How to Mix a Song and My Mixing Checklist

By October 3, 2015Mixing

***UPDATE: I turned this blog post into a proper PDF guide!

Click here to check it out!

***The following information is not going to turn you into a professional mixer overnight. I guarantee you that only after many many many many hours of mixing (maybe as many as 10,000 hrs) you will begin to sound like a mixer. However, I spend a great deal of my time helping aspiring mixers and producers to make better sounding music, and this article/checklist is meant to help you cut down on the time it takes to get great sounding mixes. I hope you enjoy it and please don’t forget to leave lots of comments below! 😉

***Many of the tools I use are listed below. While these are huge time savers, you can do just about anything I’ve listed here manually inside of your DAW.

Mix Prep/Session Management

-Receive the files from the client

-Rename client’s folder to “Song Name [Client Files]”

-Value your time? Check out Stereo Monoizer

-Create a new session in your DAW (stay with me)

-Place newly named “client files” folder into the session folder

-Import client’s files into your DAW (be sure to check the sample rate and bit depth)

Did you receive a rough mix from the client? If so, import that in and slide it to the right of your tracks and call that track “REFS” for references. This is also the track you could place any mainstream songs you’ve been given by the client or chosen yourself for referencing while mixing. Some people (myself included) prefer to reference along the way while others may reference towards the end of the mixing process. You choose what works best for you. 🙂

*My go-to plugin for referencing is called Magic AB and it’s made by the good people at Sample Magic.

Next up, use your trim or gain plugin to set all files to -15 (this step is totally a taste thing, but I do it on every single mix… You may prefer to skip this, but good gain staging is crucial and too many songs come my way recorded too hot. This helps me to start on the right foot.)

*I use Clip Gain in Pro Tools (using a third party plugin called Defaulter). 

After I set my gain staging, I’ll select all of the audio tracks, create a group called client audio, and pull all of their faders down to around -20 or so. Some mixers prefer to have all of the tracks off when they start their rough mix, however, I prefer to have everything audible (at least slightly when I begin to push the faders up and feel out the song).

Once the initial gain staging is complete, I’ll check for the session’s tempo. 

You could request this from the producer, but it’s just as easy (most of the time) to tap the tempo in your DAW using a click track. 😉

Next up, I’ll place markers beginning with “Song Start” followed by V1, Pre-Chorus, Chorus/Hook, V2, Bridge, etc… All the way through to the end which I’ll label “The End”.

All labeled and ready to go? Awesome! Next…

Rough Mix

Let’s push the faders up starting with the lead vocal, the drum tracks (or beat), moving on to the bass and other instruments until you have a nice rough mix taking shape. This process also includes your basic panning decisions. Don’t stress too much about EQ, compression or any effects at this point.

Now that we have some music happening, let’s evaluate the song and the files we’ve been given. I find this to be a crucial step, especially when we’re dealing with home or project studio recordings.

Identify the strengths and weaknesses either via pad and paper, or my preferred method, via a free app called Wunderlist. (This is also the app I like to use for both my revision notes and the clients. You can share the list with them and keep in touch all within one app. Did I mention that it’s free?) 😉

Wunderlist in the app store

Wunderlist for Android

Some of the initial questions I’ll ask myself about the song are:

What are the main elements that need to stand out for this song? Vocals? Drums? Any main instrument lick or part that carries the tune?

Vocal quality? Can I give the song a hifi vocal or am I going to have to get creative with effects?

Low end… Is the song calling for the kick or bass to dominate the low end? Maybe both with some side-chain comp or leveling via something like Wavesfactory Trackspacer or Fab Filter Pro MB?

Am I going to replace the drums? Blend samples? I’ll take care of this before moving on as well.

Do I have any instruments where I’ve been given a D.I. and need to create guitar or bass tones? (Hopefully, not!)

What is the arrangement like? Busy? Well arranged? Is there anything that just doesn’t belong and can be muted?

How’s the tuning of the vocals? Do they need pitch correction? If so, have you discussed whether it would be an added cost with the client? If not, remember this for next time. Be sure to have the conversation about any editing during the mixing process up front. Be clear on your website and in communication BEFORE you begin “mixing”.

How do the drums and other multi-mic’d instruments sound? Getting the phase relationships right (or at least better) up front can prevent some mixing headaches.

