How To Start A Mix (The Weird But Best Way)

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Hey, this is Jason from Behind The Speakers. And for some other great ways to start your mix, make sure you grab my free start a mix cheatsheet by clicking the link above or in the description below.

Now there are lots of different approaches that you can use to start your mix. But what most people do, the approach that most people take is what I call bottom-up mixing. And that’s when you grab a single track in your session – it could be the kick drum, could be the vocal – and you pull that up and you listen to that on its own and make it sound really good, add lots of processing and plug-ins. And once that track sounds perfect, then you bring something else in and mix that with the track that you just mixed. And you slowly progress through the mixing process adding track by track until all the tracks are in, and then you hopefully have a mix that sounds pretty decent.

So this is a pretty common approach, and you’ll see it a lot with drums where mixers will start with the drums. Maybe they’ll start with the kick drum first, and then they’ll bring in the snare. And they’ll bring all the drums in first before they bring in other instruments or the vocals. There are a couple of problems with this approach, even though it’s something that I find is the most common approach when it comes to starting a mix.

The biggest challenge is that when you bring in a single track, and listen to it on its own, right at the beginning of your mix, you have absolutely no context or perspective about how that track relates to the other tracks in your mix. So if I were to just grab the kick drum in this session – this is Dylan Owen’s track “Best Man,” by the way – and listen to it on its own – it sounds like an okay-sounding kick drum.

But how do I know what to do with that kick drum unless I hear how it relates to the bass, right? Maybe the bass has a lot of low end, and so the kick needs to sound kind of thin so it sits in nicely with the bass. Or maybe the bass sounds very thin, and so the kick drum can have a lot more low end. But if I’m not hearing that track as it’s relating to all the other tracks in my mix, it makes it really difficult to make decisions about what that kick should sound like.

So that lack of context and perspective can result in you making the wrong decisions. And oftentimes what you’ll find is if you take this bottom-up approach, and you start mixing the kick drum for example and it sounds really good, then you bring in another track an hour later, and you find that that kick drum processing needs to change completely. So you end up having to circle back over all your old moves and refine things and change things – just a lot of wasted time processing things because, again, we don’t have an idea of how tracks are fitting in with each other.

The other thing that’s challenging about this approach is that the mix takes a long time to get going. It’s not very exciting or motivating. Because you’re starting with one single track, and it might take you an hour just to get all the drums in. So right from the beginning, we’re only dealing with pieces of your song. And it takes a long time for all the different parts to come into play, and this can be kind of demotivating and uninspiring. instead of hearing the whole song and the whole arrangement, and all the parts as they’re fitting together, we just hear pieces of the song and the arrangement for a long time. And it’s just not very inspiring.

So there is a better way to start a mix. And it’s not to say that this is the only way to start a mix, or that you should always do it this way. But I do find myself preferring a different approach, and that’s called top-down mixing.

Basically what top-down mixing says is instead of bringing in these individual tracks, and processing them and manipulating them one at a time, let’s start with a rough mix where we’re just playing with the volume of different tracks. We’re just moving the faders, and getting all the tracks in our session in. And then instead of going to those ground floor tracks and applying our processing there, we start by applying the first layer of processing to the whole mix.

So we actually go to the mix bus, and the first plug-ins that we add are on the mix bus instead of on the individual tracks. And so we play around with the mix bus, and then we get the mix to a place where that sounds pretty good, and we move to apply layers of processing to groups of tracks after we’ve applied the processing to the mix bus. Now we go to the drum group, and we apply some EQ on all the drums so we’re processing the drums together. And then we end at the ground floor, and apply our final layer of processing to the individual tracks in our session. So we’re moving backwards from the way that most people approach the mixing process. We start with a rough mix, we get everything in, and then we apply processing on the mix bus instead of applying it on these individual tracks.

This may sound like a little bit of a weird approach if you’ve never tried this before, but there are a couple of key benefits to top-down mixing that I really want to share with you, because I think this approach can often be much more effective than the typical bottom-up approach that most people use.

