How to Mix: The 5 Phases Of Every Good Mix

2016 Feb 15, 2016

Have you ever opened up a mix session and just not known where to start or how to begin?

Or perhaps starting isn’t the problem, it’s knowing when the mix is finished that eludes you.

What helps me is to think of mixing in phases or parts – and in my experience there are only 5 that really matter. Work through these steps methodically and you’ll mix with clarity and direction every time.

Phase 1 – The Pre Mix

One problem many people don’t realize they have is that they start “mixing” long before they should.

By this I mean, they begin inserting plugins and moving faders before their tracks are setup in their DAW in the optimal way. This should be taken care of in what I call the pre mix.

Primarily I focus on two things during this phase: gain staging and organization. 

One of the most powerful things you can do to help your mixes open up and sound their best is what’s called gain staging. Simply put you are making sure your tracks are at the optimal volume level. I’ve put together an entire video training on my exact method called The Smart Start To Mixing (it’s a free download) which I highly recommend you watch.

So many people record things to hot into their DAW so the first part of pre mixing is to trim these levels down to a level where they’ll hit your plugins’ sweet spot.

The other part of this involves simply labeling and arranging your tracks visually in a way that makes sense to you. Personally I always start with my drums on the far left of the mixer view, followed by the bass, guitars, keys, vocals, and on up to the master fader.

Whatever layout seems logical to you, take the time now to set your tracks up that way so you won’t be hunting for tracks later.

When you get comfortable doing all this, the pre mix phase should take you no more than 30 minutes.

Phase 2 – The Gut Mix

While this is only the second step in the journey, I believe that Phase 2 is the most important part of the entire mix process. Why? Because it affects everything else you do.

I call this phase, the gut mix for a reason. We need to start moving faders and pan pots in reaction to what our gut (our first impression) is telling us. This is another thing I discuss in The Smart Start To Mixing series and it’s transformative.

In essence, your first impression of where the volume and pan of a track should be is likely correct. It is instinctual and it is in reaction to what the song is giving you.

Remember that the entire process of mixing can be summed up in one word: balance. This is the most important thing we are doing as mixers, is balancing the tracks we are given in such a way that the song comes through to the listener.

To help in this process I recommend you set a timer on your phone for 10 minutes. Loop the song, pull the faders down to the bottom and then start mixing as if it were a live show.

Don’t stop the playback, just grab faders and pan pots and mix. Make it happen with only volume and pan and work quickly.

A little EQ on the mix buss goes a LONG way.

Phase 3 – Mix Buss Processing

At this point you should have tracks that are at their optimal level gain wise, balanced beautifully against each other with volume and pan, and you still haven’t dropped in a single plugin!

Now it’s time to enhance the raw tracks, but not where you might think. Instead of dropping in effects on the individual tracks – start with the mix buss (the master fader).

Why do this? Because you can enhance your mix faster with fewer plugins. Why does that matter? It saves CPU horsepower and increases confidence.

When your mix comes together quicker by dropping in some strategic EQ, compression, or saturation on the mix buss – you get a psychological boost of confidence, which then helps you mix better. It creates a feedback loop.

Quick wins on the mix buss increase confidence, which increases your ability to mix well, which gives you confidence.

This is probably my favorite part of the mixing process because you are rewarded for such little effort. It keeps me excited and motivated to see this mix to completion.

Phase 4 – EQ + Compression + Mono

After enhancing your mix with some plugins on the master fader, it’s time to really sculpt the tracks even more.

At this point, I fold my entire mix to mono so I no longer can hear the separation that panning gives me. This forces me to make better EQ and compression decisions.

I personally believe that EQ and compression are you too most powerful tools for crafting a great mix, so this is such a critical moment. Take the time to listen to your mix and use these tools to create the clarity and energy that you feel it needs – all while listening in mono.

Remember, it’s easy to fool yourself into thinking you have clarity and separation when you are listening in stereo. Mono forces you to face the reality that your mix might be muddier than you think. Use EQ and compression now to fix that.

I know this is a painful process – but I’ve had countless students tell me that after spending an hour or two in mono, they forget that it’s in mono. And the moment they pop things back out to stereo they are blown away at just how much better everything sounds!

Hit that mono button and get to work. Your mix will thank you!

Phase 5 – Sweetening

After moving through the first four phases you should have a well balanced mix that is exciting, punchy, clear, and musical. It should feel about 80% of the way there.

Now comes the closing phase, a process I call sweetening. This is the fun part because you get to go through the song moment by moment and make sure that every element of the song jumps out at the right place and no section of the song is boring.

I like to think of this as a radio test.

Would someone listening to my mix on the radio want to change the station after a verse and chorus? Or have I orchestrated the mix in such a way that each moment is just as engaging and captivating as the last and the listener just cant’ wait to hear what’s next?

Sweetening is different for every mix but can include things like: reverb, delay, distortion effects, volume and pan automation, muting or deleting parts, adding parts like percussion or pads. It can even involve re-arranging certain parts of the song.

The point is, this is your chance to take a good mix sonically speaking and make it great musically speaking. Whatever that takes.

Just Follow The Road Map

If you ever find yourself getting stuck in a mix, do yourself a favor and mentally walk through these 5 phases. Did you skip any? Did you do them out of order?

You can always zero out your mix and start from scratch. It’s a liberating thing really. And this time simply follow the road map these 5 phases give. I bet you’ll crank out a better sounding mix – and in less time!

And if you really want to know the best way to start each mix, you need to watch The Smart Start To Mixing series. It’s a free gift to you.

And the best part about what I teach in that mini series? It will help you get better sounding mixes right now with the same plugins you currently have!

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