Music Mixing 101: How To Mix a Song
Updated: August 15,2022
If you’re looking to create a musical masterpiece of your own, what you need to learn is how to mix a song. Making a song usually starts with the composer creating the melody, and singers and musicians provide the voice and instrumentals. An audio engineer jumps in to ensure it all sounds right before it reaches the consumers.
For those of you who are attracted to audio engineering, this guide will provide all the necessary information to get you started.
How To Start Mixing Music
Before mixing your first song, it’d be best to choose the type of song mixing you want to do. Are you going to be a live engineer or a studio engineer? Live engineers mix on the spot; if you’ve ever been to a live performance, you’ve witnessed their work. On the other hand, studio engineers mix in studios and generally have more time to dedicate to each song.
Audio engineers sometimes switch between live and studio mixing but tend to specialize as their career progresses. Regardless of your career path, you’ll need a computer and a good set of studio monitors. You don’t need a gaming computer for audio mixing, but a computer with a good processor and enough RAM to run multiple programs and plug-ins is a must.
Another essential part of the equipment is a digital audio workstation, otherwise known as a DAW. A DAW is a digital mixer and can have as many channels as you need, no matter how many instruments you are mixing.
If you already have a DAW you’re happy with, there is no need to look further, but if you are not sure which one to choose, we suggest you check out the most popular DAWs on the market. Most offer a 30-day trial period you can use to get familiar with the software and see if it’s the right fit for you.
Mixing a Song From Start to Finish
Once you are done with preparations, it’s time to start mixing. While some ground rules exist, there is no universal rulebook on mixing. Nothing that says every mix needs a reverb or that this frequency must be shelved or pitched in a specific way.
The best approach is to mix how you hear and feel it’s right because chances are, if you don’t like the mix, neither will the listener. So here we’ll lay out all aspects of mixing, step by step.
Instrument arrangement is usually the first step of any mixing process. Once you get all the tracks, you need to arrange them in the order that suits you and level them. Leveling is setting up a track’s volume by mixing instruments so that you can clearly hear it.
The main thing in this stage is identifying the elements of your song. What needs to stand out, and what acts as support? Once you determine that, leave some headroom in the mix, as you will need it in the next stages.
Panning is used for molding the sound image. If you imagine your mix as a room and instruments as furniture, panning determines how you’ll arrange the furniture around. Panning helps the listener get a clearer picture of where each instrument is located and allows you to give each instrument enough space to shine and play its tune.
Another general rule when mixing a track is the higher the frequency of the instrument, the more to the side it goes. This rule is why bass, kick, and snare are usually around the middle, along with the vocal as the star of the show.
Compression manages the audio dynamics of the mix. Audio dynamic represents the range between the highest and the lowest frequency point an instrument reaches within one tone. For example, a kick has a short dynamic range and cymbals wide.
By adjusting compression, you actually control the volume during the tone’s lifespan. There’s a variety of audio mixing techniques you can use when compressing, so feel free to research them and choose a compression method that suits your mix best.
When equalizing a mix, you’re playing with different frequency ranges. You give the track a completely different sound by “damping” or “pitching” frequency. Once you decide to learn how to mix music, equalizing could present the most challenging part.
By equalizing, you can make the sound oscillate from the highs to the lows and remove unnecessary frequency ranges. Some DAWs come with incorporated EQ, and some you’ll need to purchase separately.
EQs can be sorted into corrective, carving, and creative EQs. You use the corrective EQ to filter between frequencies on a track, the carving EQ for filtering the frequencies in the whole mix, and the creative EQ to play with the frequencies you left in.
The process of mixing music, for beginners, may be overwhelming. However, don’t get discouraged, as the process can take time and practice. Audio mixing is a creative process; you can’t create anything artistic without experimenting and playing around.
Reverb and Delay
Time-based effects are how you give your mix depth, power, and an illusion of being in a certain space. Church hall effects, divine echos, the extra resonation from the guitar string - all this is given by setting your time-based effect at the right point in the mix. The goosebumps you get from your favorite Alicia Keys line? All thanks to the reverb mixed with her voice.
One thing to keep in mind with reverb and delay is moderation. It’s incredibly easy to ruin a mix with just a pinch more of reverb or echo, and you definitely don’t wanna do that.
Testing Your Mix
Congratulations! You’ve learned how to mix a track. Now it’s time to listen to it yet again, but this time through different speakers.
As most listeners won’t use professional monitors, you should test your mix by playing it through as many different devices as possible. Try regular headphones, basic computer speakers, or car speakers. You could also listen to your mix on a pair of good in-ear monitors to have a more detailed experience.
When you’re done, let it sit in your ears a bit, listen to it later again, and if you hear something’s not quite right, it’s time to get back to work.
Enjoy the Process
The most important aspect of mixing music is enjoying it; it sometimes isn’t that easy, no matter how much you love music. Mixing can be tiresome as it’s often repetitive, as you could be working on one drum kick or a riff for a full hour or more.
When you get tired, step away a bit from the mix. Take a bite to eat, go for a drink, take a walk, or do something to let your mind and ears rest. You’ll be grateful for it later. The audio mixing and mastering process can be enjoyable, so make sure you’re having fun. Happy mixing!
Frequently Asked Questions
There are five essential elements to mixing a song - panning, reverb, EQ, compression, and testing. The first four elements are tools you use to adjust your mix while testing is listening if the mix is as you want it to be. If you’re not happy with what you did, return to the previous four elements in order to mold the mix further.
As a beginner, you need to be familiar with the tools you’ll be using. You need to choose your DAW and one of many audio mixing techniques and make proper preparations. You also need a reference track to use as an example of a mix you wish to create.
Audio mixing can be challenging. It takes time, patience, and experimenting in order to create a good mix.
The biggest obstacle when learning how to mix a song is knowing where to start. A good starting point is instrument arrangement and setting the right volume levels. After that, you pan the instruments to give them more room, pitch correction to bring the best out of every recording and equalize to mold the recorded sound exactly how you want it. Finally, add time-based effects.
A great mix allows the listeners to hear all the song elements clearly and without much effort.
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