As a self-proclaimed “bedroom engineer”, singer, multi-instrumentalist, and someone who has been recording and mixing humbly for the last 10 years, I thought I’d share some mixing guidelines I’ve picked up over the last decade, for whoever’s interested.
Mixing is both an art and a science, and a lot of it is preference. Some things will work for you and some things won’t — this guide is not meant to be the end-all, be-all of mixing; it is just meant as a starting point, so take it with a grain of salt and maybe you can find something useful from it.
For this guide, I’ll be using a basic, imaginary “Rock” song as an example, and going through the steps from recording, to finished song. In this imaginary song, there are 12 tracks: Kick, Snare, Hi Hat, Overhead Left, Overhead Right, Bass Guitar, Acoustic Guitar, Electric Guitar, Lead Guitar, Guitar Solo, Lead Vocals, and Backing Vocals. For the purposes of this guide, we’ll assume you are using a modern DAW.
Step 1: Get the best recording you can on the way in. I don’t want to get into the details of recording too much, but if you get great sounds during recording, it’ll make the job of mixing MUCH easier. For each track, experiment with different mic positions, and different microphones, and see which setup sounds best. Make sure that you’re getting a strong level coming in, but not clipping. It’s always best to leave yourself a little bit of headroom; it’s better to have a quieter track with an excellent performance, than an excellent performance that distorts and clips. I’d also suggest recording with a click track, especially if you plan on using virtual instruments, midi, etc.
Step 2: Now that you have the best recordings you can get with your equipment and environment, it’s time to start mixing. Before I delve in, I’ll set a few things up. First, the track order. This is a matter of preference, but I usually start with drums, then bass (so I can get the rhythm section working well together), then rhythm guitar, then lead/melody parts, and vocals last. Next, I’ll create markers (most modern DAW’s are capable of this, look up a tutorial if you need further help). For instance, mark where the verses, bridge, chorus, etc. are. Then when you’re mixing, it makes it much easier to jump to a certain part of a song without having to listen to find it. Once the song is written, I set this up before recording, but that part’s up to you. Lastly, turn your monitors or headphones up. You don’t need to mix at an incredibly loud volume, but you DO need to hear what’s going on, and if you mix with the volume on your speakers too low, you’ll almost definitely run into clipping.
Step 3: Let’s begin with the drums. Most bedroom songwriters will be using a sampler/midi instrument for the drums, but these theories apply to both. I start with the kick, as it’s usually the rhythmic backbone of the song. Bring up the fader so it’s at a good volume. Bring in the snare next, then the hi-hat, and overhead tracks. In most cases, you’ll want the kit to sound “real”, as if you’re in the room with the drummer. Try to get a good balance of levels so that everything sounds good together, and once you do, begin panning. Usually you’ll want to pan using the “drummer’s perspective” or the “audience perspective”; meaning you’ll pan based on where the drums would be in relation to the drummer, or vice versa for the audience. Being a drummer, I usually go with drummer’s perspective, but it’s a matter of preference. In that case, I keep the kick dead center, the snare slightly left, the hi-hat slightly farther left, and the “overheads” panned hard left and right. You want to give the drums a nice stereo image, but you don’t want to go too crazy with panning, as a listener will feel thrown off if you go too crazy. We’re going for a realistic balance here.
Step 4: Once you’ve got a balanced drum mix, it’s time to move onto the bass guitar. In almost all cases I usually leave the bass panned dead center. The bass and kick drum occupy the lower part of the frequency spectrum, so even with the lead vocals panned dead center, they usually won’t be competing and will sound clear and cut through. Bring the bass up until it’s working well with the drum kit. You want these two elements of the song to feel “tight” and compliment each other.
Step 5: Now we move on the other rhythmic instruments. In the case of our song, it’s the rhythm acoustic, and the rhythm electric guitars. Things can get a little tricky here. I usually take the acoustic guitar (or whichever is playing the main chords/progressions of the song) and pan it so that it’s slightly off center. You need to decide how wide of a stereo mix you’re going for. Sometimes I’ll only pan it 16 degrees off center, other times I’ll go up to 42. Experiment, see what sounds good. Always trust your ears. If the acoustic and electric are playing the exact same chords, I’ll usually pan them on opposite sides symmetrically. In other words, the acoustic will be 42 degrees to the right, the electric will be 42 degrees to the left. This stage of mixing is where your song should actually start to sound like a song! Again, we’re going for balance here.
