Attempting to finalize a mixdown feels almost impossible.
It can feel like you’re stuck in an endless loop.
Why do I even have to do this, you might ask?
Well, mixing down a track is just one of the many things required in music production, though more of a ‘technical’ craft – it’s still certainly creative, and it plays a huge part in music as a whole.
If you’re a bedroom producer, then it’s likely that you’re mixing down your own material. Sometimes it’s hard to know where to start, and often it can seem like a chore.
Because of this, I’ve decided to compile a list of tips that others and I use. Take these with a grain of salt, and please take the time to experiment and learn for yourself. The purpose of this is to give you some ideas to help you improve your work.
Feel free to share this article to anyone you think will benefit from it.
Want to improve your overall production workflow? Check out my book.
The first 10 tips are about preparation, that is – preparing your track for the final mixdown, which leads to my first point.
1. Do a final mix at the end
A lot of people mixdown as they go, which is great, but it helps to do a final check and clean up at the end.
If you focus on mixing too early, you’ll inhibit yourself from the creative thinking that will make your track special. Some mixing during the production stage is fine (and needed), but save the bulk of the mixing work until the end.
That way, you can put your creative brain aside and focus on making technical, practical decisions that help polish the track. Separating the creative and technical side of music production can be incredibly helpful, not only in terms of workflow but also production quality as a whole.
2. It all starts with sound design and sample selection
Recently, my mixes have begun to sound cleaner even though I’m spending a fraction of the time actually mixing.
Why is this?
I’m careful about my sound design, sample selection, and arrangement.
The smarter I am during the writing process, the less work I’ll have to do during mixing.
What’s going to be easier to mix: 10 channels during the chorus or 40? Obviously, the answer is 10. There will be fewer elements fighting for space and less overlapping frequencies. With fewer elements, you can focus on making each element sound great. With more elements, you’ll instead be focusing your attention on making them fit together, rather than making them sound better.
It’s your job during the production stage to choose the best elements for the song.
This includes your sound design and sample selection. Make decisions with the final track in mind.
Note: it starts at an even more fundamental level than this – composition. If your songwriting isn’t good, using great samples isn’t going to make your track enjoyable. Read this article for a better understanding.
3. Be happy with everything else first
Before mixing, take a listen through your track a few times and make sure you’re happy with the everything in the track (you don’t have to be completely happy with how it sounds sonically, as you’ll be fixing that in the mixdown).
It’s okay if your lead synth is too loud, but if the lead melody is off or the synth patch is bad, you’ll want to go back into the track and fix these before you begin mixing. This is a great time to get another set of ears on the track (see tip 46).
4. Label and color tracks
Labelling and coloring tracks speeds up workflow big time. Our brain responds to color faster than it does to words.
Here’s the color scheme I use for my projects. Tweak it however you’d like: it doesn’t matter what system you use, as long as you have one.
5. Using audio over MIDI has its benefits
You don’t need to bounce MIDI to audio, but there are benefits to doing so:
- You can visually see where the audio starts and ends, making it easy to clear things up (reverb tails, delay tails, etc)
- It’s more CPU-friendly
- It forces you to commit. Once you’ve converted a track to audio, you’re forced to work with what you have. This way, you’re not wasting time making endless tweaks to a synth, and can focus on finishing the track.
6. Group similar tracks
Grouping similar tracks can help you achieve a more ‘unified’ sound through bus compression, EQ, reverb, and more.
Further, it’s also a lot easier to turn one fader down instead of 5. If your drum section is too loud, then you can simply turn the group fader down.
7. Mix earlier in the day, if possible
As far as I’m concerned, our ears don’t perform at 100% the whole time we’re awake. If you’re listening to music all day, or working in a place with loud noises – then mixing down after that means you’re doing your music a disservice.
Adding to this, make sure to separate the writing and mixing sessions of a song. Don’t write a track for 6 hours then immediately begin mixing: make sure to start each mixing session off fresh.
8. Try out a fader-down mix
A great way to mixdown a track is to use the fader-down mix technique.
First, bring all faders down. Then, bring up the most important element, and level it in the mix. Next, bring up the second most important element, and level it in the mix. Next, bring in the third most important element, and level it against the first two. You get the idea. For example, you may bring the kick in first, then bring in the bass, then the vocal, and so forth.
This technique is a great way to gain a fresh perspective in a project you’ve invested multiple hours into.
Note: This technique is simply a theory; this is one of many ways to mixdown a project.
