5 Unique Ways to Level Up Your Mix

Getting a perfect mix isn't easy. Even when you follow all the expert tips — to a T — your mixes can still seem to be missing that "it factor" that will take it over the top.

It's important that you learn to use proper mixing techniques so you can learn to do things the correct way. Of course, one of the best reasons to learn the rules in any endeavor is so you can break them!

In this blog post, we'll explore five nontraditional ways that can take your average-sounding mixes to the next level.

5 Unique Ways to Level Up Your Mix

#1 — Try Lo-Fi

Under most circumstances, an engineer's foremost goal is to create a mix with the best sound possible. That said, "best sound" doesn't always fit the vibe of the song.

For example, extreme metal, hardcore, industrial, old-school hip-hop, chillwave, hypnagogic pop, and (obviously) lo-fi all benefit from a low-fidelity approach. What constitutes a low-fidelity approach. 

You're essentially aiming for a DIY vibe. The song should sound like it was recorded under less-than-optimal circumstances on low-budget equipment — even if it was captured using a state-of-the-art DAW-based setup.

Aside from employing harmonic distortion and other analog characteristics, adding intentional imperfections like vinyl crackle, tape hiss, bit crushing, and other audio-degradation processing is a great way to add character to a sterile-sounding production. 

Say you have a hip-hop song consisting of an artist rapping over a generic loop. By applying pop, crackle, and mechanical noise to the loop with a vinyl simulation plug-in like iZotope Vinyl, you can transform it from a canned-sounding yawn into an ear-grabbing gem that jumps out of the listener's speakers or headphones.

Grunge up a "too-good" hardcore song by processing your tracks (or even your entire mix) through a lo-fi tape simulation plug-in like Caelum Audio Tape Cassette 2 for added saturation and a healthy dose of wow and flutter. Using a spring reverb emulation instead of a modern-style digital reverb will also give your mix a cool "underground" vibe.

#1 — Try Lo-Fi

#2 — Add Some Glue

Ever been in a situation where your mix sounds pleasing and well-balanced, yet the tracks are so separated that it sounds like musicians playing in different rooms? If that's the case, it sounds like your mix needs to be glued together.

The first step to gluing your mix together is to reexamine your reverb selection. If you inserted a separate reverb on each track with completely different settings, then you have placed each track in its own room (at least from a sonic standpoint).

What you want to do is decide which type of room you want your mix to exist in. Next, place your reverb of choice on a stereo aux track and bus all (or at least most of) your tracks through the same virtual space.

This doesn't mean you can’t have a few specialized reverbs on a few select tracks; do what sounds best! Just don't get carried away.

The other thing that will help glue your mix together is to use bus compression. Any compressor plug-in will get the job done; however, SSL G-, Fairchild 670-, API 2500-, and Neve 33609-style compressors are among those most often used by professionals.

As for compressor settings, start with a 10ms attack, a 1–1.5s release (or an "auto" setting if one is available), a 1.5:1–2:1 ratio, and set the threshold for 1–3dB of gain reduction. Then adjust to taste. 

It's vital to remember that bus compression is meant to be subtle. While it's not unusual to hear engineers talking about "slamming their mix" with a compressor, this is merely descriptive language; it's not reflective of the settings on your bus compressor.

#2 — Add Some Glue

#3 — Turbocharge Your Drums

Acoustic drums are — by an impressive margin — the most difficult thing to record well in a home-studio situation. This is largely due to how the high-decibel output of a drum kit interacts with the acoustics of the room they're being recorded in.

There are ways around this, however. And you don't have to resort to e-drums or complete sample replacement to get a pro-studio sound.

If you're mixing drums recorded outside of a professional studio environment, odds are the room mics, and possibly the overheads, sound like a basement, garage, bedroom, or whatever environment the kit was recorded in. Thus, we're going to forego the recorded room mic track and create our own.

Start by firing up a convolution reverb plug-in, such as Audio Ease AltiverbWaves IR-1, or SIR, then select an impulse response from a professional studio renowned for its drum sound.

Want to place your drum inside Galaxy Studios, Capitol Studios, Power Station, AIR London, Hansa Tonstudio, or Abbey Road Studios? Modern plug-ins will allow you to do just that.

Once you've found a space that works for your project, run a balanced drum mix through the plug-in and print the result. This will be used in lieu of the original room mic track.

If your overheads also sound iffy, try fortifying them with a subtle touch of the same reverb you used for the pseudo room mic track.

The last step is to augment your drums with studio reverb. You can use any variety of reverbs for this purpose — plates, halls, rooms — whatever sounds right for your mix.

For an extra-hi-fi sound, try triggering professionally recorded samples with your kick, snare, and toms, and send the triggered samples to your reverb. You won't be using the samples to replace your recorded drums; rather, you're only using them for added ambience.

 #3 — Turbocharge Your Drums

#4 — Distort the Distortion

There are many subgenres of metal, industrial, and electronic music that regularly make use of intentionally distorted tracks. Working on these types of mixes can be challenging, as the distorted elements tend to mesh together in a muddled way.

So, what can you do? After all, you can't un-distort tracks that are already distorted.

Well, then don't! Beat them at their own game by distorting the distorted track.

How does this help you exactly? Well, adding distortion to an already distorted track gives you the option of shaping the sound of the distortion to better fit the context of your entire mix.

For example, instantiating an effect like our ANIMATE plug-in's IGNITE module on a guitar solo or synth lead will enable it to cut through a mix in a way that standard equalization can't.

Got a hard-rock rhythm guitar part that doesn't seem to have enough heft? Try running the track through a Tech 21 SansAmp or even a full-blown guitar-amp simulation like IK Multimedia AmpliTube or Line 6 Helix Native.

 ANIMATE By Mastering The Mix

#5 — Go Mono

Struggling with panning? Does your mix sound lopsided no matter what you do?

If that's the case, you can make life much easier by mixing in mono. After all, even though most mixes are rendered in stereo, stereo mixes aren’t a requirement. 

Monophonic mixes, when crafted carefully, can sound just as spacious and engaging as a stereo mix. So much so, that many golden-eared audiophiles prefer the original mono mixes of classic recordings.

In fact, there are entire The Original Mono Recordings box sets devoted to Bob Dylan, Miles Davis, and a bunch of other legendary artists, and The Beatles in Mono still gets lots of acclaim.

Admittedly, mono is probably not the right aesthetic choice for the majority of modern productions. That being said, mono can be exactly what many sparse acoustic arrangements, retro-style genres, and select other mixes need to shine.

 #5 — Go Mono


These are merely a sampling of unique ways to take your mixes to a higher level. 

The moral of the story is this: don't be afraid to experiment. Although you should generally follow best mixing practices, there are definitely times when you need to think outside the box to get the sound you're hearing in your head.

Keep following this blog for more expert mixing tips and techniques!