You’ve put in the work, and now have a great song on your hands. Maybe you’ve recorded real instruments, or programmed everything using the free synths and samples available in BandLab Sounds. Either way, the songwriting and recording processes are complete, marking the commencement of the audio mixing phase. Now, it’s time to refine your music and give it that polished, professional edge.
But wait! Are you at the beginning of your mixing journey, and don’t necessarily know what mixing is, or what it entails? No need to fret – we’ve prepared an introductory guide to help you out. Keep reading to learn the basics of how to mix music.
How to mix music: What does mixing even mean?
Mixing is the process of combining a collection of recorded tracks into a cohesive and balanced song. During the mixing process, you begin with anywhere from two to a couple of hundred discrete individual tracks, encompassing elements like synths, bass, drums, and more. By the end of the mix, you have a neat and tidy stereo file ready for mastering.
Make no mistake, the mix is a crucial part of music production. It wields the ability to enhance your composition, propelling it towards magnificence, or, conversely, reducing its vitality upon presentation. Knowing how to mix is an imperative skill if you want to release your original music to the world.
Choosing the right software
Before you start mixing, you’ll need a tool to mix your music with. This tool can be a DAW (digital audio workstation) like BandLab Studio, or a hardware device designed for basic track mixing operations.
The good news is there’s no one correct piece of software. The “right” software is the one you’re already comfortable with. Since you’ve found your way to this blog, we’ll be using BandLab for this tutorial. It’s an excellent choice for beginners, boasting user-friendly features and the convenience of being web and mobile-based, granting you access to your tracks from anywhere. Best of all, it’s free to use – and who doesn’t love free?
The key elements of track mixing
At its core, mixing songs is about achieving balance and eliciting emotion to ensure clarity in what needs to be heard. We do this while keeping the song’s emotional essence at the forefront of creative decisions.
When learning how to mix a song, keep in mind that the basic tools of balancing are volume, panning, EQ, and compression. Volume is a loose term referring to the amplitude, level, or loudness of any given track. Panning dictates a track’s placement within the stereo field, allowing you to position it from left to right. EQ allows you to finetune the frequency balance of each track, whether you want it brighter or darker, meatier or thinner. Compression steps in to smooth out performance dynamics or infuse vigor and impact. You can think of these as your basic balancing tools.
On the other hand, saturation, modulation, and time-based effects are more creative in nature. Saturation involves introducing a controlled level of distortion to alter the character of a sound. Modulation effects such as chorusing, flanging, and phasing offer various means to infuse movement and depth into your mix. Meanwhile, delay and reverb are essential for establishing a sense of space, as well as heightening inherent drama.
As a beginner learning how to mix music, you can think of these effects as your emotional toolkit for imbuing a song with depth and feeling.
How to mix a song in 10 steps on BandLab
1. Organize your tracks
If you’re working with a song you’ve recorded in BandLab, start by organizing all the tracks in a manner easy to understand.
Group the drums together and ensure they are labeled clearly. Apply the same method to categorize bass instruments, synths, guitars, or vocals. Even when importing tracks into BandLab, maintaining organization remains essential, and for added clarity, consider color-coding them.
2. Set your levels
In BandLab, every track is equipped with faders that allow you to fine-tune the levels (a more precise term for volume).
Utilize these faders to adjust the levels of each track and attain the desired balance. This process can be a bit challenging, so here are some helpful tips:
- Begin with the most densely populated section: Start your mixing process with the part of the song featuring the highest number of instruments playing simultaneously. This approach ensures that you have fewer elements to blend later on.
- Focus on one group of instruments, such as the drums: Mute all other tracks and concentrate on adjusting the faders of each drum track until you’re satisfied with the sound. You want to hear the kick, snare, hi-hats, cymbals, and toms in a way that feels groovy and balanced. This process is entirely subjective, although the kick and the snare usually have louder prominence.
- Repeat the process: Once you’ve achieved a satisfactory balance with the drums, proceed to the next group of instruments, like the bass components. Continue this step-by-step approach until every element falls into place harmoniously.
Keep in mind that your tracks can’t be too loud, or else everything will sound crunchy and distorted. When you mix tracks in software, there is a digital ceiling you should not exceed to prevent unpleasant, unmusical distortion.
The more tracks you crank up to a high volume, the faster you’ll reach that limit, resulting in a deteriorating overall sound quality. Instead, try this: Are you satisfied with how your drums are balanced after setting their levels? Excellent! Now, lower the volume of all the drum tracks by six decibels. This adjustment maintains their relative volume while creating more headroom for other instruments.
If you find that all your tracks are approaching distortion levels, simply reduce the volume of all faders uniformly. This is a counter-intuitive yet integral part of mixing: achieving a more impactful sound by dialing things down, rather than pushing them up.
