41 mixing tips from Grammy winning engineers
From the engineers like Andrew Scheps, Tony Maserati, Dave Pensado, Tom Elmhirst and many more, i have learned and followed these fantastic mixing tips which has made mixing so easy that i cannot put into words! This is a collection of their best tips.
- Listen to the song’s intention.
- Organize your mix session.
- Balance like a music lover not an engineer.
- Set the track levels for headroom.
- Use reference track.
- Scheming the frequency spectrum.
- Safeguard the instrument balance.
- Don’t try to make individual instruments sound pretty.
- Take frequent breaks.
- Have another person to hear your mix.
- Always mix in a new project.
- Use near field monitors for small studios.
- Consider mixing to stems.
- Using parallel compression.
- Learn to hear compression.
- Use sidechain EQ in a compressor for more control.
- Have a clear reason for every move.
- Check your mix on different speakers.
- Use automation.
- Clean vocals with delay.
- Clean vocals with reverb.
- Use a few reverb types.
- Clean the samples.
- Soften the transients this way.
- Use saturation on bass for richness.
- Use limiter for consistent bass.
- Use dynamic EQ for consistent tone.
- Use parallel limiting for upfront vocals.
- Pay attention to the rough mixes.
- Room treatment matters more than expensive monitors.
- Learn your monitors very well.
- Use two compressors for transparent and extra control.
- Use different EQs for different purposes.
- You are selling your taste and not your skills.
- Design the right space with EQ.
- Use lookahead function of dynamic plugins.
- Mix at low levels.
- Use EQ to create space.
- De-ess the right way.
- Don’t rely upon mastering.
- Apply loudness maximization on your mix bus.
Tips 1 to 10 are in order and from tip 11 onwards are in no particular order. Enjoy mixing!
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1. Listen to song’s intention.
As soon as you get the song ready in your DAW for mixing, give it a listen and try to figure out what the vibe of the song is. Is it lovely, uplifting, spooky, haunting.. you getting me?
What is the music trying to convey? What atmosphere is it creating?
After you get a feel of it, try to identify the instruments those are enhancing those emotions.
Is it a synth sound or a pad that is creating that ethereal atmosphere?
Going through the whole song and identifying different atmospheres in different sections or may be same throughout the song will guide you better because you want to serve the intention of the song.
2. Organize your mix session
Just to make your life a lot easier, you need to organize your work before starting the mix.
Organizing will save you time, efforts in trivial stuff like adjusting tracks in a particular order, grouping, identifying the instruments, looking for different sections etc.
“Save as” your session so that you can always go back to the rough mix that your client sent you.
Don’t start working on the same project that you get but the copy of it.
Color code every group of instruments like drums, guitars, bass etc. so that it makes the most sense to you. Color code instruments and label each section by placing markers.
Trim the empty parts of the audio and make everything clean and tidy. Fade wherever you cut the audio to prevent clicks.
See, organizing is an essential part of working efficiently.
When you organize your session, you will have your focus on the necessary stuff that is listening and mixing music and not losing objectivity in looking for things everywhere.
3. Balance like a music lover not an engineer
After you have prepared the song for mixing, you are now ready to make you first move which is balancing the song.
What you want is to bring your faders down and start with the drums or whatever you think is the foundation of the song.
Remember to preserve the intention of the song and then decide what is the foundation of that intention.
If the song is groovier, you know that the foundation can be nothing else but drums.
Come to the most energetic section which is the chorus and then start with the kick, set its level and let the snare come in slowly till what feels just right to you and if it makes you move, because it should.
Remember you are balancing the song as a listener. I am sure that you have been a listener since childhood but not an engineer since then. You have that instinct that can guide you.
That instinct is the feeling that comes with the music when it feels just right and makes you move.
The kick-snare-kick-snare should make you move! Balance every other element also according to what just feels right.
Prioritize from the elements which are doing the same thing based on the same feelings – if it feels good to listen to and serves the purpose or not.
4. Set the Track levels for headroom
What happens now is since you have balanced your mix as a music lover and not like an engineer, if you happen to look at the master fader, you’ll see it already doesn’t look good because you are ahead of the 0 dB mark in the red zone.
