4 Key Components to a Great Mix

4 Key Components to a Great Mix

The Concept of Mixing

When you break it all down, mixing is simply just the process of adjusting musical elements in a way that is pleasant to listen to.

But why is such a simple concept so hard to master?

Part of it is that mastering the mixdown is learning to blend objectivity with subjectivity. What that means is that ultimately what makes a song sound good is subjective, but there are also rules to keep in mind when it comes to audio that will keep everything sounding balanced.

There’s much more that goes into a mix than what meets the eye (or ear). Here are the four main components to a great mix.

1. Get it right at the source

Make sure you're getting high quality recordings and proper signal chains before a sound even enters your DAW.

With all the advancements in recording technology, the idea of “studio magic” or “fixing it in post” has become hardwired in the minds of many producers and engineers.

Although it is possible to fix something during the mix to a degree, a seasoned engineer will always tell you that it's impossible to make treasure out of trash.

In more popular lingo, you can't polish a turd.

As an example, if your drums sound bad at the source, you will have a low-quality drum recording.

Bad guitar? You will have a bad sounding guitar recording.

Do you see a theme unfolding here?

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Every decision made during the tracking process will ultimately affect the sound of the final mix.

Did you put fresh heads on the drums before tracking?

Was the guitar properly tuned before recording?

Did you properly gain stage your main vocal microphone so that the levels are optimal for your hardware (and subsequently your DAW)?

I think you get the picture.

All of these details may feel time consuming but learn to make it a habit. Be obsessive with your sound and how it's set up because once you release a song, it's permanent.

2. Learn to Master your Basic Audio Mixing Tools

Before you go down the rabbit hole of more complex mixing techniques like parallel compression or Mid-Side processing, you need to master the basics.
A great mix can be made using just four basic tools.

  • Levels - Adjust the overall output of a single track or buss (group of tracks) to make something louder or quiter - think faders on a mixing board.
  • EQ - There are two main approaches to EQ, subtractive and additive. Subtractive EQ is used to remove unwanted frequencies like a high pass at 100Hz where you want to cut out the sub frequencies of a certain element. Additive EQ is used to boost frequencies like adding a nice top-end "shine" to a vocal track. 
  • Panning - Simply adjusting the position of an instrument within the stereo field (left or right).
  • Compression - Compression is mainly used to reduce the dynamic range of audio once it passes a set threshold. In doing so, it reduces the difference between the quitest and loudest parts of said signal and creates a more balanced sound that allows elements to "glue" into a mix. 

You need to live, eat, and breathe these four tools.

They should be in your dreams and you should be thinking about them even while on the toilet.

So before you reach for that sub-harmonic generator side chained to multi-band exciter on the parallel drum bus, make sure you’ve got a good mix using just the ‘Big Four’.

3. Give Space to your Musical Elements in a Mix

Realizing that every instrument has a full range of frequencies is the first step to understanding that those instruments don’t need all those frequencies all of the time.

For instance, a vocal track may produce frequencies below 100Hz, which can produce unwanted results in a mix. If you've watched any vocal mixing tutorial on planet Earth, you'll probably understand by now to high pass a vocal track around 80-120Hz to remove bass frequencies that cause boominess and ultimately make the vocal feel like it's sitting on top of your mix as opposed to glued inside of it.

Alternatively, other instruments may be eating up the frequency space needed for a particular element to shine through.

Does it seem like your kick can never be loud and punchy enough?

Maybe there are frequencies in the bass and guitar that are stepping all over your fundamental kick frequency.

Understanding that every instrument has frequency points associated with them is the first step to “carving” out spaces so each instrument has a home where it lives (another reason why EQ is so important and you need to learn it like your life depends on it).

Which leads us to the final component of a great mixdown.

4. If you can't hear it, let it go

So, we just learned that there is only so much space across the frequency spectrum for something to stand out.

In fact, it's not uncommon to see nearly 60-70% of an instruments frequencies cut so that it cuts through a mix.

Because once it's fully balanced, other elements will fill the empty space we carved out using a subtractive EQ method.

And so comes the hardest part of any creator's job — deciding what stays and what goes.

Perhaps you don't need 4 synths layered on top of each other. Instead it may be a better approach to improve the quality of one or two sounds filling a specific frequency space before trying to make your mix sound "fuller" with more instruments.

Contrary to logic, a "full mix" is achieved by having less elements that all sit perfectly within their own pocket. And more importantly, leaving enough room for the low-frequency instruments to breathe and create the thickness that many musicians and producers look for in a mix.

We understand it can be hard to say goodbye to that ear candy tucked away in your mix that you can barely hear anyway, but your listeners will hear the difference when there aren't too many elements fighting for space.

Don't mix with your eyes, mix with your ears.

If you can't hear it anyway, or it's not adding anything special to a track, let it go.

Happy mixing,
Your friends at Mackie

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