What is Mixing? Why Should You Care?
Mixing music is, in a sense, the art of translating a piece of music to be clear and intentional. On a very basic level, a mix engineer needs to make sure each individual sound is playing at an intentional volume and sits where it needs to in terms of frequency in relation to the other sounds.
Often times without at least a basic competency of a mix, a song can be unlistenable from many audio output devices. Mixing involves a certain awareness of how the sounds will translate across different speakers or headphones and ensures that the end listener will be able to enjoy the music as intended wherever they may be listening to it from.
On a more advanced level, mixing music is as much a creative art as producing or writing the music. It involves shaping the tone to your personal taste, and making bold decisions about what each element will sound like. The goal is not to achieve a balance, but rather to paint an expressive sonic picture that will be interesting to listen to.
The end goal of a mix will vary from genre to genre, for example writing sleepy lo-fi you may want less excitement, with the main voice soft and slow, with none of the sounds poking out very much and aiming for an overall ambient texture. With lo-fi study beats you may want a slightly more driving/transient beat. If you produce house music or bass music for the club, you'll likely want the kick and the bass to drive the track.
Regardless of the style of music and the desired result, you'll have certain elements that will be the main focus and others that serve as support, and it will be your job as the mixer to define these and sculpt the elements accordingly.
Giving Elements Space
There are three dimensions to consider in the mix, and placing each element within these dimensions will help give your mix depth and clarity. These dimensions are frequency, width, and depth.
Frequency is often the first thing to consider in determining where to place an element. For each sound, determine where on the frequency spectrum is the most prominent part of that sound. You can use an EQ frequency analyzer to determine this visually. For example, this guitar playing a chord in the image below lives primarily at each of these three nodes on the EQ. You can boost each one slightly to get a sense for the tone at each part. If you want your guitar to be more full bodied in the mix, be wary of letting your other instruments have too much going on at each of these frequencies. However, if you want to focus more on one or two of the tones more on this sound, you could slightly reduce what you don't want to focus on and let other sounds exist in that space.
When sculpting the frequencies of your track, be wary of cutting too much, this will make your sounds feel thin and cheap. You also want to always be thinking of which is the main element at any given time, and be sure to carve out more space for that element rather than trying to make every single element shine. For example, it's okay if you can't really hear the atmospheric pad that much, it is likely not the focal point of your mix and it's job is just to fill out the background, as something that you feel rather than hear. A good way to test if something that's far in the background is doing it's job is to mute and then unmute the track while listening, the difference should be somewhat subtle but there should still be a perceptible difference.
Stereo Width is the use of the left and right channels to make sounds feel wider, more centered, or off to one side. This is another way to add contrast to your mix. Stereo width can be a powerful asset if used intentionally and thoughtfully. The idea is that if you make some elements wider, others need to be relatively mono to notice and appreciate the contrast. If everything is wide, nothing is wide. You can also use things like ping pong delay or autopan to bounce things from the left and right channels to use as ear candy.
If you want to know how wide is too wide, or not wide enough, you can use an EQ in MidSide mode to cut all of the mids and hear exactly what is going on in the sides. This EQ can then be placed on a reference track to hear how your stereo width measures up to the music that you like in the style that you are going for.
Depth is the sense of certain elements being up in your face and others being more in the background. This is used to bring the focal elements more forward often by pushing other things back.
Things that can make an element feel more upfront include more high frequencies, louder volume, and less reverb. If you want to push something further back you can use a high cut filter to take away it's brightness, you can add more reverb, or simply turn it down.
Again, as with stereo width, the contrast is made by intentionally and thoughtfully moving certain elements forward and others further back.
Mixing to Support the Main Element
As I have been constantly returning to on this topic, having the main focal point in mind will be key to getting a great mix. There are many possibilities for the main focal point, you could want to emphasize the bassline as the most driving element you want the listener to focus on, it could be a melody, it could even be the percussion if you want.
If you happen to have a singer in your song, that will most likely be your focal point, but you don't have to mix the vocals up front if you want to take a hard left and try something unusual. Even if you do have vocals and they're up front, there will be moments and maybe even whole sections where the vocals are not present in which you will decide on another element to bring forward in the mix. As a song progresses, your mix has to evolve as well.
Automation is a great way to progress the song and evolve your mix over time. This is the art of slowly bringing things in and out over time by automating parameters such as volume, frequency, or reverb. This is a great way to weave between different focal points throughout the song and make it more interesting.
You may have a chorus in your song where the singer is up front and the guitar is playing a melody in the background, so you cut some of the highs and turn down the volume, maybe even automate your amp mix to be lower. Then, when that section is done, if the singer takes a break and there is an instrumental section, you may bring back those frequencies and volume to the guitar to let it shine.
