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When you listen to a beautiful sounding song on the radio, the one thing that would come to a person who is interested in audio is that “how did they make a mix sound so perfect”.
It’s always been a mystery for people to understand how mixing is done in a step by step process.
If you take a song that you don’t like and compare it with a song that you do like, you can come to very deep levels of understanding of how your ears judge music.
For an ordinary person, a professional sounding mix will sound like any other song. They won’t be able to say this is a well-mixed song or not.
Only an audio engineer will be able to say that because of the hours of work they put into learning mixing and putting it into practice.
This is why every artist has a dedicated mixing engineer in place and they hold on to them till the end of their career.
Steps required for a professional-sounding mix,
· Sound selection
· Chords and soundscape
Sound selection is important to get a good mix for equalization.
Chords and soundscape are also needed to be addressed as they help in harmonizing the song properly.
The arrangement helps in making the mixing process simple.
Mixing plays a huge role in making the song sound good.
If exported properly the song or mix can be mastered to be released as a commercial song.
Understanding mixing is one thing and at the same time, having the ability to mix a song so that it sounds good is a new world. This is why mixing engineers are paid huge sums of money from artists.
In this article, I will walk you through the process of how mixing engineers get a good sounding mix in a studio. Let’s get started shall we?
Most people ignore this step when they start to talk about getting a good sounding mix. The sounds that are selected in the song contribute to how they get together in making the song sound amazing.
When selecting sounds you should have a basic idea of how they are going to sit in the mix as well. Having this bird’s eye view while selecting sounds will ensure that you are on the right track to getting a great sounding mix.
Some steps can be taken to make sure that you are staying on the lane to use the best sounds.
· Emphasize drums
Even before instruments were born the first basic element of music is a beat. The rhythm came first before the harmony. That’s why you will see people moving to the rhythm as soon as the beat comes on.
The essential part of a rhythm is the drums.
Each drum section has a lot of sounds that are involved. A simple drum beat has a kick, high hat, closed and open high hat, low tom, mid tom, and high tom.
If you don’t put more emphasis on the drums even if the harmonies are better, the song won’t carry energy at all.
Drums hold all the energy in a song. If the kick isn’t hitting properly then your mix won’t sound right at all.
· Don’t use repurposed samples
Samples are an integral part of putting together an audio track. The biggest mistake that might keep you away from getting a good mix is the fact that you are using repurposed samples from compressed and used mixes.
You should always look for samples that are new and dynamic.
Samples from old drum machines and instruments are sometimes too crushed and won’t give you a bigger sound like how you would expect it to help you. This would deteriorate the quality of the mix big time.
Samples that are crisp without any compression and have the natural reverb are the best ones to use for a great sounding mix.
· Make your bass hit harder
The next very important aspect of a song is the bass after drums. If the bass sample that is selected is not clean and has a fuzzy sound, then the whole mix would get affected by it.
This would make the mix sound muddy without clarity. A bass sound should have a good 150 – 200Hz frequency range which isn’t muddy at all.
You can follow certain principles to make your bass hit harder as well. One of these methods includes adding a side chain to kick.
This would give a thumping effect when used extensively. A nominal amount will give a great sounding bass.
This bass sound after side chain can be further enhanced by adding a saturation plugin over the top of that.
· Use high-quality sample libraries
After sample selection, it’s time for sample libraries. You will use a lot of libraries to use orchestral and complex sounds. Opting for low-quality sample libraries would result in mixes that are thin and not broad.
To get a great sounding mix, we are going for a broad spectrum of sounds that fills the sonic space of a song. This gets the listener hooked on it for a long period. This even makes them listen to the song again and again.
High-quality sample libraries can sometimes even take an average sound to a different level. Yes, a small sample swap can do magic to your mixes.
Chords and soundscape
if sounds makes up one half of the portion in making a song sound better, then the other half would have proper music theory backing it up. Without proper music theory, even well organized and selected sounds would sound like garbage.
You have to have well-written music to mix and take it to the next level. Learning music theory will be a hard task to do if you are starting from scratch but it would be a walk in the park nowadays because of the number of resources available to give you a crash course on music theory.
Let’s look at a few things to make sure they are right before starting to write music.
· Use complimentary chords
Chords are a fundamental part of a song. If you want to have a great sounding mix, you should have great sounding chord patterns as well.
There are already varieties of chord patterns that you can use, that are readily available for you to download. Starting somewhere you are comfortable within music theory would make you not write rubbish music.
You will have more control over the chords and get a great sounding mix in the end. You don’t have to write 8 complex chords at all. You have to write 4 easy complementary chords that sound good together and will fit well together.
· Sound Design with the end in mind
If finding the chords is done, the next part would be to put the sounds together with the help of various sound design tools. The biggest mistake people make here is that they don’t consider the fact that they already have good chords and sounds.
