The Beginner’s Guide To Mixing [Part 1]

| Mixing, Plugins, Tips

Today I want to start a short multi-part series on mixing basics. It’s called The Beginner’s Guide To Mixing, but really it is the same guide (or path let’s say) for the advanced mixer. Every good mixer needs to keep these things in mind as they begin their work. So I see this guide as more of a course in foundational mixing concepts that will serve you well for years to come.

Step #1 – Monitoring Levels

Before you even begin to touch a thing in your DAW (Digital Audio Workstation) you’d be wise to set one thing in place: your monitoring levels. Basically, whether you are mixing in headphones or on speakers you need to set a specific (and consistent) volume level that will be your default mixing volume.

The slightest change in volume can affect how you hear your mix and cloud your decision making. So find the sweet spot on your volume knob and leave it there for most of the mix. What is the monitoring level sweet spot you ask? Simple, the best volume to mix at is the volume that is quiet enough to allow you to have a normal conversation with someone sitting close to you without having to raise your voice.

That’s probably quieter than you’re used to mixing at, but there are three good reasons to monitor at low levels: more accurate frequency response, fewer room reflections, and protection of your hearing.

Step #2 – Gain Staging

Once you’re monitoring volume is set, you’ll want to do one more boring bit of prep work. And that is setup proper gain staging of your tracks inside your DAW. Simply put, your tracks are likely to hot (i.e. too loud) and are taking up way to much headroom on your master fader. Your goal is to bring down the gain of all of your tracks so that by the time they compound at your main output pair, you have plenty of headroom on your mix buss.

Headroom in the digital world is the name of the game. If your master fader is getting close to clipping you are in trouble. Digital clipping does not sound good. This however can be easily avoided by turning down your tracks. You can either do this with the actual volume faders as I show here, or you can drop in a few trim/gain plugins and do it before the actual fader as shown here. Also, simple clip based gain on the wave forms works just as well.

When you can play your track back in see around 25% to 50% of headroom on your master fader on average, you’re in the ballpark and are ready to get to mixing.

Step #3 – Track Volume

Our final step for today’s portion of The Beginner’s Guide To Mixing is potentially one of the most critical of them all. At this point in the process we want to establish each track’s ideal volume position, relative to the other tracks in the mix. You might have already done some of this in the previous step (as seen in those videos), but here is where you want to finalize the volume for every track.

Every track has an optimal volume fader position. Your job is to find it. This takes lots of repeated listening, in context of the mix of course. Your goal is to find that one volume spot for each track where it plays its role well and just about every part of the song. It won’t be perfect (i.e. you’ll likely need some volume automation down the road), but it will be 90% of the way there.

This one step is so critical because it not only is the majority of your mix’s sound, but it affects everything you do next with EQ, compression, effects, even automation. I honestly try and pretend that I have no plugins to use, only volume faders. This forces me to find the sweet spot for each track and make a compelling mix with no effects!

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Check out Part 2 of The Beginner’s Guide To Mixing

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33 Responses to “The Beginner’s Guide To Mixing [Part 1]”

  1. Dinosaur David B.

    Wow. A methodical step-by-step approach! That flies in the face of what many mixing engineers will tell you — that “mixing can’t be taught. Only learned.” Which of course is lazy rubbish, and certainly not helpful for anyone wanting to “learn.”

    While there certainly is no ONE best way to do things, I think having a basic, repeatable process to follow will be AMAZINGLY helpful for beginners who have no idea where to begin. There’s always time to break the rules and/or find your own variations later. Glad to see this.

    Reply
    • Graham

      Yes, especially when starting out, a repeatable set of steps helps keep you on track.

      Reply
  2. Vincent

    Great idea for a series.
    Personaly, I would add : sort your tracks and order them. Then make a few bus/group tracks for drums, guitars, vocals, etc…
    Hope that helps

    Reply
  3. jessloh

    Good stuff, Graham! Just starting out and am feeling a bit lost so this post is timely!

    Reply
  4. Carlos

    Hey Graham! I’ve been a subscriber to your blog since before 5 Minutes to a Better Mix I. So I’ve never dealt with recording levels being too hot, I’ve learned to be conservative there. Usually, to get healthy levels to the mix bus (So I won’t have to limit the mix like a madman during mastering) I have to trim up the tracks either with a trim plugin or clip gain. In my last mix I had to add 12dbs to each of the tracks… Made me think.

