Pro Audio Files

How to Mix a Song

Presumably you have a song that you’ve recorded. Maybe it’s a Rock tune with some vocals, drums, guitars, bass — or maybe it’s a Hip-Hop tune with drum samples, sequenced virtual instrumentals, maybe some chopped sample loops and a vocalist on top of that.

Regardless of what it is, you have these multiple tracks (multitracks) of musical elements, and you want to get it to be one finished stereo print that you can put out to the world.

Now, you know how to run a print. That’s easy. Just go to the file menu and hit export or bounce. But the question is — how do you mix it?

Why?

First — the real question is why do you mix it?

I think the most daunting aspect of mixing is figuring out our goals.

A mix can literally be anything. In order to understand how to do it, we need to discover what we want to accomplish. And this comes from understanding the song itself.

Listen

Step back from the song for a moment and then re-listen to it two or three times straight through.

While you do that, take notes.

Focus on the intention of the song and try to prescribe the feeling you want the listener to walk away with. Adjectives are great.

Label the Vibe

As you figure out the main vibe of the song start to get more specific.

Start thinking about how the feel of the record might change throughout the song. Maybe the verses are kind of sad and somber, but the chorus is more hopeful and inspiring. Maybe the bridge is very dark, but the last chorus is triumphant. Try to be dynamic with your interpretation of the song.

Our Rap song might be “hard hitting,” but ok, that’s 95% of all Rap. What is the subject, and what does that subject mean to the listener. If it’s a Rap song about graffiti tagging we might want to evoke ideas like “gritty,” “suspenseful,” “colorful,” “night time,” “alleyways, train tunnels” — and then cultivate this imagery through our choices.

Get Specific

Once you have your big picture ideas, as you’re listening to the song again, start to formulate ideas of how that would translate to the individual elements.

If you want this big, anthemic, radio rock record where you are picturing ten thousand fans in an arena — you might want the guitars to be clear, focused and powerful. But if you want a counter-culture, honest, natural alt-rock record then maybe it’s better to leave the guitars a little dirtier and blurrier, and maybe it’s not as important that they be these huge, powerful, spacious guitars.

Relationships and Priorities

As you go through this process, you hone in on exactly what you want to get from every element, and what you feel the relationship would be between each element.

If your record is “dance-y”, you’re going to want to play up the rhythmic elements. If your record is “romantic” or “hypnotizing” maybe you want to favor the melodic elements.

Getting It There

Of course once you know what you want, then there’s the matter of getting there.

It’s easy to get overwhelmed and frustrated in attempting to get what you hear in your head to come out of the speakers — particularly if you start comparing your record to records that have been produced and engineered by the best in the business who have decades of experience.

Relax.

Mixing a song is not a competition. It’s an endeavor that is won by getting the listener to believe the song.

90% of mixing is just letting the song be what it is. So even if your mix isn’t “perfect,” that’s ok – as long as the elements you think carry the intention of the song are highlighted, that’s 90% of the job right there.

As for the nitty gritty, flex those YouTube muscles. If you need the snare to be softer and rounder because that compliments the feel of the record — good: “softening a snare drum”.

Or experiment on your own until you come up with something that feels right.

Am I Doing It Right?

How do you know if you’re doing it “right”? This is the scariest question of all.

The answer is: you don’t.

But neither does anyone else. There is no “right.”

The only way to do it “right” is if you achieve what you set out to achieve.

If you put four top level mix engineers in a room and have them all mix the same record, you’ll get four very different mixes. And chances are, you’ll get four very good mixes.

Conclusion

That is how you mix a record. It’s not about EQ. It’s not about compression. It’s not about gain staging, or whatever technical jargon floats around the internet. Yes, that stuff is important, and it’s stuff that you should know because it will help you achieve your vision.

The heart of the matter is: have a vision of the song’s intention. Once you’ve got that down, it’s just a matter of trial and error to get there.

To learn more about the basic mindsets, fundamentals and techniques of mixing a song, we just released Mixing 101.

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Matthew Weiss

Matthew Weiss

Matthew Weiss is a Grammy nominated and Spellemann Award winning audio engineer from Philadelphia. Matthew has mixed songs for Snoop, Sonny Digital, Gorilla Zoe, Uri Caine, Dizzee Rascal, Arrested Development, 9th Wonder, !llmind & more. Get in touch: Weiss-Sound.com.
  • triollo

    Good advice here. I make mixes I like and then I play them between radio tracks only to find out that they do not cut it. If I were to play one of my tracks at a party or club, it would kill the vibe because of the production

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