Let’s take a hypothetical journey today: let’s try to mix a song in our DAW without using any plugins or effects whatsoever. Our goal will be the “no plugin mix”, one that sounds full, clear, and punchy to the listener, but without inserting a single software or hardware compressor, EQ, or reverb.
How would your workflow change if you couldn’t use any plugins? What COULD you do to get a great mix. As you’ll see there are a handful of things you could do.
Set Perfect Fader Levels
The obvious place to start is with volume faders. The simple beauty of multitrack recording is the power to turn the volume up or down of each individual element in a song, not just the entire song itself. A great mix begins with a great static mix and that should be your first goal. Find the perfect fader position for each track in the session.
And by perfect I mean the volume for each track that works perfectly for 80% of the mix. That great lead vocal volume might be great for most of the verses and choruses, but in the bridge it becomes a bit buried. It’s OK. Find the fader level that works the majority of the time and leave it there for now.
What are you listening for? Balance. This is your most powerful tool to get the right balance of each element in the song. I like to loop the song over and over and try to mix the song as if it were live. Try it for 20 minutes without stopping and see what you get!
Pan With Purpose
After setting (near) perfect fader levels your mix should be coming to life. Since we work in a stereo environment we have the luxury of not only controlling each track’s volume, but each track’s placement horizontally in space. Pan pots are simple but powerful tools that give you instant separation. So use them!
For most music, don’t over think panning as if you need to recreate some realistic stereo picture of a band playing in front of you. Your panning moves will be too subtle. What you want is to maximize separation and clarity. I highly recommend LCR panning as it gives you both. Put the central song elements up the middle (lead vocal, kick, snare, bass). Then put the remaining stuff on the far left and right (guitars, keys, harmonies, percussion).
I’m always confused as to why so many young mixers send me tracks that have all the instruments panned so closely together. The stereo image in their mixes is so crowded and narrow, when with a simple tweak of some pan knobs they could open up their mix even wider.
The final thing you can do to really get a great mix without using any plugins is to go through an intentional sweetening stage. What is sweetening? Simply put, it’s where you go through the song start to finish and make sure every moment keeps you interested and engaged as a listener.
The two best ways to do this are with mutes and automation. To be honest, I don’t think there’s a single mix I do where I don’t mute or delete something. It might be drastic like an entire instrument or track. Or it might be little like two bars of a bass line. But whatever it is, I try to take out what doesn’t need to be there, so that what remains can sound even better.
Also, the modern day DAW gives you simple and powerful volume and pan automation. Use it! This is your chance to take those 80% of the way volume levels and make them 100% perfect. The same is true with panning. Rarely do my tracks stay panned in the same place for the entire song. There is always something that needs to move strategically as the song progresses to keep things flowing. Think like a listener and keep the song interesting.
A Great Exercise
I think everyone should try this exercise at least once. It might seem pointless, but the phantom benefits of working a “no plugin” mix is your awareness for what really matters in a mix: the big picture. And what is the big picture? That your job is to take a bunch of (hopefully) well recorded tracks and simply balance them to a stereo file that sounds sonically pleasing and musically engaging to the average listener.