They try to complicate things by doing too much sound design after sound selection. Excessive Manipulation of sounds too much will cause chaos in the mix. This will even further add muddiness.
One possible outcome of too much sound design is that the actual sounds, in the end, will not get together to mix properly.
Having an idea about who your mix and sound design should be in the end will help a bunch in making a great sounding mix.
· Keep the chords simple
Yes, the 7ths chords and complex 11th chords sound better. You don’t have to make the chords that are that much complicated to get better sounding mixes at all. The problem that occurs while going with a complex chord is the fact that it restricts your capability to explore different possible variations that might be easily available when using simple cards.
You are bound to end up creating problems in the harmony of the song. This is one of the reasons that all the modern songs all have only 4 simple chords that are repeated over and over again. This ensures that the mix is simple and clean.
Arrangement of a song is so much more important when it comes to getting a professionally sounding mix.
It takes so much effort to arrange a song sometimes and people forget that they have to optimize their arrangement for mixing as well. To get a great sounding mix, it has to be optimized as well.
Great arrangements will give the mix more depth and clarity. It extenuates each element of the arrangement by giving priority to each section of a song. This makes sure that the listeners can hear and enjoy every single element in a song.
Let’s look at some tricks to make sure we get a good arrangement for a great mix.
· Have an interesting start
Having an interesting start to a song changes the dynamics of how people perceive the song. When you look at how people are listening nowadays.
They only listen for a maximum of about 7 -9 secs before pressing the skip button. Catching their attention before they press the skip button with an interesting start makes the song have an outstanding mix.
One such technique is to start with a narrow sound that seems like mono and then expands to the fuller sound which is in stereo. Many songs nowadays try to use these clear mix techniques to grab the audience’s attention.
· Don’t repeat the same loops
Unless it is hip-hop or a trap mix, never repeat the same loop throughout the trap, this makes the mix sound loopy and blunt. No matter what you have in the mix, you would always end up with a mediocre song.
Even with a trap mix, allowing certain loops to fade out and fade in throughout the mix would make a significant difference in the way the mix sounds as well.
Loops are a blessing to the mix and at the same time, they can be a literal horror story to the mix by ruining the flow of the song.
When you are using a loop always make sure it’s not repeating more than 9 seconds continuously.
· Always add and subtract
If a mix is simple, even with fewer effects it would sound amazing. This is one amazing solution that is being used by countless mixing engineers.
They manipulate the arrangement by adding and subtracting the number of elements that are currently present in a mix and by reducing them it gives a lot of space for other elements of an arrangement to shine through.
You will be amazed at how much difference this can make to a mix. Sometimes a small number of elements can make a mix sound big and professional when compared to 100 track big mixes.
Bringing in and out an arrangement is crucial to keeping the flow going as well.
· Add drops and raises
Drops are nothing but places where you hear all the elements of the song and it will sound huge when compared to all other sections of a song. The raises are nothing but 7 secs before a drop.
These raises involve noises and slowly increasing pitched synth sounds which build pressure in the song and releases with a sub drop and starts with a drop.
The significance of adding a drop and raise makes the song sound full. The contrast between a fully crowded region in a mix and a less crowded region in a mix diversifies the sweetness of the song and takes it to another level.
Mixing is a complex process when it comes to making music and publishing it commercially to the public. You have to have a killer mix to stand out from the crowd for your music to tell a story.
As we discussed above, having a good sound selection and arrangement are only a part of getting the bigger professional sound.
The most important section is how we process the arrangements with the properly crafted and selected sounds; this impacts the overall result that we will get at the end of the mix while exporting.
Let’s look at the mixing strategy step by step shall we,
· Select a reference track
When you are spending too much time mixing a track, this can be in a headset or a studio monitor. Our ears will start to tire out and the ability to judge the mix will soon start to dwindle.
This can be overcome by using a reference mix that you hear and compare to your actual mix. This is an awesome technique to always ensure your mixes are kept in check while starting the mixing session.
Choosing a reference track might be hard at first. But once you have an idea of what is a good mix. You can easily choose a proper sounding mix and use it as a gauge to analyse how your mixes are sounding.
· Do proper gain staging
Gain staging or levelling is a process in which the different elements in a song are made to be in a proper volume level. If all the elements of a song are in different volume levels then the song wouldn’t sound great at all.
This is something that you have to consider while doing the mixing. Always make sure all your elements in the mix are under -12db and that throughout the mixing process they are kept under -6db.
The process of gain staging will allow the mastering engineer to have enough space to execute his mastering techniques, to get to the optimum level of the peak volume desired for a good listening experience.
· Take care of Bus routing
Bus routing is an under-rated step in the mixing process. If you are not familiar with it, it’s the process by which certain main elements or instruments in a song are passed through another track to effectively be a source to add effects and manipulations to it.