For drums and other multi-mic’d instruments, I give you: Auto-Align from Sound Radix.

I prefer to handle any production/recording correction changes (phase, guitar amps, etc.) BEFORE I dive too deep into the mix. These things tend to create a distraction for me personally when I try and address them as I go, so I find making a list and knocking them out up front can help smooth out the actual “mixing” part of mixing.

Ready to mix? Me too!

I use a top down approach to mixing that is both widely accepted and frowned upon. I don’t preach that anyone should do things my way, but this is my checklist so I’ll explain the way I do things. 😉

Once I have my rough mix in place and the editing and prep is out of the way, I like to pull open my stereobuss (AKA, the 2buss, submaster, mixbuss, etc) and adjust my chain of plugins to taste.

Want to see a video about my stereobuss processing? You got it!

I have an updated version and TONS more content inside of my membership site called The Mix Academy. Check that out here: https://themixacademy.com/

I like to make my console (DAW) have a lot of bottom end and some top from the get go. By adding some processing to my stereobuss I find that I have to do slightly less work at the track level. This is a common practice among top mixers, such as Andrew Scheps.

My last note about the stereobuss is that it’s totally a taste thing! Try mine, tweak to taste, find out what others do OR simply ignore it and leave it to mastering. Experiment and find out what works best for you.  

Moving on from the stereobuss, I like to get my basic lead vocal sound and then move onto drums. I’m a guitarist and I like to say that I think all guitarists are frustrated drummers. It’s definitely the case for me, but I love drums, so I start with making the drums sound great as a mixer because I can’t play very well in real life. Lol

From drums and the lead vocal, I like to get the kick and bass playing nicely.

Depending upon the genre, the next several steps involves mixing the instruments against the foundation of the drums and bass while keeping the vocal in place to ensure that it remains important. Depending upon the song and genre this will vary.

After I have a solid mix with my compression and EQ going, I like to commit myself for as long as needed to the lead vocal.

Vocals

My vocal mixing process begins with some basic gain staging (clip gain in Pro Tools), EQ (high-pass filter, if needed), some slight compression before establishing my parallel compression chain if the song calls for it.

From here, I like to evaluate the S’s and breaths. If they need work I will either manually bring them down OR use iZotope’s de-breath plugin and Fab Filter’s De-esser. While these are my go-to choices, your stock plugins will also work great. 😉

Once the breaths and s’s are dealt with I will often do some clip gain automation by hand. Here’s what I mean: 

From here I like to apply some subtle layers of vocal effects. I’ll pull open some gentle chorus, mono Dimension D, slap delay, and usually a bit of the H3000 micro-shift style effect using the Sound Toys MicroShift.

Here’s another video featuring a quick and dirty vocal mixing process:

Sounding like a record? It should!

At this point I would go back to my stereobuss and get my buss compressor going to provide the all mighty “glue” that we associate with buss compression. My buss compressor changes from song to song, but I’ve really been happy with the Vertigo VSC-2 from Plugin Alliance.

Here’s a video I did where I walk through setting up your buss compressor: 

A few final thoughts about the first mix…

When I get an idea for automating an effect or EQ or whatever, I try to knock out anything that will take less than five mins right away. For example, if I’m mixing an acoustic guitar, and I feel like I need some more top end at the chorus, I will quickly automate an EQ to give me more top just at the chorus. That’s quick and easy. However, If I have an idea to re-create my sub frequencies by duplicating, side-chaining and whatever else, I may make a note of that idea so I don’t forget it, but move on and come back once the more important tasks are completed. I’m a big fan of the 80/20 rule when mixing. Also, a good habit to get into is Parkinson’s Law. My buddy Graham Cochrane of The Recording Revolution has a great article about each of these:

80/20 in mixing

Parkinson’s Law

Drum Automation

While I do some of my drum automation throughout the mixing process, I also try and evaluate the drums towards the end of my first mix to see if some automation to the kick, snare or toms may help create some added energy or excitement. Here’s an example of this process: 

Low-End Automation

Could the song maybe benefit from the bass guitar or synth having slightly less low end at the verses? Then maybe unleashing the full lows at the chorus? I do this often, and I love it. I think you will too. Give it a try! Here’s an older video (forgive my cheesiness) as an example: 

Effects Automation

I love automation… I’ve covered it a ton on our YouTube Channel. Sometimes I automate effects throughout the mixing process and sometimes I catch things towards the end of my first mix. However, I rarely forget to search for any missing gaps where delay or verb or modulation automation could help add something to the song.

