When in the studio with our clients, we're focused on helping you capture the best performance for your song. Once we're done with recording, we move on to the mixing and mastering phase. During mixing, we smooth out and balance all the individual elements. We make sure your audio is thick, has stereo definition, and depth. We add modern effects and audio processes like reverb, compression, and frequency equalization, to take your song from great to studio-quality perfection. Most importantly, it is during the mixing phase that we make sure the eventual mastered song is 100% matched up to your original vision for the song. Oftentimes, we exceed your expectations. That's where the magic happens!
In this blog post, we'll share 31 tips for better-sounding mixes. At Prolific Sound Solutions, we incorporate every one of these considerations and more to every client mix. Whether you're looking to elevate your home mixing skills or gain a deeper understanding of our approach before booking our studio services, this article is a valuable resource! We use Pro Tools as our DAW of choice, but these tips work with any audio-recording software!
Set Your Tempo
Setting the correct tempo before mixing will help you accurately fly arrangements across the mix without worrying about timing. It will also allow your time-based processes to return effects that are in-sync with your song. You can use “tap to tempo,” or a third-party plugin to help figure out the BPM. Once you have it correctly set, don't forget to adjust your clips to the grid line (if needed). You can do this easily by temporarily enabling the ALL group in your edit window.
Figure Out The Key to the Song
Knowing the key of the song is essential when using pitch-correction plugins such as Melodyne or Auto-Tune. You don’t need to know music theory to figure out the key! You can easily incorporate third-party plugins such as Mixed in Key or Auto-Key to figure out the scale.
Name and Color-Code Your Tracks
Organization goes a long way during your mix! With all your audio tracks properly labeled and color-coded, you’ll spend less time hunting for sounds and more time improving your mix. It isn’t uncommon for artists to send their sessions to others for further mixing and mastering; with a neatly organized session, it’ll be easier for others to collaborate with you.
Remove Silence/Noise from Audio Clips
Taking the time to properly clean up your audio clips will help you eliminate background noise build up. It's also another opportunity to further familiarize yourself with each of the song's elements. Use Pro Tools “Audio Zoom In” feature to increase the visual size of your audio (note: this does NOT increase the VOLUME of the audio clips!); this will help you further identify parts of the audio clips you can safely remove/delete.
Use Clip Gain!
Use channel faders and clip gain to get a head start on your volume balance! Having a nice pre-mix will make your job easier once you start adding plugin inserts.
Use the comments section in Pro Tools to help keep track of microphones utilized, capture techniques, creative ideas, and client requests!
Practice Proper Gain-Staging
Practicing proper gain-staging helps ensure the highest quality audio mix. Overloading plugins in the middle of a signal chain will result in audible clipping and sub-optimal sound. Working at a higher bit-depth of 32-bit float will allow some plugins additional headroom well beyond the 0dBFS (clipping) point, but its best to get into the habit of gain compensation using each plugins output knob/fader. Correct gain staging will help you inherently achieve a more balanced mix.
Remove Bleed from Drum Tracks
Spill (also known as bleed and leakage) is the occurrence in recording (particularly in close miking) where sound is picked up by a microphone from a source other than that which is intended. A small level of bleed isn’t usually problematic and poses no issues in the final mix. However, excessive bleed becomes an issue and can negatively impact your mix. Any audio processing like compression effects will increase the bleed’s volume/presence, so it’s best to get rid of it early. You can use gates, Pro Tool’s “Strip Silence” feature, or manually delete/remove bleed on the audio clip.
Be Mindful of the Drum Groove!
When mixing studio-captured live music, pay attention to the performances of the drummer. Unlike digital production, live drums are susceptible to unwanted speed ups, slowdowns, or mistakes during the recording. Drum fills often require tightening and adjustments after the fact. Adjusting the timing of drums is a delicate process. Be sure to have your drum kit grouped in Pro Tools before nudging hits left or right; you don’t want your overheads or room mics suddenly out of sync with your adjusted drum hits. Manually editing the drums with a groove and swing in mind is a difficult process, but with practice, you’ll be able to spot problem areas and adjust accordingly for a better-feeling mix.
