The Most Important Word In Mixing: Balance

| Mixing, Plugins, Tips

We all have a tendency to make mixing more complicated than it really is. On the surface (and in many publications, both print and online) mixing seems to be about turning fancy knobs on fancy plugins and using all kinds of secret moves and voodoo gear. In reality, the process of mixing is simple and can be summed up in one word: balance.


TRR227 The Most Important Word In Mixing: Balance

Via Brandon Flickr

You Only Have One Job

Much like Anakin Skywalker was supposed to bring balance to the Force, your job, your ONLY job as a mixer is to bring balance to the recorded tracks before you. Nothing more, nothing less. You do this with simple tools like faders, pan pots, EQ and compression. If, when using these tools you keep in mind your sole job as a mixer is to bring balance to the tracks, you will mix with purpose and clarity.

Instead of thinking you need to “change the sound” of your tracks or “fix” everything, you should think about balance. Listen to the tracks and ask yourself: Do things sound balanced to me? If not, make some adjustments. If so, leave things alone. Instinctually we know to do this. We hear that the kick drum is too loud, the vocal is too quiet, the guitars should be panned out. We grab faders and pan pots and go. This is the essence of balance mixing.

But We Get Off Track

Thinking that faders and pan pots are only a small fraction of the mixing process we falsely assume we need to do “more” to churn out a great mix. But if mixing is only about one thing, balance (and it truly is), then we should never underestimate the simple moves and we should never overestimate plugin settings other effects.

This means starting with proper gain staging and volume fader positions before moving on. Take your time with this. Relative volume of one track to the next is how you get the core of you mix in place and it affects everything else that comes after it. Spend time mixing with faders only and pretend that plugins don’t exist. It might be the best thing you ever do.

Try to bring as much balance as you can to the mix with only volume and pan and the rest of the process will come much more easily. If you find yourself wanting to jump ahead and get off track, stop. Does the track in question really need plugins? Or does it simply need to be turned up?

What About Plugins?

Understanding that mixing is truly only about balance helps you with plugin decisions. It changes the way you look at using an EQ from a “hype the track” tool to a “help this track find it’s place” tool. It also changes the way you look at using a compressor from purely a “slam this thing” tool to a “control and better position this track” tool.

Like we looked at before, you don’t want to crowd the mix box, and EQ is a great tool to stop that from happening. But those EQ decisions were framed by the need to bring balance to the mix, to get the low stuff lower and the high stuff higher. It wasn’t purely to change the sound for the sake of changing the sound.

Some Helpful Challenges

To help you go from a tweak-aholic type mixer to a focused balance mixer, here is a suggestion you can implement in your next mix. Grab a timer (on your phone even) and set it for 20 minutes. Then throw up your faders and start mixing with one simple rule: no plugins. The only tweaks you can make are to volume and pan.

Your goal? To make the mix sound radio ready. Will you get there? No. But you should be able to get pretty close, at least as close as you can with the tracks in question. The purpose of this exercise is to help you see just how powerful the word “balance” is and why it’s the essence of mixing.


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40 Responses to “The Most Important Word In Mixing: Balance”

  1. KS

    Hey Graham,

    Once again, a fantastic article and very meaningful tips. I am surely going to try this on the tracks I am currently working. I really need to because I am getting a bit frustrated with the mix and need to start it fresh. And there won’t be any better tip for that – balance – limit to Vol & Pan – great!

    Keep up the wonderful work.


  2. Acousticdonk

    “we should never underestimate the simple moves and we should never overestimate plugin settings other effects.”
    I often find myself chasing down the rabbit hole of the plug-in, never let’s me anything except lighter pockets. Faders and panning does the real heavy lifting. Thanks for the reminder!

  3. Kal


    The proper gain staging and the achievement of a perfect balance between my tracks using volume and Pan are always the first steps in my mixing process.

    I usually then process the “plugin tweaks” and finally automation.

    Now I was wondering if automating the mix before Eqing and comping maybe a good idea.

    My idea is that could even more affect the choices i make later “changing” the sound of my tracks.

    Have you ever tried, and what do you think of it ?

  4. Greg McKinney

    A very back-to-basics article, which is great advice in all walks of life. God bless.

  5. Sal

    Hey Graham,

    Great tip. I’ve been making getting the static mix my first step in the process and it makes a big difference. It sets the tone for the rest of the process and helps to fine tune the balance with EQ and compression after. The EQ and compression augment the initial balance instead of changing it. The only thing I do different is I do the panning after so I do static mix, EQ, compression and then effects and sweeteners.

