My Mixing Workflow
Mixing a song is like cleaning your kitchen. If there’s a spot of grease on the wall above the stove... how noticeable is it? When you enter the kitchen, is that the first sign of uncleanliness that you see? Of course, the answer is, “well, that depends on how clean the rest of the kitchen is!” If it’s a total disaster, with dishes piled high, rotten food on the counter, burned food crusted all over the stove, and kraft dinner spilled on the floor... nobody’s gonna even notice that speck of grease above the stove.
But if the kitchen is in a new house, fresh painted, all new appliances, a vase of flowers on the table, and not a single thing out of place except for that little speck of grease above the stove. As you are walking through the kitchen.. it will glare out at you. So, you do what any sane person would do, and you grab a rag and wipe it up. And as you are admiring this newly cleaned spot, you notice a fingerprint on the top of the stove... so you quickly grab that rag and wipe it up too. eventually you will stop noticing things to be cleaned. At what point does this happen? Well, that depends on how good your eyes are, and your ability to notice detail. Sometimes, it’s just impossible to get it perfectly cleaned (without putting in a whole new kitchen). There’s permanent stains on the floor, the paint is flaking off. So all you can do is tidy it up, but you will likely never be able to get it to the point where that speck of grease stands out. And even if you did notice, and clean up that speck of grease, it wouldn’t contribute to the overall cleanliness of the kitchen.
In the context of a mix, as you get the mix cleaner, and closer to perfection, you will notice smaller and smaller details that need to get fixed. Just like when cleaning a kitchen, your skill and your eyes are the limiting factors of how clean you can get it, when mixing, it’s your skill and your ears that are your limiting factors of how clean you can get it. But there’s an extra step, because your ears receive their information from the monitors, and then bounced around in the room. Poor monitoring would be like wearing foggy glasses. If you don’t know it’s there, you can’t fix it, and if it stands out enough that you do know it’s there, you can’t fix it nearly as well. And if it’s not fixed very well, then the kitchen is still dirty. it’s still contributing to the overall mess, so other messy parts aren’t noticeable.
The cleaner your mix gets, the more you start to notice smaller, and smaller details that need to be fixed.
When I start a fresh mix, I have a template that I bring up that saves me tons of time. It is preloaded with about 50 audio tracks... more than I usually use, and each track already has my most commonly used eq and compressor settings, instantiated but bypassed, and my most commonly used sends sends are loaded, but set to 0.
Here’s an overview of my settings
1- compressor. Theres always a lot of background parts that don’t require compressor settings to be perfect. So, I have my default compressor setting to accommodate these most easily. I set a medium attack/release, threshold around -25, 4:1 ratio with a soft knee. Usually I just adjust the threshold until I see it pumping about -5 to -10 dB of fain reduction, and that’s good. If it needs fine tuning, I will work on that in the fine tuning stage (more on that shortly)
2- Eq. - I set a low cut filter on everything except for deliberate bass parts, such as, well, the bass, and the kick. My default setting is around 250 hz, but I usually adjust it depending on the part. Vocals will be around 100 hz, acoustic guitar around 125 hz, electric guitar around 300 hz, hi hat around 700 hz. I do this in accordance to my “blind spot in the ear theory”
Sends (all sends are 100% wet)
Bus 1- my main reverb. A bit of predelay, slightly longer tail. I often use this on vocals, instruments... a lot of things.
Bus 2- secondary reverb. Very short predelay, very short tail. This gets used on vocals, or anything really.
Bus 3- 1/8 note delay. Low cut filter at about 250 hz, high cut filter around 5000 hz. I often use this on vocals, rhythmic moving instruments, and it’s often worth a try on snare drum.
Bus 4- 1/4 note delay. Low cut filter around 250 hz, high cut filter around 5000 hz. I often use just a hair of this on vocals.
Bus 5- ping pong delay. I often use this on rhythmic and moving instruments.
Bus 6- ping pong delay, same settings as bus 5, but opposite on the left/right imaging. If I’m using several ping pong delays in a song, I alternate them between bus 5 and bus 6 so that their not always leaning towards the same side in the stereo field.
Bus 7- tuned down half a semi tone (-50 cents). When vocals need extra help, I use this to fatten them up.
Bus 8- tuned up half a semi time (+50 cents). I use this together with bus 7.
So when I get into the mix, here’s my process
1- load all the tracks into my template session.
2- do a quick, rough mix of levels. No adjustments yet. Also start organizing the order of the tracks.
3- go through each track from top to bottom and apply standard plugins that I think the track will need, based on experience. This is done with the track solo’d, so it is not in context of the mix. There is no mix yet... the kitchen is still a mess. I adjust the settings quickly, to my best guess to get it as close as I can, spending about 30 seconds on each track. I use the Haas effect a lot, and apply it in this step, and I’ll also apply low cut filter, and sends. Another trick I often do in this step is double a track and and tune it down an octave.
4- at this point, you have the levels set roughly, and each tracks processing also set roughly, and we’re ready to start mixing. Whatever part of the song uses the most volume real estate (the loudest part), start with that. Usually it’s the kick. Sculpt it’s sound, and get it as loud as you can. All other volume decisions are based around this.
5- after the kick (or loudest part) is sounding the way you want, start adjusting all the levels. Start with what ever jumps out as being the most out of whack.
6- fine tuning. I usually even start doing this in step 5. Remember step 3 where you instantiated all those plugins, and guesstimated their values, well now we have a mix to work with, and we can adjust the settings in context of the mix. Put low pass filters on everything. Set the cut off frequency as high as you can without hearing its effect. Do not solo it for this adjustment, or you will set it much lower than it needs to be. Remember, we are cleaning the kitchen, and we must get rid of everything that is unnecessary, especially below 500 hz because that’s the mud zone ( more on that in the “summing of frequencies” section). This fine tuning step is where the real mixing takes place, and as the mix gets cleaner, you’ll start to hear smaller and smaller things, and you’ll be able to fix them more and more accurately.
Step 7- mastering. Hopefully, up to this point, you haven’t given into temptation of applying processing to the master track. It actually makes the kitchen dirtier, and will therefore make it harder to hear the minute adjustments that need to be made in individual tracks. So, once you feel like step 6 is finished, then add eq, compression, reverb and limiting to the master track ( that is also my order). Mastering is the easiest part to do a terrible job of. You’ll want to use all of your best plugins, and listen to the mix through different speakers, and a couple different pairs of headphones that sound different, such as one pair that is a bit treble heavy, and another pair that is bass heavy. When it’s done, bounce it down as a rough mix, and stop. Come back to the song the next day, and you will be able to hear it with fresh ears. Inevitably, you will tweak things. Go through the same process of listening between different speakers and headphones. When you think it’s done, A/B it with the mix you did the day before. Is the new mix better? Worse? Most likely it will be overall better, but there will be some specific aspects of yesterday’s mix that you like better. Get those things sounding just as good, or better, on the new mix. Once that is done... the song is either finished, or you can repeat the step of coming back to it the next day.