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I’ve been recording and mixing music for about twenty years now. Fifteen of those years were spent working professionally in the ultra-competitive Los Angeles market. In order to survive, I’ve revised and refined the way I work many times. Through a great deal of trial and error, I’ve built a system that allows one to create a professional sounding mix in six hours or less.
Follow along as I outline the six stages of my personal, proven mixing method and you to will be able to create a professional sounding mix right from your home studio!
Stage 1: Session Setup
The first step in creating a professional sounding mix is to arrange the audio channels and busses in your session so they are easy to manage. As Chris Lord-Alge says, “If you can’t manage it, you can’t mix it.”
As Chris Lord-Alge says, “If you can’t manage it, you can’t mix it.”
“If you can’t manage it, you can’t mix it.” – Chris Lord Alge
To make everything easier to manage, I create busses for each instrument group. For example, all the acoustic rhythm guitars will be sent to a single stereo bus, same with electric guitars, strings, synthesizers, etc. Lead vocals get their own track, but the background vocals will be summed to stereo busses. It’s all about ease of management. Groups of tracks that would likely get similar processing go to a bus together.
For example, all the acoustic rhythm guitars will be sent to a single stereo bus, same with electric guitars, strings, synthesizers, etc. Lead vocals get their own track, but the background vocals will be summed to stereo busses. It’s all about ease of management. Groups of tracks that would likely get similar processing go to a bus together.
Once instrument families are grouped together, I color code them.
For instance, I put drums in yellow, bass in pink, guitars in green, keys in purple, etc. This will make it easy to identify the location of instruments in a complex (or not so complex) arrangement. You may recognize this fader color scheme from the Rock Monster Mix Template.
The next thing we want to do is adjust all the audio files that make up your multi-track so they peak at the same level.
After extensive testing, I arrived at -15dbFS as the magic number that allows both analog and digital signal processors to operate within their optimum range. I go into much more detail about this inside the Mixing Handbook that is included with the Rock Monster Mix Course.
Once your audio files are adjusted so their peak level ceiling is -15dbFS, you can easily and accurately adjust the phase relationship of two tracks against each other by playing them back in mono and flipping the phase back and forth.
For more inventive ways to work with phase relationships, visit the Mix Session Preparation Course inside the Indie Rock Inc. Members Area.
Note: The Mix Session Preparation Course is a video course included free with the Rock Monster Mix Bundle
The one thing a professional sounding mix can’t have is excess noise. After you have adjusted your multitrack’s phase relationships, it’s time to get rid of any excess bleed, noise, and hum between the performances inside each audio track.
Use your good taste to trim the front and backs of each performance. Some tracks may require a hard fast fade out at the end of the performance, while others may benefit from a bit more finesse. While there are no hard and fast rules, the most important thing is that when you play back the multitrack as a whole, it sounds natural.
To recap the steps in Stage 1:
- Efficiently arrange your audio tracks and create any new necessary audio busses.
- Adjust the peak level of the audio files to a standardized level (-15dbFS in my case).
- Correct any phase relationship issues.
- Remove excess noise between performances.
Once you have your channels arranged properly, your multi-track at a standard peak level, and all phase relationships sussed out, we’re ready to figure out what we actually expect our mix to sound like.
Stage 2: Begin With the End In Mind
If you were planning on taking a trip to China, you wouldn’t leave your house and aimlessly walk until you randomly came upon your destination. So why would you do something similar when setting out to create a professional sounding mix?
The first time you listen to the rough mix, frame your mind around what you want the finished mix to sound like. If it is your own song you are mixing, take a few days off from listening to it so you can have fresh ears.
Once you know what the finished mix should sound like, you can pick a few songs from your library of music that represents the elements of the sonic palette you are going for. Use these songs as a reference to compare your mix against as you’re working on it.
Now, remember the audio busses you created in stage one? It’s time to send audio to them and set the level of the faders feeding the busses. What you’re doing now is creating blends into the bus faders so you can manage all the tracks that feed the bus via one fader.
Think of it like the old 4-track days, when an engineer would need to continue bouncing down multiple tracks to one track of the tape machine to make room for additional overdubs.
The only difference is, you can (and should) go back and continue to refine the levels and processing on the tracks feeding the bus.
To recap the steps in Stage 2:
- Define what your finished mix will sound like.
- Choose what songs you will use as a reference.
- Create blends of instrument types to be sent to corresponding buses.
Now that you know what your finished mix should sound like and have created the basic blends to your busses, it’s time to…
Stage 3: Create Parallel and Master Bus Processing
Along with sending all the tracks that make up the recording to the stereo bus, I will also send them to one of three parallel buses that correspond to their musical group. I have busses prepared for drums, melodic instruments, and vocals.
The only exception is the bass guitar or bass synthesizer which I will decide to send to none of the parallels or possibly the drum or melodic parallel depending on the song.
Next, I add my master bus processing to the stereo bus. This will include a compressor feeding into an equalizer.
The reason the parallel and master stereo bus processing is added before any real mixing begins is because you want to mix into them. Adding parallel bus processing after you have already decided on the balance you plan on using will cause your balance to be thrown off, resulting in a re-do. This wastes valuable time. As a rule, add all master and parallel bus processing before starting a mix.[As a rule, add all master and parallel bus processing before starting a mix.]
To recap the steps in Stage 3:
- Create a stereo parallel bus for drums, melodic instruments, and vocals, adding appropriate processing.
- Create a master stereo bus and add appropriate stereo bus processing.
