Mixing tutorial for beginners 2018 – Episode 1

Mixing Tutorial For Beginners 2018

Episode 1 – Mixing Basic Tips

Even though there are maybe thousands of mixing tutorials out there, it’s pretty easy to get confused and, as discouraging as it may sound, your skills at mixing will definitely improve with time and with tons of experimenting, trying different type of gear or software in order to obtain different flavours, learning how to understand the particularities of different music genres, how to cope with the tastes of the artists that you are working with, and, of course, understanding that mixing is an art, and the beauty of it is that you have the freedom to juggle with all the techniques until you will develop a style or signature of your own. In the course of this article I will also point out to some of my favorite techniques.

Without further adu, let’s get into it with some no-nonse general guidelines that you might find helpful when starting out mixing :

How to start mixing a song – proper gain staging

First things first, one of the most frequent mistakes that newbies tend to do is ignoring the gain staging process, which means setting the levels of each indidual track relative to the others, while paying attention to the master bus, so that the overall level of the loudest section of the song should be close to 0db, but never more than that. Since most of the times I do my own mastering, the peaks on my master buss then to be at max -3 db, so that I am sure will heave plenty of headroom for mastering. Sometimes it’s a good idea to have a comp on the master bus that you can activate from time to time in order to have an idea of how the controlled dynamics will sound, but be careful not to overdo it. You will have much better results if you try to achieve a good sound from the mixing stage – even though the proper mastering can do wonders, you shouldn’t rely on that, as you shouldn’t rely on mixing while producing the song. Since I’ve already mentioned the fact that mixing is indeed a form of art, it is somehow similar to compositing a shot in photography or videography – you need to have depth, and that is achieved by using different layers – foreground, middleground and background. Depending on the music genre, the elements can be positioned differently, but drums, bass and vocals are some of the most used elements as foreground;  elements like pads, rhythm guitars could be seen as middleground and the effects like reverbs, delays, etc are a good example of background elements. I tend to start mixing with all faders down, then raising the foreground elements first, starting with kick drum and the snare, so that they tend to peak at around -13db, while the master fader is set to 0. Then I add the vocals, then the bass, so that I have the center pretty tight before staring adding elements that are more spreaded in the stereo field –  the middleground and the background elements.  I aim to achieve an  overall good balance only by fiddling around with the faders and the pan knobs before adding any other processing;

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How to use EQ for mixing

Eqing – the second step after achieving a rough balance (level wise and stereo field-wise) is to remove the clutter that clashing frequencies tend to make (since more often than not, different tracks will share the same frequency ranges) by cutting first and then adding some amounts of desired frequencies by boosting. I tend to use more of the “clinical” eqs for cutting and more of the “character” eqs for boosting.  I also tend to carefully locut everything except the bass and the kickdrum, so that I can address the low range dynamics as accurate as possible – time constansts (attack and release) settings of the compressor are very imporant in the lowrange.

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Controlling the dynamics – Compressing, Gating, Expanding, Limiting

Adressing dynamics by compressors, gates, expanders. I tend to eq first, since a compressor will react differently to a frequency range that is cut or boosted. Compression is needed in order to keep things under control – meaning, not to have parts of your material either jumping or drowning related to other tracks and also to control the overall loudness. Of course, some of the elements that tend to have a greater dynamic range, like the vocals, drums, bass, rhythm guitars and will need a greater amount of compression, while other elements like pads, strings, keys will need a lesser amount of compression. While compressing, always be careful not to fool yourself by adding extra gain, since it will make you think that it sounds better – so pay close attention to corellating the gain reduction meter with the make up knob (I always deactivate the auto make up, if available). If you are dealing with mixing elements that tend to have ambient noise, like acoustic drums, you will need to gate those before compression. Adding triggers for kick and snare would definitely help, but this is a more advanced technique that I will explain later on. One thing that I do on almost all of my mixes is using a de-esser on the vocals. Some of the vocals tend to have metallic resonances on the high pitched notes that can further trigger nasty frequencies in the reverb. There is one particular plugin that is unique on the market called Soothe (developed by Oek Sound) that does magic in removing the resonant frequencies, in a way that no automation or any other tool I know can do – I highly recommend you to give it a try (I tend to use it on vocals, guitars, brass, drums, etc.). After compression, further eq finetuning is recommended. One of my favourite techniques is to compare different type of compressors and settle on the one that I liked the most, especially if achieving a certain character is my goal. Combining two compressors with different purposes (one with a short attack for taming the peaks and the second for the overall balance of the signals) or characters is also something that I tend to do quite often.

Okay, this would be enough for a first episode of this series – we’ll dive deeper in the next ones, while starting to cover more of the creative side of the mixing, which is something that tends to give your sound a certain signature. Start experimenting and don’t forget to take breaks from time to time!

Alex Toma – Producer, Mixing Engineer