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Mixing is one of the hardest aspects of music production to get your head around, especially for beginners. With so many aspects such as gain staging, EQ, compression, automation etc. it is difficult to know what your song needs to make it sound great. So what does make a good mix?
A good mix is one where all the instruments can be heard clearly, without any one part overpowering the song. The full frequency spectrum should be present, and it should sound good on multiple different playback systems. Above all, a good mix should sound like a coherent musical performance.
There are many different tools we have at our disposal in our home studios to achieve a great sounding mix. Read on to discover the goals we should be aiming for in our mixes, and details of what tools we can use to achieve them.
If you are interested in checking out the best recording gear such as audio interfaces, studio monitor speakers, microphones, etc., you can find them at Amazon by clicking here.
What makes a good mix?
A good mix is one the listener enjoys listening to and is drawn into by some sort of hook. It won’t sound out of place when played next to similar songs in the same genre, whether that’s in a playlist on a streaming service or on the radio.
Now obviously that is a very general statement. There are many constituent parts and variables to a good mix, to achieve that goal of listener enjoyment. Here are 11 things you need to consider when working on mixing your songs…
1 All the tracks can be heard clearly
If there is an instrument or voice in your mix that cannot be heard clearly, then what is the point of having it there in the first place?!
All the parts i.e. your instruments and voices should be clear, and your ears should be able to separate them. A listener should be able to pick out individual instruments and focus on listening to them. Imagine a musician was trying to learn a part from your song by ear – they should be able to pick out the individual instrument well enough to do that.
EQ is the tool that can help you achieve this. You can selectively cut and boost frequency ranges on particular instruments, to make their most important frequencies stand out.
Although incredibly useful, EQ is one of the most commonly misunderstood aspects of mixing. That’s why I wrote an article explaining what EQ numbers actually mean. I highly recommend reading it if you are an EQ novice. It should help you understand the basics of EQ right from the start.
A common EQ example is cutting the higher frequencies on a bass guitar, and cutting the lower frequencies on electric rhythm guitars in a rock mix. This stops the bass and guitar fighting over the lower mid-range space which can cause muddiness. It lets the bass handle the bass frequencies, and lets the guitar handle the mid-range, minimizing the interference between them.
Panning (positioning an instrument from left to right in the stereo space) can also help to an extent with clarity. This should not be relied on though. It is actually beneficial to do some of your mixing in mono, which can help you achieve that separation and clarity without relying on stereo positioning. More on using the stereo space later.
A common complaint from novice mixers is that their mixes sound dull, muffled or lifeless. That’s why I wrote a guide on how to stop your mix sounding muffled. I highly recommend checking it out for tips on avoiding dullness in your mixes and keeping them sounding alive and present.
2 Volumes of each part are nicely balanced
Changing the volumes of each of your parts until they sound good together is the fundamental purpose of mixing. If you asked me for a one-sentence definition of what mixing is, then that is what I would say.
When we record our parts, however careful we are with the volumes, we will always end up with some parts louder than others. So many factors affect this such as microphone distance, instrument output levels, musician’s playing style, positioning in the room, etc. that it is practically impossible to record everything at exactly the same volume.
So we are always going to need to alter volumes of different parts so they are nicely balanced. Some things will need to be made louder, and some things made quieter.
That’s why gain staging is important. This is the process of getting all your tracks at a similar volume after they have been recorded. For a repeatable gain staging process that you can use again and again, I highly recommend checking out my step-by-step gain staging tutorial.
This does not mean that everything should be made to be at the same volume though. Some things naturally sit up front in the foreground, and some things belong in the background. Think lead vocal versus backup harmony vocals.
You should make sure that nothing is overpowering the mix, and nothing is getting completely drowned out. Even if a part such as a lead vocal is in the foreground, you should still be able to hear everything in the background clearly even if those parts are quieter.
Fortunately for us, all DAWs these days have very good mixing applications built into them. This is where you will spend most of your time when mixing.
