As complex as the mixing process can be, in reality it can easily be broken down into a handful of concrete steps. In Part 1 and Part 2 of The Beginner’s Guide To Mixing we looked at how to setup your mix and what the core of the mixing process looks like. In today’s final steps we will look at how to finish that final 10% of your mix and wind up with something that sounds great, not just good.
Step #7 – Sweetening
If the last three steps were what gave your mix it’s sound, this step is what gives that sound pop. A great mix isn’t purely a sonically clear and punchy mix. It also has to create impact and take the listener on a journey. Every moment of the song must be interesting and engaging to the audience. Otherwise, in a world of endless choice at our fingertips, the listener will get bored and move on to something else.
Enter the sweetening stage. The process is simple: go through your song systematically from beginning to end and do whatever it takes to keep the music moving. If verse 2 sounds just the same as verse, change it. Mute something in verse 1. Or add an effect to verse 2. Or automate the panning to be narrower in the verses than in the chorus. You get the idea. Make every part of the song count.
Step #8 – Referencing
Now that we have a clear and punchy mix that is engaging from the intro to the final note, it’s time to make sure the mix will work out in the real world and not just on our speakers at home. Welcome to the painful process of referencing. As unique and special as our mix is, we need to reference the real world in order to bring our mix in balance.
We reference in two ways. The first way is to simply listen to your mix on a second set of speakers or headphones. Each speaker has it’s own EQ curve (no matter how “flat” the manual says it is) and you can use that to your advantage. Run your mix through speakers that sound totally different to your main monitors and take note of anything that is missing. Go back to your mix and adjust slightly to make sure it sounds good on both sets of speakers.
The second way we reference is by pulling in a professional mix that we thing sounds great. Once inside our DAW you can simply volume match the pro mix to yours and then compare. Try to bring your mix closer in balance tonally (top end, bottom end, etc) to the reference mix. This will go a long way to getting your mix to translate better on all speakers.
Follow The Steps
These eight steps work. They are proven. So if you’re frustrated with your mixes and how they are turning out, try something different. Follow these steps and see if they just don’t help you get to a better place. I know there are many ways to mix, but at the core of every great mix these eight steps are being taken.
If you’d like to see this entire process come together in real time, you should check out my REthink Mixing series. I literally walk you through a real mix from raw tracks to polished master and I follow these steps exactly. Once you see how it’s done, you’ll be ready to do it yourself with more confidence than ever before.