Your tracks are simply distorting.
Now your inner engineer won’t be happy with your inner music lover.. you know what I mean?
Since your music lover side has sent your master into the red zone, your engineer needs to take charge and bring all the track faders down without touching the balance of the instruments, to where the master peaks at -6 dB to -8 dB.
Having done that now you have enough headroom to play with and you master level will stay in the safe zone.
5. Use Reference track
Once you are done with the initial balancing of your instruments and also accumulated a good amount of headroom, you are half way there.
Balancing the instruments is very necessary in the beginning.
It is the core foundation to achieve best results further.
Now to know how your music is supposed to sound like, you need a good reference track. It happens that spending some time with your track will make you get adapted to the tone of it.
You will not be able to hear whether it sounds balanced in the whole frequency spectrum or not and what are some necessary adjustments needed for it.
In such case you should compare it with a professionally mixed and mastered reference track that covers the entire frequency spectrum and which has a good amount of dynamics.
Comparing with such a track will reveal the differences in your track then you can do further surgery to make it sound professional.
6. Scheming the frequency spectrum
Assuming you have now imported the best reference track for comparison purpose, now you also need to listen to both the tracks by A/Bing them.
Like magic it will reveal in front of you that the track which you got adapted listening to and thought that it was perfect now, suddenly seems like it was cheating you!
You may hear your mix has a lot more low end and the highs are a bit less when you play the reference track against it.
Mixing a lot of low end is quite natural since we tend to enjoy it more and raise it more in the mix.
With the reference track you get a clear picture of where your track stands actually in terms of tonal balance hence plan what you need to do in order to match it to the reference track.
Make EQ adjustments to the instruments which can contribute to correct the balance of the overall mix. See the bigger picture and think in favor of the whole mix and not a single instrument.
7. Safeguard the instrument balance
When you are making frequency adjustments by EQing the instruments, what you really want to focus on is to preserve the balance which you achieved in the beginning.
Remember that the balance is what you have achieved wearing the listener’s hat.
This balance means so much in the mix and you should at all cost try to safeguard and preserve it.
While EQing your instruments pay attention to the levels of those instruments and compensate if there’s a change.
You should only make your frequencies to work out well for the whole track by fine tuning them but the level balance is there to give the feeling to your song. Don’t sacrifice the level balance.
8. Don’t try to make individual instruments sound pretty
This is very easy to understand that the mixing stage is to complete the bigger picture by fitting all the pieces of the puzzle in there individual places.
Essentially a mix engineer’s job is to make the whole mix sound cohesive.
If you try to run after an instrument to make it shine, you’ll only find out that it doesn’t fit well in the whole mix.
This totally wastes your time and energy and degrades you mix.
When you do this with all the instruments, trying to make them all sound wonderful, imagine how much wrong you are doing with the mix by not thinking in the context of the whole song, as mixing this way never works.
So always focus on the whole mix first and then fit the instruments to serve it.
9. Take frequent Breaks
How long can you work on a mix at a stretch? 2 hours? 4 hours? Wow! You must be a marathon guy! But what you don’t realize is your ears are not meant for that.
Your ears are not meant for the purpose of that thumpy kick, snappy snare, sizzling high hats, grungy guitars and what not for such long durations.
Your ears are designed to serve you for your survival and have their limits.
Putting them at work for long duration is very detrimental for your ear-health. What you should realize is that there are two things that goes into this. One is ear fatigue and another is the objectivity.
When you work for long duration, your ears fatigue and don’t work efficiently and are prone to hearing loss for real. On the other hand, when you work for longer duration on a mix, you lose focus and objectivity.
To get rid of this, you should sit for mixing for chunks of 30 minutes maximum. And then take a break, relax your ears.
It can be 20 minutes too, or whatever you prefer, but yes don’t make it longer than 30 minutes.
Make it a rule! You won’t realize it but your ears are going to suffer if you stretch the working time longer than that.
10. Have another person to hear your mix
Just to get a perspective on your mix, its good to have an external ear in the form of another person in the room. He may be a non engineer person as well. Ask for his opinion about your mix.