Automation can also help. This is particularly useful if you have a track that sometimes should be front and center in the mix, but other times should sit more in the background.
On homemusiccreator.com, I have a beginner’s guide to mixing to help newbies learn the basics quickly. I highly recommended you check it out if you are new to mixing. It clears up some of the confusion novice mixers often have, and helps you avoid some common mixing pitfalls.
3 All frequency ranges are present
It is important that your song contains frequencies for all the common ranges, so that your song has a well-rounded sound. This means your song should not be overly bassy, or overly trebly. If any of the ranges are missing or at a very low level your mix can sound empty.
In very general terms, if your mix…
- Lacks high-end frequencies, it will sound dull and flat
- Lacks mid-range frequencies, it will sound empty
- Lacks low-range frequencies, it will sound weedy or shrill
It is important, however, to get the balance right. None of these areas should be overpowering to the detriment of the other ranges. Your DAW’s EQ plugin is your friend here; it can help balance out the frequency content, cutting frequencies where there is too much and boosting where there is too little.
You need to be able to hear your mix clearly to be able to judge which frequency ranges need attention. For this purpose, you are definitely going to need either a decent pair of open-back reference headphones, or a pair of quality studio reference monitor speakers. The headphones and speakers I recommend for mixing are…
- AKG K-702 Reference Headphones (affiliate link)
- Kali LP-6 Monitor Speakers – link is for one speaker (affiliate link)
4 Sounds good on different listening systems
When you are recording and mixing your songs, you are listening through your studio monitor speakers or reference headphones. These are quite deliberately designed to give a very accurate representation of the sound, so you can make mixing decisions based on correct information.
Your listeners will almost certainly not be listening to your music on this type of system. It is very important that your mix sounds good on a range of different types of systems. These could be for example…
- Hi-fi seperates system
- Phone through headphones
- Phone through its speaker
- TV soundbar
- Portable bluetooth speaker
- Car stereo
- Mini hi-fi shelf system
When you are mixing your song, it is very important to keep listening to it on as many different systems as possible, and not just rely on what it sounds like on your studio equipment. This will help you get into the mind and ears of your listener, and make sure that you give them the best listening experience possible.
On a related note, it is also important to listen to your mix from different places in your room. Try standing in a corner, in the center of the room, against a wall, with your back or side turned towards the speakers, etc. Again, this lets you hear as many different listening experiences as you can that your listeners are likely to have.
Remember: mixing is a compromise! Your song will never sound perfect in every listening situation. But it doesn’t have to; it simply has to be good enough in as many listening situations as possible.
Learning the different processes and principles to apply to get your mixes sounding great on multiple systems takes a long time! Check out this article on how long it takes to learn mixing and mastering for some realistic expectations of the time it can take to get proficient at mixing/mastering. You’ll also learn some tips for what to concentrate on learning and how best to go about it.
5 Makes good use of the stereo space
Stereo allows us to place every instrument or voice in our mix at a position from hard left to hard right and anywhere in between. It is important to make use of this width in our mixes, to give our tracks separation from each other and create a sense of space. It should be as if you are in a room with the musicians, and their sounds are all coming from different places.
This does not necessarily mean you should make all your mixes as wide as possible. You may have a simple vocal + acoustic guitar song. In this case, you might want to go for a very intimate feel, where the vocal and guitar are both panned close to the center as if they were standing right in front of you.
In contrast, suppose you are mixing a big epic rock track with full drums, multiple guitars, keys, and multiple vocals. This would probably lend itself to a much wider mix, taking up the full stereo space from hard left to hard right.
Deciding where to place everything from left to right is a creative choice. But there are some conventions that you should think very carefully about breaking, as listeners are used to them and anything else could sound jarring to them. For example, in a rock mix bass & snare drum are usually in the middle, along with bass guitars, and rhythm guitars are usually panned hard left and right.
