5 Essential Mixing Techniques

Mixing is one of the most important skills a producer or engineer needs. It is both technical and creative and requires keen attention to detail to help find what the song needs to sound engaging and interesting. To do this, there are certain practices you can apply to help improve your workflow and make your mixing process easier.

In the second stage of our four-part ‘Mixing Guide 101‘ series, alumnus and guest writer, Carlos Bricio, explores his top ‘5 Essential Mixing Techniques.’ Applying these approaches can help improve the overall sound of your mixes, from routing to filtering and using aux tracks for effects.

In case you missed it, check out the first article from this series, ‘How to Start Your Mix,’ where we guide you through editing, arranging, DAW selection, and much more.

Let’s explore some of these tips!

1. Group and Conquer

A session with hundreds of tracks can be intimidating and challenging to manage and navigate. For that reason, engineers tend to group things and reduce the number of faders in front of them. Thus, they eventually end up with a handful of controls for the whole mix.

Think of it like a cake: The lower level will be your audio tracks, virtual instruments and effects tracks. You want to group things up as you move up in the cake until you end up with eight or 16 faders to control your whole mix.

Using the Routing Folders or buses in your DAW is the best way to group tracks so they can be processed together and managed from a common fader. This type of folder routes the signal from the output of the tracks to an auxiliary track or bus and sums them together so you can create sub-mixes of those elements. They also clean up the view of your DAW since they can hide the grouped track inside them.

A good example is drum tracks. Depending on the drummer’s setup and production, you can mix dozens of audio tracks for this instrument. If you try to mix them with everything else in the song, you will easily get lost in the session. Instead, start grouping the tracks by the different drum elements like bass drum, snare drum, and toms, and balance those sub-mixes. Keep doing this until you get a single stereo Aux Track that controls the volume of the whole drum kit.

2. Learn to love Filtering

Many people focus on creating complex processing chains or pan things around when they start mixing. There is, however, a simple tool that can help you create space and clean up your mix instantly. These are called filters.

Filters are a type of EQ that allows engineers to remove any low or high-frequency information
from your audio source. They are used to clean signals from unwanted content like rumble or hiss. High-pass filters and low cuts are essential tools that help clean the low end of the spectrum. They do this by attenuating its level below a given frequency, otherwise known as the cut-off frequency.

Only some sound sources produce low frequencies. That’s why it is helpful to filter its signals to remove any rumble or noise from the recording. While these are present at very low levels compared to the source signal (and might seem unnecessary to remove), having dozens of tracks in your session with unwanted noise stacking can, as a result, lead to a blurry and unfocused sound.

If, on the other hand, you filter your tracks according to their sound content, your mix will sound clearer and faster to balance. Set your high-pass cut-off frequency at the point before you start losing body and volume from your instrument.

You can find high-pass filters built-in on many microphones. Some examples include the industry standard U87, preamps or analogue equalisers. These help to clean up your signal before you record it on your computer. If you are not ready to commit during the recording process, they are also available in most processing plugins like EQs or channel strips.

Note to self: Make sure to distinguish high-pass filters from side-chain filters found on compressors or other dynamic processors. They are named the same, but are used differently.

Filtering using ProTools’ EQ-3 stock plug-in.

3. Manage your Effects

Reverbs and delays provide space and vibe to the mixes. While adding effects to every track in your session is tempting, this has a processing toll. These plugins are very processing intensive, and although most modern computers can handle jam-packed sessions, having many of these will most likely cause your session to crash.

Instead of adding individual instances to each processing chain, try setting aux tracks with dedicated effects plugins. Then, proceed to use sends to route signals to them. This way, you can use the same effect across different tracks and have multiple levels of control over its volume using the send and aux track faders. Using effects this way will create shared spaces for various instruments, providing cohesion to the mixes. A good example is the classic technique of having a common reverb for the guitars and snare drum. Sending these signals to a room reverb can create the effect of both instruments being in the same space, although recorded separately.

4. Tell a story with Automation

The secret behind making engaging mixes is automation. This is the process of recording the moves of faders, pans, mutes or effects throughout the timeline of your song. While making a solid static mix to get a feel for your music is essential, recording or programming automation in your tracks will bring the mix to life.

It is an essential part of the production where some sections of the song can be highlighted or cut to help tell the song’s story. Remember, it is about taking the audience through a journey and immersing them in the music.

An essential automation process during mixing is riding the fader of the lead vocal. You might have found the perfect compression and EQ settings to make the vocals sit in the mix. However, recording the volume changes throughout the song will ensure they blend perfectly with the rest of the instruments. It will also help control the energy and deliver the song’s message more effectively. MixButton explains the process of using Automation in your mix perfectly in their blog ‘What Does Automation Mean When Mixing Music?’

Automation lanes shown in ProTools.

5. Bus Compression

Last, and certainly not least, compression is the sound of records. It helps control the dynamics of the tracks and blend things together. Many mixing engineers focus on compression on their summing busses rather than individual elements.

Compressing buses allows us to focus on the overall sound of the song rather than each element. Thus, this provides a broader view and vibe to the track. Back in the day, bus compression became so popular that manufacturers like SSL started adding built-in bus compressors on its analogue consoles.

That’s where the use of the G-Bus Compressor on the master bus came to be. Following this idea, a good starting point is to use bus compression in your master bus. Try mimicking the settings in the G-Bus compressor or using an emulation plugin for this piece of equipment. A slow attack, low ratio, and auto-release should do the trick. Then, increase the threshold until you get a subtle compression. 3 dB of gain reduction in the loudest section of the song is all you need to hear the effect and glue your song.

Do you use these mixing techniques in your productions? In our Advanced Diploma in Music
Production and Sound Engineering, we explore the fundamentals of mixing. Learn how to
craft great-sounding and engaging mixes through first-hand experience with audio engineering
professionals. Stay tuned for the next article in our ‘Mixing Guide 101’ series.