    I am being too conservative with input levels? My mixes sound great to my ears and my clients are happy but wondering if this is an area that could make them better by going the other direction a bit. Also, when bringing up the gain of a track by say 12db, is there any adverese effects?

    Thanks Graham!

    Reply
    • Graham

      You can’t really record too low when recording at 24 bit. You have plenty of quiet signal and headroom. Bringing up the mix in volume has no adverse effects.

      Reply
  5. Morakinyo Kolade

    Wow!!! Thanks for this awesome lesson!!! Looking forward for more…I’m putting this new idea of mixing into action already!!!

    Reply
  6. Mike

    Great stuff again! Thx a lot. The most important thing that I learnt here is to really get the ears finetuned for very very subtle decisions that might not be so appealing like a drastic low mid cut from a bassdrum is when you even add lots of lows and hi mids. But in the end these 100 subtle tiny little things all contribute to a natural great sound.
    I admit I came from the drastic settings. Learnt to be moderate after looooooooooong ways of suffering. And still I was not satisfied because I was always after a NATURAL acoustic sound, since I am an acoustic player. Since I really like the style of music that you stand for I loved your videos ever since I found them on youtube.
    I benefitted from Pensado´s Place quite a bit, but because lot of the stuff presented there is electro pop it is way too far from my stuff.
    Yours is just exactly what I really like to listen to.
    And the best of all is the message of your songs that had been a blessing not only for the ears but also for the soul.

    God bless!!
    Mike

    Reply
  7. Eran

    Hi Graham – great article.

    I was wondering about panning – when do you that? I couldn’t find in all begginers guides,

    Thanks,

    Reply
    • Graham

      Panning would happen during my initial few passes of the mix, early on. It can be tweaked later as needed.

      Reply
  8. GBrown44

    Question in regards to intial monioring level and “which” fader or faders is it referring? Is this referring to the Master fader or the track faders?

    Reply
    • GBrown44

      Scratch the above, i’m sure its in regards to the actual monitors/headphones now that I think about it. Let me ask this, is there any concrete level settings for the Master Track in the mix stage? Obviously there’s a fader there for a reason, but i’m not understanding when i should be pulling the Master down or pushing it up. I understand as plugins are added to the MF or TF that the MF volume effected but should MF fader compensation be done at the TF (track faders)? thanks in advance

      Reply
      • Graham

        I don’t touch the master fader. I balance the individual tracks on the way to the master fader. If I need more or less volume when mixing I simply grab my monitor output on my interface.

        Reply
  9. Jadif

    Hi man.

    I just bump into your website and it is a blessing from what you expose here. Thanks for the guide and will keep reading.. GBU Graham..

    Reply
  10. Richard

    Firstly, thank you for this and all the other great material I’ve been soaking up from you. My question is regarding “you’ll likely need some volume automation down the road” (Step 3). When would you do this fine-tuning?

    Reply
    • Graham

      Hi Richard,

      I do automation at the VERY end, during the sweetening phase. See part 3 of this post series.

      Reply
      • Richard

        Yes, that figures – I’ve got into a mess before doing it too soon! Thanks again.

        Reply
  11. David

    Your information is quite helpful and inspiring at the same time. I have so much understanding that’s lying dormant… some useful, some antiquated. Your tutorials wakes up the sleeping giant in me. Makes me want to learn more. Do more. Be more creative. Take the whole recording thing more seriously.

    Thanks for the inspiration… and the information.

    Reply
    • Graham

      In most DAWs you can. But it doesn’t help the actual tracks on the track level, or your workflow. Gain staging is all about the optimal signal level at each stage of the process. SO I try to turn things down on the track level and watch the mix buss as it is.

      Reply
  12. Willem

    Hi, thanks for the info. I am a beginner; just bought Bitwig Studio, woohoo!
    I am doing pretty well with Magix MM, but I built my song on the vocals of the soundpool, which is basically very limited.

    Reply
  13. indian producer

    hey bro graham ! a very good going in an odd subject which most of sound engineers doesnt explain , ur post was very helpfull , although i want to know about :
    1:how much should i keep the levels of all the tracks in mixing so that it doesnt clip and it also sounds enough to loud to be heard in normal music system

    2: how can i make my songs so live like now a days unplugged modern songs with so lively sounding acoustic guitar

    and my final question how i can record my acoustic guitar , what r d parameters r der to make it so clear and crisp !

    thank you again !

    Reply

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  1.  The Beginner’s Guide To Mixing [Part 2] » The Recording Revolution
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