One of the main benefits to top-down mixing is that you get context and perspective right from the beginning of the process. Because you’re not listening to tracks on their own and applying processing, you’re actually starting with a rough mix, right? Where you get all the tracks in, and you’re listening to how they’re all sounding with each other together before you apply any processing. So you end up avoiding that situation where you might apply a whole bunch of processing to a track, and then find that the processing that you applied wasn’t the right fit when you bring in another track down the line.

The other big benefit is that your mix sounds better earlier on, because you’re bringing all the tracks in, you hear everything together, you’re getting the full arrangement right up front. That can be inspiring and motivating, and keep you going. And because you’re applying that first layer of processing on the mix bus, you generally are making moves that make a big difference right at the beginning. So an hour into the mix, you might have a mix that sounds really good. Whereas if you took that bottom-up approach and started with the individual tracks, it might take you three or four hours to get to that same place.

The other big benefit of top-down mixing is that you use less processing. Because by applying that first layer of processing to the mix bus, we are using fewer number of plug-ins by making our moves count as much as possible. We’re creating more leverage within our mixing process. And the way to think about this is – you know – for example, like oftentimes in a mix you find that you need to add top end to a lot of different tracks in your session. And so there are two ways that you can go about that, right? You can add an EQ plug-in to all the individual tracks in the session so you have fifty EQ plug-ins, for example, if there are fifty tracks. Or you could add a single EQ plug-in on the mix bus and add that boost in one spot, and get the same exact result.

So the effect is that we often end up using a lot less processing. So for these three reasons – more context and perspective right from the beginning, the mix sounds better earlier on, so it’s more inspiring and motivating, and you use less processing. I think that this top-down mixing approach is the best way to start a mix. That’s not to say that sometimes the other approaches aren’t useful or helpful sometimes, sometimes I do start a mix by using other approaches. But I find that in most circumstances, this top-down approach is the best way to go.

Again, I have a track here by Dylan Owen called “Best Man,” and I want to show you on a practical level how I go about this top-down mixing approach. So this is a basically a raw session. These are the tracks that were just sent to me. So there’s no processing, all the faders are down. So I’m going to show you how I approach this.

Now the first thing that I am going to do is set up my bussing. And bussing is very important when you’re using this top-down approach, because you want to be able to apply processing at these different layers of your mix. You want to have a mix bus where you can apply processing to all the tracks in your session, then you want some group busses so that you can apply things to like all the drums, or all the guitars, and all the vocals, and then you also want obviously the individual tracks so you can apply processing there. So it takes a little bit of setup to create those entry points so that you can apply processing in multiple different spots. And the way that we do that is through busses.

So this is a very small session. We have just some drums here, then some music parts, and then some vocals. So I’m not going to create a ton of busses, but what I’m going to do is just create three separate busses here. So we have all the drums, then we have all the music, and then all the vocals. So let me do that now.

Okay, so now I have three separate group tracks here. I have the drums, music, and vocals. And you can see here the input for this drum bus track is bus 3-4, it’s really an aux track being fed by a bus, and that’s bus 3-4. And then I have all my drums being sent down to bus 3-4, so now all these drums are being routed into to the drums subgroup track. I have all my instrumental and music tracks being routed into the second bus, and then all the vocals being routed into this third bus. And then I have a mix bus here, which is where all of these busses are ultimately being sent to. So you can see here the output of these three subgroups or aux tracks, is bus 1-2, and the input of the mix bus is bus 1-2.

So what’s useful about this is now I have these multiple layers of busses in my mix. and I can apply processing at any point, at any layer. So I can apply plug-ins on the mix bus, right, by adding an EQ here. I can apply them to groups of tracks. Like if I want to apply an EQ to the drums, I can do so here. And if I want to add processing to the individual tracks in my session, I can do that as well by adding plug-ins on those individual tracks.

So by setting up your mix in this way, you create the flexibility to be able to add processing and plug-ins in multiple different places. Now obviously the specific busses that you choose is going to vary depending on what your sessions look like. Sometimes you’ll need more busses, sometimes it makes sense to have background vocals split out for example from the lead vocals, things like that. So this will vary from session to session. But the important thing is that you give yourself multiple layers of control.

