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How to Mix a Song in 10 Steps

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Organize Your Session

For this video, I can’t go into really specific details since it would be too much to cover, but check out our other videos for how to mix specific instruments, use creative techniques to solve mix problems, and so on.

Also, you don’t have to mix the same way I do, but this is just a helpful general flow for mixing that I’ve found works more times than not.

Before I begin to mix a song, I like to organize everything within my session - for example, I’ll color code the tracks and arrange them according to what type of instrument they are. Then I’ll change their icons to corresponding instruments, and change their outputs to busses.

So all of my instruments will go to an instrument bus, all the drums to a drum bus, and so on - which I’ve also color-coded to match the instruments being sent to them.

As far as mixing goes, I’ll get some general levels but these will probably change as the mix develops. Let’s listen to the unprocessed signal to hear what we’ll be working on.

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Attenuate Unwanted Frequencies with EQ

The first insert I’ll use is almost always an EQ, with which I’ll cut frequencies I don’t want, and dip ones I want less of. You’ll notice I’ll use high-pass filters, and typically dip a little of the low-mids to reduce their masking effect on higher, clarifying frequencies.

Also, if a signal doesn’t need to be equalized, I’ll just leave it alone - since there’s no need to waste any CPU that could be used later.

Let’s take a listen to how the EQ subtly clarifies the signal.

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Increase Details with Compression

Next, I’ll be specific with which compressors I use on each signal - since they each sound different. For example, on the vocal, I’ll use compression settings that capture all of the signal due to the soft knee and lookahead and then bring it forward with the automatic makeup gain.

Or on the kick drum, I’ll use an 1176 emulation with a short attack and release to distort transients, and then bring quieter details up by increasing the output.

You don’t need to stick to just downward compression either - on the snare and tambourine I used an upward compressor to amplify the quieter, brighter aspects. Or, you might want to avoid compressing a signal altogether if its dynamics are controlled already.

What you choose depends on the signal you’re mixing, but I find this is a good point in the mix to control dynamics and begin to shape the timbre of individual signals.

Let’s take a listen.

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Add Character with Saturation

Saturation adds harmonics and causes mild to moderate compression - when combined this is a great way to give instruments distinct characters. For example, I used this TAIP plugin by Baby Audio on my vocal and increased the presence to give it a slight lo-fi crunch and bright sound.

I used the same plugin but with varying settings on some of my keys and the snare for the same reason.

When I wanted a warmer and softer sound, I’ll use this warm tape emulation like with the piano. Or if I wanted to fill out the lows while increasing transients, I’d use a warm tube setting like with my kick.

Let’s listen to how the distinct harmonics and shaping caused by each saturator help the instruments find a distinct identity.

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Shape Processing with EQ

I’m going to EQ again, but this time instead of just cutting frequencies, I’ll amplify and attenuate where needed. You could do this before your compression and saturation, but this setup gives you more control of what frequencies go into and what comes out of your processors.

On a lot of the instruments in this mix, I’d boost the mids and highs, but notice that I’d dip around 2.5kHz - this ensured the instrument didn’t compete too much with the vocal.

Also, I re-introduced some high-pass filters, since some of the processors added unwanted low frequencies.

Let’s listen to how these EQs set us up well for things like temporal and creative processing.

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Introduce Speciality Processing

With my dynamics controlled and the general sound getting closer to how I want it, I’ll start focusing on specific instruments that I want to give a unique sound. For example, on my violin, I’ll use this Lifeline Expanse plugin by Excite Audio to first introduce some reverb, but then send it to the side image.

This gives it a unique placement and separates it from the other keys.

On the bass, I used the same plugin to emulate a cabinet speaker, as well as add a mild slapback, and some digital distortion, and then ensure the low end stayed mono.

Plugins like this make it easier to craft a unique sound for a signal, by offering multiple effects simultaneously and letting us tweak and rearrange.

Let’s listen to how these gave the affected instruments unique sounds.

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Start Processing the Busses

Next, I’ll process the busses, but first, I’ll use the pan pots of my channel strips to alter their positions in the mix. Maybe the piano and keys can go a little to the left or right, but I’ll want to keep my vocal, bass, kick, and snare centered.

Binaural panning also works well on pads. On my vocal bus, I’ll use some resonance reduction to dynamically attenuate aggressive frequencies. I’ll do the same on my instrument bus, but side-chain the vocal bus to help reduce overlap between the two.

Then on the drum bus, I’ll use maximization and some subtle EQ to first make the drums more powerful and cohesive, and then help separate them from the bass guitar.

Let’s listen to what our mix is sounding like now.

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Add Temporal Processing

From my busses, I’ll use sends and parallel tracks to introduce delay and reverb - in this mix I introduced plate reverb and tape delay on the vocal, with an added compressor to help duck the delay, making the vocal’s transient cut through. Then I used room emulation to help thicken the drums.

Lastly, I sent all of my buses to a collective studio room emulation and ambient reverb to create a cohesive sound by giving them a shared space. Notice that all of the aux track faders are pretty low since I don’t want these effects to overpower the mix.

Let’s listen to how temporal processing improves the mix.

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Add some Creative Elements

So at this point, I have the mix pretty spectrally and dynamically balanced - then I have the time-based effects adding some dimension and life to the mix. I find this is a good time to find opportunities to add creative and unique processing - which I’ll do with this Shaperbox plugin from Cableguys.

On the instrument bus, I introduced a filter that dips the high frequencies near the end of the bar - then I used this panning module to oscillate the mids to high frequencies between the left and right channels , as well as added modulating stereo expansion.

On the bass, I triggered some soft-clipping to the highs and then fluctuated the overall volume every 1/8th note.

Things like this will help a mix stand out - and are best saved for later in the mix when everything already sounds balanced. Let’s take a listen.

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Create a Demo Master

It isn’t a good idea to send your mix off for mastering with any processing on the master output, but, if you want to create a quick demo master, maybe to show friends or just to have, here’s a quick chain I like to use. I’ll first insert a mid-side EQ, and attenuate lows on the side image.

This keeps the lows of the mix more mono, making it sound more focused. I’ll then use this intelligent EQ to dynamically amplify and attenuate frequencies based on a pre-determined algorithm it’s using.

Then I’ll brighten up the highs with this free-air EQ before introducing some limiting. Not notice that I’m not using true peak limiting and instead introduced oversampling and a little lookahead.

Let’s listen to the end result with this demo chain enabled.

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Make Pro Songs
The #1 Audio Engineering Membership That Makes Your Mixes Sound Like
Professional Songs Even If You Have No Previous Experience