  6. aaron

    Do you ever “hype the mix” after? To me high pass, a little shelf and some mid range tweaks doesnt add the big sound. I’ve tried it and it seems to lack something. So is there more to eq after those quick “cleaning” moves?

  7. Robert Moehle

    Very good article – it makes no compromises in getinng back to the basics. Funny thing is, I find I already do things this way. When I was young, most commercial mixers had a “left-center-right” toggle switch instead of a pan pot – that was how I learned to mix stereo. Your left-center-right panning style! The only plugin use is reverb, a small amount. Don’t let the “professionals” know – it really is that simple! If they find out, they won’t be able to charge us for the time they spend messing with extraneous stuff.

  8. Joesi

    Graham it’s so awesome that you wrote that. You know, I discovered a tendency regarding my mixing behaviour some yoears ago and it was exactly like what you wrote here. I then wondered if I was supposed to form new signals of the old ones just to find out that what I was doing could be called “restoration”, not balancing. That illumination caused a tremendous change how I mix things nowadays. However, the temptation to fall back is quite present. It’s a matter of discipline and deleting. Yes, DELETING! Once you delete all your fancy magic plugins, you are forced to accept the signal as it is…

  9. Earath Citizen

    As a mixing engineer I think it’s especially important to understand the fundamentals of mixing like this article, I feel like balance is one of those things that is easily overlooked or not considered enough to generate a proper professional sounding mix but we must also remember that there’s more things concerning getting a great sounding mix then just taming faders which revolve around the balance issue there still issues that are still fundamental such a space, such as creating depth, creating vibe and feel and emotion and it is enhanced by a truly skilled engineer and we play a huge part in translating that in a mix we have a part to play in that by utilizing the tools that you’re given. Sometimes not understanding the fundamentals and moving to advance techniques too early can really be the worst thing for a mixing engineer if you look how it was did in the older days an engineer coming up wasn’t allowed to touch no faders no knobs nor any type of gear before they had spent years watching observing and learning in a professional studio with professional mixes being done. I think that important part of the process is lost in today’s age and makes more emphasis on overhyped gear and plugins. but there is no true understanding of the fundamentals of what we do as mixing engineers. the great part about being under a professional mixing engineer is that you learned things that you could not be taught by a daw or in a book that is picked up through experience rather than somebody just showing off a YouTube video. Not to knock the recording revolution cause you Graham do an awsome job laying basic useful principles that we should know before moving any fader. But to truly understand how to be a better mixer requires hours and even years of doing this over and over again and that what makes you great that’s why dueling mixes if your not doing any mixing for anyone or even yourself that website is sure to make you better over time. And that’s truly how you become great and expand on your craft. Not with plugins or gear

  10. Igna

    Hey Graham, sincerely you are a great teacher and writer. I really enjoy reading your articles, very catching and to the point!

    All the best for you.


  11. Tim Hewitt

    The thing I liked Graham about that article of yours, is because it assured me I haven’t really been going wrong the way I’ve been mixing since I did that church worship band recording that I mentioned about in other posts of mine. I think I remember having gotten a little more focused on the plugins than just track volume and panning, but since I did that church worship band mix whenever I used compression and dynamic equalization, I used them with the understanding that I was using them to get the dynamics under control. I would use the Antress compressor just to control the dynamics of the overall sound of whatever tracks I’m using it on. I’ve also been using compression also to help either a bass guitar or electronic keyboard bass sound sit in a nicer space in a mix. Then the dynamic equalizer I would use just to keep for sure like bass and trebble dynamics under control by setting them to do an automatic bass and trebble cut where needed. There’s times I also set it to do an automatic cut on the upper midrange like that if it’s needed. I then use a regular just simple Antress three band parametric Equalizer to do the regular equalizing on a track that I’m just using the dynamic equalizer that way to keep frequency dynamics under control. I also use Blue Cats Gain on whatever tracks I really find myself needing gain on. Another thing I like about that article on balance mixing, is for how it also assured me that I was also already doing right when it comes to giving tracks the sound processing that they really only need. Both the church worship band mix I did and just a four track recording I did on a music piece I composed on a music keyboard of mine had one track that I only had just the Antress three band parametric EQ on. Giving vocals just the right amount of reverb is the thing I do after all those other sound processes. I make sure I take care of all the other things with the tracks first like compression, dynamic equalizing, regular three band parametic equalizing, gain, proper track and master channel levels to first bring a good balance to a mix before adding reverb and any other effects in that order. Then most of the time on the mastering I only use a 10 band Electri Q, Antress Modern leveler amp switched to limit, or a Kjerhas limiter. I only also use Blue Cats gain and anything else on the mastering if it needs it.

