The process of starting a production can be daunting, but once creation starts flowing, the song becomes a playground of ideas. Now you’re met with the next step in the creative process. Enter: Mixing. Every young producer should study the art of mixing their own music, particularly the fundamentals. Mixing as a producer takes out a lot of guesswork for later in the process and even if you’re sending out your mix to an engineer, it allows the engineer to focus on getting that quality across mediums. The process of setting up your production for the mixing stage also aids in solidifying direction, dynamics, movement and enables your creative freedom; the essentials for a powerful song.
Reference the Masters
Listen to quality mixes from the masters of the genre you are creating for. Listening with a critical ear includes studying arrangement, dynamics, levels, panning, these are all fundamentals to a clean mix. Which elements are established first? How are the primary elements playing together? What do different layers and sections add to the arrangement and when do those come in? These are questions that aid the quality of performance as well as the cleanliness of a song. Important tip: Listen to how the mix is executed at the lowest volume. This will demonstrate the most important elements of the song and is a good measure for balance across listening mediums.
Establish the Picture
Now that you have critically listened to the mix of an expert, and have notes on the elements of a solid arrangement in your genre, listen back to your mix as a whole. What are 3 main elements in your song? Establish those. If the Vocal is the star of the show, start with cleaning up and mixing that lead. Are we dancing the night away with a solid rhythm section? Start mixing those drums and emphasizing the groove with the bass. Every track should be complementing those main elements and there is plenty of space to get creative with the arrangement.
Arrange the Space
Creative and fun, this step of mixing needs to be in the arsenal of every producer! Giving your track room to breathe is what allows for full and dynamic mixes. Understanding the EQ frequency spectrum and where each element should occupy is essential to creating that space. Drums take up the majority of the spectrum, with the kick being the main occupant of the low frequencies (<100 hz) and cymbals/percussion taking the high frequencies (>4 khz). Locking down the drum mix and filling in the frequency spectrum with bass (300 hz – 1 khz) and vocals (>1.5 khz) creating a solid mix base. Adding compression can make these dynamic ranges “smaller” but create a better punch through the mix, leaving more room to color.
Those fun elements that you love? Make them ear candy! Less is more once you get into this part of the mixing stage. Bringing in fun elements half way through the verse to cue that dynamic shift or sprinkling them sparsely throughout sections can highlight these elements more effectively. Need a riser to contrast and bring out a dynamic shift? Duplicate, print, reverse your pad! Now you have an element from your songs’ universe adding excitement and originality. Need to make that chorus a dynamic hit? Duplicate that main element, jump it up an octave, distort it, add reverb and side chain to fit it in and support that main element. Need an element to pop? Boost 1 to 3 kHz. Need an element to sit make in the mix? Low pass filter and you’re good to go.
Automation is the best friend of dynamics ie; smoothing the vocal, creating tension, delivering release, flushing out ear candy and maximizing tonal shifts. Volume automation on the vocal can keep it on top of the mix or highlight phrases of emotional importance. Automate that high pass EQ to stress the tension in the drum transition for that big Chorus release. Give the bridge a whole new lease on life by automating the spread of your reverb/delay. Dynamics really pop with an active mix and arrangement, taking out elements to create space or automating where that element is panned can add interest or suspense.
Mix As You Go
Your most important tools for success: Consistency and Quality. Mixing while you go, can make these more easily attainable. Integrating these tips and tricks into your template can become a fundamental part of creating your unique sound and will make the process more effective.
Natalie Gould is an independent songwriter, producer and mixing engineer based in Los Angeles, California. Frequenting writing rooms across genres, she pulls from personal experience and lessons from mentors to deliver the full package and quality in her work.