Maybe you’re someone who’s recorded a few songs for your band and you’re looking to step up the quality of those recordings for a bit. Maybe you’ve tried your hand at mixing a few already and just felt a bit lost or disoriented in the DAW. Regardless of why you want to start mixing, I have a few key starting points that should help get you up and running when mixing your first session.
Step #1: Get Organized
Recording sessions can be messy and cluttered. If you’re involved right from the start of the process, come up with naming conventions that work well for you and can be easily understood by others.
By default many DAWs will name your tracks Audio 1, Audio 2, and so on. How are you supposed to know what those are when you launch the session after it’s been sitting on your hard drive for a few months?
As a placeholders those names work, but the more detailed you get, the easier you’ll be able to move around your session as you work. Use names like “Kick In” and “Kick Out” if you’ve got multiple mics on a single instrument. Label your rhythm guitars differently than your leads. If you receive a session from someone else and you don’t like the naming convention they used – change it. It’s as simple as that.
Step #2: Sorting & Grouping
Rearranging your sessions can also be helpful when moving from tracking to mixing. During tracking, engineers often just add tracks to the end of the list. In mixing, dragging like instruments together and color coding them can almost eliminate the hunting new mixers often have to do when receiving a new session.
Guitars, vocals, and production sounds are often the biggest culprits here. We tend to fall into the “what if we just add a little more ______” mentality as we get late into tracking and are seeking out ways to add some extra details to a song. These can often be moved around to group the guitars together, get the vocals into lead/harmony/background groups, and even move the percussive elements up toward the drums in the session.
Once everything is sorted, grouping them through stereo aux tracks is a professional technique that provides additional monitoring and control. Often, mixers will create groups for their drums, guitars & vocals to see where each group is peaking, rather than individual instruments. This provides the flexibility to mix into the group, rather than mixing soloed into the master fader for the same level of detail.
These groups are also the perfect place for group-level treatment. Think of being able to adjust the transients of all of your drums together rather than loading the same plugin for each individual track. Using an aux group, you can load up a plugin like Transify once and get all of your drums to sit just right without a bunch of additional processing power slowing down your computer.
Step #3: Panning & Levels
Once you’re organized visually, it’s time to do the same sonically. With your tracks placed in an order that’s easy to work with, this step should be a breeze.
Your panning and levels should be all you need to get a static mix as a mixer. A “static mix” or “quick mix” is essentially one without any kind of automation applied. It can sometimes include plugin inserts, but I like to think of them more like a mix at a small live show. You’re setting your levels, panning instruments & overheads and that’s pretty much it.
To craft your static mix, start by panning the obvious. Drums can be panned drummer’s perspective or audience perspective depending on your preference. Your kick and snare will usually stay right down the center. Hi-hats are also usually centered or slightly off from the snare.
Once your drums are panned, go through the same process with guitars, vocals & anything else in your mix. Often, double-tracked instruments like rhythm guitars and background vocals can be panned wide left & right for a full “wall of sound” type of feel. To achieve the same type of width with mono sources, tools like Sidewidener can be excellent fill-ins instead of re-tracking a second take.
Once spread out, work with your faders to set levels. I like to go in and quickly balance everything, then slowly work my way through making tiny adjustments (just a few dB at a time) to really dial everything in. After about 15-20 minutes, you should have a great static mix that can act as your foundation for a more detailed, thorough process.
Going Beyond The Static Mix
Getting to a great static mix is step one for every aspiring mixer. If you can’t get something to sound balanced using just the techniques here, there’s no point in moving on to more advanced processing techniques.
Getting a good mix with panning and EQ isn’t going to be enough to compete on a professional level – you’ll need EQ, compression, reverbs, delays & a lot of experience for that. But every mixer started with these basic concepts that panning and levels can create a balanced mix.
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