What is Mixing (in Music Production)?

by ReverbLxnd in Mixing

This article introduces the concepts of mixing, frequency and balance as used in music production

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In this article, I want to talk for a few minutes about what mixing is.

What is mixing?

When we record a song, all the separate instruments get recorded separately onto a track (tracking). To create a balance between the individual instruments, we have to take care of the levels of each signal using a console. This is called audio mixing.

To get our definitions together, we think 🤔 of the dimensions of a mix in three ways…

Top to bottom, which is frequency content. Side to side, which is your stereo field. And front to rear, which is the depth of your mix.

The last one (depth) is the toughest one. Tonal balance, that is, getting the pleasant complementary set of frequencies for all the instruments to exist in is tough enough. But the stereo field, the second one, is the easiest proposition to the mixer.

There is a reason we don’t put the kick drum and the snare drum hard right–

–because it takes away the glue and the punch of the rhythm section.

Welcome to the beautiful world of mixing.

The goal of mixing is always the same

When you mix your tracks, the goal is the same…

…you want every single track in your mix to have its place.

In EDM, for instance, we have awesome tools at our disposal to achieve this goal, such as EQs, panning, stereo separation, reverb, compressors, and so on.

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The mixing process is always the same

*The process of mixing is always the same. It doesn’t matter which DAW you use.

But the result is different.

Even with the same set of tracks, or compositions.

A bad mix sounds muddy and jumbled.

Beginners are often wondering why their tracks sound so bad. The compositions may be good, but the mixes sound bad.

A muddy mix is a mix that does not sound crisp and clear. Everything tends to sound muffled. We usually refer to this as mud in the mix.

This is almost always the result of poor mixing techniques.

Mixing is about achieving balance

Fundamentally, mixing is about musical balances and tonal balances.

Let us start with musical balances.

Musical balance in mono recordings

The very first recordings were done mono. That meant the track was often captured over one microphone and could only be played back over one speaker.

To create a balance between individual instruments, the musicians had to move around.

If someone played a solo, for instance, they had to step up towards the microphone.

Musical balance in stereo

Nowadays, nearly all music is consumed in stereo, over two speakers.

You almost certainly listen to at least some of your music over headphones.

Let’s take a band that we’re going to be tracking and mixing:

You’ve got a drum kit, a bass player, a keyboard, a guitar player, and a small brass section (trumpet and sax). If we place a microphone in front of every instrument, we will have six mono signals being fed into the mixing console.

If we now tell the band to play their song, we record six separate tracks of their instruments.

That’s six levels to take care of.

Of course, most of this will be done on a virtual console on a computer, not a real console, but the concept is the same.

I love this example because it simplifies signal flow.

If we feed the whole band into two speakers in the mix phase, we can visualize a 3D space between the right and the left speaker.

We can move instruments backward and forward in our 3D space by changing the volume of their track.

Fader riding

The easiest way to move sounds backward and forward, along the z-axis as it were, is with a channel fader a mixing console.

This is what is called fader riding.

Panning

We can move instruments left and right, in our 3D space with the pan knob.

This is called panning.

If we pan sounds in the middle it means they come just as much out of the left speaker as the right.

This is often referred to as panning sounds into the phantom image because there are no speakers in the middle in a stereo mix.

…and…

…normally when we are mixing, we are using the audience’s view as our perspective.

Try to picture the mix as your stage.

You want something prominent such as your lead or locals upfront, where everyone can hear them.

You typically don’t see Dan Auerbach of The Black Keys standing in the rear of the stage.

Do you?

You get the point.

In mixing, you want the main parts to get the most attention. Other things can fall to the back and some things you want out on the sides.

Doing so will make the mix sound a lot cleaner.

Frequencies and tonal balances

The first problem an aspiring producer is likely to face is that the low end will tend to interfere and overpower everything else in the mix.

So far, everything we’ve talked about is an aspect of musical balance.

Tonal balances

Tonal balances refer to the hopefully natural distribution in the frequency content of the instruments that are represented in the mix.

This harks back to the idea that a great arrangement will make a great mix.

If you’re fighting the arrangement – starting with a bad arrangement as it were – you’re fighting an uphill battle…

…as is often the case most times.

There is nothing as frustrating as trying to untangle something that might have been arranged a little better, to begin with.

Tonal balance refers to a complementary distribution of frequencies between the different instruments so that the listening experience becomes pleasurable from a sonic point of view.

This is where you have to suss out what the artists had in mind as you go to “the wall”.

We place instruments on the vertical axis with frequency assuming that the bass is low and the treble is high.

The high and mid-range drown out and it becomes muddier as more elements are added.

This is something you’ll have to deal with in the mixing process.

You need to make sure that your low end is sitting well in the mix using EQ to low cut everything that’s not a bass sound.

This is so that the low-end spectrum is reserved for the drums and the bass.

You don’t want any low rumble frequencies from the high end. Even just a tiny amount. We don’t want that.

Frequencies tend to build up.

There are, of course, many other techniques used to control the low end such as sidechaining.

This completes our 3D visualization…

Mixing balance is a classical setting

To understand mixing balance, try to envision an orchestra on stage playing a symphony.

You’ll notice that the placement of individual players is not random.

To achieve a good balance in terms of volume, loud instruments like brass and percussion traditionally go in the back with the woodwinds and string instruments in front of them.

To avoid clashing, sections with similar ranges are positioned opposite each other in the binaural field.

That’s why violins are left, trumpets are on the right, horns are to the left, cellos are to the right, and so on.

As you can see here, mixing is not just a modern thing.

No amount of mixing can save bad tracks

Everything said it’s crucial to choose good compositions to mix with. Even though the process remains the same.

No amount of mixing can save a bad composition.

Again, the goal is to make sure that everything has its place in the mix.

There are many tricks to be learned

There are many tricks to be learned when it comes to things like reverb, compression, and stereo separation.

I’m going to be making dedicated how to mix tutorials very soon on this blog.

Some famous producers have leads that are very upfront and on your face while at the same time having a super tight mix overall.

They’ve mastered the art of mixing.

I’m going to teach you how to accomplish these things. So be sure to drop your email in the subscription form below if you haven’t already.

In conclusion

Now that you have a basic understanding of what mixing is and why it’s so important, let us move to the next topic in the link below.

ReverbLxnd

I've been a musician and brought in my stuff for mixing and mastering, I've been my own producer where I wrote, recorded, mixed and sold my own stuff. Now, I'm *mostly* an audio engineer, where I only record and mix for clients. I'm currently based in Berlin, Germany, where I operate ReverbLand out of. Got a question? DM me on Instagram or Twitter @reverblxnd everywhere, or shoot me an email reverblxnd@reverbland.com. I'd love to hear from you.

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