Mixing is hard. For many people, the craft of mixing seems like an abstract art form - an unattainable feat. There’s a reason gifted musicians and producers send off their tracks to a mixing engineer. DJs that mix on the fly must learn to adapt to different environments and situations.
If you’re unfamiliar with the term "mixing", you need to understand a couple of things:
Firstly, a mix isn’t just balancing a lot of tracks with one another. When properly mixing a tune, the mix engineer turns a great number of tracks into a cohesive and articulate whole. Sure, you could simply adjust levels and bounce 30 tracks into one stereo track. However, this isn’t mixing. When a decent mix is accomplished, the tracks being mixed become one - the guitars, vocals, synths, drums...they belong with one another. The mixing engineer must make 40 individually curated tracks feel like one song.
Secondly, know that mixing can be done in more ways than one. The most common form of mixing is editing in a DAW (digital audio workstation). There are quite a few DAWs out there; Pro Tools, Logic, and Ableton are just a few. Mixing can also be done in the analog realm via tape and other mediums. For DJs, mixing is done in a performance style DAW or interface. Everyone has their own process. Even if two people use the same software, their techniques and approach may differ substantially.
Today we are covering some ways to make a mix clean. Clean refers to clarity, frequency intelligibility, and mix translation. Are the vocals represented properly in both the venue speakers and your headphones? Does the bass maintain clarity throughout the song? Do the drums sit well, not overwhelming the mix?
A clean mix is, in essence, a superb representation of a song.
Our 5 Mix Tips
You want a clean mix? Then clean up your tracks in the DAW.
Unorganized editing windows are a common problem for many novice mixing engineers and DJs. DAWs allow color organization, track labeling, window finder detachment, and an array of other organizational functions. Use these functions! They will save you time and headache.
Now, this will not make your mix sound better. Instead, it will allow you to more easily perform the functions that will truly clean up a mix.
The trick to creating a clean mix is starting from the beginning. Lay a good foundation for your mix decisions. If you start your mix by color coding the different instrument groups, you will have less of a chance for routing and bussing issues. The other four tips in this article will be easily doable if you first prep your mix. Here’s a starting point:
- Label all tracks. Name them something that is pithy and to the point. If you need to route something to an FX bus, make sure you’ll be able to find it!
- Color code instrument groups (e.g. drums are purple, vox are red, etc..)
- Comp tracks. Comping is a term that refers to editing. Your mix will absolutely be cleaner if you cut out noise from tracks that aren’t emitting content (i.e. the 10 seconds before and after you record something with a mic - quiet room or mic noise). Also editing drums, aligning vocal timing, and fixing performance issues will indeed make a mix sound cleaner.
High pass everything. That’s right, everything.
Some engineers will disagree with this, and that’s totally fine. However, placing a high-pass filter on every track will help prevent bass polarity alignment issues (phase). It will also help sharpen the lower frequency spectrum. If you’re new to the mixing game, high-passing everything is a good place to start with mix cleanliness.
This chart is a great resource for knowing what frequencies to high-pass. If you properly EQ low end, the low frequencies in your bass and low-synth tracks will be less cluttered. They will be more defined, hitting harder and sounding fuller.
High-passing is one form of EQ, but it isn’t defined. Once you high-pass your tracks, consider doing some surgical EQ.
Cleanliness isn’t about boosting the high-frequency spectrum so that melody lines are audible. Cleanliness is balancing all frequencies of a mix. If you take out too many low-mids (a common mistake), your track will sound lifeless and thin. If you take out too many high-mids, the song will sound tinny and unbalanced.
Try carving when you perform EQ. For instance, if the drums are covering the lead synth line, find which frequencies are butting heads. Then take out a little bit of that particular frequency from one of the tracks.
Instead of assigning FX to individual tracks, sometimes it’s best to create an FX bus.
An FX bus is an auxiliary assignment that can affect tracks of your choosing. If you create a reverb bus, you can assign that reverb to whichever tracks you desire.
It helps clean a mix due to sonic continuity. Instead of having a bunch of different reverbs and FX intermingling at once, busses provide your tracks with a few common effects. FX busses give you control, letting you EQ - and even compress - your effects without affecting the track itself.
Stereo Field Management
Spreading out the stereo field is an easy way to declutter a song.
EQ should definitely still be used, but stereo field management allows you to sonically organize your tracks.
For instance, if drums, synths, and vocals are all panned center, they may step on each other a bit. Now, if you were to pan the toms a bit to the left, the vocals alternating left and right, and the synths to the right...you have a whole new mix. Instead of stepping on one another, the tracks lay in their respective areas.
Panning can be used as an effect as well, giving mix elements room to shine. Spreading out polyphonic instruments especially helps a mix breathe. Find the tracks that get in the way and pan them to fit the track!
Whether you’re DJing live or mixing in the studio, clean mixing habits bring the magic of the song to the forefront. The goal is to have recording technology help your song, not hinder it. Give these tips a shot and see what you think in the comment section!