What does the music make him feel. It’s even better if he can comment on the instruments or the vocals if they sound a little unusual to him.
Getting an opinion like this can guide you better from a different perspective so that your mix will come out to be as best as possible.
11. Always mix in a new project
Whenever you start a mix always make a new project specially for mixing.
This applies to even if you are mixing your own song. Just bounce all your tracks and import them into a new project with no plugins or processing.
What this does is, it resets your ears and helps you listen to the music more objectively.
Similar to fresh ears which is always suggested, this new project will give you a fresh perspective to begin with.
12. Use near field monitors in a small studio
Right mixing decision is only possible when you hear right output from your monitors.
When there is too much room sound or resonance in your feedback system you can never hear the pure tone of your song.
If your studio is small, you should go for a near field monitor set.
These monitors have small drivers and they are good for placing close to the listener.
Reflections get eliminated as more direct sounds gets into the listener’s ears due to their close proximity which is 2 – 3 feet from the listener.
13. Consider mixing to stems
Although this tip is not that required but it’s worth considering. Engineers now are doing it.
If you mix projects for different scenarios like live playing or creating instrumentals or are mostly remixed, you should consider stem mixing.
Stem mixing means to mix group of instruments to a single stem rather than mixing the whole track.
If you mix and export stems, it also becomes more flexible for it to get as many mix versions as possible for the whole track.
This can be handy sometimes for future tweaking because who knows.
Also established artists prefer to have them now.
“I have always printed stems, so I can easily do alterations to the mix later on”– Tom Elmhirst, (Adele). “This happened with Rolling In The Deep, on which Adele added a small vocal section at the end after my master mix and I added some sub to the bass, creating an unnatural and wicked low end in the chorus.”
14. Use parallel compression
Parallel compression or New York compression as it is called is a compression game changer.
For those who don’t know, parallel compression is to have two copies of a single track and compress one heavily and blend it with the original.
This is a smart way to get the best of both the worlds which is – one you get the dynamics from the uncompressed track and two, you get the body from the compressed signal.
Now there is the punch and also it sounds full at the same time.
This can be done through sending the original signal to a heavy compressor to squash it and blending it back into the original signal.
This is also possible with a compressor that has a dry wet knob to blend both the signals.
15. Learn to hear compression
Compression is very important instrument when it comes to mixing. To use it correctly for the dynamic shaping of your sounds you also need to know it correctly.
I see many beginners put compressor just because they see engineers using it.. very wrong practice!
To learn how the compressor shapes your sound, you need to take a transient heavy sound like a snare and put a compressor on it and play it on loop.
Now make the release of the compressor at 9 o’clock and attack at 3 o’clock or more. That’s a long attack and short release setting. Make a 4:1 ratio for a good starting point.
Now bring the threshold down to get a 3 to 4 dB of gain reduction.
Exaggerate it if you can’t hear it. Now dial the attack gradually faster and notice the change in the snare.
Similarly you can play with other settings like knee, ratio, makeup gain, detector type which is rms or peak etc. and get a feel of how it works.
Remember to use compression in moderation in actual mix!
16. Use Sidechain EQ of a compressor for more control
Whenever you compress the mix, the compressor is triggered by the signal itself.
The amount of reaction that a compressor has on the sound depends on the input.
Often, on the whole mix you don’t want the compressor to do serious ups and downs but to glue it gently.
When you hear that the compressor is behaving in an obnoxious way, you need to control what is triggering it.
Generally it’s the kick and the bass that trigger the compressor too much and there is a weird pumping effect.
Just use the high pass in the sidechain EQ to eliminate the low end so that it does not trigger it.
In this way the result is very transparent.
17. Have a clear reason for every move
While mixing, you may have a tendency to grab a compressor and then grab an EQ then may be you want another compressor and saturation to fatten up the sound a little. Stop!
Do you even understand that sound? Have you ever thought about whether it needs all that processing?
Just compressing for the sake of compressing, EQing for the sake of EQing etc. is not a healthy practice at all. The first thing is to think in terms of the whole mix.
