How to Mix Music

Achieving the perfect mix

UK, Portsmouth, Man in recording studio
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If you're new to recording, you've probably figured out just how hard it is to get a great mix on your music. Just tracking the songs, pushing the faders up, and treating all things equal is the worst thing you can possibly do for a mix. There's a reason top mixing engineers cost several thousand dollars per song -- it's a definite art to mix! Let's take a look at the basics of what makes a good mix, and how you can best achieve the goal of a good mix at home.

In or Out Of The Box?

A common term you'll hear is "in the box" or "out of the box" when talking about mixing. This is pretty simple -- "in the box" mixing is referring to doing the mix completely within a computer, using a program such as Pro Tools or Logic. "Out of the box" means you're using a mixing board and outboard equipment to do your mix -- the preferred method of top engineers. For our purposes, though, we'll assume you're mixing "in the box" in your favorite software package. Surprisingly, most of the concepts are exactly the same, whichever way you choose to go.

Elements of a Mix

You'll be mixing in two-track stereo as a final product, so here's some things to watch out for.

Mixing in stereo represents the two ears on your head. If you've ever heard a mono recording (common with many live soundboard recordings), you'll notice that there's very little depth to the recording; it sounds very one-dimensional.
You'll want to find ways to use the panning function on your individual tracks to bring depth, focus, and clarity to your recording.

Mixing Drums

The drums are the first element to bring into stereo. Usually, you'll want to mix the drums in true stereo. Whether you mix so that the stereo "image" is from drummer's perspective or from the audience perspective is a matter of your personal taste.
I prefer to mix from listener perspective -- with (for a right-handed drummer) the snare, kick, and center tom in the middle, the overheads panned hard right and left, and the high-hat in the center with a slight nod to the right.

Staying Centered

Several things need to stay in the center of your mix. Bass guitar, for example, usually provides the flowing low-end motion of the song, and needs to stay centered so that it's sending program material into both channels equally. Lead vocals, usually, will want to stay in the center -- and performing a stereo double on choruses and harmonies will give tons of depth.

Mixing Guitars

To give guitars extra depth, consider doubling them, as well; pan each hard right and left. Don't be afraid to have the guitarist ad-lib on the doubles, to add some extra body to the mix.

Mono Compatibility

One thing to watch out for is mono compatibility. If your music might make it on the radio, watch out that it won't collapse when summed to mono. Most interfaces have a "mono" button to allow you to check; just turn that function on and make sure that nothing disappears in your mix when listened in mono. If something disappears, move it around in the stereo field (with the mono function enabled) until it reappears.
Simple as that!

Mixing in stereo isn't that hard -- but making sure you check all your bases before making that final bounce to disk is of very high importance!