Sidechaining temporarily ducks or quiets one element, to allow another element to break through. For example, sidechaining your bass to your kick drum so it ducks the level of the bass whenever a kick drum hits. You can use sidechaining to allow your vocals to sit better in the mix, let drum hits pierce through, or keep supporting elements in check. You can also sidechain specific frequencies, instead of whole signals, for a tighter-feeling mix.
Use Multiple Reverb Plugins!
Using multiple reverbs is a great way to shape the depth of your mix and add complexity and excitement to your mix. For example, you can use one realistic reverb to set depth and realism, a plate reverb with emphasis on shimmery bright tails, and a chamber reverb for low-mid definition. Use EQ to shape each individual reverb based on their strengths, then a bus compressor with a low ratio and slow attack to glue the reverbs together!
Use Reverb to Set Depth
You use the channel fader to increase or decrease volume. Think of the aux send of your reverb as a fader to increase or decrease depth. Generally speaking, the more reverb you add to an element, the further back in the mix you send it. Want a guitar part further back in the mix, and not so upfront? Turn down its channel fader and increase the aux send of its reverb. Want a drum part more upfront? Bringing down its reverb will help achieve that.
Use Pre-Delay to Wet a Signal Without Pushing it Back in The Mix
What if you want to wet up a signal with reverb, WITHOUT sending the element further back in the mix? That's where Pre-Delay comes in! Pre-Delay delays the start of your effect and determines how long the signal will wait before playing. 0% pre-delay and the reverb acts immediately. Set it to 100 millisecond pre-delay, for example, and the reverb will start 100 milliseconds after the sound source plays. If you want to add a ton or reverb to a vocal while keeping the vocals upfront in the mix, adjust the pre-delay settings.
Subgrouping and Subgroup Processing
Subgrouping is crucial for efficient organization and workflow, particularly in larger projects. It simplifies the mixing process and allows volume control for entire sections of the mix. It allows you to easily incorporate inserts and effects to a batch of sounds. It also simplifies automation by allowing the automation of entire groups rather than individual tracks. Processing individually-mixed elements as a group allows you to achieve a cohesive sound. At the final stages of mixing, it's easier to make fine-tune volume adjustments (to the entire vocal group, for example) with subgroup faders.
Use saturation plugins to distort and color your audio! Saturation helps introduce the same characteristics we find from analog gear, and helps counter that clean, sterile sound digital audio tends to come with. With saturation, less is more. Push the drive until you hear it over-distorting, then pull back. Use saturation plugins with mix knobs to further blend and fine tune your saturation. Use saturation plugins with multiple bands and profiles to zero-in on sections of an audio frequency, and color each section to taste!
Use More Limiters!
Limiters aren’t just for the master fader! Use limiters on drum or vocal groups to get them loud and present early in the mix. Just don’t push too hard too early, otherwise your mix will clip and distort later, on the mastering limiter.
Use Volume Automation!
Use volume automation to smooth out performances and highlight strong parts. If you set your channel faders then never touch them again, chances are you have a pretty static mix. Introduce movement and dynamics with volume automation. Don’t just hope your compressors are doing its job! The compressor puts elements in its pocket, and volume automation further emphasizes and boosts when the overarching thematics of the song calls for it. Music rises and falls with story and performance elements. During mixing, it's important to adhere and punctuate these dynamics.
Don’t be afraid to process your effects, just like the rest of your audio! You can EQ, compress, and adjust the depth of your reverbs, delays, and other time-based processors. Processing effects is a quick and easy way to make your mix sound more professional and expensive.
Freezing/Committing Finished Sections
Mixing is a computer resource-intensive process. Plugins quickly add up and sometimes you’re maxed out on DSP and CPU power. You can get around this by “freezing” audio tracks in Pro Tools. This internally prints the processed audio of a track, sort of like a snapshot of its current state. Once a track is frozen, the plugins no longer require active processing to reproduce the sound, freeing up system resources.
You can do this on any DAW by simply printing or committing the processed audio to a new audio track, then disabling the original source track.
From a creative standpoint, this can help you finalize sections on a mix and force you to move on to the next element or section. Later in the mix if you want to go back and correct/adjust a frozen element, you would need to first unfreeze or re-enable the track.
