The following seven strategies will revolutionize the way you approach the mixing process. After incorporating them into your workflow, you’ll find yourself mixing more quickly, efficiently, and effectively. You’ll achieve better-sounding mixes in less time and with less effort. And you’ll stop wasting money on plugins you don’t need…
1. Work In Concentric Circles
My mentor Bob Power (perhaps the most esteemed hip-hop mixer of all time) describes the process of mixing as a series of concentric circles. The beginning of the process is represented by the largest, outermost circles. As you move through the mixing process, the circles get smaller.
This way of thinking about mixing is incredibly useful.
When you’re starting a mix, focus on making broad, gross movements. Don’t dwell too long on any one track. Remember – you’re in the outer circles. Move quickly and impulsively through the mix. Be aggressive with your fader moves and EQ decisions. Focus on the big picture versus the small details.
As you move through the mix, start narrowing your focus. Circle back over your previous settings and hone them in. Pay closer attention to fine details. These are your inner circle moves.
If you jump too quickly to the inner circles, you’ll likely end up retracing your steps later on. Spending two hours EQing a kick drum in solo at the beginning of your mix is a mistake. How do you know whether your decisions will work in context with the rest of the mix? How do you know whether or not the kick is even important at all?
Don’t waste too much time making fine adjustments when you first start a mix. Instead, start with broad strokes and gradually narrow your focus as you move through the mixing process. This is a much more efficient way to work, and it’ll help you achieve a better mix with less time and hassle.
2. Focus On What Matters Most
The Pareto principle states that 20% of your efforts generally produce about 80% of your results. Applied to mixing, this means that majority of your sound comes from a few key moves.
Find out what those are and focus on them.
If you ask an average person to pick out the instruments in a 200-track pop production, you’ll likely get the following answer:
“Uhh…the vocal and the beat?”
If you’re mixing a typical pop song, 80% of the quality of your mix is determined by how you shape these two key elements. Get them right and the rest is gravy.
Focus your efforts on the actions that will produce the biggest results. You’ll achieve better-sounding mixes in a whole lot less time.
3. Stop Soloing
The solo button is the most dangerous button in your DAW. Misusing it is one of the fastest ways to screw up a mix.
Mixing is all about context. You’re trying to make a group of sounds blend together as a cohesive unit. It doesn’t matter how each track sounds by itself. The end listener is never going to hear each individual track anyway. All that matters is how each track contributes to the mix as a whole.
When you solo a track, you remove the context that you need to make the right decisions. Instead of focusing on making tracks work together, you start trying to make each track sound good on its own. This will lead you down the wrong path. Again, it doesn’t matter how each track sounds by itself. All that matters is how each track contributes to the rest of the mix.
The less you solo, the better your mixes will sound. It’s that simple.
4. Make The Most Of Every Second Of Playback
Mixing is a race against time.
With every passing second of playback, you become more and more attached to the way your mix sounds.
Balances that are flat-out wrong will start to sound acceptable. Tonal problems will begin to fade from your focus. And over time, even the crappiest mix will start to sound like a masterpiece.
Once this happens, it can be nearly impossible to make the right mixing decisions.
When you mix, do you kick back, crank the speakers, and listen for pleasure? Or are you focused on finding flaws and areas to improve?
Focus on listening critically. If your focus begins to wane, take a break.
By making the most of every second of playback, you’ll remain more objective throughout the mixing process. And this will help you make better mixing decisions.
5. Reference, Reference, Reference!
Music doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Listeners will almost always hear your music in context with other tracks – whether it’s part of a Spotify playlist with three dozen other artists, sandwiched between two tracks on the radio, or as one of the hundreds of thousands on Soundcloud.
If you want your records to hold up, you’d better pay attention to context.
I’ve written extensively about the power of referencing other commercial tracks while mixing. This is one of the quickest ways to improve the quality of your work. Even if you know the sound of your room and monitoring chain like the back of your hand, referencing can still help you make better decisions and avoid mistakes. If you’re not listening to other tracks while you’re working, you’re missing an opportunity to vastly improve the sound of your mixes.
6. Limit Your Toolkit
You don’t need 500 plugins. I don’t care whether you’re Chris Lord-Alge or a college student with an Mbox.
Hundreds of plugins create hundreds of choices. But the choice to use one EQ over another is not what really matters. The specific cuts and boosts you choose, or whether or not you choose to EQ at all, is infinitely more important.
If you have too many plugins, it’s easy to get distracted by unimportant choices. Limit your toolkit, and you’ll force yourself to focus more on the decisions that truly matter.
7. Use The Volume Knob As A Tool
Your ears perceive frequencies differently at different volumes. At lower volumes, your ears are much more sensitive to midrange frequencies. At higher volumes, your ears become more sensitive to the low and high frequencies (shoutout to Harvey Fletcher and Wilden Muson for figuring this out in the 1930’s).
You might be aware of this phenomenon already. But do you use it to your advantage when mixing?
Use the volume knob as a tool to help you zero in on various areas of the frequency spectrum.
If you’re trying to balance the kick and bass (which have a lot of low end information), turn your speakers up. This will help you to hear the low end more clearly. Conversely, if you’re focusing on riding vocals (which sit primarily in the midrange of your mix), turning your speakers down and mixing at low levels will allow you to make better balancing decisions.
Don’t miss the forest for the trees, folks. The secret to radio-ready mixes isn’t another compression tip or fancy plugin. Incorporate these strategies into your mixing workflow, and your tracks will improve dramatically.
Which of these 7 strategies do you think will make the biggest impact on YOUR mixes? Let me know by leaving a comment below!