9. Highpass (almost) everything
You might want to do this after the preparation stage, I like to do it during.
Filter out all the unneeded low-end information from each track. Highpass up until the point where it affects the sound, and then pull it back a bit just to stay on the safe side. This is a good starting point.
Why is this important? Many instruments, especially acoustic recordings, will have low-frequency information that adds no value to the track. It’s taking up space, making less room for everything else in the track. This is why you want to remove it using a highpass filter
Note: Kick and sub-bass are an exception here. Along with anything else you think needs frequencies under 100Hz.
10. Use reference tracks
Reference tracks are an essential part of the mixdown process. While mixing, it’s important to constantly reference the mix of similar tracks. That way, you can make sure the dynamics and frequency balance of your track are up to industry standards.
A mix doesn’t sound can’t sound good by itself: it must sound good compared to other mixes. Think about it: if you listen to a hit song from the 90s, the mix might sound good, but at the time, it was comparatively good.
Mixing in General
The next 25 tips are about mixing in general, this includes creative and technical aspects.
11. Start with your most important element
In any given song you’ll have one element that’s the most important. In a pop song, it might be the vocal, in dubstep, it might be the bass, and in trance, it might be the kick.
Once you’ve determined this , use it as a reference point and build all other elements around it. When mixing, ask yourself “How can I help make the most important element shine?”
I typically start with the kick. Any time I add an element that causes the kick to lose punch I know I need to adjust the new element.
12. Devote time to your mixdown
It takes time! Mixing down a track involves effort, hard work, and time.
If you know that you’re heading out in 30 minutes, then it’s probably not the best time to start a mixdown. Find a time where you can commit a couple of hours solely to mixing.
As I’ve reiterated multiple times on the blog, separating parts of your music production is paramount to good workflow.
13. Mix at low volume
Yes, cliché, I know. But it’s important that people understand this.
Mixing at a low level not only reduces the risk of ear fatigue (and permanent hearing damage), but it’s a great way to judge your mix more accurately because:
- You have less harsh room reflection
- You get a more accurate balance, if you can’t hear something at a low level then it may be too quiet
- If it sounds good at a low volume, it’s generally going to sound good at a high volume
14. Mastering won’t fix anything
Whether you master yourself or get an engineer to help – don’t tell yourself that mastering will fix the problems you have in your mix. If there are problems in your mix, it is your job, not the mastering engineer’s, to fix these problems.
If the low-end is too loud, then fix it! If you’ve got a harsh high-end, fix it! Don’t procrastinate and convince yourself that mastering will fix it.
15. Learn to use your tools
I see a lot of new producers posing questions like, “How good is compressor X?” Or, “Sick of Fruity Reverb, what do you recommend?”
Understand that I have no hate towards third-party plugins, there’s no denying that they do sound better (in some cases) – but a new plugin will not make your mixdown sound significantly better if you don’t know how to use the tools first. If you’re unaware of how a compressor works, then why would you buy (or acquire) a different one?
16. Consider using volume automation instead of compression
Compression is a great tool and it’s important to understand when to use it. However, there are often times where volume automation is more applicable.
If you’ve got some loud peaks in your song, compression can fix them – but so can placing a little dip with an automation clip. It’s a lot more flexible and may just prove beneficial to you.
For example, take the following vocal track:
The second phrase is louder than the first, so I’d like to lower its volume. I could use compression, but it would compress the second phrase while not compressing the first. This will make the dynamics between the two phrases different, which will likely sound bad. Instead, what I should do is automate the volume of the second phrase to be lower.
Below, I’ve lowered the volume of the second phrase by 3 dBs. Now, the average level of the first phrase matches that of the second.
There are many instances where you can use volume automations in your mixdown. For example, you might want a loop to be louder in the verse then in the chorus. Rather than using compression to “control” the level, use volume automation to preserve dynamics through volume automation.
17. Subtle sidechaining can work wonders
Many people use sidechaining for the classic “pumping” effect, but neglect to use it in a traditional sense. The original purpose of sidechain compression was to duck one signal to make room for another. The most common application, which you likely already use, is to duck the bass to make room for the kick. Aside from the pumping effect, it’s a practical mixing strategy. You can use subtle sidechain compression throughout your project to create space and movement. If two elements are clashing and you can’t fix it with eq, consider using subtle sidechain compression instead.
- Sidechaining the bass to the snare.
- Sidechaining the reverb/delay to the lead synth.
- Sidechaining the percussion loops to the lead synth.