Okay, so now that I have my busses set up, the next thing that I’m going to do is a rough mix. All I’m going to use are my faders. I’m not going to add any plug-ins or processing anywhere. And I’m basically just going to adjust the faders on all these individual tracks until I have everything in the mix in, and it sounds basically as good as I can get it. And you want to spend a good amount of time on this step. Balances really are the most important part of the entire mixing process.

And one of the other main benefits of using this top-down mixing approach is that by adjusting balances right up front before we add processing, we force ourselves to solve problems with balance rather than just reaching to plug-ins or processing right away. Because oftentimes if you’re hearing that there’s a problem in the mix, rather than EQ’ing it out, or compressing it, or trying to add processing to solve the problem, the best approach is just to use the faders. And in many cases you can solve that problem without having to use lots of processing.

So again, I’m just going to do a quick rough mix here. And once I do that, we’ll move through to the next phase in this process.

Okay, so I’ve gone through and completed the rough mix just using faders alone and panning. I haven’t added any plug-ins or processing. So let’s take a listen to where we’re at right now.

♪ clarity – ♪

♪ Green as our grandparent’s trees ♪

♪ in our land of fantasy ♪

♪ there in Pine Bush ♪

♪ Shoot through the acres ♪

♪ with our lanterns leaking kerosene ♪

♪ Movers and shakers ♪

♪ we had shakers and tambourines ♪

So you notice things sound pretty good. And the truth is we haven’t really done that much yet. So you might be asking yourself, well why is this the case? Certainly a testament to the producer and the artist. They did a great job choosing the right sounds and the right instruments, and also did a great job recording things so things are fitting together and sounding good right off the bat. It’s also a testament to how important balance is. The truth is, we tend to place a lot of stock in plug-ins and processing to fix our mixes and make them sound good, but if you can get back to the fundamentals and find the right fader positions and panning positions for the different tracks, oftentimes you find the mix sounds really good without you having to do all that much.

So whenever you’re in that situation where you feel like you’re applying more and more processing, and your mix is just sounding worse and worse, strip things back, pull down the faders, and start with balance. And spend some time here, because if you really get this part of the process right, oftentimes you don’t have to do that much to make a mix that sounds really great.

So now that I’ve completed the rough mix, I’m going to apply my first layer of processing to the mix bus. And the only plug-in I have on the mix bus right now is this plug-in called Magic AB. If you’ve never encountered this, it’s basically a referencing tool that allows us to compare our mix in progress to different reference tracks that we can import into this plug-in. So really fantastic tool, great way to flip back and forth and compare references very easily.

So I have a couple of different tracks loaded up here. These are all tracks by the same artist of the track that we’re mixing. And they’ve already been mastered, so we’ve had to turn them down, you can see here by 17 dB, in order to level-match our mix. But we want to make sure there’s no difference in level when we’re flipping back and forth. And I’m going to go ahead and just compare our mix to these references, and just listen for an overall sense of tonal balance. How much high end, for example, do the reference tracks have compared to our mix? How much low end or midrange? I’m just getting a very quick impression of how our mix compares, and that is going to help guide us in terms of how we approach EQ on the mix bus. So let’s take a listen.

♪ clarity – ♪

♪ Green as our grandparent’s trees ♪

♪ in our land of fantasy ♪

♪ there in – ♪

♪ Catcher in the Rye ♪

♪ Eleven second times ♪

♪ There’s more to life than being pissed you weren’t – ♪

♪ We had shakers and tambourines ♪

♪ Sold so much the holes in our – ♪

♪ – revivalists ♪

♪ With smoking hands ♪

♪ we’ll stand there holding rockets ♪

♪ Look I’ve felt them – ♪

♪ – the walls closing shut ♪

♪ We’ve felt so grown up ♪

♪ Making out and UFOs ♪

♪ at the Orange County Fair ♪

♪ made me feel like something ♪

♪ from another – ♪

♪ broken lies and – ♪

♪ We went to live at grandma’s ♪

♪ You discovered ska, punk rock, ♪

♪ skate parks, and forgotten woods ♪

So a couple things I’m hearing. These reference mixes all sound like they’re quite a bit brighter than the mix that I’m working on, so I think that our mix could use a little bit of top end. I’m also hearing that our mix seems like it’s a bit thick in the lower midrange compared to these mixes, and the reference tracks also have a bit more of that sub or that kind of bottom end.

