Mixing isn’t something that can be learned overnight. I’ve been making electronic music over 10 years now and even though I can make decent sounding tracks, I still feel that I have a lot to learn. However it’s not rocket science either and anyone CAN learn to mix. You just need a tad of a patience and decent monitors or headphones. Practice makes perfect like they say.
In this article I give you a couple of tips on mixing that I’ve personally found helpful in my own music production. Keep in mind though that I am not professional, just a hobbyist and these may very well not be the best advice on mixing. Even so, I hope you find at least some of these tips useful. (For a more professional view on mixing, check Tarekith’s guide Mixdowns for Beginners.)
Preparing To Mix
I usually start the mixing process by dropping the master channel volume level to around -6.0dB or lower. This is because I wan’t to leave some headroom between the loudest peaks and 0.0 dB level to avoid clipping. When adding more sounds and instruments to the mix there’s a risk of clipping. If you export your song to .WAV and it’s clipping, it’s very hard or impossible to fix it afterwards (unless you’re exporting to 32 bit floating point format).
At this point it doesn’t matter if the mix doesn’t sound loud enough. Just turn up the volume of your speakers. When you export (mixdown) your song to WAV, you can normalize it afterwards (that means increasing the amplitude of the WAV so that the loudest peak is at maximum possible level without clipping) and use limiter and compressor to make it loud.
Okay. Before going to the actual mixing process, I usually have a rough mix created already in the composing stage. But after that, I usually do this: in the mixer tracks I drop every instrument level to INF (completely silent) except the kick drum. And the mixing process starts here.
I usually mix everything after the kick drum and I always start with the drums. So basically I start by setting the kick drum mixer track volume level to 0.0dB. In my opinion, in most of the electronic music, the kick drum should be the “dominant force”. Then I mix the other instruments so that kick drum stands out the most.
Also, I never pan the kick drum. I keep it always centered.
Few words about panning: Panning is a great and simple way to widen the stereo image of a mix. With panning you can place different sounds around the stereo panorama. It’s also a good way to “separate” sounds that are on the same frequency range to avoid them messing with each other. This is very handy if you have a “busy” (lot of sounds and instruments) mix. I really recommend to practice the use of panning.
Sometimes – very rarely though – I layer two or more kick drums if I’m not satisified with the one I’m currently using.
Then there’s compression as well. Compression is basically automated gain control that reduces the dynamic range of sounds and it’s useful for many things such as making the whole mix sound louder. With compression you can modify the volume shape of single sounds as well – works well with kick drum. For example, you can add more “thump” or “snap” to your kick and control how the tail of the kick (oomph) behaves.
I have to say that I rarely compress kick drums. I have a huge collection of kick drum samples and most of the times I can find a sample that suits my needs as is. So if I’m not satisfied with my current kick sample, I usually don’t start playing around with the compression – or layering or tuning in that matter. Instead, I change it to another kick drum sample.
Ok. Now that the kick drum is at level 0.0dB and the rest are INF, I start to increase the levels. First, the claps (or snare). I usually set it few dB’s below the kick drum level, but this is really depending on the amplitude of the snare or clap sample. Also, depending on the sample, I may do a slight high shelf boost via eq around the 7-8kHz area to give it a bit more clarity.
I may also add a very gentle reverb to the claps or snare to add a bit of a sense of space.
For claps and / or snare sounds, I use layering more often than for kick drums, but still – quite rarely.
Next, I mix in the hihats. Usually the closed hihats first. Again, setting the level a few dB’s below the kick drum depending on the amplitude of the sample. I often pan the closed hihats a little bit left or right. Equalizing may be needed as well as hihats may sometimes compete with snare or claps. In this case I usually either slightly boost or cut the high frequencies.
Gentle reverb may be suitable for closed hihats as well.
For open hihats I pretty much give the same treatment as with closed hihats.
Panning and equalizing helps to separate closed and open hihats from each other as they are often in a same frequency range.
Crash cymbal may be sometimes quite challenging to mix. It may mess with the hihats or even clap / snare. Depending on the amplitude of the crash cymbal sample, I set the levels to several dB’s lower than the other drums just to make sure it’s not overtaking the drums.
Then comes the percussion sounds. I set the levels few dB’s below the kick drum. If I’m using low tom -type of percussion sounds, they may compete with the kick drum so I use a high pass eq to cut around 100-150 Hz and below.
If I’m using a drumloop to spice up the drums, it usually needs some pretty heavy equalizing to avoid messing up with the rest of the drums.
Sometimes, claps, hihats and percussion sounds may need to be tuned as well to make them work together.
As a general rule of thumb, try to find a spot for each sound in the frequency range and stereo image and do not use too much sounds to avoid the drums sounding messy. Keep it simple.
Allright, now that the drums are pretty much ready, comes the hardest part: mixing the bass with the drums.