3. Pan your track
As we adjust the volume levels of specific tracks, we also position them within the stereo field to impart a sense of spaciousness to our mixes and prevent instrument conflicts. Say you’ve got four guitar parts. If they’re all panned up the middle, they will overlap and muddle each other’s presence. It’s far more engaging and practical to distribute them across the stereo field.
Keep in mind that listeners do have certain expectations when it comes to panning. Kicks, snares, basses, and lead vocals are usually in the center because they’re vitally important to the mix.
Setting the levels and panning typically happen at the same time. We’ve covered them as two steps to give you more info on each one, but really, you do them together. A lot can be done with just the pan knob and a fader. Let’s take this unmixed loop as an example.
Hear the difference achieved through the use of only a fader and a pan knob:
Again, that’s just panning and level changes.
4. Use EQ to shape the sound of your tracks
EQ is incredibly helpful when learning how to mix a song. You can use it to strip away things that are harmful. For instance, you can use a high-pass filter on a bass to remove any unwanted low-end rumble that hinders the vocal’s integration into the mix. If both the vocal and the keyboards are competing in the high-midrange, you can cut the high-mids on the keyboards to let the vocals shine through.
Think of EQ as akin to a precise surgical tool, a sculptor’s chisel, or a painter’s brush. It’s one of the most important tools for helping your tracks sit well with each other.
5. Apply compression
Perhaps some of the drum hits are getting lost within the mix; applying compression to those problematic drums can enhance the consistency of the hits, ensuring they remain audible to the listener consistently.
If the bass part of your mix requires a boost in attitude, compression can also come to the rescue. By manipulating the attack and release settings of a compressor, you can virtually convey the impression that the bass player is digging into the strings with more intensity. That’s because you are changing how the transient – or attack – of each note is perceived.
Compression is an incredibly powerful tool that’s very easy to abuse. That’s why we have a tutorial on compression that you should definitely check out.
6. Get creative
At this point, your mix is taking shape. Go you! Now you’re ready to dive into creative effects like modulation, saturation, delay, and reverb. These effects can add depth, dimension, warmth, and character – although they should be used judiciously to avoid muddling the sound.
Definitely explore and experiment with the presets in BandLab. You can use them to turn any old sound from this:
Achieving this effect can be as simple as clicking on the preset.
But again, guard yourself against overdoing it. Don’t trust your first impression, because it’s often far too kind.
Here’s a rule of thumb: if you like a particularly bizarre effect, consider dialing it back by roughly 10 percent. This adjustment is likely closer to what the track truly requires.
7. Check the meters
Keep a watchful eye on your meters to avoid entering the red zone, which indicates clipping.
Remember that we need to steer clear of clipping distortion, because we cannot control it and it can typically degrade the sound of our music.
8. Bounce your mixed track and come back later
Bouncing the mix means exporting it as a stereo file. After doing so, take the opportunity to listen on different devices, such as your phone, car audio system, or preferred listening setup. This break serves to reset your ears, a crucial step to prevent ear fatigue. Listening outside your mixing environment is essential for assessing how well the mix translates.
When learning how to mix music, it can be beneficial to listen to your mix after checking out some reference mixes (tunes that are in the same style or genre). Imagine you’re checking out a new playlist on Spotify. On this playlist is a bunch of tunes that all fit together—and yours! See how your tune stacks against the others.
Be ruthless: take notes of what is not working, and make a plan to address these notes.
9. Rinse and repeat!
Make any necessary adjustments to your mix while carefully listening. Repeat this process two or three times.Now is also a great time to consider automating certain parts of the mix. A whole article could be written on automation, but I’ll give a primer here: Automation is the act of changing a track over time, usually by drawing in that change on an automation lane.
In BandLab, you can activate automation mode by pressing the “A” key on your keyboard. This will reveal automation lanes for all your tracks, allowing you to modify each parameter in real-time.
Automating volume is a great way to emphasize key moments of the track at specific times. It can also help you to avoid incurring clipping distortion. Definitely experiment with it!
10. Export the mix one final time
You should be happy with your mix at this point, so proceed to export it as a high-quality file. Share it with a trusted friend for their input on whether it sounds right. If both you and your friend agree that it sounds good, you’ve accomplished your goal!
However, your journey isn’t complete yet. Now, it’s time for mastering (but that’s the subject of a different article).
Mixing music is a complex and rewarding process that can take years to master. But with the right tools and a bit of practice, anyone can learn how to mix music. Just follow these 10 simple steps, and you’ll be well on your way to creating professional-quality mixes in no time!
About the author
Nick Messitte is a New York-based writer, mastering engineer, mixing engineer, post engineer, composer, producer, musician, and weapons-grade plutonium smuggler.