So what I’m going to do to address that sub issue is actually just turn up the bass a bit versus going ahead and adding lots of EQ. Because again, it’s always best to address problems with balance. So rather than adding a whole bunch of low end, you can just kick that up a little bit. And I’m going to go ahead now and go to my EQ on the mix bus, and see if we can add some of that top end, and maybe address some of that lower midrange by taking things out. So let’s take a listen, and I’m going to see if I can dial this in.

♪ clarity – ♪

♪ Green as our grandparent’s trees ♪

♪ in our land of fantasy ♪

♪ there in Pine Bush ♪

♪ Shoot through the acres ♪

♪ with our lanterns leaking kerosene ♪

♪ Movers and shakers ♪

♪ we had shakers and tambourines ♪

♪ Sold so much the holes in our clothes closed up ♪

♪ When you hear this in 20 years don’t choke up ♪

♪ Our old apartment walls closing shut ♪

♪ We felt so grown up, the night that our folks broke up ♪

♪ I’ll jog our memories in marathons ♪

♪ We fought over the bed when we went to live at grandma’s ♪

♪ You discovered ska, punk rock, ♪

♪ skate parks, and forgotten woods ♪

♪ I discovered how to sell my comic books ♪

♪ I can still picture you staying up on the red cushion couch – ♪

That sounds much better to my ears. So take a listen before and after.

♪ clarity – ♪

♪ Green as our grandparent’s trees ♪

♪ in our land of fantasy ♪

♪ there in Pine Bush ♪

♪ Shoot through the acres ♪

♪ with our lanterns leaking kerosene ♪

♪ Movers and shakers ♪

♪ we had shakers and tambourines ♪

♪ Sold so much the holes in our clothes closed up ♪

♪ When you hear this in 20 years don’t choke up ♪

♪ Our old apartment walls closing shut ♪

♪ We felt so grown up, the night that our folks broke up ♪

♪ I’ll jog our memories in marathons ♪

♪ We fought – ♪

So cool, we’ve clearly made an improvement there. That sounds much better to my ears. I am hearing some sibilance on the vocal. So there’s some s’s that are being brought out in a way that I don’t like with that top end boost, but we can address those with our next stage of processing when we go ahead and look at the vocal tracks and apply some processing there.

Now you might be thinking wow, 6 dB on the mix bus Jason, that sounds or looks kind of aggressive. First thing is who cares what it looks like? We’re not looking at the screen when we’re listening, we’re really trying to make decisions that help the mix sound great.

But the other thing is that, when you’re doing this whole top-down mixing approach and when you’re approaching processing in this way, you’ll find that you generally tend to be a bit more aggressive on your mix bus processing than you would if you approached it in the more typical way where you start by adding EQ to the individual tracks in your mix, and then you move through the mixing process and you just apply a bit of EQ on the mix bus at the end. Not always the case, you might find that depending on the mix you might not have to do any EQ. But again, just letting your ears be the guide here, and not being so caught up in what the screen looks like is always a great approach.

So the next thing that I’m going to do here is add some compression. And really what I’m looking for is just to glue the mix together a bit, and make things sound like they all kind of exist in the same space a bit more. So I’m going to use this Oxford Dynamics compressor plug-in. This is one of my favorite compressors. You can really use any compressor, you don’t need this plug-in, but I like this because it’s very flexible.

And for mix bus processing, I tend to stick to a ratio of around 2 to 1. I’m going to dial in a bit of a soft knee here. Soft knee basically eases the transition from no compression to compression. So with a bit of a soft knee, the compressor starts compressing a little bit before the signal hits the threshold, and it kind of eases into it. So it makes the compression sound a bit more gentle and subtle. It’s not as aggressive, which I think for this type of track is going to be the right sound.