Sometimes you’ll find that some sounds won’t even need a single processing other than volume balancing. So always have a reason for whatever processing you are doing to your sounds.
18. Check your mix on different speakers
In mixing translation plays the most important role. The only thing that sets professional mixes apart from the novices is its ability to translate on various mediums.
Meaning the mix should sound clear, full and dynamic on every playback system.
The most important step for checking how well your mix translates across various systems is to, well, check your mix on different playback systems.
Check on all types of speakers from studio monitors to the cheapest speakers, headphones, laptop speakers, car etc. and hear how the drums come out, how the low end behaves what the mids have to say etc.
Notice whether the song makes you move regardless of the speakers?
19. Use automation
A song is not static throughout the entire length. So does the processing needs to be- changing according to the song. It’s more rewarding if you automate the plugin parameters as the song progresses.
You can automate gain, the dry wet of certain time effects, even compressor parameters. There is no limit to this trick and it helps very much.
With automation you can make the chorus sound bigger, wider and louder, or you can raise your instrument level at some places, or lower them when the vocals need space.
20. Clean vocals with delay
Reverbs take a lot of space. They have a dense sound and it stays for a while. Often it smears the vocals. To clean them up you can try applying a quarter note delay and mix it really low.
You can high cut it so that it stays behind the vocals.
This will leave the vocals clear and upfront along with creating a separation between the vocals and the mix giving it space.
21. Clean vocals with reverb
If you want you reverb to stay upfront and really clean but also want to have a substantial width and space to make them sound huge, you can use reverb with a simple but fantastic trick.
Just use two reverbs that compliment each other and send your vocals to these two reverbs and pan both of them hard left and hard right. Also EQ them accordingly.
This will leave the middle space clean for dry vocals and have space on the sides.
Cool trick! I loved the result when I first used it!
22. Use a few reverb types
Often while mixing when it comes to adding space to the instruments or vocals, many beginners get excited and tend to show off with their “trickeries”. Reverbs has been one of those!
The trick to use different spaces for different instruments in the same mix creates a cognitive dissonance.
It may make a listener question about the space to where the mix belongs.
Make a habit to have a maximum of three types of spaces. Even two is better. Give delays a chance too.
23. Clean the samples
When you cut, trim, slice your samples, chances are that you may get click sounds at the spots where you slice the samples.
When your song suffers from such artifacts, it sounds awful and unprofessional.
You should pay attention when you trim your samples and apply fades at the beginning and the end of the sample at those places.
This will smooth out those ugly clicks once and for all.
24. Soften the transients this way
You might be thinking that pulling out a compressor for softening the transients with a quick attack will do the job.
A compressor however is no good when it comes to taming the piercing transients because compressors have an attack time.
Meaning they have a microsecond delay in their attacks even at the fastest attack setting, hence the initial attack of the sample always gets through untouched and is never tamed.
To achieve the result that we want, duplicate the track and delay it 10 ms earlier and use it to trigger the sidechain compressor on the original track.
This will make the original track have their transients ducked by the duplicated track and make them softer.
25. Use saturation on the bass for richness
As far as bass is concerned, when it is fat and juicy, it works better. Having a fuller bass sound is what separates the experts from the beginners.
It requires sprinkling a little magic dust.
The trick is to use tape saturation on the bass to make it sound fuller and more upfront and fat. You can use FabFilter Saturn or Izotope Exciter module for that.
Obviously you can select your own favorite and try which one works best for you.
Dial the saturation till it just distorts and then dial back till the distortion disappears.
26. Use limiter for Consistent bass
Andrew Scheps in one of his videos demonstrated the use of a brickwall limiter on the fuzz bass.
A brickwall limiter has a 100:1 ratio. To make the bass notes consistent using a limiter on it gives you a solid and consistent low end throughout the track.
If you have a low end that is pure sine wave and has a pretty inconsistent level which is making your track weak in the low end, you can apply a limiter so that the lows stay strong as a pillar holding the whole track.
Just pay attention to the character of the bass after you apply the limiter.
Sometimes it adds a pleasing character to the bass sometimes it can be unwanted.
Audition different limiters and see what sounds good and serves the purpose as well.