This is an excellent way to put your “stamp” on a song. Your use of effects can help you to stand out or keep you sounding like everyone else. Take Jaycen Joshua for instance… The dude absolutely rocks his use of delays and effects. I know his name mostly because of his “stamp” (and the fact that he’s been on Pensado’s Place a few times. Lol).

Stereobuss Automation

A great “trick” for adding punch, energy, dynamics (or at least the impression of dynamics) is to automate the volume and width of your stereobuss. What I’ll sometimes do is pull the overall volume of my stereobuss down to -1db. Then, I’ll lift the pre-chorus to -0.5 and then let the song explode back up to 0 at the chorus/hook. I love this trick! Experiment with this… Sometimes you may only need to go down -0.5 to get the desired impact.

*Word of caution! This could be your master fader, however if your DAW is similar to Pro Tools, the master fader may be pre-insert which would change your signal going INTO your stereobuss processing. This could be desired, but probably not. 😉 For this reason, I (and many mixers) will use a stereo aux track for the stereobuss track/fader.

For added width at the chorus you may try adding a stereo imaging plugin like the Waves S1 to your stereo buss and automating an additional 10-15% at the chorus/hook. I typically use the S1 for an added 10-15% as a default so in that case I’d automate an additional 10% or so. Sometimes I will automate my ALL MUSIC buss for more width instead. More on that and so much more at The Mix Academy.

Printing Mix 1

I have a very specific process that includes a very important rule. The rule is to never send a mix to a client at night or after a long mixing session. I always wait until the morning after I’ve taken a few notes and I’m “happy” with the results. If you’re not happy with your mix, chances are your client will find things wrong with it. Let’s give them our best and put ourselves through the revision process before they even hear it.

My printing process:

Bounce and label Song Name [DGR Rough 1]

While this may not be a true “rough mix”, this is how I label things to keep my personal revision process separate from my client’s revisions.

2. Add the file to my personal Dropbox folder so I can reference in my car, on my iPhone buds, and on other playback systems.

3. Listen on multiple playback systems AND TAKE NOTES (remember the app, Wunderlist? 😉

4. Sleep on it… Yep! Don’t touch the song immediately if you can justify waiting. Some deadlines don’t allow for us to wait, but it can be a huge benefit to the record so I try and do this as often as possible.

5. Wake up and listen to music. Could be anything… Same genre, different genres… I just like to get in the mood with something other than my current project.

6. Personal mix revisions.

Once you hit your notes, it’s time to send the official [Mix 1] to the client. I label things in brackets like this: Song Name [Mix 1].

I use Dropbox for a lot of my independent clients… I like the new commenting feature, but I try to encourage my clients to download Wunderlist so we can keep in touch through the app. I can’t say enough good things about this app. 🙂

When the client submits their notes, I’ll open up the session and IMMEDIATELY “Save Session As”. I’ve found this to be a valuable step to help keep track of session data. While we all dread the revision process and its potential to drag on, this one simple step could prevent future headaches. If you get to mix 7 or 8 and the client suddenly says they really liked the bass at mix 2, you have instant access to your processing from mix 2. Trust me when I say to do this. Maybe you want to label things differently than I do, that’s totally FINE, just remember to save as.

Here’s the last video of the day to cover how I “finish” a mix:

I could write an entire book about this, but I hope you’ve enjoyed the information shared here.

Whether you’re a home studio hobbyist or an aspiring professional, I care and want to help you succeed with your art.

If you enjoyed this and are hungry for more I’d like to invite you to check out my membership site called The Mix Academy

In The Mix Academy, I help mixers and producers just like you to take their mixing to the next level.

Here’s a quick rundown…

Does “practice makes perfect” apply to mixing music?

Well, sort of.

Music is art. Art is subjective. What I like, may not be what you like. You may love a bunch of tight and punchy subs in your kick drums when someone else may despise sub-heavy kicks. It’s the beauty of taste and opinion.

However, practice does make for better mixes. Much better!

Which is why I created The Mix Academy. My exclusive online mixing community.

