7 Things You Should Do Every Mix
No two mixes are the same. Every track comes with its own unique problems, which require specific solutions. Even if you use the same plug-ins every mix, the settings will always change from track to track.
But that doesn’t mean that you have to start with a blank slate every session. In this blog, I’ll share some of the most common tips and techniques that you should be using every mix—from simple solutions like gain staging to more complex tasks like making sure the low-end hits right.
Checking for Phase Problems
You’ve probably heard the old studio saying before, “Crap in, crap out.” It’s an important reminder that the end result is only as strong as the weakest link in your signal chain—and that includes the source.
One of the most common problems you’ll run into during the mixing stage is phase problems. Whenever you record a source with two or more microphones—such as a stereo acoustic guitar or multi-mic drum setup—there’s a chance that the signals might be out of phase, which can cause your mix to sound thin and hollow.
Thankfully, there’s an easy solution. Use a phase meter or vectorscope like the one found in LEVELS to quickly check your mix for phase issues. If the pointer on the left side hovers passed the central point towards -1, it indicates that your mix has phase issues.
Use an EQ with a "polarity reverse" option (the stock EQ in your DAW should have one) to flip the phase on any multi-mic tracks to identify the issue. When you flip the phase on the problem track, you should hear a notable improvement in the low-end and the phase meter in LEVELS should hover closer to +1.
Use Proper Gain Staging
A good mix starts with a solid foundation. In order to create a proper balance, it’s important to make sure that your tracks are properly gain staged at the start of the session. Otherwise, you may run out of headroom, making it impossible to increase the level of a certain track without altering the balance of the mix.
In addition to working with limited headroom in your DAW, most plug-ins are designed to accept signals around -18 to -15 dBFS (check your manual for specific details)—any louder and you run the risk of creating unwanted distortion and artefacts.
It’s important to note that since inserts are pre-fader, you need to reduce the actual clip gain of each track—not just the fader level. While lowering the fader will help preserve headroom on your mix bus, it won’t do anything to help prevent plug-ins from causing distortion.
Use Reference Mixes
With so many styles and sub-genres to choose from, it can be tough to make certain decisions about your mix. Should the kick or bass be on the bottom? Should the cymbals or the synths take the high end?
One way to make it easier to make these decisions is to use reference mixes to create a roadmap for what you want your mix to sound like. That way, you don’t have to stop and analyze every move in the moment.
Start by identifying a few popular mixes in your genre that you think sound great. Drag and drop them into REFERENCE and engage the Level Match feature to ensure you get a fair comparison. Then, toggle between your reference mixes and your original track. Listen closely and identify the differences between your tracks and your reference mixes, then make a list of all the issues you need to address.
If you’re having trouble identifying exactly what you want to change, check out the Trinity Display, which provides detailed visual insights to help you match the tonal balance, punch, and stereo width of your reference tracks.
Make Sure the Low-End Sits Right
The low-end of a track can make or break your mix. Too much and it sounds muddy and boomy, too little and it sounds weak and thin. To ensure the low-end always sits right in your mixes, start by using a high-pass filter to roll-off any unwanted low-end on each track—even the kick and bass.
If you’re having trouble identifying the fundamental frequencies of a track, use a frequency analyzer to help you visualize the “bottom” of each instrument so you know where to place the high-pass filter without cutting off any vital information.
The specific placement of the high-pass filter will vary from track to track. For a kick drum or bass guitar, it might be as low as 30 or 40 Hz, but for a high-frequency instrument like a cymbal or shaker, it might be as high as 300 or 400 Hz.
Other handy techniques for making sure the low-end sits right including using subtractive EQ to carve out space in other instruments, and using multi-band compression to make room during busy sections.
Use Serial Compression
Compression can be a great tool for adding movement and excitement to a mix, but it can be easy to overdo it. Too much compression sucks the life out of your mix, leaving it feeling dull, flat and lifeless.
To avoid over-compression, use a combination of serial and parallel compression. Serial compression is when you use two or more compressors to apply small amounts of gain reduction for a more subtle sound. The compressors don’t necessarily have to be back to back—you can also apply compression on the channel level and again on the bus level to achieve the same effect.
Parallel compression allows for a more aggressive sound by combining the uncompressed signal with a small amount of a heavily compressed signal, giving you the best of both worlds. Use these techniques to help you dial in a punchy, dynamic mix without sucking the life out of your tracks.
Use Automation to Add Excitement
Even a well-balanced mix can sound stagnant and stale. One of the most interesting things about music is that it changes over time, which is why it’s important to make sure the focal point of your mix shifts throughout the song.
Of course, the lead vocal should be the primary focal point for most of the track—but that doesn’t mean you can’t let some of the other instruments shine for a moment. Use automation to help you shine a spotlight on guitar solos, drum fills, bass licks and any other ear-candy that helps make the track stand out.
Another useful technique is to use automation to boost the level of the chorus by 1-2 dB. This can help give the chorus an extra lift, making it jump out of the speakers to catch the listener’s attention.
Check Your Levels
Last but not least, it’s important to check your mix for technical issues before bouncing down. Use LEVELS to check your mix to make sure there’s no unwanted clipping or distortion. The LUFS tab makes it easy to ensure your mix is the right level for your desired streaming service—just select one of the professional presets for the proper target level.
We already checked for phase problems at the beginning of the mix, but it’s a good idea to check the Stereo Field tab again at the end of the mix to make sure you didn’t cause any additional problems using stereo enhancement tools.
You can also use the Dynamic Range and LRA tabs to make sure your mix isn’t over-compressed, and the Bass Space tab to make sure the other instruments in your mix don’t overpower the kick and bass. If all of the meters remain green after a full play through of your song—you’re good to go!
Bookmark this page and use these tips on all of your future mixes to help streamline your workflow and pump out better-sounding tracks.