- Sidechaining the clap to the kick.
There’re plenty more examples, as you could imagine. Get creative with this concept, and don’t be afraid to try unconventional sidechain routing.
18. Spectrum analyzers are invaluable, but ultimately rely on your ear
Spectrum analyzers are an invaluable tool to analyze the frequency balance of a mix; but, what matters most it how it sounds. During the mixdown phase, focus on mixing with your ears, not your eyes.
Don’t have a spectrum analyzer? Check out SPAN.
19. Don’t blame your bad mix on the tools you have
Whether it’s VST’s, your DAW, or your monitoring environment – don’t make excuses. When Porter Robinson wrote his Spitfire EP, his studio setup was humble, to say the least.
“My studio was lo-fi by necessity; I was fourteen with no reliable income. I was monitoring my music using $100 Logitech speakers, and I only used software.” – Porter Robinson via Musicradar.com
Good tools help a lot, but they aren’t required. The most important thing is that you know your gear inside and out.
20. Don’t wear a beanie
Or anything else that covers your ears, for that matter.
Honestly, you’d be surprised at how often I see this.
Maybe for the production phase, it’s fine.
But wearing something over your ears blocks out a lot of high-frequencies and is horrible for mixing and mastering.
21. Be creative
In my perspective, there are two main types of mixing – technical and creative.
The technical side is making the song sound cohesive: making everything fits together and making sure it translates across multiple speakers. Unfortunately, many people stop here.
There’s also the creative side of mixing. This is where you make elements sound unique and interesting. Don’t just throw an EQ on your lead and call it. Play around with different types of post-processing to add texture and creative.
More than anything, be creative.
22. Don’t over-use compression
Don’t use compression ‘just because’: use it if you need to or want to change the characteristic of a sound. Many people prescribe compression to treat mix problems, when in reality it makes the problem worse. Most in the box sounds, such as soft synths and drum samples, won’t need much compression.
A recording of a vocal or guitar will need compression because of the natural variations in volume. But a soft synth likely doesn’t have large jumps in volume, so it won’t need much compression. Similarly, sample pack drums will typically come compressed, so they won’t need compression either.
To summarize: compress with a purpose.
23. Don’t route reference tracks through your master channel
As mentioned in tip 10, reference tracks are an excellent way to make sure your mix is up to industry standards. Putting a reference track in your project file is fine, but make sure it’s routed directly to your output, not to your master.
If it’s routed through the master bus and there’s processing on your master channel, the processing will be applied to the reference track, thus defeating its purpose.
To send a channel directly to your speakers in Ableton Live, simply route the reference track channel to “Ext. Out”.
24. Don’t blindly copy other artists
If Noisia boost their snares at 150Hz, it doesn’t mean you should start doing it in every mix.
If you’re wanting to learn new techniques, you first have to workout why the producer did it. Was it to add more punch? Was it to clean up the mix?
Whatever it is, work out why they did it, and then adapt it to your own productions.
25. If you don’t know what it does, don’t use it
“Ohhh, what’s a flanger? Maybe I’ll stick this on my drums bus!”
Really though, if you’re not sure of what something does – why not research it? Or listen to the actual effect it has. Why are you using a transient shaper on your snare if you don’t know what it does? You get the idea.
Study and then use.
Note: to play devil’s advocate – creativity benefits from experimentation. I think adding a bunch of random stuff to an FX chain can result in happy accidents, but if you truly don’t know what you’re doing and it doesn’t sound better – then it’s probably not worth using. Remember the maxim: if it sounds good, it is good.
26. Recalibrate your ears
I’ll talk more about breaks in the workflow section, but after mixing for long hours at a time it’s important to take a long break (30-60 minutes or more) to completely recalibrate your ears so you can start fresh afterwards.
It helps to actually go somewhere without too much noise. While listening to music isn’t necessarily bad, it can be a distraction. Go outside, take a walk on the beach, or at least get out of your chair!
27. The number one mixing tool: volume
In an elite session at Pyramind, Steve Duda talked about how he could beat anyone in the room at a mixdown using only volume faders.
Why is this? Because volume is the most important mixing tool.
Before your apply any EQ, compression, or limiting, it’s essential to have your levels set first.
You may think a sound needs compression when in reality it’s just too loud. If you can get the relative levels of your mix right, the rest of the mixdown will be much easier.
28. If it sounds good, leave it!
This goes for everything from mixing to sound design to creating melodies. Don’t overproduce, and know when to stop.
