Concepts and Tutorials How-To-Guides

Before you start mixing

“How to start mixing” or “how to get started with mixing”. They say “mixing a song can be a daunting process”. If not everything in those articles and videos all over the internet, they are right about this. This made me aware about the many ways people tackle their mixing problems. Some pointers were very concise like an eye opener and some equally vague and surprisingly less beneficial. With so many sources understood and analyzed, one thing is sure.. Its definitely not easy. But it becomes easy. The big picture I made after my research is my own understanding. Everything may not be true but its nonetheless a starting point. As with anything, when you start to do anything, you get used to it. It builds up. You get to know what is what, why and and how all those wheels and cogs spin together to make a so called “a record”.

Puzzle icon. Flat vector illustration. Puzzle game sign symbol

If you are just starting, you may not get good results but whats important is you do it. Share it with the people who can help you see and hear better than you can. Right kind of people now can be found on online forums these days. Its not always true that “good things are not free”. Youtube is a good place but only and only if you have a good eye. There’s plenty for quick fixes but no so much for a long term plan. This playlist of tutorials by Michael White is super loaded with very good and easy to understand information. Some nice places to hang out are LinuxMusicians, PureMix, MixingWithMike, CambridgeMusicTechnology. People here are very friendly and eager to listen and help. But again the million dollar question – “How to go about before mixing a song” or “Clarity for result before you start mixing a track” or “How to start your mixing session” ?

how to start mixing

Before you turn to look for tools for mixing i.e. recording, getting the multi tracks, loading in a DAW and start moving some knobs without thinking.. you need to know –

In what conditions your mix is going to be played.

Some standards are made to make listening experiences somewhat consistent across different ways music is consumed nowadays. Tools and equipment are equally important. They help you reach the final vision you’ve been carrying all this time. But the most important thing you need to understand is that mixing is first of all a mental process. You cannot get a good mix by doing random things like just by placing good expensive plugins over some nicely recorded raws and tweaking until it sounds good even if you have a little idea about what you are doing but no context. They may sound amazing individually but a mix is a combination of all the sound behaving and interacting nicely with each other in various listening environments across different systems. So before you start to do anything, get to know what needs to be done and how to think about it.

Breaking down the thinking process

You want your mixes to sound good on all the ways people listen to music. This cannot be achieved theoretically and practically but we can definitely aim to get close to it. To do that, you need to understand their listening environment and system. This involves finding out:-

  • Who is going to listen to your songs –
    • Common consumers
    • Audiophiles
    • Sound Engineers/ Music Producers
    • Educators, Students
  • Type of audio equipment the mix will be played on –
    • Headphones
    • Bluetooth speakers
    • Car audio system
    • Earphones
    • Bookshelf/Computer Speakers
    • Professional Monitors
    • Home Theatre Systems
    • smartphone/tablet speakers
  • Their listening environment
    • Less stuffed hall room
    • In a quiet place
    • Inside a studio
    • Using a store room heavily packed
    • Restaurants/malls/ some other public places /gatherings/
  • Number of channels in the listening equipment –
    • Mono
    • Stereo
    • 2.1, 5.1, 7.1 etc
  • What are the controls their audio system provides –
    • Volume/gain
    • Bass and Treble controls
    • In-built EQ patches for different genres
  • What mediums your mix will be available in to listen to –
    • Online streaming, Over the network
    • Digital Storage files – mp3, flac etc
    • Physical formats – vinyls, cds

Majority of listeners

If you sit and think, you can categorise music consumers like –

  • Common people
  • Audiophiles and Hi-Fi Listeners
  • Music producers/Audio engineers/Educators

You see here (and through common sense) that majority of the consumers are common people. These people almost don’t care about high fidelity and are satisfied if they can hear melody, lyrics and drums in a track. If 85% of world’s population that listens to music would have opted for exact same listening environment and equipment chain then mixing decisions would have been like facts, commandments from pro-world. But in real world, you can safely assume that variation in the listening equipment and environment is almost equal to number of music listeners. Even though they don’t care much about fidelity and don’t give much attention to their listening setup, its the job of every audio mixing engineer to make sure these people get to enjoy the stuff the artist believe the songs will give.

Majority..

These 85% have music system consists of either computer speaker system, Casual/DJ headphones, popular earbuds, home theatre music system, car music system, smartphone speakers etc. Majority have at least mono and at most 5.1 speaker system which may or may not have separate bass or woofer. Majority of consumer grade systems have treble and bass controls and in some devices, a set of EQ presets for different genres (so they claim). They use internet to stream music, local mp3 and flac like codecs to encode their music files and store them in either their ipod, portable audio player sets or chip-based storage systems.

This variety of music systems makes it a little difficult for music engineers to make a mix which is consistent in experience throughout this equipment spectrum. Hence it is very important to know what these systems are capable of. What they can do, what they cannot. How responsive they are to the sudden hits and how they efficiently handle RMS energy. How faithfully they reproduce the sound the artist intend the music track to. Which frequencies are clean and which are biased or distorted. What are the frequencies that are represented and sounds almost as expected. In what environment they are operating in.