      • TY

        Ya…. WHAT am I talking about!? Never heard this from ANYONE before. OH wait!… Get educated before looking like a fool.

        Mixerman’s 10 Steps to Better Mixing
        Posted all over the net:

        1. Mixing is an attitude.
        2. If the song sucks, the mix is irrelevant.
        3. Working the room, keeping people happy and relaxed is half of mixing successfully.
        4. Putting everything proportional in a mix is going to make a shitty mix.
        5. Gear are tools in a mix that make life either easier or more difficult, they are not what makes a mix good or bad.
        6. A mix can be great and not have great sound.
        7. If nothing about the mix annoys someone in the room, the mix is often times not done.
        8. Mixing can not be taught, it can only be learned.
        9. The overall vibe of the track is much more important than any individual element.
        10. Just because it was recorded doesn’t mean it needs to be in the mix.
        11. Be aggressive.

        Oops! That’s 11!


        • MT

          I was thinking the same thing in fact, MM mentions in his book somewhere that he often gets comments on how unbalanced his mixes are, but these comments are positive.

          However, I would have been a little more polite in mentioning it. You are certainly following point 11, though I think that’s meant to refer to mixing, not life.

          • TY

            Saying a balanced mix is boring is not being aggressive. The simpleton response to it was.

            Strive for a balanced mix is bad advice IMO. Listen to your favourite records. They ALWAYS have things standing out… well out in the mix(not just vocals). MM is not the only one who does this. Dont be sheep. Just because one guy posts a blog about something on the internet dosent mean its gospel. If I have a different view point(that is shared by MANY at the top of their game)im going to share it.

        • Joesi

          I think I know what you mean. You are talking about equal importance of any signal in a mix by saying “balanced=boring mix”, don’t you? Yeah, that’s boring and pretty anti-creative.
          Basically, Graham wrote about frequency balance, and even the “unbalanced” mix you are refering to is frequency-wise balanced. Otherwise it’d be unplayable on many systems, due to uncut resonances, boomy basses and wooly undefined mids, don’t you think so?


    • Graham

      I don’t think you get my point. Have you read/watched any of my other material on sweetening? Boring mixes are bad. Balance here is not about being plain or vanilla. Balance is simply about having tracks in their proper place. A kick drum that just isn’t loud enough doesn’t need more plugins… it just needs to be turned up!

      • alvin

        yes, he’s talking about having all the frequencies represented.
        I did a mess of a mix where the guitars were midrangey; peaked at 3 khz; bass had alot at say 200 hz; nothing in between on the verses. the vocals and kick drum sounded good.
        chorus was ok….
        so I had to go back and rerecord the bass and electric guitar on verse….to fix it…to fill in the frequency holes… that doesn’t make it boring, that makes it not screwed up sounding…
        I think its a good article…
        even more important is to make sure what you recorded sounded good before you record it…

  12. Neemias

    This way of thinking may seem basic and obvious, yet it made a HUGE difference in my mixes. Just by using this “technique” my mix sounded a lot better than other mixes that I used a lot of plugins. Thanks so much, Graham!

  13. Shake

    That’s exactly what needed to hear. I always get a bit carried away when I start to mix and forget about just doing the a simple balanced mix.

    Cheers Graham

  14. Dave M

    I agree with Shake. Of all the great, unpretentious articles you write, this is certainly a teriffic one. It’s like getting the right amount of medicine by following simple rules and not “over-medicating” the music. Always start with bare bones and do what you can with it (as if it was all you had) and then gradually add what you think might be needed.

  15. James M

    Hi Graham,

    Just wanted to take a minute to thank you for what you do. Your video’s are extremely well put together and even more helpful. You always hit on extremely useful topics and tips that truly bring a mix to the next level. You truly know your stuff and do an amazing job relaying the information in an easy, interesting and comprehensive way. I truly enjoy watching your videos.

    I know you are a very busy guy, so that makes what your doing here all the more commendable. On a side note, after a long deal of thought, I have concluded that if I could pic anyone’s life (from what I can observe at least) to someday pattern mine after, it would be yours. You seem to be vary upstanding family man who serves the Lord and do what you love everyday for your career. I’ll bet you are truly excited to wake up in the morning and take on another day! I truly respect you a large deal and don’t even personally know you.

    I normally would never pay for an electronic information series (EVER) but because your video’s (and PDF “The Number One Rule of Home Recording”) are so helpful and well put together, as well as you being such a wholesome man of God, I am saving up and am going to purchase your entire “JumpStart” Series. You deserve every penny!