If you EQ something, and it sounds good – just leave it! Don’t make it sound worse by adding a plethora of effects on top. Minimalism > trying to appear more creative.
Note: I realize a lot of people struggle with this.
29. Finding the perfect volume level
If you’re struggling to set the volume of a single channel, try out this technique:
- Step 1: Bring the volume fader all the way down. Then, slowly increase the volume until it sounds just loud enough. Mark down this value.
- Step 2: Bring the volume fader all the way up (being careful not to hurt your ears). Then, slowly decrease the volume until it sounds just quiet enough. Mark down this value.
- Step 3: You should end up with two different values. It’s safe to say the “correct” volume level is in between these two levels.
For example, let’s say in Step 1 the fader level is at -17.0 dBs, and in Step 2 the fader level is at -14.0 dBs. It’s safe to say the chanel should be somewhere between -17.0 dBs and -14.0 dBs
30. Subtle white noise can make a massive difference to a mix
There’s a reason why it’s used in 90% of EDM tracks. It’s a waveform that has no tone, and it’s great for filling out your mix.
Use it sparingly of course, there’s nothing worse than an abundance of white noise that drowns out everything else. You can use it rhythmically, sidechain it, whatever! Experiment.
The key is to make it loud enough to make an effect, but not so loud that it takes over the track.
Note: Be careful about the low end of white noise. White noise generated from a synth will have information across the whole frequency spectrum, so you’ll want to remove the low end. Sometimes, it helps to highpass white noise up to 5k/10k in order to leave space for your main instruments.
31. Mix your drums and bass first
This might be a little contradictory to tip #11, and it is quite genre-dependent.
A lot of electronic dance music relies on the drums and bass as foundation elements. After all, that’s what makes people dance. Starting with these elements in your mix can provide a much easier template to work off compared to going backwards from something like the synths and FX.
It’s also arguably the hardest part to get right in the mix, so if you sort it out first then it’s less of a mission to do the rest.
32. Channel strip workflow: corrective then creative processing
When mixing an individual channel, my workflow looks like this: fix problems first, then add creative effects.
Why is this? Because if there’s a problem with an instrument, effects like reverb, compression, and distortion are only going to make it worse. For example, if there’s a harsh resonance at 5 kHz, adding distortion will further emphasize this problem.
Instead, the first step should always be corrective. Clean up the sound using EQ and compression before you add creative effects.
33. Always sleep on it
You’ve got your mixdown finished, it’s 2am in the morning. “Great!” You shout out loud, “Time to send it off to some labels.”
Hold up buddy.
You’ve just been mixing for the last 6 hours, there’s no way that what you’re hearing is completely accurate.
If you finish a mixdown, wait until the morning and listen to it with a pair of fresh ears. I know this is hard, as we all want to share our art with the world – but it’s better to be safe than sorry.
34. Clean up delay and reverb tails
If you want a one-way ticket to mud-land then don’t pay any attention to your reverb, delays, and spatial effects.
Reverb and delay tails are easy to overlook, and unfortunately they can add a lot of unnecessary muddiness to a mix. I’d recommend bouncing tracks down to audio so you can see where the audio tails end.
Recommended: 7 Awesome Reverb Plugins for Mixing
35. Constantly turn plugins off/on
Sometimes we can be adding an effect and think we’re making the sound better, when in reality we’re not.
It’s alright if you’re not a master at compression or distortion: this means you have to trust your ears to determine if a plugin is helping or hurting
Most DAWs allow you to bypass an effect with a single mouse click. Do this while using a mixing plugin to hear the difference.
If your DAW allows key-mapping, you can map a key on your keyboard to the on/off button for the plugin, making it easy for you to analyze the effect.
Tip: I’ll map a plugin’s on/off button to my keyboard, look away from the computer, then mash that key, randomizing the plugin’s on/off button. That way, I can make an objective decision about whether or not the plugin is helping.
Workflow and Productivity
This section contains a few tips regarding studio productivity and working efficiently.
For more advice on workflow and productivity, check out my book.
36. Be open to compromise
There are always going to be things in your mix that just don’t work out. You gotta let them come to an agreement, and sometimes that means eliminating an element regardless of how emotionally painful it is to do so.
Embracing the fact that some things aren’t going to work, and knowing how to deal with them will increase your workflow tenfold. If you know that two elements just aren’t going to work together no matter what, then deleting one can save you hours of hassle and stress.
Tip: If something is so quiet in the mix you can barely hear it, delete it.