Have you ever wanted to watch over the shoulder of a professional mixer while he (or she) mixed a song from start to finish? Tracking their every move so you could learn as much as possible? How about having the chance to get your hands on the same files as them so you could replicate what you learned and tweak to your taste? Well…

The Mix Academy may be exactly what you’ve been looking for! 

As a member, each month you’ll get access to a new song with included multitracks and my start to finish mixing tutorials.

Here’s a breakdown of the monthly activities:

Week 1: Download the multitracks & tutorials (streaming with mobile is also available)

Week 2: Tips, tricks, and mix revision tutorials.

Week 3: Artist/Producer Interview

Week 4: Coaching Call with myself and The Mix Academy Madmen

If that’s not enough, we have a private Facebook community and more all waiting for you inside of the site.

Oh… Did I mention that I include your choice of one of my premium training courses included free with your membership? 😉

Learn more and check out The Mix Academy, today!

Did you learn something awesome? Which parts stick out the most to you? Do you have a similar process? I’d love to hear from you in the comments below.

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Join the discussion 27 Comments

  • Robert says:

    David, I have no words. Except “thank you”. Really, thank you.

  • Mark Edgeller says:

    David,

    You’ve absolutely hit the nail on the head with this. I wish more mixers would post articles like this. When you reach a certain point in your development you need less actual mixing tips and more workflow guidance. I know recently I’ve slowed down on the “how to make my bass sit better” and sped up on the “doing a mix from start to finish” stuff.

    This will now be absolute gold for me as a proven method that works for a Pro. And the beautiful thing is, you’ve spelled out all of the bits that are simply “flavour”, or “I do it this way, you may find a better way for you”. I will most definitely be sharing.

    Once again man, absolute gold. Keep doing what you do.

    Mark Edgeller
    Ghost Sound

  • Sam Ayers says:

    Thank you so much, David! This article and all the included videos and tutorials will help me tremendously! You’re the man!

  • Mikael Mbenga says:

    Thanks Dave!

    I’ll be joining the Academy soon.

  • Vinnie V. says:

    David,

    I really like the list you have made as well as all your ” Tips and Tricks”
    that you use during your mixing process. I agree with you about saving your rough mixes by using a numerical label titling process , I have been doing that for years and it really does work well. This gives you instant access at any point in the timeline of the song, be it starting the creative building process or final mixing for print, you always have the option of going back in time (so to speak) and using any work or performance that you previously recorded or captured.
    David you are an enormous wealth of information! I commend you and thank you for all you are doing and have done to share with others in the world!

    Sincerely,

    Vinnie V.

  • Jeff says:

    Probably a stupid question, and I think already know the answer, but when you are using Defaulter are you setting it to peak or RMS?

    • David Glenn says:

      Hi Jeff, not a stupid question at all. I set it to peak for my initial gain staging. A friend of mine has experimented using the RMS function in mastering. He’ll apply it to the chorus of the song, note the clip gain change required to achieve the desired RMS and then undo the defaulter processing. Next, he’ll apply that adjustment to his overall clip gain.

      Thanks for the comment!
      David

      • Jeff says:

        Thanks David! I ended up buying Defaulter and giving it a go. I am just a beginner and am trying to mix a song that I got from Mixoff.org just for practice. I did indeed figure, and use the peak level for the setting, but for the heck of it tried RMS to see what would happen. The files in the project are pretty hot with most of the waveforms pegged. When I put the RMS setting for the Kick track to -15 Defaulter turned the track up by over 8 db! Not what I wanted! LOL

        Thanks for getting back to me and for all that you do to help educate us little guys!

  • Rob Mayzes says:

    Such an awesome article!

    I really love the emphasis on automation.

    I’d like to link to this article on my website, if that’s cool with you? I think it would be a great resource for a lot of my readers 🙂

    Thanks David!

  • Ben Rico says:

    Whether music production is your day job, or you are just starting out, there is alot of great information here. As engineers, there are so many things we do throughout the process of a mix/composition/production. For home studio owners and bedroom producers, this can be a tremendous checklist to memorize and execute correctly on a daily basis for every project that you encounter. Even if you have an assistant, the truth is that this is a great checklist for anyone striving for better efficiency, more professionalism, and quicker results. Following this checklist throughout the process of your project(s), will definitely help keep you on track to meet your mixing/production goals.

