If you‘re an electronic music producer and you want to get better at mixing, this episode of Pick Yourself is exactly what you need. I‘m going to walk you through 5 steps that will help you create better mixes than ever.
Creating better mixes isn‘t as hard as you think
First of all, let me clarify a few things: If you want to get better at mixing, all you need is patience, dedication, and a strong will to learn. It‘s not going to happen overnight, but I promise you that if you follow my five steps here, you will improve your mixing skills quite a lot.
Contrary to many articles out there, here‘s what you don‘t need:
- Expensive equipment: You don‘t need fancy analog gear or the latest and greatest plugin. Actually, the stock tools that come with your DAW are highly sophisticated. It doesn‘t hurt to have a few external plugins, but gear matters less than you might think.
- An acoustically treated studio room: I won‘t lie – it helps a lot to have a well-treated space with great speakers, of course. But if you‘re not in the lucky position of having a dedicated studio room, it won‘t prevent you from mixing great songs. If a pro like Andrew Scheps can mix major label productions on headphones, why can‘t you?
- A degree in sound-engineering: Mixing is more a creative task than a technical one. The most boring mixes I‘ve heard come from people who focus too much on technical perfection. Yes, you should have a least basic knowledge about things like sample rate, bit depth, and why you shouldn‘t go above 0dBFs on your master bus. But the great thing is that most of this knowledge is available for free and you don‘t need to study music production or sound-engineering for that.
Why improving your mixing skills is important
Even if you don‘t plan to mix your own songs for the final release but plan to hire a professional mixing engineer instead, you should try to improve your skills. This will help you figure out what separates good mixes from bad ones and which engineer to hire. Moreover, it can be a blessing when it comes to doing mix-revisions. If you speak the same „language“ as the engineer, you will get much more out of the process.
Apart from that, improving your mixing skills will help you make better decisions earlier in the process. One thing you‘ll encounter is that a great mix relies heavily on fantastic sound design. That means that your choices of samples and how you design your synth lines are going to improve as well.
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5 steps to get better at mixing your songs
I‘m now going to share with you the exact formula that has helped my coaching clients. There‘s much more to learn beyond that, of course, but these five steps are a great starting point in your journey of becoming a better mixer.
1. Improve your critical listening skills and use reference-songs
Training your ears is the most important part of the process. You can use ear training apps like Quiztones to get a better understanding of sound frequencies. But there‘s another method I‘ve found to be even more effective: Listen to reference songs by your favorite artists in your DAW and look at the frequencies with the free spectrum analyzer plugin SPAN by Voxengo.
The best thing about this tool is that you can „solo“ certain frequencies by CTRL/CMD-clicking on the spectrum display. This way, it‘s easy to locate the punch of a kick drum or the center frequency of a hi-hat. If you analyze tracks on a daily basis, your critical listening skills as well as your understanding of frequencies will increase dramatically.
Another aspect of critical listening is to connect sonic information with emotions. Start asking yourself questions like this:
- What about this song is making me feel energized/ melancholic/ dreamy/ etc.?
- Why is this lead synth giving me goosebumps on large sound systems?
- How is the arrangement of this song influencing my feeling of tension?
- Why do kick drum and bassline feel like they‘re dancing with each other?
If you want to get better at mixing, improving your critical listening skills is the first step you need to take. Make sure you focus on technical as well as emotional aspects of sound.
2. Learn to use a handful of tools really well
Upcoming music producers get swamped with heavily discounted plugins, endless promo campaigns, and yet another „game-changer“ that is supposed to revolutionize your mixes. Guess what, in the end none of that really matters. Tools can be super helpful, but only if you know how to use them well. And that‘s exactly my point here.
If your goal is to get better at mixing your songs, you should focus on a limited set of tools. Learning a handful of plugins really well always beats having hundreds of tools in your arsenal but only knowing them superficially.
Why a deep understanding of your tools matters
Some plugins are very intuitive to use, others are the exact opposite. A good example for the „learning curve“ that‘s sometimes necessary is a Pultec-style equalizer. Many plugin brands claim to have „nailed“ the original sound. Here are some options:
What‘s interesting here is that most upcoming producer who buy one of these equalizers don‘t have a clue how they actually work. They get them because you‘re „supposed to have one in your plugin collection“. The problem with this is that you have to understand how these knobs are connected and how the different EQ-bands influence each other. Oh, and did I mention that you can boost and cut the same frequency and that this creates a different curve?
It‘s all about entering „flow-state“ and mixing intuitively
Have you ever wondered why professional mixing engineers are extremely fast and get the work done in a couple of hours instead of several days? It‘s because they‘re mixing intuitively. You can only get into this „flow-state“ if you‘re using the same set of tools day in and day out. This is why focusing on just a few plugins but knowing them extremely well is so important.