Hence, in short get to know –

  • Other listening equipment
  • Your and their listening environment
  • Channel configuration
  • Controls available
  • Mediums of consumption

You can do this as a passive exercise whenever you find a new system to play music on. You can do it at your friends, at your cousins etc where you are allowed to play music you wish to listen to. Listen to your favourite mixes (which you know from inside out) while taking each point below in consideration. These notes will actually tells you about what to do with your mix in your own system to make it behave good.

Important pointers on how to start doing it –

  • Listening Equipment – note down model for quick reference
  • Limitations of their system. What it can represent properly and what not.
  • Quality of the production – how different the result is from your expectation
  • Listening Environment
    • Highly crowded places actually affects your perception for high freq content of sound. Low frequency/sub-freq content travel a lot easier than high-freq content.
    • In college dorm – not so much crowded but most of the time heavily packed. Kills some high frequencies on speaker systems. Internal hearing system compensates.
    • Store room/garage studios. Bad placement of listening equipment.
  • Channels/Number-of-speakers
    • mono/single speaker acting in some range. Mono Bluetooth speakers.
    • Stereo ear/head phones and 2.1 PC speaker systems
  • Controls
    • Gain – how does it sound on high volumes, how good at low
    • Bass and treble filter controls to alter the sound on freq spectrum
  • Medium Availability
    • Streaming – local network, online music services
      • Quality – lossy, lossless
      • Compression – changing dynamic range
      • Changing bit-rate – radio, over the network
    • Local files – mp3 players, smartphone audio with storage
    • Physical Mediums – Vinyl, CD, DVD, cassettes etc
  • Imaging and Panning
    • What place and how much space individual instrument is taking and how wide and spacey the mix as a whole sound

There’s no control for mids section in any system above.

If you have used a audio frequency spectrum analyzer before, you know what is going on. But if you have not, get a free spectrum analyzer software/plugin, load it on your song and see what frequencies are present in that track. This mid area is approximately from around 350Hz to 6KHz.
This is the area where you have to pay more attention to do your magic with best of your ability as most of the system produces this part of freq spectrum quite well and clean. 90% vocal frequencies lies here. Every instrument/voice should be presented in this frequency range for ears to identify and make any sense on their own. For lows and highs, there are shelves-filters(provided as bass and treble controls) given to apply gain changes.

Human hearing is sensitive to mid frequencies. It remains sensitive to it till death. Highs perception dulls out as we age and Lows become uncomfortable to the ears as well as to the body as we age. Hence its important that mid frequencies must be dealt with extra precision.

Exercise

Take one song you know very well and love(prefer high quality file/stream). Play it on

  • Your computer/studio speaker system.
  • Your earphones
  • Small bluetooth speakers (if you have them)

Find out the difference and similarities in reproduction of music.

  • Individual characteristics – panning, clarity, space acquired
  • How well the song is presented as compared to your internal imaging of that song(your expectation of how image should be)
  • What are the frequencies that are clean and which are muddy
  • What are the frequencies that are cut and which are present
  • Stereo/Mono presentation
  • Similarities
  • Common frequency bands you can hear
  • Instruments you can hear in all these equipments
  • FX you can hear in all of them

It will not happen overnight.

More you do it, more you will improve. Do this consistently as an important exercise. Daily. This exercise is distributed on many levels. The more you start to hear, more difficult it will become to organise all the findings. Since I’m doing this too, for my convenience, I’ve made this a level based exercise where each level explains what you need to do in order to keep an eye on your findings and manage them in the big picture of your listening and decision-making skills and finally giving clarity on how to start mixing.

Overview of these levels –

  • Level 1
    • Explanation – hearing the song on all the mediums one by one. Listen to the song on one equipment for at least a week. When you shift to other equipment, you will hear the differences in the representation almost immediately. If you have started doing this recently, this revelation will exist just for a few moments before your ears start to compensate. You may not be able to keep those few moments in your head for long. Hence, note down your experiences immediately. Note down what you heard before you forget everything. So, sit with a pen and paper every time you do it. Make Notes. Keep them around for later.
    • What to hear with the time you spend on one instrument
      • clarity
      • space taken
      • pan position
      • near or far
      • relative level with respect to all other voices
    • Every instrument/voice you are able to hear
    • Every FX you can hear
    • The stereo imaging
    • Clarity of voices
    • Position of every voice
    • Bass, Mids and Treble Levels.

Note down everything.

  • Level 2
    • Compare findings of one medium to another
    • Similarities, differences
    • Note down the sweet spots – where they represented almost identically. It will somewhat be a compromise and vague but it is an important observation nonetheless.
  • Level 3
    • Make a guide for yourself.
    • Do this passively with every listening environment you encounter. Go through level 1 and level 2 again.
    • Note down what did you find.
    • Make a list of points you found almost similar.
    • What to tackle ?
    • Where things are easy, where they are messy and difficult
    • What you can do to make your mix sound consistent on different equipments.
    • Keep updating it. There’s no end for this exercise because you will see some points getting modified and some remains the same. Focus on what stays same and keep an open mind for new findings.

Before you mix for someone commercially, find some multi-tracks that are available online in public domain and work on them. Keep the released commercial final of those multitrack near-and-ready-to-listen as a reference with you all the time you are spending on those multi-tracks. Remember to listen to it on many listening systems. Share it with people who can help. Do this consistently, you will be glad you did all this and you will definitely find a generalised framework that work for you. 🙂

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