Shape Your Transients
If your drums aren’t hitting as hard as you’d like, consider using a transient shaper plugin. A transient shaper is a tool designed to manipulate the attack and sustain characteristics of a sound. It influences the duration it takes for a sound to reach its peak amplitude and how long it sustains at that peak before gradually decaying. Again, less is more; overdoing it with transient shapers can easily ruin your source audio. Manually shaping the attacks, decays, sustains, and releases of your percussive elements will help shape your mix and give it some bite.
When you export your song, all the individual tracks and disparate parts will be summed into a stereo track file. By default, Pro Tools does this internally. Alternatively, you can do this “outside the box” with outboard gear, or using special audio-summing digital plugins. These methods help to further glue your mix, enhance depth/dimension, improve clarity, add natural saturation/harmonic distortion, and increase dynamic range & separation. Audio-Summing is a contentious subject and often times a subjective matter, but we at PSS believes it makes a big difference!
Mid-side processing is a technique used to separately manipulate the mono (center) and stereo (sides) components of a stereo signal. Use MS processing to narrow or widen bands of your mix, enhance the stereo imaging, tame ambience/reverb, fix phase issues, and for creative sound design!
For precise volume balancing, take a listen to your mix in mono every now and then. Elements that are too quiet or too loud will be much more evident when listening in mono. This is also a great way to identify any phase-related problems that might not be as noticeable in a stereo mix. Some stereo effects, such as wide stereo reverbs or extreme panning, may not translate well in mono. Checking your mix in mono helps identify any issues with these effects and allows you to make adjustments for a more balanced and coherent sound. Most monitoring systems have a mono button you can engage and disengage. You can also use software/plugins, like this free one.
Dither is a very technical subject, but applying it is very easy. Dither helps to minimize audio artefacts and noises that may be introduced when exporting your finished track. All DAWs come with a dither plugin. Apply it at the very end of your mastering chain, and that's it!
Use a spectrum Analyzer!
Mixing is a listening-first activity, but visuals and meters help us stay precise. Good spectrum analyzers can help you identify problem frequencies, or desirable frequencies to boost. In the real world, most of us are mixing in less-than-desirable room acoustics. Spectrum Analyzers can help counteract and understand the characteristics of your listening environment. Low frequencies are often challenging to monitor accurately through standard studio monitors. A spectrum analyzer allows you to visualize low-frequency content, ensuring that the bass elements are well-defined and balanced without being overly boomy or weak.
Use Loudness Tools!
A good loudness tool will measure the loudness of your mix in LUFS (Loudness Units in Full Scale). Place your loudness meter/plugin at the end of your mastering chain. There’s a lot of resources out there to help you determine a target LUFS that works for you.
Use a Reference Track!
Find a song that embodies the same tone, energy, and dynamics that you are going for. Bring it into your Pro Tools session and compare it with your mix! Listen to the drums and see how they compare with yours. Watch the Spectrum Analyzer and see if you can shape your mix to a similar look. Constant A/B comparisons is the key to a great mix.
Make a List
When you start, before you even touch a fader or knob, take a listen to the song from start to finish. Mentally take note, or write down, all of the things you hear and want to address. This will give you direction! As you mix, you’ll notice other things that need to be addressed. Add it to your list and complete what you were in the middle of before moving on. This will keep you focused!
Ear-fatigue is real! Take breaks and come back to your mix with a fresh perspective.
Listen To Your Mix in Multiple Environments, With Various Volumes
How does your mix sound on your phone? In Your car? With headphones? How does your mix sound when played very, very loud? How does it sound when played with moderately quiet volume? Until your mix sounds good in multiple playing environments, adjust accordingly.
Don’t add TOO many plugins to each and every track! One more time: less is more! Challenge yourself to improve the sonics of a track with as little as possible. Adding too many plugins can introduce latency, delay, and phase issues. Overusing plugins can also lead to an overly processed sound resulting in an unnatural or sterile quality, detracting from the original character of the recording.
If you have any questions or need assistance with your home-recordings, feel free to shoot us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org and we’d be happy to help! If you want to book a studio session or mixing session, hit us up!