Updated: Feb 24
Your mix will only be as good as the room you’re mixing in. Knowing your room is one of the most important factors in making a good mix. Using a carefully chosen reference track at the beginning of, and during a session will help you focus on what you already know what sounds good, allowing you to adjust your mix by comparing it to a professionally mixed track that you know and love.
Monitoring and Measuring Audio
Understanding the difference between peak volume and loudness, and the role they play in mixing will greatly assist you in achieving a professional sounding finished mix
Peak level metering is what most DAWs (Digital Audio Workstations) use to monitor each individual track, group, effects send and master bus. This allows us to spot any spikes in volume that can cause distortion or unwanted artifacts during recording.
Using Reference Tracks
Using reference tracks is the easiest way to identify where our mix can be improved by comparing the reference track to our mix, going back and forth quickly, and spotting the areas that need attention
Reference tracks also allow us to tune our hearing to the sound of our room, as mentioned in the previous section, and is a shortcut to strengthening our hearing and mixing abilities
This technique will also prevent us from having tunnel vision and getting lost in decision making, allowing us to re-focus by giving our hearing a break with another track.
Rough Mixing as you go
Each artist and producer has their own method of completing a track. Most often, mixing starts long before the final mix-down, as balancing and mix decisions are made during composing and arranging. These in the moment decisions are important because they often capture the energy and emotion of the song and shape the end result.
I often create separate saves to capture the progress of a track so that these mix decisions aren’t lost. I’ll make a new save at the start of a session, and ‘Save As’ at significant milestones.
Always start your final mix down in a separate copy of your track to preserve your work in progress, and to provide a back up in case you need to redo a mix. A label sometimes has a preferred in-house mixer that will ask for an un-mixed version which will allow for them to put their professional’ sound’ on your track.
Identify the Focal Point of your Mix
Select the most important elements of your mix and make their relative volume level higher in the mix than other elements. These can be chosen for their rhythmic or melodic quality and the energy it adds to the track. It’s common for the Kick Drum, Bass, Lead line, and Vocals to be the focal point and louder than the other elements of the track. Louder sounds will appear closer to the listener in the listening field.
The remaining elements that aren’t the focal point of your track should be lower in volume to provide space for more important parts. These elements will sound further away because of the lower volume, and prevents masking and crowding of each element of the mix.
PRO TIP: Your higher volume elements should be set to -12Db to allow for plenty of headroom during final mix down, leaving 6Db of room for adding EQ and Dynamics, resulting in a final mix volume of -6Db.
Using Automation to Add Interest and Variety
Dance music is dynamic and changes many times during the course of a track. This allows a DJ to raise and lower the energy level during a performance and is a key feature of a good set. Providing a variety of energy levels and using transitions between the sections makes a track more interesting to the listener. A track that has movement and variation will take the listener on a journey and avoid sounding stagnant or repetitive.
Volume changes are the most obvious changes that can be made, increasing volume leading up to a drop, or lowering volume to create a breakdown, leading to a build and 2nd drop.
Synth filter sweeps are commonly used to increase energy and build tension in transition parts. Closing a filter can also be used to add weight and deepen a groove or part that drops after the build.
PRO TIP: I often automate the filter of synth lines to match the bass line. In intros I’ll have the bas in a higher register, and match the filter cutoff to a complimentary texture on the synth line. I’ll then drop the baseline an octave after the drop and automate the filter to match the lower frequencies for a cohesive sounding ‘deep dive’ into a groove.
Panning to Create a Wider Mix
Using special effects to widen our mix in the upper frequencies creates space and makes for a more professional sounding mix when used tastefully.
The centre of your mix should be reserved for the most powerful elements of your mix, including the kick, bass, and vocals. Panning percussion or cymbals adds movement to a groove, especially when programmed in a ‘call and response’ pattern where different percussive elements occupy their own space and add to the rhythm and movement of the track.
Effects like reverb and delay can be used to add stereo width to mono or central elements. Sending signal to an effects bus with a stereo delay or reverb will provide stereo width while maintaining the strength and energy of the original audio source. Remember to High Pass the bass frequencies out of the effects send to prevent low frequency build up, which will chew up your headroom faster than a championship Pac Man match.