3. Focus on the 20% that make up 80% of the emotional impact
A very common problem of music producers who want to learn how to mix better is that they focus on the wrong things. They tend to work on small details of a shaker sound while ignoring that the overall balance in their percussion group is completely off. They spend hours tweaking a compressor on their kick drum but they don‘t notice that the sample is simply in the wrong key and clashes with the bass.
When trying to get better at mixing your tracks, you can re-visit the so called 80/20 rule, also known as Pareto Principle. It says that 80% of the effects usually come from 20% of the causes. While the exact numbers might vary from case to case, you‘re still going to find patterns like this in many examples.
The Pareto Principle in Mixing
Mixing is a great example. If you focus on the 20% that make up 80% of the emotional impact of your mix, you‘re on the right track to success. My recommendation is to focus on the following emotional characteristics in a mix:
- Are the lead elements „speaking“ to you as if someone was telling you a story face to face? (Technically: Are the volume levels right and are the correct frequencies of the most important elements emphasized?)
- Does the rhythm-section make you move in your chair? (Technically: Are the micro-and macro-dynamics supporting the groove?)
- Do you feel like the songs is pulling you in and surrounding you? (Technically: Have you created a three-dimensional soundstage from left to right, front to back, and top to bottom?)
If you focus on these „bigger-picture“ questions, you‘re much more likely to get better at mixing compared to someone who works on a single hi-hat for hours.
4. Mix creatively, not technically
This goes hand in hand with the point before. The more you focus on the creative aspects of mixing instead of the technical ones, the more likely you are to create an awesome mix. You shouldn‘t completely neglect the technical aspects but they have to move back a bit when it comes to the actual mixing session. But how do you do this?
Separating the mix-preparation from the actual mixing session
The easiest way to mix creatively is to do separate the mixing session from the mix-preparation. I tend to prepare projects for mixing the evening before I start the mixing session. This way, I can make sure all the technical details are checked before I start mixing so I don‘t have to worry about that anymore. Mix-preparation includes things like:
- Importing files and checking for technical errors
- Making sure bit depth and sample rate are correct
- Labeling and coloring tracks
- Distributing them in my session template according to my preferences
Then, on the next day, I can start the actual mixing session without having to worry about routing, naming, coloring, and what not. This allows me to focus on the creative aspects of mixing.
What „creative mixing“ means
Creative mixing simply means that you focus on enhancing the emotional impact of the song. With music, you‘re always telling a story and mixing is a bit like the design of the book that contains that story. Using the right typography, picking the perfect paper, and choosing great illustrations make a big difference for how the end product feels. Still, the story itself is the most important thing and shiny cover won‘t save a bad book from rotting on the shelves of the bookstore (or Amazon‘s warehouse).
5. Create a clever mix-template
I‘m a big fan of templates. Why? Because they help you mix creatively, as discussed in the point before. A template is a session file in your preferred DAW that you can use as a starting point every time you want to mix a song.
If you want to get better at mixing, I highly recommend you come up with a mixing template. Here are some things you should put in place:
- Create empty tracks that are named and colored in a way that makes sense to you (e.g. red for kick drums, yellow for percussions, purple for bass, etc.).
- Group these tracks in ways that suit your workflow (e.g. having a „percussions“ group with all shakers and hi-hats might be a good idea).
- Create aux-channels (send/ return) and have some reverb and delay effects set up so you can easily send tracks to these channels and get a result.
- Put a safety-limiter on your master-bus that protects your outputs from digital clipping.
Optional: Pre-loading plugins with go-to settings
Some people like to include their favorite plugins with some go-to settings in their mix-template. There‘s nothing wrong with that but you have to be a bit more experienced to know when these settings are causing problems. I don‘t recommend doing this when you‘re just starting out.
Some YouTube tutorials and blogs recommend putting high- and low-cut filters on all channels. This is one of the reasons why I‘m not a fan of learning only from free tutorials. Using filters on all channels can make your mixes sound flat and boring. I sometimes get tracks to master that sound like there was a curtain in front of my speakers. Well, that‘s because the producers have followed this bad advice of using filters on every channel.
Putting it into action: How to get better at mixing
With these five tricks, you‘re going to improve your mixing skills faster than you think. If you run into any obstacles, feel free to reach out for a short, free consultation to find out if my music producer coaching can help you. Apart from that, here are my three action steps for you:
1. Listen critically to the last three songs you‘ve mixed
- Have you managed to focus on the 20% that are most important?
- What could be optimized from a „creative mixing“ perspective?
2. Commit to using a selected set of tools
- Choose a handful of tools you‘ll be using in your next mixes and try to learn them as deeply as possible.
- Don‘t buy any new plugins for the next six months (or longer).
3. Create (or update) your mix-template
- It doesn‘t have to be perfect, just start with a first version and adjust it to your needs over time.
- Stick to a certain color and naming scheme because it helps you make the right moves and mix intuitively.
Alright, that‘s it for this week‘s episode. Now I‘d love to hear from you: What has helped you get better at mixing? What are you still struggling with?
Let me know in the comments, I read everything.
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