I’m going to slow down the attack, and we’ll time the release once we listen. And I’m just going to dial this in, and see if we can get something that sounds pretty good.

♪ clarity – ♪

♪ Green as our grandparent’s trees ♪

♪ in our land of fantasy ♪

♪ there in Pine Bush ♪

♪ Shoot through the acres ♪

♪ with our lanterns leaking kerosene ♪

♪ Movers and shakers ♪

♪ we had shakers and tambourines ♪

♪ Sold so much the holes in our clothes closed up ♪

♪ When you hear this in 20 years don’t choke up ♪

♪ Our old apartment walls closing shut ♪

♪ We felt so grown up, the night that our folks broke up ♪

♪ I’ll jog our memories in marathons ♪

♪ We fought over the bed – ♪

So when I’m adjusting the release time, really what I’m looking for is I want the compressor to pump in time with the music in this case. I want the compressor to release, and kind of pull back in time with the music so we get this kind of pumping thing going on. So if the release time is set very fast, we don’t get that pumping. So take a listen, and I’m just going to compare the fast release to the slower release that’s more timed to the tempo, so you can get a sense for what the difference is.

♪ clarity – ♪

♪ Green as our grandparent’s trees ♪

♪ in our land of fantasy ♪

♪ there in Pine Bush ♪

♪ Shoot through the acres ♪

♪ with our lanterns leaking kerosene ♪

♪ Movers and shakers ♪

♪ we had shakers and tambourines ♪

♪ clarity – ♪

♪ Green as our grandparent’s trees ♪

♪ in our land of fantasy ♪

♪ there in Pine Bush ♪

♪ Shoot through the acres ♪

♪ with our lanterns leaking kerosene ♪

♪ Movers and shakers ♪

♪ we had shakers and tambourines ♪

♪ clarity – ♪

♪ Green as our grandparent’s trees ♪

♪ in our land of fantasy ♪

♪ there in Pine Bush ♪

♪ Shoot through the acres ♪

♪ with our lanterns leaking kerosene ♪

♪ clarity – ♪

♪ Green as our grandparent’s trees ♪

♪ in our land of fantasy ♪

♪ there in Pine Bush ♪

♪ Shoot through the acres ♪

♪ with our lanterns leaking kerosene ♪

♪ Movers and shakers ♪

So it’s a subtle shift here, but what I’m hearing is with that slower release time, we’re just getting a bit of movement on the compressor. It feels like it’s pumping in time with the music, and I really like that sound for, certainly for this mix. And for many mixes, this is the approach that I prefer. There’s certainly nothing wrong with the fast release time, but I think that movement can really enhance the sound of certain tracks. So this is a bit too much compression at this point, I’m just going to dial it back a little bit.

♪ clarity – ♪

♪ Green as our grandparent’s trees ♪

♪ in our land of fantasy ♪

♪ there in Pine Bush ♪

♪ Shoot through the acres ♪

♪ with our lanterns leaking kerosene ♪

Sounds pretty good to me. So take a listen both before and after the compression. I want you to listen for a couple things. Notice how the mix feels like it’s gelled together a bit more, so things feel like they exist as part of the same space. Also notice how again, that movement feels like it gives the mix a sense of groove. It kind of feels like there’s a sway and a motion to the mix that we didn’t have without the compression.

♪ clarity – ♪

♪ Green as our grandparent’s trees ♪

♪ in our land of fantasy ♪

♪ there in Pine Bush ♪

♪ Shoot through the acres ♪

♪ with our lanterns leaking kerosene ♪

♪ Movers and shakers ♪

♪ we had shakers and tambourines ♪

♪ Sold so much the holes in our clothes closed up ♪

♪ When you hear this in 20 years don’t choke up ♪

♪ Our old apartment walls closing shut ♪

♪ We felt so grown up, the night that our folks broke up ♪

♪ I’ll jog our memories in marathons ♪

♪ We fought over the bed when we went to live at grandma’s ♪

♪ You discovered ska, punk rock, ♪

♪ skate parks, and forgotten woods ♪

♪ I discovered how to sell my comic books ♪

It’s a subtle change. And it’s really, to me, something you feel almost more than you hear. But I’m feeling like this compression, again, is just helping to gel things together, and to give the mix a sense of movement and dynamic that I really like.