Step 6: Now we start bringing in the lead/melody instruments; in our case, the electric lead guitar. Even though it might sound best panned dead center, keep in mind that we’ll be mixing vocals in later, and since electric lead and vocals are both mid-heavy, we don’t want them to both occupy the same part of the stereo spread. I’ll pick a side of the stereo field, and pan it pretty deeply into that side. Since we already have the rhythm electric, let’s pan it to whatever side the rhythm acoustic is on, as they’ll contrast better, and you won’t have two electric guitars competing with each other. It’s at this point you might experiment with your panning choices for the rhythm guitars — you might find that you want the acoustic at 16 degrees right, the rhythm electric at 42 degrees left, and the lead electric at 42 degrees right. Again, and I can’t stress this enough, trust your ears. Pan the lead where it “blends” the best. One sign of a good mix is that you can hear what every instrument/track is doing; each has their own space. You’ll want them to stick out when they’re supposed to, and blend in when they’re supposed to. Which brings us to the guitar solo.
Step 7: Now that our tracks are working together nicely, we can bring in the guitar solo. There are lots of options when it comes to mixing a guitar solo, and almost all of them are a matter of preference or depend on the song specifically. If there aren’t any vocals during the solo, you’ll likely want to pan the solo dead center. Maybe you’ll want to double the guitar solo (duplicate the track) and pan each hard left and right. Maybe you’ll want some slight delay between the solo and the double; this can really bring a solo to life. Experiment! Either way, you’ll likely want the solo to “take the spotlight”, so you’ll want the volume at a good level, but you don’t want to cut your listeners heads off.
Step 8: Now we should have the instrumental part of the song done, and we’ll be bringing in the lead vocal. This is probably where I’ll go into the most detail. In almost all cases, you’ll probably want to leave it panned dead center. Lead vocals can be very tricky to mix. You want the vocals to cut through the mix, and you want to be able to make out what the singer is saying (people can’t relate to lyrics if they can’t make them out!). Maybe you get a good volume, but then you find during the chorus the vocals are way too loud. This is where compression/automation comes in. There are several ways to go about this.
I almost always compress vocals, as it can really smooth them out and help them cut through the mix. But the problem with compression is that if you’re not careful, in addition to increasing the volume of quieter passages, you’ll be increasing the volume of recorded noise between the vocals (pops, clicks, breathing, headphone bleed, traffic noise from outside, etc.) In this case, you have two options — you can put a noise gate on the track, or you can remove the parts of the track where there isn’t singing. Gating is less tedious, but a tricky process, and if you go with gating, be sure to put your gate in the very beginning of your signal chain, before any compression or EQ’ing takes place. The route I usually take is much more tedious, but it works for me; I will listen to the vocal track and cut out all of the empty space between singing. You’ll need to listen as you go to make sure you don’t cut off the beginning of words, and you’ll need to decide whether to cut off the breathes before words as well. I usually leave them as the recording sounds more natural that way.
Once you’ve “cleaned” your vocals of noise, using either of the above methods, you can compress. It’s up to you to decide how heavily you compress your vocals; I usually use moderate compression, I set the ratio somewhere between 4:1 and 6:1, and lower the threshold until I’m getting about 4 to 6 dB of reduction on the louder passages. Experiment with attack and release settings until you get something satisfactory — I’d suggest reading up on how compressors work/how to use them if you’re unsure about any of this.
In addition to compression, or sometimes in place of it, on certain recordings you’ll want to automate the vocals. The key word is subtle here. You don’t want your listener to hear the transition from the hook to the chorus and notice that the vocals got quieter. As you work, listen to your adjustments and make sure they sound natural. One thing I like to do is, after compressing the vocals, automate the breaths before singing so that they’re a little quieter.
Step 9: Assuming you’ve got your lead vocal “cleaned”, compressed, and/or automated, and sitting well with the rest of the mix, you can now bring in your backing vocal. These are slightly easier to mix, in my opinion. I’ll usually apply the same moderate compression I used with the lead vocal. I’ll then bring it up to where it compliments (and doesn’t overpower) the lead vocal. Sometimes I’ll even use some heavy pitch-correction on back vox. You can get away with a good amount of pitch correction on backing vocals; this usually helps smooth them out and keep them in tune with the rest of the song. Think of the backing vocals as another instrument. For panning, again it is a matter of preference, but I’ll usually pan them slightly off center, and choose the side by the looking at which side of the whole mix is quieter during that part of the song. But, as always, try both and see where it sounds the best.
