April 9, 2020
BY CJ JACOBSON
How To Mix A Song Efficiently
Have you ever finished recording a song and then you look up at the computer screen and realize you have 53 audio and MIDI tracks to mix and no clue on how to begin to mix them? I thought so. It is a pretty daunting task!
Ware To Begin
First, I like to organize all the tracks into track folders. Organization is very important. The more organized you are, the better and faster you will perform your mixing duties. Each instrument category will have its own track folder group. Most DAW's (digital audio workstations) have track folders or something similar.
Just for an example, let's take a typical rock song and how I would group the track folders: Drums > Bass Guitars > Electric Guitars > Vocals.
The Order Of Instruments
Each instrument will be in their defined specified track folder. I arrange the folders in the order that I will begin mixing them in. Then I will arrange each instrument in the order i will be mixing them in, Just like this:
1. Drum track folder - Kick > Snare > Hi-Hat > Toms > Ride > Crashes > Overhead mics
2. Bass guitar track folder - Mic'ed Cabinet bass > D.I. Bass
3. Guitar track folder - Rhythm guitars > Lead guitars
4. Vocal track folder - Lead vocal > Overdub lead vocal > Background vocals
This is how the track folders would look like. This example is from Cakewalk by Bandlab. You can click on each image to enlarge.
The order of how I mix each instrument is something I have come to know over my years of mixing. It just makes perfect sense for me to start with the backbone of the song. The glue that holds the entire song together, The heartbeat of the song, the sounds that make you move and dance, yes the one and only rhythm section. Disclaimer! I play the bass, so I may be partial, but It doesn't change the fact that it is best to start mixing a song.
Start with the drums, specifically the kick and then the bass. Then the guitars, then all the other fillers, like synths, piano, brass and woodwind instruments and finally vocals.
Setting The Faders
After you have organized each instrument in the order you will start mixing them in and you have each instrument group is in their own track folder, its time to start mixing the song. Lower all the fades so you do not overload the master bus. The more tracks you have in a song, the lower each track fader will be. The more tracks you have, the greater the sum of the master bus. Meaning, if you have 8 tracks that peak at -14dB, the sum of the master bus will be lower than if you have 16 tracks at -14dB. So if you have 8 tracks in your mix, your fader should be set higher than if you have 16 tracks in your mix
With no effects on the tracks and master bus, try for a PEAK dB level that doesn't go above -12dB, give or take. Why? Because, you are going to be adding effects, EQ, compressors, and sending tracks to bus's. This will raise the overall level of the master bus.This is why your PEAK dB level should be around -12dB on the master bus. After that is done, its OK to put a compressor on the master bus and mix into it. Just keep the compressor settings light. It is also OK not to do this. Its a matter of personnel taste.
Start Mixing Your Song
Now that you are organized and have a baseline PEAK dB for the starting point, It is time to start carving out your masterpiece. Be original and let your work inspire others, rather than others inspiring you. Do not be afraid of trying new techniques. The most successful people in this world have failed the most because they keep trying until it works.
When you are mixing your tracks together, it is not a good idea to solo tracks when adjusting an effect like an EQ or compressor. Because all the other tracks effect all the other tracks in the mix. When you solo a track, its not going to sound the same as when it is playing with all the other tracks in the mix. The same track (instrument) will sound different in 2 different mixes.
Also, when you are mixing, do not go for loudness. Just go for the quality of the sound. Let the mastering stage do what it does best, make your mixes sound loud, according to its genre. A good mix can be at an RMS level between -20 to -14dB RMS
When The Mix Is Done
Let the finished mix rest overnight. do not rush to post it online as soon as you are done mixing it. Your ears will probably be fatigued and not hearing certain frequencies correctly. if you let your ears rest, You can listen to the mix with fresh ears and I can bet that when you do, you will want to make some slight changes to it. The morning is always the best time to listen to your mix before you release it to the public. The best time is right after waking up, your ears have been resting for hours and before you go outside and let the street noise and city noise cause your ears to tire, you should have a final listen to your mix.