37. Do things in a logical order
Some high profile mix engineers know exactly what they’re doing and when, so it can seem like organized chaos.
But if you’re not someone who’s been doing it for 10+ years, then it makes more sense to work in a logical order. For example: Finding balance with faders and EQ, then adding compression, spatial effects, and automation.
Organizing your mixdown in sections like this is a great way to speed up workflow and stay motivated.
38. If you feel like you can’t be bothered, then don’t do it
Unless you’re making a living off mixing (and you probably wouldn’t be reading this if you were), then you shouldn’t think of mixing as something you ‘have to do’ right now.
If you’re not feeling it at the time, then wait until you do. If you go into a mixdown with a negative mindset, then you’re just going to half-ass it.
39. Work in bursts
Breaks are the best thing known to man. I like to work in 45-minute bursts when I’m mixing, and then take a 10-15 minute break.
Two reasons for this:
- You reduce the likelihood of ear fatigue
- You stay inspired and motivated
If you work constantly without taking breaks, you’ll probably get burnt out and experience some degree of ear fatigue. Figure out what works best for you!
40. Learn your keyboard shortcuts
I know it’s horrendously boring to do so, but knowing your shortcuts will save you A LOT of time.
The most important ones are those that help you move around your project quickly. Further, some DAWs allow you to set up custom key macros. Read the manual to find out your DAW’s keyboard shortcuts.
Overall, keyboard shortcuts allow you to move around a lot quicker.
41. Don’t stress yourself out
It’s easy to feel overwhelmed during your mixdown because of the sheer amount of work. The key is to focus on one thing at a time. Identify a problem, fix it, then move on to the next one. Focusing on 5 things at once is an easy way to get burnt out. Simplify your goals to make your workflow run smoother.
42. Embrace Commitment
I’ve already said this, but do something and then leave it. Commit. A mixdown should not take two months!
43. Always save as new
Before you begin mixing, save a new version of your project. This way, you can always go back to the old project if you make permanent changes/mistakes. You can also do this during the mixdown stage, saving new projects along the way.
This will make it easier for you to commit to your decisions, giving you a backup you’ll likely never use.
44. Make yourself comfortable
Like I said earlier in the article – you should devote time to this. Not heaps, but enough. Because of this, it helps to be comfortable.
If you don’t have a comfortable chair, then get one. If you have to constantly stare upwards at a screen that’s way above your head, then fix it. Making small adjustments like this will pay off in the end.
45. Don’t Rush It
Despite all this workflow and productivity advice, I must recommend not to rush the mixdown – which can be easy. I can’t give any tips for this, because it’s up to YOU to find the perfect balance.
Treat your music like it’s your own baby.
Learning and Becoming a Better Mixer
The last 5 tips include what I’ve personally done and what I recommend to take your mixing to the next level. Whether you’re a beginner or intermediate, this should help you out.
46. Seek out negative feedback
Read that again.
Seeking out negative feedback is painful, but it’s tremendously helpful if you want to improve at your craft. If you’re showing some friends a song, ask them this question:
What DON’T you like about it?
This might sting a bit, but it’s far better than someone saying, “Yeah it sounds nice bro.” Because that’s not going to help you improve.
47. Collaborate with others
If you’re a solo-producer then you’ll know that it’s easy to get stuck in your ways. You might have a lot of bad habits that haven’t come to light because you haven’t seen anyone else work.
Collaborating with other producers is a great way to pick their brains and find out some of their techniques. Whether it’s in person or over the internet, it’s something that I recommend everyone does!
48. Visit Pensado’s Place
Though this website is more aimed at the mix engineers compared to producers, it doesn’t mean you won’t get anything out of it. In fact, you’ll get loads out of it – there are interviews with highly regarded mix engineers, ‘in the studio’ type videos with Dave Pensado, and a lot more.
49. Read & Watch
There are a tonne of good books out there that can help you with your mixing, I’ve listed a few below:
Not much of a reader? Check out a video course instead:
Also, The Pro Audio Files has a bunch of great articles on mixing. Including this article on 6 of the best saturation plugins (with tips on how to use ’em).
Haha, you thought you’d avoided that word, didn’t you?
Nope, practice is the vital ingredient in all of this. Mix, mix, and mix again.
I mean, I can’t tell you how to practice… You’ve gotta go do it!
A Final Word
There you have it. 50 tips on mixing.
If you enjoyed this article, or it helped you in any way – I’d love it if you could leave a comment with your thoughts and share it around!
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