21 Mix Tips for 2021
As we enter 2021, here’s a list of 21 mix tips for the year. These are all things I’ve found to work in my experience, but they are by no means “rules” or things you must do for a successful mix. I hope this list serves as a useful jumping off point if you’re stuck, but there are likely tips here that won’t work for you and that might actually be the exact wrong thing in a given situation. As with anything like this, it’s important to understand why you’re doing something and not just pressing buttons and turning knobs because some guy on the internet told you to!
1) Mix Quietly
Mixing loud for prolonged periods of time can be detrimental to the quality of your work and to your long-term hearing health. When you work loud, you risk tricking yourself into thinking your mix is more robust than it might actually be. If you can get a mix sounding good at low levels, it will likely sound good when you crank it. Mixing loud can also cause ear fatigue—and eventual damage—which makes it easy to lose perspective. The “standard” target number for mixing is 85dB SPL, but I often find that to be too loud. I shoot for ~75-80dB and try to never go past 85dB until the very end.
2) EQ FX Returns
I find vocal reverbs and delays can often cause problems by smearing the lower midrange. It’s good to pay attention to this area when mixing and attenuate as needed. This will help carve out room for other instruments and lend to a vocal’s clarity.
3) Side-chain Low Bass Frequencies to the Kick
To get separation between a kick drum and bass, I’ll sometimes insert a de-esser or multiband compressor on the bass track. Then I set the band to a low frequency (usually below 80Hz) and side-chain it to the kick. That way, when the drum hits, it attenuates only the low frequencies of the bass without causing the pumping you would otherwise get with normal side-chain compression. I try not to be too heavy-handed with this…usually 2-3dB of reduction is plenty.
4) Use Mono Reverbs
Using mono and dual mono reverbs is a great way to get clarity and depth in your mixes. While stereo reverbs take a source and apply verb across the entire stereo field, mono reverbs only return a mono signal. I sometimes find too much stereo verb can make things sound washed out or diffuse. In my experience, it also tends to do more for your left/right image than front-to-rear depth. On the other hand, a mono reverb can help make mix elements sound more defined and add depth. I certainly don’t use mono reverb exclusively, but it is a great tool. A word of warning: if you’re looking to use a mono reverb, you shouldn’t just use a stereo reverb and put it into mono. If you do, you’ll likely run into phase issues when it folds down.
5) Become Friendly with Dual-Mono Compressors
I’m a big fan of dual mono compressors, especially on stereo background vocal groups. A stereo compressor responds to both channels equally. For example, if you have two guitars panned hard left and right, a spike in one’s level will cause the compressor to attenuate both channels equally. This helps preserve the stereo image, but it doesn’t smooth out pokey left/right anomalies. However, dual-mono compressors do the opposite. If one guitar jumps in level, a dual-mono compressor will only deal with that specific channel. Like I said, this is particularly useful on background vocal groups where any left/right inconsistencies can pull attention away from the lead.
6) De-ess Before Reverb/Delay
Vocal esses can often excite bright reverbs to an unpleasant degree. A good technique is to insert a de-esser on the reverb return track right before the reverb itself. Since this will only affect the signal hitting the reverb, you can be pretty severe with the reduction.
7) Oversample Your De-essers
On the subject of de-essers, if you have a de-esser with oversampling, you should use it. FabFilter makes a great one but there are plenty of options out there. I tend to set mine to 4x oversampling which helps eliminate aliasing and other unpleasant artifacts that can often accompany the de-essing process.
8) Get Good with Gain Staging
This one is huge. In my experience, running Pro Tools quietly tends to yield better results. As a general rule, I like to hit my mix bus around -15 to -18dB RMS and then gain up into slight limiting. I find my plugins sound better that way and I don’t have to worry about my signal-to-noise ratio thanks to the 32bit float found in most modern DAW’s. Plus, I never have issue where I run out of headroom and need to pull all my levels down. You should also make sure the gain of your various clips isn't too hot, or you'll risk of overloading the plugins inserted on your individual tracks.
9) Take Breaks
Taking breaks is important for maintaining perspective and mitigating hearing loss. I like breaks every 20-30 minutes and I almost never go more than 45 minutes without one.
10) Make Bold Choices
Sometimes doing the “right” thing to make a mix sound balanced and “pro” is the thing that ends up sucking the life out of a song. I think a lot of folks starting out tend to focus on making everything sound good and “correct.” That's a noble pursuit, but some of my favorite mixes are the ones where the lead guitar is way too loud or the bass is panned off to the side. As a mixer, your sound will be defined by the risks you take. That being said, it is important to respect the artist’s vision and not veer too drastically from the ideas put forward in the rough mix (unless the artists has told you otherwise).
