Let’s get into that category of “things I wish I knew” when I started mixing. Rather than talking precise EQ positions, I wanted to put together a list of more general music mixing tips. Make no mistake, these tips are more invaluable than anything like that. If you follow them, you’ll save yourself years of frustration and bad mixes.
On to the music mixing tips!
Music Mixing Tips
#1 – Use and Trust References
I have to start with arguably the single most important rule: ALWAYS USE REFERENCES.
When I say references, I don’t mean your cousin Jimmy or your last boss. I’m talking professional commercial mixes of your favorites artists, the kind you aspire your mixes to sound like.
References accomplish two things.
The first thing they do is train your ears to distinguish what a good mix sounds like.
You’ll find that rather than just enjoying the song, you begin to dissect the mix when listening in the context of working on your own music. You’ll notice things which are just in the left or right channel, differences in depth, etc.
Whether you’re mixing on monitors, speakers, or headphones, they’re your best training tool.
The second, more important thing references do is they keep you from mixing in a vacuum.
I was completely guilty of this for the first SEVERAL YEARS I was mixing. I’d spent hours on a mix, delicately tweaking the smallest details on a guitar or vocal track.
At the end of that session I was convinced it sounded amazing. Sorely needing a break, I go off, play some video games, take a walk, anything else to give my ears (and butt) a rest.
When I eventually came back to that mix the next morning, it would typically sound like hot garbage. Somehow it’s managing to simultaneously sound like a bog of mud AND make my ears bleed in the high mid frequencies.
Frequently checking in with your references keeps you focused on your goal of where you want your mix to end up, and it refreshes and retrains your ears.
You can have that reference song ready to play in your streaming service of choice, but I prefer having it in my DAW.
I work in Ableton Live and set up a hot key which alternates between my mix and the reference.
This is a lot easier for A/B split tests than switching between programs. Sure it only saves you 1-2 seconds per comparison, but when I’m constantly shifting back and forth, that convenience is useful in allowing you to focus your attention solely on the differences in the audio.
Pro Tip (if your DAW acts similarly) – Setting the hot key to turn “Solo” mode on the reference track on and off is fine, but there’s a slight delay associated with turning on solo. It’s a fraction of a second, but it’s not as seamless as just turning tracks on and off. For that reason, I drop a utility track on my master bus which has a “mute” button on it. Make the same hot key trigger the mute on and off and the reference track (set to Ext Out) on and off, make sure one is off and the other is on, and just like that you’ve got your seamless A/B comparison on a single key.
But yes, never ever EVER mix without a reference track one click away.
#2 – If It Sounds Good, That’s All That Matters
This is my way of saying that there are no rules to mixing.
If you open a plugin and apply a preset and it sounds amazing but you feel mildly guilty for not being more creative (just me?), that’s great, use it!
I don’t care if you had to use 10 plugins to get that tambourine to sit where you want it; if it sounds good, that’s all that matters!
Sure, maybe figure out a similar work flow without that many plugins to achieve a similar result to save yourself time and CPU strain, but still.
The point I’m trying to make: however you get there is fine, as long as you get there.
Don’t worry if you feel like some mixing “guru” would raise their nose to whatever you did. Results are all that matter.
#3 – High Pass Everything
Okay, there is at least one rule in mixing, and it’s the third of these music mixing tips.
It’s a good habit to get into high passing every single track in your mix. This means putting a high pass filter via EQ on every track in your mix to filter out the lowest frequencies.
90% of your tracks can be high passed starting around 100Hz if not higher. Everything beneath there is room or other unwanted noise, or inaudible frequencies which are still taking up space and adding nothing to your mix.
Not only does leaving these frequencies in add mud to your mix but it steps on the toes of the instruments whose fundamentals exist in those ranges.
A perfect example is in my guide on how to EQ electric guitar. You can typically high pass starting around 150Hz. While there are clearly audible frequencies below that and you’ll lose some of the thickness with this filter, you might find that it makes your guitar track sound cleaner. Then the bass has that space to itself where it can do its job and represent THE BASS of your track, making the guitar and bass work and fit together nicely.
