I don’t care which DAW you use, if you can grasp these four concepts you can churn out a great mix.
Consequently, if you know these concepts well, you’ll never be locked into any single DAW or mixing platform. You can mix on anything!
Why is this important?
Because to be a well rounded mix engineer, you want to have the mixing theory down so that you can remain flexible and well equipped to work wherever, on whatever is available.
Core Concept #1 – Balance
If you had to boil the entire process of mixing down into one word it would be balance. It truly is the secret to great mixing.
And when I say balance I’m thinking of two things: volume and pan.
The foundation to every great mix is a super well thought out volume balance of each track against each other as well as some tasteful panning decisions.
Sure your mix will likely involve some volume or pan automation to make things work at every moment of the song, but in general you should be able to find the optimum fader and pan pot positions for 85% of the song.
My goal is to spend 10 minutes to an hour simply looping the song over and over while I adjust volume faders and pan pots until I feel the song coming together in a way that makes me nod my head and connect with the vibe.
If you don’t do this step, then the remaining 3 will suffer.
The good news is that this step is super easy as it involves zero plugins or knowledge of the current DAW.
Just open up the tracks, find the faders, and go!
Core Concept #2 – EQ
Once you’ve established a solid balance, it’s time for the most important plugin ever: EQ.
We use EQ to chip away what you don’t need and reveal the sonic greatness that lies within your tracks.
Like I shared with the students during my Creative Live master class, EQ is simply like a volume fader, only smarter.
The good news is that every DAW ships with at least one EQ. Even all the free software options.
If you understand how to wield EQ (i.e. the mindset behind it, not just the technical prowess) then you can thrive with any EQ in any DAW.
But EQ is only one of the two must have plugins. Can you guess the other one?
Core Concept #3 – Compression
A well balanced, well EQ’d mix is ripe for some tasteful compression.
Compression is a super helpful tool that can give your tracks more pop, smack, fatness, power, punch, and a smoother performance.
We use compressors in different ways for different purposes, but in general if you have already carved out some nastiness with EQ, the compressor will be your best friend.
Depending on how you use the attack settings you can get two wildly different results with the same compressor – it’s just that versatile of a tool.
And that’s one of the great things about compressors – once you understand one, you understand them all.
So far, if you can work a volume fader, an EQ, and a compressor, you can mix in any DAW on planet Earth.
But there’s one more powerful concept that will take those first three to the next level and give you an edge no matter what you’re mixing on.
Core Concept #4 – Reference Tracks
If there were one mixing hack that I had to say is the most useful, most life saving, and most consistently powerful of them all it would be mixing with a reference track.
What is referencing? It’s simply the habit of importing a professional track that you know sounds amazing and happens to be in a similar genre with similar instrumentation to the track you’re currently mixing and then comparing it to your mix.
Why is that magical? Why is that powerful?
Because it tells you your benchmark. It tells you what a good mix sounds like, in that DAW, on those speakers/headphones, in that room, on that day.
How else can you know what your snare should sound like? Or your vocals? Or how loud your kick drum should be? Or what the overall tone of the mix should be?
Nah, it’s worse than you think.
And that assumes you’re mixing in a perfectly flat and neutral environment, without the sonic problems inherent in every room in your house.
So by simply bringing in a reference track to check with periodically throughout your mix – you instantly improve your chances of delivering a well balanced, well EQ’d, well compressed, mix that will translate onto just about any system or set of speakers out there.
Mixing In Garageband
These fours concepts were invaluable to me last week as I mixed the song for our $300 Studio Challenge.
In case you didn’t know, I usually work in Pro Tools but for this challenge I wanted to record and mix an entire song on a piece of free software, Garageband. And on headphones I’d never used.
I honestly don’t know my way around the program (and am unfamiliar with the EQ curve of the headphones), but I know these concepts well.
All I had to do was play with the volume and pan pots, locate the EQ and compressor, and then import a reference track.
These simple moves got me so far with my mix. I instantly felt comfortable and had direction.
And honestly it’s the only way I would be able to churn out a good mix on this foreign of a setup.
Are You Comfortable With These Concepts?
So let me ask you something.
How comfortable are you with these four concepts? And are you currently using all four in your sessions?
If not, what is the one area you feel weakest in? Is it balancing, EQ, compression, or referencing?
Leave a comment below!