The stereo placement should make sense to the listener. Some experimentation is ok, but be careful not to sound too odd. If you listen to some of The Beatles recordings from the 1960s, the panning is all over the place! Drums panned hard right, vocals hard left, all sorts of panning decisions that seem strange today.
I love The Beatles, but stereo was very new back then and times have changed; conventions and what modern ears expect have developed over the decades. I would tend to err on the side of the conventional, while not being afraid to throw in the occasional unusual placement.
Judgment calls such as stereo placement are one of the reasons why mixing is not easy. There are so many choices to make with so many tools! My article on why mixing and mastering are so hard can help you identify your own areas of difficulty, and gives you tips to help improve on the areas you need to work on.
6 Is dynamic – has natural ups and downs
Dynamics is a tricky one. When we refer to dynamics, we mean that your mix should not be all at one volume.
Whenever we humans listen to sound, if it is all at one volume it sounds very boring and monotonous to us. Whether that is someone speaking, someone playing a musical instrument, or a soundtrack to a TV show, differences in volume keep our ears interested and give us the feeling of being part of a story.
Natural variations in volume are very important for your mixes and the individual tracks within them. But, you don’t want your listener to be constantly reaching for the volume control, having to turn up the quiet sections and turn down the loud ones.
So there also has to be a consistency in the volume level to a degree. You’re probably thinking that sounds like a contradiction – dynamics vs volume consistency. Well it is! Although I like to think of it more as a balance between the two.
Compression can help make your volume levels a bit more even, without losing the dynamic content. This is important, as we want to retain the emotion of the song. This comes from the human parts of the performance – the natural variations in volume. We shouldn’t completely flatten the peaks and troughs, but it is ok to reduce the volume difference between them.
Compression can be applied to your whole mix. It can also be applied to individual instruments; you may have some tracks that are quite even, whereas some others could benefit from smoothing out the volumes.
Compression and EQ are often confused, leaving novice mixers unsure of which one should be used when. That’s why I wrote an article on the difference between EQ and compression, that I would encourage you to read.
Automation can also be used here. If you have a part that should sometimes be louder and sometimes be quieter, automation can control the track’s volume to be at the right level at the appropriate times in the song.
7 Has an atmosphere, an ambience
Your mix should have a particular character to it. This could be described as atmosphere, ambience and probably several other terms that sound quite vague and arty-farty!
When musicians are playing together in a room, the sound of the room plays a big part in what you hear. Think how different a band would sound playing in a large cathedral, compared to a small practice room.
Your mix should give the impression of a coherent whole, where you can close your eyes and imagine a band playing the song together in a room. Reverb can hugely help here, turning a mix from sounding flat and lifeless into an atmospheric, attention-capturing song.
Not sounding like a collection of individual tracks corrected and glued together can be a tricky thing to achieve, especially when the sound has been recorded in exactly that way! Trying to get some common ambience between the tracks is the way to counter this.
The aforementioned reverb is one of the best ways to achieve this. You can set up a reverb bus in your DAW and send all your tracks to it. This means they will all have exactly the same type of reverb applied to them, helping with the illusion of all the tracks playing in the same physical space.
8 Tracks are of high quality
All the parts in your mix should be well recorded at high quality e.g. there should be no unpleasant distortion, no obvious jarring mistakes, and no distracting background noise.
Mixing is not a task that exists on its own. You have to have recorded tracks to have something to mix. And if you concentrate on getting the tracks sounding as good as you can at the recording stage, it will make your life so much easier when it comes to mixing.
You do not have to edit out every single minor timing error or pitching wobble. In fact, I would highly recommend against doing this, as it is these minor errors that give our music that human feel. But really obvious mistakes that stick out like a sore thumb and distract the listener should be edited out at the mixing stage.
To get quality recordings, a good audio interface is essential. There are many good ones out there, but I have found the Focusrite Scarlett series on Amazon sound great, are cost-effective and durable. You can buy the Focusrite Solo from Amazon (affiliate link) for a very reasonable price.