27. Use dynamic EQ for consistent tone
Often some instruments behave rebellious. They get out of their required boundaries for some notes or hits.
For example a bass might get too loud on a note or let’s say at 120 Hz or a vocal sounds too boomy when some word containing “M” is sung.. you get it.
In such cases where the overall tone is doing great all the time with the static EQ but jumps out at these moments like above, the use of dynamic EQ proves to be the best for suppressing only those jumping moments.
A dynamic EQ gets active when its input reaches a threshold just like a compressor does.
It can reduce certain frequencies that you set or can boost them if you want when the threshold is reached without you having to dial those in.
FabFilter Pro Q 3 or Izotope Neutron’s Equalizer are a few examples.
28. Use parallel limiting for Upfront vocals
This trick applies in certain situations only.
When the mix is busy and the vocals are sung pretty much consistently, to bring them upfront and in your face, you can apply this method.
Parallel limiting involves making two copies of the vocals, one with strict limiter and other with no limiter. Blending these two will make your vocals sit perfectly on the front seat and the original will keep the transients alive!
Yes it’s similar to parallel compression. But unlike a compressor presses down the transients, a limiter presses the sound up against the ceiling.
Depending on if you like or you don’t like the character of the limiter, you can choose different limiter for this and see which is best.
This trick is worth giving a try and also can work on different instruments.
Experiment with this!
29. Pay attention to the rough mixes
If you’re a beginner mix engineer, a thing to remember is to pay attention to the rough mix that your client sends you. Dave Pensado tells about getting his mix rejected when he did the opposite.
Producers have a vision about their sound that’s why you need to think about taking the rough mix as a starting point and then work upon what’s missing.
If you ever get rejected in favor of the rough mix, introspect what was so special about the rough mix and then learn from it.
30. Room Treatment matters more than expensive monitors
I am a proponent of this tip! You cam have the most expensive set of monitors and of all sorts. How does it help if you place them in an untreated room?
Monitors rely heavily on the location where they are placed in.
I’d say that even consumer grade speakers can be used to mix (of course you need to learn them first) rather than getting the costliest ones!
In an untreated room the room reflections are going to ruin what you hear from the monitors.
So it’s very important to treat the room first. And this brings us to our next tip..
31. Learn your monitors very well
It doesn’t matter how affordable set of monitors you’ve got in your studio. If you’re habitual to listening music on your 5.1 surround sound set, you will not hear the music the same on your studio monitors.
Studio monitors are meant to sound flat.
Their sound will mean a different world to you if you’ve just started listening with them.
To get around this, use the best mixed and mastered songs on them to train your ears to hear the flat response of those monitors and get accustomed to how certain elements come out on them like the kick and bass, vocals, guitars the hats etc.
Getting used to those speakers will help you know what the frequency responses really sound like.
With this your mixes will improve and start translating well across all the playback systems.
32. Use two compressors for transparent and extra control
Its not a rule to use only one compressor on a single channel if you want to reduce the dynamics heavily.
The two compressors can work more efficiently on the same signal.
When two compressors are employed instead of one on a single channel, the dynamic range reduction is possible with a more transparent sound because you can apply gentle settings on both of them so they don’t have to work brutally on the signal.
Also the second compressor is often used for giving character to the signal and first is for control.
33. Use different EQs for different purposes
One of the Tony Maserati’s handy method which I really find interesting is that he mostly believes in reducing rather than boosting.
He tends to clear more and it provides him with headroom and depth.
He uses one EQ for subtractive purpose and another for the additive purpose.
For subtractive EQ Tony prefers a digital parametric EQ and uses Analog EQ for the additive or as he calls it pushing purpose.
The additive EQ does what it does and also adds a certain character to the sound.
Small techniques like this one which specifically you apply in your workflow helps you to define your signature sound and sets you apart.
You should find what works for you and what you like because of the next tip..
34. You are selling your taste and not your skills
As the previous tip has it, you should explore more with experimentation and discover what you like to have in your sound. Everyone likes certain things and dislike certain things.
If all liked the same thing, this world would be something different than what it is.
