***UPDATE: I turned this blog post into a proper PDF guide!
***The following information is not going to turn you into a professional mixer overnight. I guarantee you that only after 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 at __ bpm]”
-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 REFERENCE and it’s made by the good people at Mastering the Mix.
Next up, use your trim or gain plugin to set all files to -20 (this step is totally a taste thing, but I do it on every single mix… You may prefer to skip this or vary the level that you start with, 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.)
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”. If I’m completely honest, I don’t label as much as I should nowadays. Once you’ve been at this for awhile you can pretty quickly identify where the different parts of the song are. Markers can still be effective if you like to loop sections, but a “Song Start” and “End of Song” markers are all I really use anymore.
All labeled and ready to go? Awesome! Next…
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. However, I will say that if I hear something that will take less than a minute or so to implement, I may just go ahead and knock it out. This way, I don’t forget it… Good notetaking can be valuable here as well.
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?) 😉
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.
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:
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:
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).
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 the mixing process, 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: Live Q&A via Facebook
Week 4: Webinar/Coaching Call
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?
Don’t wait to take your mixes to the next level. 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.
Make Your Next Mix Your Best Mix with The VIP Mix Training Bundle...
($27 Free Today)
Download my exact mix template, resume building multitracks from multiple genres, reverb impulse response libraries, and more. All to help you find the right path to better mixes.