Every engineer has their own personal preference of where to start a mix. There’s no right (or wrong) way to start a mix, but each method has pros and cons. In this blog, we’ll explore four different ways to approach starting your mix. Whether you’re mixing your very first track, or looking to shake up your routine, these tips will help you find the perfect technique for any workflow.
Start with the Drums and Bass
This is one of the most common approaches in modern mixing. It’s a flexible method that works well with most genres and arrangements.
For this approach, start with the rhythmic elements of the mix. In most cases, this will be the drums and bass. The goal is to build the foundation of the song by establishing the groove in the drums.
Start by dialing in a rough mix for the kick, snare and hi-hat mics, then work your way through the rest of the drum kit. Don’t worry about getting each track sounding perfect—just get a general balance and apply some basic EQ and compression.
After you get the drums dialed in, bring up the bass track and use it to emphasize the rhythm of the drums. Use EQ to carve out space so the kick and bass can both be heard clearly. Depending on the song, you may also try using EQ and compression to accentuate the attack or string noise of the bass.
Continue working your way through the other rhythmic elements in the track, such as rhythm guitars, keyboards and auxiliary percussion. Then shift your focus to the melodic instruments like lead guitars and vocals.
This approach works well for any song with a strong groove, including pop, rock, hip hop and dance tracks. However, it can make it difficult to find space for the vocal track in complex arrangements.
Start with the Lead Vocal
Arguably, the most important element of any mix is the lead vocal—which is why it makes sense to start there and work your way back. This approach works best with sparse arrangements, where the vocal has plenty of space to shine.
Since it can be tricky to tell if the vocals are in tune without any other instruments in the mix, it’s best to start with the primary rhythmic element in the mix as well. Oftentimes, this is an acoustic guitar or piano.
Start by correcting any frequency issues with the vocal. Use a high-pass filter to roll-off any unwanted low-end, and a de-esser to tame any harshness in the highs. Some light compression to help keep the vocal at the front of the mix can be handy, but depending on the song, it may be best to manually automate the vocal level for a more natural sound.
Next, work on creating a space for the vocal using reverb and delay. Since you don’t have to worry about matching decay times to the snare or other instruments, you’ve got more freedom to experiment. To help keep the other instruments in the same space, it’s best to send each track to the same effects bus at varying levels.
Start with the Most Reverberant Tracks
This method works best when you have tracks with printed reverb effects. In order to create a cohesive mix, your dry tracks need to sound like they’re in the same space as the tracks with printed effects. With this approach, you use the most reverberant tracks as a starting point for the rest of the mix.
Unless you have access to the original reverb used on the track, you’ll need to recreate a similar sound using a reverb of the same type, such as room, hall, or plate. You’ll also need to reverse engineer the decay time by measuring the length of the reverb tail in the printed tracks.
Of course, this approach works best with genres that use plenty of reverb like classic rock or indie rock. This technique can be very helpful to establish the width and depth in a busy mix, which makes it easier to accurately place instruments in the stereo spectrum.
To help create separation, try using a mid/side EQ like MIXROOM to carve out space for each instrument. For instance, bass tracks will sound more focused in the center channel, while sparkly stereo synths sound extra-wide when isolated to the sides.
Start with All of the Faders Up
At the end of the day, your tracks need to sound like one cohesive mix. The listener doesn’t have the luxury of soloing each individual channel—they listen to the whole mix at all once. Which is why some engineers argue that it’s best to mix with all of the faders up.
With this approach, you’ll start by listening to the demo or rough mix. Take notes on everything you want to fix in the track, then rank them in order of importance. Try to address major issues first, like harshness, excessive low-end and inconsistent levels.
It may feel a little disorganized at times, but this approach actually helps you focus on the biggest problems first, then work your way down to the minor issues that most listeners won’t notice.
This method is great for when you’re mixing up against a tight deadline, or need to quickly dial in a rough mix during an attended mix session. This approach also works well for live recordings or tracks where it’s important to maintain a sense of glue or unity.
However, it can be tricky to isolate problems with frequency or dynamics with everything playing at once. That’s why it’s always a good idea to check your mix with LEVELS, which helps identify technical issues with your mix including peaking, phase problems, excessive low-end and more.
Try out one of these techniques in your next session to help streamline your workflow!