In electronic music, the bass is at least as important as the kick drum. Bass is a sort of rhythmical instrument as well so it’s a bit challenging to mix it with the kick drum so that they work nicely together and won’t fight.
I’ve found there’s two things that affects most to how hard or easy it is to mix the bass with the kick drum: the sound and the sequence. In addition to the bass sound, it makes a difference what kind is your bass sequence: is it in arpeggio style or other staccato type of composition or looooong notes or do the notes hit a same time with the kick drum, what notes are used etc. Sometimes I end up changing the bass sequence just to make it work better with the kick drum and I find I need to do less equalizing.
I usually layer two bass sounds together. First one has a lot of low end and it’s a soft sub-bass type sine wave sound, while the second sound is much more sharper saw or square wave typish. I use both bass sounds to play the same sequence, but I transpose the other (that sharper one) an octave higher. This will make the bassline to stand out in the mix better even if it’s listened through a smaller speaker systems.
However, eq is usually needed here: I cut the low frequencies out of that second, sharper bass sound to avoid it messing the low end. After cutting off frequencies such as low end I need to increase the sound volume level a bit, usually around +1-3dB’s.
Panning I set to center. Just like the kick drum, I always leave the bass to the center.
I use it quite a lot sidechain compression when mixing kick drum and bass. It’s a saviour. With sidechain compression you can make almost anykind of bass sound and kick work nicely together. It’s also a trademark in a modern electronic music – ducking or pumping sound. For more about this I have created a tutorial on how to use sidechain compression in FL Studio.
So now that the drums are ok with bassline, I start to mix the lead synth.
If I create uplifting trance music, I let the lead synth to really stand out in the mix. Depending on the sound and the lead synth sequence, I set the volume level only little below the kick drum.
Next step is to eq the lead synth. If there’s a lot of low end in it, it may compete with the bassline. The sequence makes a difference as well: if the lead melody goes really low and it is a type of sound that has a fat low end, then the low cut filter is most likely needed.
I often use a little high shelf boost to add some brightness to the lead. Sometimes I use peaking eq to slightly boost frequencies around 2kHz with a quite narrow bandwidth to make the lead synth to be more audible through the mix. But this depends on the other sounds in the mix.
Layering different lead sounds is what I do a lot. I like to use three different leads and pan them like this: lead 1 to 20-40% left, lead 2 to center and lead 3 to 20-40% right. This creates a nice, wide stereo image.
Delay effect with pingpong effect panning from left to right and reverb is what I use to make them sound really huge.
Just like with the bass, I may sidechain compress the lead synth with kick drum. Works well though I usually use a little more gentle settings than with the bass – a little less ducking that is.
Allright. Now there’s drums, bassline and lead synth in place. Usually, pads are next.
Pads I like to keep in the background so I set the levels several dB’s lower than the other instruments. Equalizing is needed as well to cut off those low frequencies and maybe some highs too to not let it mess with the lead synth. But as always this depends on the pad sound and other sounds used in the mix.
Noise sweeps, explosions, synth thwirls and things like that are very important in electronic music. These kind of sounds may be on whatever frequency range so I just say that I try to make them sit nicely in the mix, not too loud, not too quiet.
Compression might be a good deal to use on individual instruments for more tighter, fuller and present sound. Suits very well for bass. Personally, I use compression on single instrument tracks quite rarely though, but it’s a handy tool for evening out the most extensive changes in the dynamic range: there might be some areas that are a tad too loud or quiet. Compressor can balance these “gaps”. This way, the individual instrument tracks sit better in the mix – the quieter parts can be heard more clearly through the mix and the louder parts won’t dominate as much.
Single band compressor like Fruity Compressor should work pretty well. Maybe start with something gentle like threshold: -23, ratio: 2.0:1, attack: 15ms, release: 200ms, Gain: 5dB. Remember though, with compressor it’s easy to kill all the dynamics so avoid overusing it as things will start to sound unnatural and stressed. Unless you wan’t that as in electronic music that kind of sound may be sometimes desirable.
Listen Through Several Speaker Systems
It’s always a good thing to test out your mix through a several different speaker systems: from very small ones to HUGE and on all possible volume levels. By doing that you can hear what needs to be tweaked. Your main goal should be to make your mix sound as balanced as possible on all sound systems.
Few more words about the delay effect: subtle delay works great with closed hihats and basslines. It’s also easy way to add etheric quality and dense to pads.
Also, very gentle flanger is a great way to add a little life to otherwise monotonous hihat or clap patterns.
Okay, it’s actually kinda hard to give even general guidelines on what settings to use in mixing as so much depends on the sounds, melodies and what kind of elements you wan’t to stand out in the mix. There’s just so much you can do to make your mixes sound great.
General rule I’ve been personally following is I try to make the drums and bass sound as good and powerful as possible and try to keep the mix simple by not adding too much stuff.
I hope this helped.