Your main three parallel buses are ready for you to begin adding some excitement to your audio tracks. Your master stereo bus has been set up to glue it all together.
You’re on your way to creating your professional sounding mix! Now, let’s get to the fun stuff and add some…
Stage 4: Multi-Track Equalization and Compression
I begin every mix by bringing up all the faders and listening back to what I have to work with. Once I have a grasp of the song I pull the faders down and bring up only the drums and vocals. One by one, starting with the kick drum, I make my way through the drum kick and then onto the lead vocal and background vocals.
I do this for a simple reason: I want to define the ceiling for the high frequencies of the mix and because my mixing template has pre-defined equalization frequencies and compression parameters, it’s very easy to get through all the drums and vocals in a matter of minutes. You can watch me do this on our special Live Inside The Mixing Studio series.
Once I know that the high-frequency balance between the drums and vocals is correct, I can pull the vocals back down and work to bring in the rest of the instrumentation of the mix.
This is also a good time to check your work against the reference tracks you choose in Stage 2. I focus in on how the brightness of the snare drum and vocals of my mix compared to those of my reference track. Avoid the urge to move on to other parts of the mix until you get this right.
In doing this, I know if I choose to bring in an element of the multi-track that causes me to think the snare drum needs to be brighter, there is actually an issue with that specific element of the multi-track. This keeps me from chasing my tail once I add the vocals back into the mix, again saving precious time.
Of course, each time you add an element into the mix (especially the vocals), you will need to refine your balance slightly. This is all part of a smartly performed mix, but refining the balance should not be a long, drawn-out process.
To recap steps in Stage 4:
- Start with instruments that define the upper-frequency region of your mix (usually drums and vocals).
- Build in the rest of the multi-track instrumentation.
- Refine your balance continually.
After finishing the steps in Stage 4, the base of the mix is constructed and strong. There is balance throughout all the frequency ranges.
Let’s spice it up a bit by…
Stage 5: Adding Modulation, Delay, and Reverb Effects
Here is where knowing what you intend your finished mix to sound like before you start mixing becomes extremely important. Creating a professional sounding mix doesn’t happen by chance!
If you’re anything like me, you could sit around and play with different effects plug-ins and chains for days. It’s fun stuff and the options available with all the new plug-ins on the market are becoming limitless.
But… we’re not here to mess around. We’re here to create a professional sounding mix.
By knowing the sonic textures you’re going after, deciding between, say a long plate reverb or short room reverb, should be a no-brainer. Same goes for delays and other effects…it might even be a combination of both…a slap delay on the vocal for the verse section and a ¼ note ping-pong delay for the chorus vocals!
The point is, if you know what you’re going for, all you need to do is create it and move on. Of course, there will be times when you’re intuition about an effect was wrong or things don’t work out the way you thought, but no big deal. Use all the time you’ve saved already to try a few other ideas to make it work.
Inside my mix template is a wide range of reverbs, delays, modulations, and a few special effects I can send audio to with the push of a button. It took a lot of time to develop those effect chains, but they are now tried and true and are readily available to contribute to the sound of my mix.
When you find an effects chain that brings something unique to your sound, save it for use within future mixes!
To recap steps in Stage 5:
- Create modulation, delay, and reverb effects channels (save these as templates for use in future mixes).
- Experiment by sending audio to different combinations of effects as you move through the song’s arrangement and timeline.
You’ve added width, depth, and hopefully a little intrigue to your mix through your use of effects.
Now let’s take it to the finish line with…
Stage 6: Automation
Once I’m able to listen through to the song from top to bottom without cringing, I’ll start to build in my automation.
Before I start to write any automation moves, I make notes on what I plan to accomplish. Again, I’m trying to save time by not chasing my tail throughout the whole mix.
My first moves are to any sections that need what I call a static re-balance, or a simple balance adjustment.
This could be, for example, bringing the acoustic guitars down 2db in the first verse, bringing the background vocals up 1db in the bridge section, etc.
If you have made notes for each section of your song, this is a quick and easy process. The Mixing Handbook included with the Rock Monster Mix Course includes a fillable .pdf tool to make the automation process a smooth and easy one.
After I have all the sections of the song in perfect balance, I move on to adding excitement through various quick automation rides. For example, during a performance a guitarist may dig into the strings a bit harder with the pick right before the chorus starts. I like to give my mixes this same crescendo. I’m letting the audience know something big is about to happen.
Think outside the box here. If it’s a snare drum fill you want to accentuate, you probably want to leave the snare drum channels alone and bring up the drum room channels during the fill. If it’s a vocal line you want to draw attention to, maybe you adjust the level of the delay and bring the listeners attention to it. This is the time to be creative.
A correct balance is a must for a listenable mix, but to create a professional sounding mix you must get creative!
To recap steps in Stage 6:
- Start with a strong initial “static” balance.
- Notate the sections of your song and that will need a to be re-balanced and execute the automation.
- Add excitement to your mix by riding elements of the arrangement up and down throughout the song.
You Now Know How To Create a Professional Sounding Mix!
There really is a method to create a professional sounding mix in a smart and time effective manner. By following the steps outlined above, you have the basic structure necessary to create a professional sounding mix inside any basic recording software.
If you own the Rock Monster Mix Template and you’re ready to dive in even deeper and become a master of this professional mixing method, check out our Rock Monster Mix Course. It contains over three hours of video instruction, a full multi-track session (Pro Tools, Logic X, Cubase), and a special mixing handbook.
Make sure to post your new mixes in the comments section!