative ways of using EQ. When you start to EQ on individual tracks, think about the process with this strategy in mind:
• Carve out space for your tracks to occupy in the mix by applying basic EQ curves such as high and low pass filters and boosting or cutting areas you know will help each track sit in the mix better.
• Use corrective EQ to address problem areas such as unwanted noise, bleed from other instruments, or getting rid of ugly frequencies.
• Use creative EQ to shape the tonality of your tracks based on how you want the final mix to sound
General Compression Tips
Ah, compression. Perhaps the most misunderstood and misused technique in audio engineering. While a vital part of the mixing process, compression can make or break your mix. Using it improperly can ruin what is otherwise a great recording. If you want to learn more about using compressors, check out [this blog post] we made.
When it comes to compression, you have a number of different options. There are tons of compressors available, each with their own unique sound, strengths, and weaknesses. Additionally, there are different types of compressors — variable threshold, fixed threshold, multiband, etc. — making choosing which compressor to use one of the most challenging and fun aspects of mixing. If you have multiple compressors available to you, I suggest finding 2 or 3 that you enjoy using, whether that means you like how they sound or you know how to get the most out of them. You always have the freedom to experiment here.
Much like EQ, you can use compression in a variety of ways. The goal of any compressor is to reduce the dynamic range of a signal so that it is smooth and uniform throughout. As a result, it is easy to over-compress a signal and eliminate any sense of dynamics in the process. Compression is a balancing act: finding a way to get a nice, even signal throughout the mix while still maintaining a sense of dynamic range.
To help avoid over-compression, I suggest stacking compressors. Say you want to get 6db of gain reduction. It can be helpful to use 2 compressors, each doing 3db of gain reduction, instead of 1 compressor doing all 6db of gain reduction. There are, of course, instances where one compressor might give you exactly what you’re looking for — maybe it isn’t a super aggressive compressor or maybe you like how aggressive it is. But in a case where one compressor is being too aggressive, stacking multiple and doing smaller amounts of gain reduction can help in that regard.
Step 6: Finishing Touches
When we finish processing on individual tracks, we’re not yet done with the mixing process despite many folks stopping at this point. Taking time to put the finishing touches on a mix will ultimately be what separates a good mix from a great mix. So what are these “finishing touches” anyway?
This step is sometimes called the “sweetening” process, but it ultimately amounts to enhancing the arrangement of the song. There are a number of different ways to enhance the arrangement of a song — you can get creative with panning, volume automation, effects automation, and muting. I’ve included some general tips below, though obviously every song is unique. Flex your creativity here, and remember that the song should be dynamic and interesting all the way through!
Volume and Panning Automation - Automation can be used creatively just as much as a corrective tool. Obviously automation can fine tune where a track sits in context of the mix such as a vocal that sounds great in the verse but not so much in the chorus. However, there are more exciting ways to use automation that will compliment the arrangement and dynamics in the song.
One thing that I like to do is automate the chorus section on my mix bus. I’ll raise the entire mix 2-3db to make the chorus pop a bit more. This can also be applied during other sections of the song or on individual tracks. The same logic can be applied to panning. Take a guitar for instance. Automating the pan knob so that the guitar slowly travels from left to right and back again adds an interesting effect that will be sure to capture the listener’s attention. The goal here is to keep the song interesting. If verse 1 sounds exactly the same as verse 2, trying some automation can liven up that second verse a bit.
Similarly, you can automate plugins, amping up the amount of compression in certain songs or applying a different EQ curve to alter an instrument’s sound. Can you think of a song that uses the so-called “telephone effect” on a guitar or vocal at a certain point in the song? You can achieve this very effect by using automation. Take an EQ and set it to be bypassed by default. Then, using automation, you can turn on that EQ at the point in the song where you want to alter the sound of the track that it’s on.
This process can also be applied to the your effects. If you’re working with reverb or delay, for instance, try automating the effects send so that there are different amounts of those effects at different points in the song. Maybe you really ramp up the reverb during the chorus to make it big and spacious before toning it back down for the verses. Perhaps you can try some more experimental effects during a bridge or breakdown. Again, be creative and serve the song/arrangement.
Muting - I mentioned muting earlier in this article, but it’s worth bringing up again in the finishing touches stage. Going along with automation, creative use of muting can really make a song more interesting. Again, you’re looking for ways to break up the monotony. If verses all sound the same, listeners will get bored. To combat this, try something like muting the guitars in verse 2 and just letting the bass guitar shine for a bit. Or mute everything but the guitars and vocals in the last pre-chorus to shake things up a bit. You want to make the arrangement sound better and grab the listener’s attention!
So there you have it — the mixing process broken down step-by-step. If you follow the steps in this guide, I guarantee your mixes will get better and you’ll enjoy the process even more! Mixing isn’t easy, but it doesn’t have to be harder than it needs to be. By taking the time to execute each of these steps, you’ll eliminate unnecessary frustrations and allow yourself to focus on being creative!
If you have any questions about the steps outlined here or the techniques I mentioned, feel free to contact me! I’m happy to explain anything in further detail.