Step 10: Now we get into EQ’ing. At this point we should have a decent sounding mix. All of our tracks should occupy parts of the stereo field so that they don’t compete too much with each other. I usually save EQ’ing for after my initial mix, so I can EQ to hear how it sounds IN the mix, rather than how it sounds on its own. On most tracks, I’ll be using a parametric EQ — all modern DAWs should come with very capable parametric EQ’s. I’ll go track by track, in the same order that I mixed in, and try to get all of the tracks to “gel” together. Listen to each track and see if you can hear problem frequencies. Maybe there’s a boominess in the kick, or a boxiness with your acoustic. What we’ll do is turn up a notch in the mids. You might want to turn your volume down a little at this point, as it can get pretty obnoxious. We’ll then use a very narrow Q, so we’re only boosting a small part of the frequency spectrum. Then, you “sweep” this boosted part of the EQ through the frequency spectrum, until you hear the boxiness/boominess/resonant frequency become absolutely obnoxious. You’ll be able to hear instantly when you find it — once you find it, you just turn the volume all the way down in that spot, leaving the Q in tact. Hit the “bypass” button on your EQ, you should be able to tell the difference.
Another thing we’ll do is “roll off” parts of the frequency spectrum on individual tracks that they don’t need. A good rule of thumb is to always cut below 30-40 Hz — anything below this, most speakers can’t reproduce anyway and you’ll be working your speakers harder than they need to be. With mid-heavy tracks, such as guitars, keys, etc. you can usually roll off a lot more than you think. I’ll usually roll off everything below 200 Hz on electric guitars, for example, as we need to leave room for the kick drum and bass guitar to breathe. The key here is not to listen to how the changes you make sound individually, but how they affect the mix as a whole. You might find your electric guitar doesn’t sound as full with the lows rolled off by itself, but in the mix it sounds great. When rolling off vocals, I’ll listen to the entire mix, and adjust the bass roll off simply until it sounds good. Some songs with intimate vocals, you might leave a lot of low-frequency information so it sounds up close and personal, in louder rock songs, you might remove a lot more lows. If you’re mixing on smaller monitors, it can be hard to tell what’s going on in the bass frequencies — always check the low frequencies with good headphones!
Only boost frequencies that need boosting. For instance, if you find your kick drum gets lost in the mix, you might add some highs to give it some more “click” and attack. Boosting mid-highs can give a dull vocal some air and clarity. The same goes for acoustic guitar.
Step 11: Now, finally, we get into effects and compression. For me personally, I try to use compression sparingly, as I prefer more dynamic mixes. Regardless, it’s not a bad idea to compress only when necessary. For instance, say your snare sits well in the mix, but the rim-shots/harder hits are piercing. I’d put a compressor on the snare track, set with a fast attack, a relatively high threshold, and a high ratio, maybe 10:1. It’s important to get this right, as you want the compressor to cut the volume only during the very loud hits, and leave the rest of the audio unaffected. This is essentially a form of limiting. You can use a limiter as well for this.
You’ll probably want to use reverb on some of your tracks. I’m not going to go into using reverb creatively, but rather I’m going to get into how to use reverb to get your mix to “blend”, and give it a little more air and atmosphere. Usually, since I work with virtual drums more than real drums, they’ll sound a little too robotic and fake. So what I’ll do is create an aux track with a short “room” reverb on it, and I’ll send the drum tracks to it until I hear some subtle “roominess”. It provides a similar effect to adding a room mic when dealing with live drums. I’ll do the same with lead and backing vocals, to help them blend and not sound so dry. Using aux tracks has the benefit of saving your CPU some power. I’ll also use reverb on other tracks, depending on the song, but it’s important not to go overboard, as too much reverb can turn a good mix muddy.
Another thing you’ll want to look into is saturation. I’ll almost always throw some tape saturation on the master buss. It’s a subtle effect, but it can really add some warmth to an otherwise cold mix.
Step 12: Now that you’ve got a basic (and hopefully balanced) mix going, you might consider “snipping” parts of each track that don’t contain sound, to help clean up the mix and get rid of noise. I’ll also add some very short/slight fade-ins/fade-outs on each track to avoid popping. Now you should essentially have finished mix. Still, go back and scrutinize the details, make adjustments as needed, and tweak until you can get the mix sounding as great and balanced as possible, and make sure that your mix doesn’t clip anywhere. If you get a mix you’re happy with and find that in the last chorus, for example, it clips briefly, see if you can identify which track is causing the mix to clip. Or, adjust the volume of the entire mix so that it doesn’t clip anywhere. It’s also a great idea to reference your mix on as many different systems as possible; listen to it in your car, in crappy headphones, on hi-fi speakers, on lap-top speakers, etc. to see how well it translates.
There you have it! If you plan on sending your song to a mastering engineer, consult with them to see where they like their mixes to peak, and what files they prefer to work with. If you can’t afford a mastering engineer, although taboo, there’s a wealth of information online on mastering techniques. But that’s a different story. As I said, none of this is meant to be set in stone. I am not a grammy-winning engineer with year and years of experience in state of the art studios. But I have been doing this for a long time, and hopefully you can take away something from this that will help you in your own pursuits! Good luck, trust your ears, and most importantly, have fun!25 notes