Now the last thing I’m going to add is a tape saturation plug-in. I typically like to add this to most of my mixes. The ATR 102, this is a UAD emulation plug-in that’s hard to really describe what it does, but to my ears it just creates, again, a bit more glue. And there’s an effect that this plug-in achieves. It just creates a sense of dimension that I can’t really get from a lot of other styles of processing.

So the one thing about this plug-in is that you do have to hit it at the right level. And it’s important that we get the gain staging going into this plug-in right. So oftentimes what I find is that the plug-in at normal levels that you would send into the mix bus, the plug-in just isn’t being hit hard enough. And you can see here on these meters when we play the track, notice how low the needle is on the meters.

♪ clarity – ♪

♪ Green as our grandparent’s trees ♪

♪ in our land of fantasy ♪

♪ there in Pine Bush ♪

♪ Shoot through the – ♪

So to get the plug-in to react in a way where it’s really going to add that character, I want to hit it so that the needle is hovering around zero. And the way that I’m going to do that is I’m going to add a trim plug-in before this plug-in, and I’m going to boost it by 12 dB. So now I’m sending 12 dB more into that tape plug-in. And then I’m going to duplicate that plug-in and add it after my tape plug-in, and then take the gain down by 12 dB. So there’s no change in level here, we’re just boosting the gain going into that tape plug-in, and then turning it down by the same amount after. So now you can see when we go to the plug-in –

♪ clarity – ♪

♪ Green as our grandparent’s trees ♪

♪ in our land of fantasy ♪

♪ there in Pine Bush ♪

♪ Shoot through the acres ♪

We’re hitting it at a much more appropriate level. So that sounds pretty good to my ears. Obviously if we had more time I would go and adjust this and make sure it was making an improvement, but in this case you get the general approach. So we’re starting with the mix bus processing, adding plug-ins there. And then at this point, once I feel like I’ve gotten to a place where the mix has started to sound as good as it can with all of my mix bus processing, that’s when I move to the group tracks. So I might apply some processing to all the drums, so I’ll add some processing here on this aux track, or the vocals for example. And then once I’ve gotten things as good as they can be, then I move to the ground floor tracks. I’ll add processing on the individual tracks if they need it.

So this top-down approach is I think the best way to start a mix. So it’s not to say there aren’t other great ways to start a mix. Sometimes you find that the more bottom-up approach just works better for a specific type of mix. But in the majority of mixes that I work on, I find this top-down approach is a great way to go.

Now as I mentioned, this is only one of the ways that you can use to start a mix. And there are some other great approaches as well. So if you want to learn what those are, and how you can use those approaches to start your mix, so you have more of a toolkit, more of a set of techniques that you can use and pick and choose from when you start your mixes, go ahead and download my free start a mix cheatsheet by clicking the link above or in the description below. And in that cheatsheet, I cover the other great ways to start a mix. We talk about those different approaches, and how you can use them. So in addition to top-down mixing, if you want to learn even more, go ahead and download that cheatsheet right now.

Now before you go, leave a comment below this video and let me know – how do you start a mix? I’d love to hear whether you use the top-down mixing approach, or whether you prefer the more traditional bottom-up mixing approach. So leave your answer in the comments section below, I would love to hear from you.

And for more mixing videos and tips like these, check out my YouTube channel right here, or go to my website BehindTheSpeakers.com. Thanks so much for watching.

About Jason Moss

Jason is an LA-based mixer and the founder of Behind The Speakers. He's a graduate of New York University's Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music. His how-to articles have been featured in leading industry publications by Berklee, TuneCore, SonicScoop, The Pro Audio Files, and Disc Makers.