How you start your mix will determine just how good (or bad) your final mix and master will sound.

Most people miss this truth entirely and want to move straight away to dropping in all the fancy plugins and sophisticated mix tricks – working very hard to get an OK mix.

Instead, I have found that by following a simple two step process at the very beginning – you get a better mix with significantly less effort (and in less time).

1-2 punch

Punch #1 – Take Advantage Of Your Most Powerful Mix Tool – The Fader

I find it hard to believe how much attention is given to processing with things like EQ, compression, saturation, multiband compression, side chaining, and the like – and how little attention is given to the all powerful volume fader.

The fader attached to each track is the single most powerful mixing tool you have. Why? Because mixing is all about balance, and the heart of balance is volume.

The volume of your track is what determines everything else. It determines how much or how little of a track we hear. It determines how much or how little EQ or compression is necessary. It determines how hard we hit our converters even.

Volume is everything and I’ll give you a classic example from my own folly.

Many times when mixing I find myself fighting to get the bass to sound just right. After rounds of EQ, compression, saturation, harmonic enhancement, distortion, and even parallel processing I usually stop and ask the (not so) obvious question: “Is the bass even at the right volume?”

Then I’ll bump the bass up 1-3db. And instantly I’ve got that nice full bass tone that I was trying to manufacture with plugins.

It was there the entire time. I just didn’t have the bass at the right volume.

I can’t stress enough the fact that the first thing you need to be doing when mixing is simply playing with the faders and creating a beautifully balanced “static” mix. It will affect everything else you do later on – and will likely save you time and energy trying to create something with plugins.

Now I have a question for you: How is one to know what the right volume balance for your mix is?

This is where the second punch comes into play.

Punch #2 – Match Your Mix To That Of The Pros With A Reference Track

You’ve probably heard of the concept of bringing in a reference track before. You compare your mix with that of one of your favorite commercial mixes to see what it has that yours doesn’t.

I’ve been doing this for years. But usually I would bring in a reference track at the end of a mix. Just to get some perspective and make some tweaks.

This perspective is a powerful and much needed thing.

While that certainly is a good idea, if you think about it for a minute – it seems silly to wait till you’re almost done with the mix to check the balance of a pro mix. Why not check that balance at the very beginning?

In fact that’s exactly what I recommend you do.

Once you’ve taken your initial stab at creating a balance with only your faders (and pan pots), the second thing you should do is bring in a comparable reference track and take a listen.

Specifically here are the things I like to listen for:

  • How loud is the kick drum?
  • What about the bass guitar/element – especially in relation to the kick?
  • How loud is the snare?
  • How loud is the lead vocal?
  • How are all the mid range instruments (guitars, keys, synths) placed in relation to the above four elements?

Of course at this point you don’t have any reverb or delay effects, you don’t have any EQ going, and you don’t have the aid of compression. But that is precisely the point. You want to use nothing but volume (the most powerful tool you have) to match your mix to that of the reference as closely as possible.

If by simply turning up the bass fader you can get the low end to better match the reference it’ll mean fewer plugins later.

If by simply turning down the acoustic guitars to better match that of the reference it means you hear the piano better it’ll mean less EQ carving needed later.

You see, it’s all connected.

Putting Them Both Together (To Knock Your Mix Out Of The Park)

These two moves are insanely powerful – especially if you look at them backwards.

Brining in a reference track instantly tells you what a good mix should sound like on YOUR speakers or headphones in YOUR room. This saves you hours of guessing and endless testing on other sound systems.

But combine that with the power of starting your mix by nothing more than balancing your volume faders and you will be setting your tracks at the optimal level, as informed by what a great mix sounds like.

Put them together and the mix process looks like this (assuming you’ve already imported the tracks into your DAW and gain staged them properly):

  1. Spend 10 to 30 minutes balancing the faders and pan pots till it sounds awesome
  2. Pull in a reference track, pull its volume down to match your mix, and take note of their balance
  3. Adjust your mix’s faders to better match the reference
  4. Begin processing as you normally would with EQ, compression, and so on
  5. Check in with your reference periodically to make sure you’re staying on track

This workflow is incredibly powerful and literally foolproof – and yet many people want to skip straight to step 4 and begin playing with plugins.

I’d encourage you to fight that urge. Trust this process. The 1-2 punch of starting your mix this way sets you up to get a fantastic sounding mix with not nearly as much effort or using as many plugins.

So let me ask you:

  • How long do you spend simply balancing the faders when starting a mix?
  • And do you use a reference track? If so, when during the mix process do you usually bring it in?

Leave your answers below!

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