    I really just felt the need to tell you that you are doing incredible work and it is helping so many of us out there. You have really made an impact on my life. I know, sounds a little dramatic, but the things you love and make priorities in your life (God, Family, Service, and Music) are all things you have inspired me to Chase after even harder. Those 4 things together add up to BE my life. Therefor I can truly say you have made a substantial impact on my life. And for that I truly thank you!!!

    Keep up the incredible work Graham!!!

    God Bless!!

    – James

    • Graham

      Humbled to say the least. Anything good you see in my life is a direct result of God’s grace. Anything jacked up that you see, that’s all me 🙂

  16. Rob

    Makes alot of sense, the ‘balance’ thing. As a pro musician and serious self taught home studio guy, that is, I didnt gobto engineering school(not to say that wouldnt be a good thing, necessarily), what Graham describes is essentiallybhow I’ve broken down my ‘process’ w/o ‘knowing anything’. I do the main volume faders and pans 1st 1st and then just add simple compression, EQ, etc, to make it ‘sound good’–like to my EARS, and I’ve been told I have ‘big ears'(anatomically this is true, big earlobes and I have to use the size larger earbud thingys, you know, for the ipod and such, haha. I’ve thought about doing a scientific study on musicians and EARS. Well, I think your brain has alot to do w it too, but I digress.) But somewhere in my ‘self taught’ process, I sort of figured out that sound is essentially volume(air pressure) and frequency, right, and location in space and that’s about it, right? All the processors are essentially manipulating these few things, EQ being the perfect example. My early recordings werent technically that great but I frequently got compliments from friends about their ‘quality’ and I think that had alot to do with the ‘balance thing’.

    Also, being mostly a musician 1st, I kind of get bored rwading the endless audiophilic/engineer ‘speak’ in the various journals, etc, and I think alot of that is very redundant discussion with a fair amount of bullshit. I know a number of trust fund type ‘engineers’ around here who have put together very expensive studios and fancy themselves as pros thereby, but alot of their mixes, uh, aint happening, well, I think its hecause they read too much, arent good musicians themselves and dont have the ‘big EARS. I dont knoe, its like that w alot of things in life. So, I think this applies to the whole ‘expensive gear’ debate: if you dont have the ears, well, you know–music is about SOUND like food is about taste(mostly).

    Thanks for reading my 2 cents in the subject and once again its good advice from Graham.

  17. Gotzillion

    I’ve mixed over 40 albums with this A+ advice by Graham it helps u Keep your mixes simple and focused. NICE ARTICLE

  18. Dacruz Audry

    Bonjour Adam,

    First of all , thank you for all this good information, you make some great articles. I wanted to know, while you make your balance , you make Master faders ? For your drums, just to keep control on the level or for harmonies, backs and others like instruments.

    Thanks again man !!!!

  19. Toby Tombs

    this article is an eye opener. just like that I feel like I waisted alot of time fiddling with stuff I should have to begin with, I can definitely say I am getting much closer to reaching my goal of getting my mixes on point

  20. Simon Madsen

    Hi Graham!I have a question. I know this is a seriously old post, but I give it a try…. What I find to be the biggest challenge every time is to balance the volum levels between the tracks. When I listen to the mix in my car, or other systems, the balance between the instruments (i.e the vocal is to loud, the snare is way to low, ) is always different than what I. My clients is complaining thand at what they heard in the studio is not representative for what they hear at their hifi-speakers(everything sounded good)levelvise . Don`t take me wrong. The EQ, bass balance and compression is always spot on, and translates very well to other systems. I use a lot of time, and is very surgical, when making the static mix (volume and pan).How can it be that I don`t hear the differences in level on the studio monitors. Yep, my room is acoustically treated, I use reference tracks, and I use IK multimedia ARC 2 for room correction. Whats my problem???

    • Ernie Halter

      This reply is even older, all the same I thought reply and say that I had this very same problem foryears and it drove me crazy. The short answer is that it’s still your room. Snares being too quiet, vocals being too loud makes me think your room is telling you that you have more 1k and less 3-4k than you think you do. Just because your room is treated doesn’t mean it’s treated well. Some room shapes and dimensions are prone to resonances that you’d be hard pressed to ever truly fix.. Also, in my opinion room EQ correction software or gimmicks is a band-aid for a room that isn’t treated well. It gives you a very narrow “sweet spot” to monitor from, and doesn’t account for uneven decay times over the frequency spectrum, which will distort what you’re hearing just as much as anything. The only way to know for sure is to take measurements using something like Room EQ Wizard (free on Mac and Windows), which will tell what your room is actually doing to your mix, highlighting the problem frequencies / standing waves, etc so that you can attempt to correct it, and then measure your room afterwards to see if your frequency response and decay times are more even.



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