9 Has a hook to draw the listener in
You are probably familiar with the concept of a “hook” from songwriting. This is something catchy in the song, designed to draw the listener in and stick in their head. If after they have listened to your song they go away humming your hook, then you know it has worked.
But a hook doesn’t have to be a chorus melody. It just has to be something memorable in the song. This can be created at the mixing or arrangement stage in the song production process. It could perhaps be an unusual orchestration in an intro or a breakdown. Or it could be the use of a particularly distinctive effect on a part; think of Cher’s “Believe”, where the overly autotuned robotic vocals are very memorable.
This article is about mixing, but there is a large crossover with arrangement. Indeed, the two tasks are often performed at the same time or at least alongside each other.
You can often create something memorable with your arrangement choices. You can make each verse sound different by orchestrating them differently. Or maybe save a “trick” for the final chorus, to surprise the listener.
By this point in the article, you probably have a pretty good idea of why mixing is crucial. For more details, have a read of this article – “11 reasons why mixing and mastering are so important“. It shows you exactly why mixing and mastering are such essential skills to grasp in modern music production, and suggests methods for learning those skills.
10 Sounds good next to other songs in the genre
Your song should not sound out of place when played before or after another commercial song in the same genre. For example, if you put it in a genre playlist on a streaming service, it should sound sonically similar, be at a similar volume and not disrupt the flow of the playlist.
The use of reference tracks can help achieve this. When you are mixing, bring a commercial track similar to the sound you are going for with your song into your DAW. Adjust its volume to match your track, then as you mix regularly compare the sound of your mix with the reference track. Try to notice its key characteristics, and to match your song’s mix with it.
For example, acoustic guitars in pop tracks tend to sound quite thin. They are used more as texture instruments, rather than using the full-bodied sound that acoustic guitars actually provide. By using EQ to remove lots of the low-end/low-mids and boosting the top-end, you can achieve that typical almost percussive texture in your mix.
11 Takes the listener on a journey
Your song should tell a story. And I don’t just mean lyrically. Even if your song is an instrumental, it should have ups and downs, a flow, a climax, tension and release. All the things that we humans need to provoke an emotional response in us, which is what all good music should do.
Take care with your mix to not use all the tools at your disposal to flatten the human element out of the song. Remember that minor imperfections in performances are what gives music its feel, character and emotion.
It can help to think of yourself as a writer, an author. Your song needs a beginning, middle and end. And it needs variation to keep interesting, but also a common thread throughout the song. Remember that you are trying to make the listener feel something. You may be trying to make them cry, laugh, be surprised, be angry or motivate them. If you can manage to do that, then you know your mix is a good one.
Here is some of my favorite home studio gear…
Thanks for reading this article. I hope you found it helpful in your home music-making activities. Here are a few of the tools that I personally use in my home studio. These are affiliate links, so if you decide to use any of them I’ll earn a small commission.
Audio interface: My personal choice for audio interfaces are the Focusrite Scarlett series. I have been using these for years, and they have always given me great-sounding recordings. For a very reasonable price from Amazon you can buy the excellent Focusrite Scarlett 4i4, or if you don’t need MIDI capability the Focusrite Solo is a great choice.
Amp sim: Guitar amplifier simulator software has come on leaps and bounds in recent years, such that I record all my electric guitar parts using amp sims these days. One of the very best is the incredible Amplitube from IK Multimedia, which I have used on many of my songs.
Headphones for recording: My favorite headphones for recording are the Sony MDR-7506s, which I use for monitoring during all my recording sessions. They can also be found in many pro recording studios. Get the Sony MDR-7506 headphones from Amazon here.
General-purpose microphone: You can’t go wrong with a good ol’ Shure SM-57, one of the most versatile and ubiquitous microphones around. I’ve been using one in my home studio for as long as I can remember. Amazon offers the Shure SM-57 for a very competitive price.
To see all of my most up-to-date recommendations, check out this resource I made for you!