  • Pete Woj says:

    David has done it again! Here is an extremely intuitive, helpful and useful tool that will help any Audio Engineer excel in any studio environment. Best of all its simple. As an Audio Engineer, I’m constantly searching for new ways/new tools to make my job easier and to help me be a better Mix Engineer for my clients. THIS CHECKLIST is one of those invaluable tools that I’ve adopted into my own workflow. We all strive to be as efficient as possible when working and this checklist helps us do just that… Time is money in any studio setting. This wonderful checklist saves me time, money and helps me deliver the best mixes possible to my clients. I highly urge you all to incorporate this into your workflow! 🙂

  • Sai says:

    Hey David, your tutorials are a big help to me. Everytime I watch one of them, I get to learn something new. A big thanks for your effort.
    I just have a small query about the mix process described above. As you say that the basic pan decisions should be included in the rough mix itself. So I think that giving the elements their own space in the stereo field gives them a separation even if there are frequency overlaps, or they would have masked each other if they were coming from the same space. That’s great. But what happens when the mix is played in mono, in the radio, or in the mobile speakers, do they not get masked?
    What I try to do is that first of all I try to separate the elements by equalizing in mono, or without any pan, and only then I take my pan decisions.
    I’m pretty much new to mixing and stuff, so just wanted to ask.

  • Leslie says:

    hey David,
    Thank you so much. It is very helpful!
    I have one question tho, because I don’t have the right mics for recording a bass guitar, I decided to just use the stock bass sound in Logic ‘Fingerstyle Bass’. The problem is that I don’t really know how to mix this bass right. When I try to mix the bass, all I end up with is a low sub sound, but I don’t hear the strings unless I solo the bass… Could you maybe give me some tips/tricks on how to do this right?
    Thanks in advance and again, your tuts are very helpful!

  • Jurado says:

    Ok this giveaway is amazing and just what I needed. I was hoping for advice regarding gain staging… My understanding is: to avoid feeding insert plugins a signal that is too hot, which can overload the master output, we lower each tracks audio signal before it enters any plugins or fader? To do this correctly I require a ‘VU’ meter which reads a particular signal that needs to be reduced to -18dbFS?… So, if for example I had a 24 bit vocal recording with: RMS -16.50dB and True Peak: -8.30dB. How do I use this information to decide what gain staging to apply and how do I apply this? Thanks again for this guide DG and hopefuly folks can advice me.

  • Robert McC says:

    Would you say the S1 plugin can make any centre instruments loose it’s punch? I may be imagining it, or maybe I should trust my ears more. I love what it does at the chorus, but I feel like the snare looses its punch a bit

  • Jurado says:

    Hi folks. Maybe someone may advise me if what I am doing is essentially the same as what DG advises, i.e: “Next up, use your trim or gain plugin to set all files to -18″… I use Cubase which has (as I’m sure all daws do) a pre-fader gain. Rather than use a trimer plugin what i do is: Set all tracks to 0, play the whole track so the highest level is recorded by the meters, then adjust the pre-fader gain so the next play through all peaks reach -18.

  • This is a fantastic guide, thanks so much David!

  • David, you are a wonderful teacher, thank you. I’ve been trying to work in frequent referencing during my mixing more and more. I’ve been using Spotify or itunes but I’d like to try bringing refs into the session as you do. What I’m missing is how I can listen to the references without my processed stereo bus in the chain. I guess I’m missing it in your videos. Can you pleas explain? Thanks again!

  • Jeff says:

    Great stuff as usual David!
    I have been building a personal set of checklists, over the course of a couple of years now. One each for Pre-production, Recording, Editing, Mixing, Mastering.
    This will be a great addition to my Mixing notes (Kept in Evernote).
    I have to continue to remind myself to stick to the script!
    I have a tendency to go off the script and “cowboy” a mix. Then I’ll realize I’ve been chasing my tail. At that point, I go back to the list and pick up where I left off.
    Blessings!

  • Jeff says:

    I want to second the instruction you gave about sleeping on a mix before sending it to the client.
    It took me a while to learn that one. I sent several mixes to different clients (after a long mix session) and regretted it, every time!
    I’d listen back to obvious things out of balance, too bright/thin, vocals poking out and ask myself – “What was I thinking???”

  • sam anto says:

    Informative one. Right now some online sound mixing and sound mastering sites are available. Like clfsound is one of the best site that offering that mixing and mastering services

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