The essence is to develop or discover your own taste and apply that with confidence.
This world is full of talented people but it’s your taste and the choices you make that you are selling.
The science is known to many but the art is in your personal taste.
A very enlightening and important tip by Dave Pensado.
35. Design the right space with EQ
You cannot mix everything dry, can you? Each and every instrument needs some space to sit in.
Rarely do we mix anything completely dry other than drums. Getting the space right everytime is crucial to mixing.
What the top engineer Tony Maserati does for creating the right space is that he uses EQ for it.
He uses delay to set the size of the room and then eq those to make it bright or dark.
He heavily relies on the eq to create the right type of space and for him that changes for different sections.
You need to understand that the spaces in your mix should be similar and complimentary or atleast cohesive and shouldn’t confuse the listener.
36. Use lookahead function of dynamic plugins
At certain times effects like compressors, limiters etc. that shape the dynamics of the sound may prove to be better if their lookahead feature is used.
What happens is when you use these effects on any transient heavy sound, even if you use a fast attack time, you will kill the transients unintentionally because believe it or not, these effects do have a microsecond delay inherent at the fastest attack setting.
The lookahead feature is just to prevent you from this.
The lookahead feature predicts the transients and work more accurately thus opening at the right time to let the attack through.
37. Mix at low level
Whenever you mix your song, the level that is best and safe for listening should be quite low.
This serves two things – first, you can hear more details and you can hear more keenly at that level, secondly you can hear for longer duration due to no ear fatigue.
If you want to know the perfect level for mixing, then the level at which you can have a conversation easily is considered to be the best.
If you can speak and hear easily with a person while you play the mix, you’re good to go.
38. Use EQ to create space
To create space in the mix, you always go for a delay or reverb, but not always should you go after that.
Some instruments can even be placed near or far in the mix with just an EQ.
The best thing is that it will save you from masking your instruments, it will save you cpu power and will leave headroom.
When the sound moves away from the listener, the high frequencies and the low frequencies get lower in volume and the remaining are the mid frequencies.
If you want an instrument to move back in your mix, you can do this by lowering the high and the low frequencies of that instrument leaving its mid frequencies.
Lower its level accordingly to move it back. If you want something to come in front, raising its high and low frequencies along with its level will do the job.
39. De-ess the right way
De-esser is to remove that piercing “s” sounds from your mix which is very annoying.
Our ears are extra sensitive for the sounds that have “s” in it. Often untreated vocals suffer from it.
This is called sibilance.
A de-esser uses that sibilant frequency as an input for triggering and then ducks it.
Now if one de-esser is not doing the job well, you need to find a different alternative. De-esser usually ends up at last in the processing chain after applying every effect.
There are also certain situations where it’s not placed at the end.
When you apply saturation to enhance the high end, you need to place the de-esser before the saturator.
40. Don’t rely on mastering
If you are mixing a track, pay attention to if it sounds well on its own, you should check it more.
After you are done mixing, your mix should be in a state that if you apply mastering to it, it just sounds fantastic and translates well on various speakers.
If you are waiting for the mastering stage to make your awful mix to sound awesome, you are in a wrong state of mind.
If your mix does not sound good yet, mastering won’t fix it!
You would want to go back to your mix session and do the necessary adjustments but never ever think that the mastering guy will make any mix turn into a great master.
Only a great mix can yield the best mastering results. Remember that!
41. Apply Loudness maximization on your mix bus
The final stage of music production is to master the track by enhancing it and making it loud.
Now if the mix is not done properly, mastering it may create problems during the playback.
To check how everything will work after mastering, you can apply loudness maximization on your track and check for yourself.
This also gives you an opportunity to meaningfully compare your track against the commercial tracks.
Also as normalized music is fed to the people more and more now a days so the loudness matching algorithm will reveal the problems that may arise in your tracks after getting loud through mastering and reaching platforms like Spotify etc. where they get normalized.
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So this was it, some of the best tips for mixing your music, by the world’s top engineers.
Although this topic is endless and there are always new things to learn, but still with these tips there will be a huge difference in your results.
When you apply these tips your mixing game will get better manifolds.