11) Clip Gain Esses
I sometimes find de-essing can negatively affect my high end, sucking out air and compromising a vocal’s excitement. In those cases, I take the time to gain down harsh esses. It might take 10 minutes, but it’s well worth it.
12) Use a Template
This one has sped up my workflow significantly. I’m not advocating you use the same processing on the various instruments of each mix you do, but having a template with all your busses and FX returns is a real time saver.
13) Try Serial Vocal Compression
I find myself using serial vocal compression more and more these days. I tend to start with something quick like an 1176 or Distressor. I use a slow attack and fast release, letting through the initial transient before grabbing the signal. I find this often adds excitement and aggression. Then, I use something slower like a CL1B or LA-2A to smooth out the vocal and help it sit in the track. If needed, I’ll also put an EQ or de-esser between the two.
14) Level-Match Your Plugins
It’s easy to fool yourself into thinking a plugin is making something sound better when it’s really just making it louder. With subtle effects like mix bus compression, it’s vital to level match so the affected signal is the same level as it is when the effect is bypassed.
15) Understand How to Use Reference Tracks Effectively
Using reference tracks can be a useful way to know how your mix stacks up against other material. However, it’s easy to become overwhelmed by reference tracks, so I find it’s best to know exactly what you’re listening for before pressing play. I have different tracks I use for different things. I use some for low end, some for vocal effects, some for upper midrange, etc. It’s also vital that you level match your reference tracks to your mix.
16) Prioritize the Most Important Elements
A listener is generally only able to focus on a handful of elements at any given time. Those tend to be vocals, kick, snare, and some harmonic component. As a mixer, it’s important to direct a listener’s attention to the most important elements to maintain focus and impact.
17) Leave Room for Vocals
Generally, the most important thing in a mix is the vocal which tends to be panned center and occupies the 500Hz-6kHz range. If there are a lot of competing elements in a mix, one of the biggest tasks is making room for the vocal. This is best achieved with level, EQ, and panning. I’m not a huge fan of visual mixing, but one useful tool is a frequency spectrum analyzer inserted on the mix bus. A good trick is to mute the vocal and analyze the frequency response of the instrumental mix. Generally, if there is room carved out for the vocal, there will be a visible dip in the midrange.
18) Use Saturation
In addition to compression, saturation is one of the best ways to add color and vibe to a mix. It can also be useful for controlling dynamics. There are a lot of great plugins out there. Recently I’ve been using the Ampex ATR-102, Sonnox Oxford Inflator, FabFilter Saturn 2, and SoundToys Decapitator.
19) Set Up a Quick Way to A/B the Rough Mix
It’s important to be able to quickly switch between your mix and the client’s rough mix. While there are plugins that make this easy, I use a simple trick in Pro Tools without any third-party software. First, I route all my mix subgroups to an aux return labeled “MIX BUS.” This is where I insert my final mix processing. Then, I set the output of my mix bus to the input of a new audio track labeled, “ROUGH MIX.” When I press play, I only hear the rough mix, but when I press the “Input Monitor” button on the rough mix track, I hear my mix. This enables me to toggle back and forth with just one click! Just make sure you re-route your mix bus output when it comes time to print your mix.
20) Mix Quickly
This might be the one I struggle with the most. As a mixer, it’s important to work quickly. Not only will this enable you to work on more projects, but it often results in better work. Luckily, there are a few things that have helped me speed up my workflow. As I’ve mentioned, you should have a template. Listening quietly will also force you to work quickly as you won’t be easily distracted by less important low-level elements.
21) Mix with Purpose.
This is perhaps the most important one on the list. As a mixer, it’s vital that your approach is methodical and purposeful. From the moment I listen to a rough mix, the gears instantly start turning so that before I start mixing, I already know what the emotional directive of the music is. I know what the vocal should sound like, what the space around the drums should be, how I’m going to pan the guitars, what compressor I’m going to use on the bass, etc. Of course, there’s a lot of tinkering along the way, but it’s good to have a roadmap as early as possible.
I think this is where a lot of folks go wrong with mixing tutorials and lists like this. Maybe you heard the best way to get wide guitars is to double-track them and pan them hard left and right. Great! But what happens if your background vocals are already hard panned? Maybe some guy told you to use serial compression on a vocal, but you’re mixing a ballad and find the first compressor is adding too much aggression. If you can’t identify the problem, understand its cause, and address it so that it fits your initial vision for the mix, that’s not a great place to be.
Each situation is unique, but if you can base your technical decisions on a preconceived plan, you’ll be in a much better position.