Bus routings can be an easy way to completely mix a song without being worried about how you are going to mix a 100 track song. You can route all similar elements into 7 busses and manage them very efficiently.
This is a game-changing feature for simplifying the number of tracks in a project to mix them thoroughly.
· Compress tracks in stages
When you have a large track with 100 elements in it, it’s really hard to even start to compress every element. This is where we can use step by step compression and hone in on specific elements of a mix.
Compression is nothing but the reduction of dynamics in an element or instrument of a song by lowering the gap between the peak volume and the lowest volume.
Compression usually makes the song to sound flat. When it’s overdone this can easily ruin a complete song.
On a given level, it optimizes the elements to stick together in a song.
· Filter un-necessary frequencies
Equalizing is a process by which un-necessary frequencies can be removed from the frequency spectrum of an instrument that has been recorded. This can add space for an instrument and create pockets of space for new instruments to come as well.
This process of filtering unwanted frequencies will help in the clash between the instruments to settle down.
This extenuates the instruments to shine through in the mix. The low cut and high cut are usually being used in the normal mixing process.
Resonant frequencies are also being removed throughout the song to make it sound bigger and better in the mix.
· Add effects for saturation
Saturation is one of those techniques which doesn’t make much difference to what It does to the track but creates a significant boost in how the track is being perceived by people.
This is because adding saturation creates richness in the mix and makes it pop throughout all the elements.
Saturation increases the harmonics in a song. This makes the irregular harmonics to shine through.
You will get interesting sound shapes when using a saturation effect in the audio production software.
This makes it pretty easy to overcome harmonics issues as well.
· Check your low end
Everyone will concentrate on the high end and the mid-range of a song or a track to get a good mix but they will completely ignore the low end to a great extent.
This is one of the most common mistakes beginners make in mixing as well. The low end adds power to the mix and makes the song have a soul. Without the soul of the song, you cannot add emotion to it.
If you don’t clean the frequencies in the low end, it will cause rumble when played in any speakers. This is why a 30HZ low cut is used to take out the entire inaudible rumble from a mix.
· Proper parallel compression
This is one of the alternative methods used along with the saturation plugin to add creative effects and thickness to the mix.
Saturation adds harmonics, while parallel compression adds a lot of thickness to the mix to make it sound better. This can be done by using return tracks in audio production software.
All the elements of a project are run through a return bus tracks and completely compressed parallel to create a thick layer of the song adding punch along with the harmonics from the saturation.
· Reverb and delays
Once upon a time, audio platforms used to be in a complete mono format. Now everything has shifted and things are in right and left stereo format. Even with headsets you can listen to the right and left side of a mix.
The reverbs and delays are used to add dimension to a song along with panning.
The reverb creates a space around the elements based on which material or room it bounces off. This adds character to the elements in a mix.
There are different types of reverbs such as hall reverbs, room reverbs and plate reverbs are used across songs.
The delays rule the vocals in a mix to make it sound amazing. Without delays nowadays it’s hard to find vocals. Carious delays such as Ping-Pong delays are used to add dimension to the mix.
Even if all the above steps are done right, if the export is messed up things will make a big U-turn. When you are exporting a mixed song you have to make sure that the song is completely under the level of -6db.
This makes sure that the mastering engineer who is going to work on this track or mix will get enough space to work on it.
Normally exporting all the main tracks into one and all the return tracks into one are followed before sending it for mastering.
If you are going to master yourself, you can take a complete export along with all the return tracks and use it.
How do I make my song more professional?
Making a song sound professional is not as simple as it sounds. It requires several hours put in to crafting every sonic element of the song. Mixing and mastering play a major role in making a song sound professional.
Why do my mixes not sound professional?
Making a mix sound professional takes a lot of practice and ear training. It’s hard for anyone to start professionally mixing music. Understanding the process of mixing is one-half and training your ears to find the issues is another half of the process.
How do you make a big sound mix?
Big sounding mixes have amazing special effects that make things sound big. This is usually due to reverb and delays that are run parallel over the actual live sound.
Big sounding mixes are popular in various genres of music like pop and electronic dance music.
What makes a great mix?
A great mix is completely balanced in terms of how the frequency of all the instruments in the mix is spread out. It’s pleasant to listen to and doesn’t cause irritation or discomfort. Great mixes sound well in all media players and speakers.
Sometimes even following a procedure is enough to get a decent mix. If you are mixing for the first time, don’t sweat it too much. It takes years of experience to do it with confidence.
Until then, it’s a game of figuring out how mixing works in different types and genres of music.
You might also find out that you can skip some steps that we followed in this article and invent your methods to make music.
There are countless ways you can creatively mix your tracks to achieve the desired sound that you want. In case of mixing you should never be afraid to fail.
You can follow the steps provided in the article to create a simple mind map for your future mixes and get great results as well.