Additionally, you should also high pass when you EQ bass guitar. Just like we created space for the bass through the electric guitar, we’re creating space for the kick drum with a high pass on the bass guitar.
Even when you EQ a kick drum, there’s going to be something in the lowest frequencies you don’t need. Anything below 20Hz is inaudible to humans, so cutting here is recommended.
Even though there’s nothing audible happening here, there’s audio information which will carry on all the way through the song mastering process, taking up headroom and limiting how loud your mix can get.
High passing creates cleaner mixes which can become naturally louder in the end with less clipping and distortion.
#4 – Mix in a Good Space
You always hear about monitors or speakers with a “flat response” but we tend to forget about the environment we’re mixing in itself.
In case you didn’t know, a flat response essentially means that all frequencies are presented at the same level. This is in contrast to speakers, a room, etc. where say the bass is more prominent or lacking, you get a build up at 1000Hz, etc.
Most of us mix in less than ideal spaces, making it difficult to make accurate assessments of what our mix needs.
Some of us even mix in environments where we can’t make a lot of noise or worse there’s a lot of ambient noise.
This is where headphones can help.
Make sure that you also know what good music sounds like on the speakers, headphones, etc. that you mix with.
When we listen to music long enough on a certain pair of speakers, we know what (good) music SHOULD sound like on them. It seems like an obvious thing, but it bears worth mentioning that you should know the speakers you listen to music on inside and out.
One side note on mixing on headphones: do yourself a favor and consider a plugin which helps recreate listening to a mix in a good room but on headphones. I use the CLA Nx from Waves every time I mix on headphones and it eliminates most of the pitfalls which come with headphones mixing. When I listen back to mixes I’ve done on my headphones later on using my studio monitors, my mixes have been demonstrably better since I’ve been using that plugin (it especially helps with nailing the low end).
#5 – Listen in Different Environments (With References)
Lastly, listen back to your mix in the car, on another set of speakers, in headphones, everywhere you can. Once your music is commercially released, there’s no telling what set ups your music will be played on and in.
Have your phone or go old school with a notebook and pen and make notes on anything that sounds off in different spots.
You might find that your mix sounds great on your studio monitors but falls apart in the car.
That being said, it’s just as important to play references alongside your mix in these different environments.
A good example is when I first started audio production and mixing, I knew to play back my mixes in my car (shout-out to the film “Once”) for comparison.
I was shocked and completely destroyed when I got in the car and the mix which I had poured hours over suddenly sounded like a thick, muddy, boomy mess in my car’s speakers.
Like an idiot, I made notes in the car based on what I was hearing, went back to my computer and monitors, and gutted the low end without thinking twice.
I went back to the car and it sounded a bit better, but it sounded like a my ears were being murdered in the 2-5k region on any other speakers.
This went on for awhile until I finally thought to listen to my reference track alongside my mix.
I was once again shocked when this professional mix I knew so well on one of my favorite songs was completely lacking in clarity.
You see, what I failed to account for was that the speakers in my car naturally make everything sound a lot more low and mid heavy. The car swallowed up the clarity, even at flat or (better said) default EQ settings.
My mind was blown when I realized it was the car that was the problem.
I then instantly thought back on the dozens if not hundreds of hours I had wasted, tweaking the mix and feeling like I was going insane, and became understandably depressed.
That anecdote is just to remind you that, once again, using references is perhaps the single most important of these music mixing tips. Yes, review your mix in different environments, but please please PLEASE know what your guide song sounds like in those different environments, as well.
Not a perfect comparison, but the reference is effectively the “control” in the experiment of listening different places, or your point of reference still.
Music Mixing Tips
- While mixing trends will come and go, some music mixing tips will always be relevant.
- Always use references when mixing to both keep you focused on your goal and keep yourself from mixing in a vacuum.
- Have a hotkey tied to your reference in your DAW to easily split test in real time.
- Don’t worry about how you get there, results are all that matter.
- High pass every single track in your mix to clean up the mud, create space, and have your tracks working together.
- Mix in a good space and one which you know. If you mix on headphones, consider using a plugin designed to simulate a studio.
- Listen to your mix in different environments and make notes of what sounds off to pay attention to using your main setup later.
- Make sure to use reference tracks in these other environments, as well, for context!