What is “mixing” all about? In simplest terms, it’s about getting the “levels” between all instruments right. Sounds simple? It is. Unfortunately, “simple” doesn’t always mean “easy.”

In order to get your mixes sounding “right” you need a number of tools, the foremost among them being… your ears. But also, you should strive to create the best possible listening environment in your studio. Good monitors are very important as is at least a half-decent mixing desk (or a virtual mixer in your computer), “deadened” studio (at least to some extent…!), etc.

All of this is a subject for another discussion. For now, all things being equal, some people who have all the “right” gear still often don’t mix their music “right.” So what’s it all about? What is needed to make the mix work?

Firstly, get the levels of each instrument set in such a way that no instrument dominates another. Next, set their relative pan positions (e.g. drums and bass in the center, guitars off to left/right, vocal in the center, and so on). Next, determine what “EQ pockets” each instrument needs and ensure that you leave some space for the vocal. All other stuff like effects and such, leave that for later.

So, what is an “EQ pocket?” Every sound source generates a whole range of frequencies. Some of those frequencies can be treated as “discardable” in some situations, simply because the human ear doesn’t hear them in the same way as some “principal” frequencies. For instance, a human voice is most typically found in the range between 1 and 3 kHz, but it’s also present in the frequencies below and above that range. So, you could say that for a particular type of mix, a particular “pocket” might be desirable and EQ the voice for the voice could be set only in that range.

In some types of dance music, for instance, it’s often a good idea to really “thin the vocal out”, meaning reduce all lower frequencies and boost some of the mids and highs in order for it to “sit” in the mix just right. In other productions, lower frequencies may be a good thing to emphasize. In others still, the whole vocal sound spectrum needs to be showcased.

Whatever you do, however, just try to be sure that the vocal is the only instrument which sits in a particular frequency range. This is often easier said than done. If you “reserve” the frequencies between, say 1500 and 2500 Hz for the vocal, what about that backing guitar which also has its dominant frequencies in the same range?

Resolving these kinds of frequency conflicts is what mixing comes down to. One obvious way would be to set the volume of the guitar lower than the voice, but that might rob the mix of its dynamics and reduce the guitar to nothing more than “dirt” on the track… So there must be other ways. And there are!

One method which often works well is placing the sounds to the left or right of center. Another method (and often used in combination with the pan and volume) is re-equalising (“re-EQ’ing”) the sounds. So, perhaps the vocal will still sound good in a narrower band, say, 1500-2000 Hz, while the guitar might be pushed more into the 2000-2500 Hz area…? Experiment! Just don’t “deaden” the vocal sound! A little gentle “shimmer” (boosted top frequencies) is often desireable.

Another thing to try might be to compress one of these sounds (using a compressor, of course). I know engineers who compress “everything” but the kitchen sink. Mixes like those tend to be “punchy” and “dense” and typically only work well for dance music. But compression has great uses in ALL mixing jobs, as long as it’s applied judiciously.

Ultimately, you can make a great mix without using anything other than a combination of volume, pan and EQ settings! In fact, this is always the recommended approach to start with. This way, when you start adding other effects and compressors, etc, you’ll be less likely to “over-do” it. Simpler and cleaner ALWAYS beats over-complicated.

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