This concept can be used limitlessly to keep your music interesting, even if you are making something like sleepy lo-fi where you don't want to jar the listener with strong moves, you can make these things very subtle and over a longer period of time to keep the song from becoming annoying and deliver a soothing and enjoyable experience
Grouping backing tracks is another technique that can help you carve out space for your main elements. Once grouped, you can EQ all of the backing tracks at once to ensure that you're making room for your lead. I like to use this rather gently so as to avoid having a thin mix, but it can really help make your focal element shine. Using a technique such as dynamic EQ to engage the EQ cuts only when the main sound reaches a certain volume threshold can be really powerful to quickly make room for your main element without leaving empty space when that element stops playing.
Another way I like to use this technique is to group all of the instruments except the drums and bass and make a gentle low end cut around the frequency where the bass lives, and only during the sections the bass instrument is playing. This prevents mud in the low end, and allows the bass to live in that space.
Sidechaining is a great way to make room for more transient elements as they make their way into a mix, such as drums. Sidechaining is a term that essentially means cutting the volume of element A right at the moment that element B hits, and then bringing the volume back as element B ends. The most classic example that I use in every single song I produce is sidechaining the bass to the kick drum. This can be done using a compressor, a volume shaping plug in such as LFO Tool or Shaperbox, or by simply automating the volume. I personally prefer to use the utility plug in and automate the volume via the gain knob.
This will allow your sub/bass frequencies to be smooth and consistent even when your kick and bass overlap. One thing to be careful of is the shape of the volume automation (or compression if you do it this way). There is an art to making this work musically and if done with poor timing it can sound terrible. If the volume isn't cut away for long enough you will end up with overlapping frequencies and if it is cut for too long there will be an empty space, which can be done musically if done intentionally but can also ruin the groove if done carelessly.
Sidechaining isn't only for kick and bass, it can be used for many things, like ducking the percussion at the moment the snare hits, or even ducking the piano when the rhythm guitar passes a certain threshold of volume (a task which works more easily with a compressor than any other methods i've mentioned). This is a creative tool that can help bring elements forward and back in a mix over time, so experiment with ways to make use of it!
Referencing is especially important during mixing. If you aren't mixing with reference tracks, I would highly urge you to start doing so now. It is important as you are listening to the same thing over and over that you have some kind of grounding, something to return to as a reminder of what music sounds like in the genre that you're mixing so you don't get lost as you move through the mix.
I would recommend having multiple different reference points within your genre, songs in which there are certain things you appreciate about the sounds used or the overall mix so that you can get a sense of how your mix stacks up using multiple data points.
You don't need to perfectly match your reference, each song is unique and your project will have it's own form of expression that you will want to capitalize on. These are simply to keep you familiar with the general area you want to land in; what volume levels are appropriate for your genre, what kind of tonal balance you can look for, etc.
You aren't necessarily aiming to imitate but you likely will not want your mix to fall way too far out of the boundaries of the genre you're working with, so having multiple data points can help you draw yourself a zone to loosely try to land at.
Testing Your Mix
Before you can call any mix finished, it is highly important to test it on as many speakers and headphones as you can. Definitely ones you are familiar with, as your brain will already be trained on these devices to know how music should sound, and you'll almost subconsciously know if something is off, at which point you will have to be able to pinpoint what that is.
I'll typically do several tests, a few different devices per mix, taking a few notes after each listen. Not too much, just the main issue or main up to three or so issues I notice, and then go fix those. After that, repeat this process. This is the part that can take the longest. Your ears will need time to refresh as well, so try and do it over a period of multiple days if you can. I at least recommend at minimum taking a 24 hour break before listening again after finishing the initial mix. Each test, as you get closer to the final mix, you should notice your moves get smaller and smaller. Patience is key here.
Once you're happy with the mix, I like to give it more time and then listen again just to be sure. If you work with clients, you may not always have this luxury. In any case, utilizing time away from the mix to refresh your ears will be key as you approach the final stages of the mix.
Hopefully this has answered some of your questions about mixing and/or given you some interesting bits to chew on! I have been doing this for approximately 7 years and I have to say that I gain more insights and a deeper understanding every time I do a new mix or speak with friends on the topic and get advice from those I look up to. The rabbit hole never ends!
The overall points to keep in mind are as follows:
-Use frequency, width, and depth to place each element
-Focus on supporting the main element
-Reference similar music
-Test your mix on multiple speakers/headphones
If you want to hear how I use these tips in my own productions, don't hesitate to look me up anywhere music is streamed under "Ryahu" for my dance music and "philip j loaf-eye" for my lo-fi music.
Until next time!