I often use two separate delay effects panned hard left and right, set at different and complimentary times, with the first one being fed into the second delay, also known as ‘delaying the delay’. Set the first delay to a short length that isn’t sync’d to the metronome, allowing for a more natural sounding effect, followed by a medium length delay. This old school effect causes a dreamy wash of colour and tone. Send each delay into a stereo reverb to bring them into the same space. This effect can cause phasing issues, but most time this is a desirable and sounds amazing!
Double tracking or doubling a part and shifting the doubled audio ahead or behind will put it out of phase slightly creates an interesting stereo effect, also known as The HAAS effect.
Using Compression the Right Way
It’s taken me ten years to hear and apply compression properly. Maybe even longer. I don’t want you to have to go through the same long journey in order to use such a useful tool.
Compression can be used on individual instruments or sounds to bring the most dynamic parts of the performance (loudest and quietest) together, allowing for a more uniform sound and less jumps in volume. Think of compression like a automation - it’s literally like having your finger on the fader to make adjustments.
Over compression leads to a dead and lifeless sound, so setting the threshold so the level is ‘Just kissing’ the meter as producer Dave Pensado says is always a best practice. The 4:1 setting sounds most natural to our ears either by exposure due to it’s use over the last few decades, or because of it’s less aggressive sound.
Using a longer attack time will allow for initial transients to get past the compressor unaffected, again, allowing for a more natural sound. Adjusting the release to a setting that allows the compressed sound to return to neutral before engaging again will raise the ‘body’ and ‘tail’ of the sound which creates the magic thickening effect that’s so popular in modern music.
Sidechain compression is covered in every tutorial and is an essential tool in modern electronic music. More aggressive ratios like 10:1 or even Infinite:1 are effective for creating the desired effect. Using the same guidelines previously mentioned for attack and release times will allow you to sculpt the pumping effect that’s become so popular in dance music.
PRO TIP: I always use a separate muted sound as a side chain trigger for every mix. This trigger can be a sample or hit that’s a different length from your kick or other source, creating a much more controlled side chain effect.
Parallel compression on an effects bus will provide a thickening of any sound routed to the compressor, also known as New York compression. I’m a big fan of this and use it subtly on every mix. Used sparingly, it can add weight and heft to beats, bass, leads and even vocals or synths. Be selective on what you send to your parallel compressor… it’s tempting to send everything there which defeats the purpose. If everything is special, nothing is special.
Limitations will Set You Free
Mixing is a lot like going on a road trip. You can pack your bag full of everything you may need but your bag becomes unmanageable, full of gear and shit you’re never going to use. Your approach to mixing (and composition and arrangement) can be approached in the same way. Load up your track with shit and it’s going to be more difficult to manage and fit everything in.
Every DAW (Digital Audio Workstation) is capable of making a professional sounding recording and mix in the right hands. Websites, YouTube channels and Music Magazines (remember them?) are full of advertisements telling you about new time saving products that make you into a Grammy award-winning producer by loading a single preset. Nothing could be further from the truth and this type of predatory marketing takes advantage of entry-level musicians that aren’t skilled enough to get the results we’re after using the tools we already own.
Many of our favorite albums were made by musicians like you and I in their bedroom or home studios. Listen to Daft Punk’s Homework, the Chemical Brothers’ Exit Planet Dust, or any number of amazing releases… all done in home studios by getting the most out of the limited gear they had at hand. Mastery comes from knowing your limitations and finding creative ways of achieving your creative ideas using the limited gear you have. The moral of the story is this: don’t be fooled into thinking that you can’t make great music or professional results from the gear you have. Figure out how to use what you already own, and then learn how to abuse it.
Going beyond the limitations of your gear is where you find yourself as an artist.
If you find this helpful and want to learn more about how I use this to create electronic music from start to finish, please find the link below this post to my website Electronic Music Tips and download the FREE 6 Step Guide to making a dance floor and radio ready track that looks like this. It’s absolutely jam-packed with tips and tricks and it’s completely free. You’ll also be able to sign up for my weekly insider email where I provide tips not available anywhere else and is growing every week with thousands of people signing up who want to make better music using professional methods for composition and production, mixing and mastering all from your home studio or bedroom!