The mixdown is also the point where the art and the science of audio and music meet. It’s a technical process, requiring awareness of frequencies, tonality, dynamics and harmonics, as well as a degree of skill in using the tools required to mould and shape these concepts.
This is why many producers and artists employ a professional mix engineer to perform mixdowns for them, however, many prefer to perform their own.
Can I do my own mixdowns?
A mixdown might seem like something unattainable without the use of a professional engineer. Don’t fear, it is truly possible for you to create incredible sounding mixdowns that hold their own. Here are 11 easy steps to go that solid sounding mixdown:
View the mixdown as a separate step in the process
It’s important you give the mixdown the same amount of attention you do to the other aspects of production, such as sound design, composition, and arrangement. A lot of producers espouse the ‘mix as you go’ principle, however you can miss a genuine opportunity to really take your tracks to the next level this way.
By performing your mixdown as a separate process, you give yourself the opportunity to assess the track again with fresh ears, with the ability to push the track’s potential to even greater heights. So, how do we practically achieve this?
Render stems and put them in a fresh DAW session to perform the mixdown
After you’ve finished your track in your DAW of choice (we’re using Ableton here), render each track into an audio file (or ‘stem’) which you then load into a fresh DAW session, to perform your mixdown in. Use your DAW’s ‘Render All Tracks As Individual Audio Files’ option. This has several benefits; allowing you to free up your computer’s CPU to use on plug-ins and processing for the mixdown; to not being distracted by the opportunity to tweak a bit of MIDI; and then getting lost again in the production phase of your track.
Stemming your tracks helps you mentally separate from the writing process, and helps you focus your mind and ears on the frequencies, harmonics, timbre, levels and panning of each sound.
Before you begin mixing, it is recommended to lower the faders on each track in the session by around 6dB. This will create the right amount of headroom and space to create a mix that’s at the right level for mastering.
Use reference tracks
It’s always a good idea to use reference tracks at any stage of the production process. A well selected reference track can help guide you in many ways, mixing down being just one of them. At regular intervals during the mixdown, go back and listen to the reference track, pay attention to the individual instruments, or groups of instruments you are mixing, and use the reference track as a roadmap for where the possibilities lie for your own mixes. This is one of the most powerful ways to learn proper mix down technique.
Once everything is in your mixdown DAW session, group the drums together so you can hear them in isolation, and mix them together as a whole. Make sure the kick cuts through the drum mix, and the mix in general by using alternating the volume. You can also use TRANSIENT MASTER, which is great for adding attack to drum sounds, or adding weight to the sustains for more body.
Over the whole drum grouping, you can compress and add harmonics using SUPERCHARGER GT, to really ‘glue’ the drum tracks together, and add warm saturation and character that will really bring the drums to life.
Always check the level and frequency content of the bassline against your kick drum. They may share similar frequencies and mask each other, creating muddiness in the low-end. You can counter this by rolling off some of the kick’s low-end by using SOLID EQ‘s high-pass filter (HPF), and also adding sidechain compression to the bass, thus ‘ducking’ or reducing the volume of the bass momentarily when each kick triggers in the track. This will create more space in the mix, give more clarity to the low-end, and even add some rhythm to the track.
Lead synths usually carry the main emotional and musical ideas of the track, so it’s important they cut through the mix with power and clarity. For shorter, ‘pluckier’ sounds, again use TRANSIENT MASTER to help the attacks come through fully. When EQing, it’s always wise to live by the mantra “cut for clarity, boost for effect”. To cut the low-end, use SOLID EQ to keep the lead away from the kick and bass. Experiment with boosting the high mids using PASSIVE EQ to add shine, air, and further clarity, to really help get the emotion across.
Pads & Atmospheres
Pads are there to add a diffused emotional context to a track. Atmospheres and drones can also function similarly. Pads need to exist in the mid-range around 120Hz – 5Khz, which can be achieved by using the ENHANCED EQ to mould these instruments by using the low frequency and high cut bands.
Vocals can be amongst the most challenging instruments to mix, as the human voice is a dynamic instrument, meaning it can transition from incredibly quiet to incredibly loud at a moment’s notice. Therefore, compression can be a key weapon to help goals sit right in the mix.
Use VC76 to control the level, and balance the input and output settings to even out the peaks and troughs of the vocal amplitude. VC76 will also give a rich, classic tone thanks to its FX framework.
Think in 3D
When positioning instruments, think of your productions as existing on a three dimensional, virtual ‘stage’ that exists between your stereo monitor speakers. Each instrument needs to have its own space on the stage, as the goal of a mixdown is to simultaneously provide cohesion, but keep enough separation for each instrument to be heard. Keep kick, bass, vocals and any major sounds mono and centred, and experiment with panning the rest out to the sides, and using volume to bring instruments to the front or the back of the stage.
What to put on the mix buss / master channel
A small amount of compression can be a good idea for the master channel. This helps to catch any transient peaks that might lead to distortion or ‘clipping’ of the overall track, leading to problems with the mastering process. Using the SOLID BUS COMP is a great idea here, as not only will it help smooth the overall dynamics of the track, it’s analog modelling will provide warmth, depth and bring all of the instruments in the track together in a cohesive way.
Preparation for mastering and final output
Having headroom on the master channel is a major concern for mastering engineers. If you deliver a track for Mastering that does not have the required headroom, it can seriously compromise or prevent a mastering engineer from working in an optimal way.
With this in mind, try to leave around 3-6dB of headroom on the master channel – meaning the highest peak your master channel meter should read is between those figures. If you’ve lowered your track faders as mentioned in step 2, this will not present a problem for you.
Once the track meters correctly, then bounce the final track down to a stereo file. Check with your mastering engineer what file format to submit – 48KHz 24bit WAV files are usually preferred.
This is by no means an exhaustive approach to mixing down, so use these points only as a foundation, and experiment with your own unique techniques and approaches. Spend time developing your listening skills and soon enough you’ll be mastering with the best.