First things first…Home Studio Corner is two years old today! Yep, on April 13th, 2009, I posted my very first article.

Happy Birthday, HSC!

Alright, on to mixing…

Do you sometimes sit in front of a session, and you know you’re ready to mix, but you don’t know where to start?

Let me share with you two different approaches to mixing. Neither one is “right” or “wrong,” but perhaps being familiar with both will help you get the ball rolling on your next mix.

1. Drums First, Vocals Last

This is probably the most common approach to mixing. In a typical rock song, you’ve got drums, bass, vocals, guitars, keys, percussion, vocals. Chances are you recorded the tracks roughly in that same order. It would make sense that you mixed in that order, too.

Start with the drums. Get the kick, snare, and overheads sounding good together, then add in the other pieces of the kit. Once the drums sound awesome, add the bass. Spend time making sure the bass and kick drum are playing nicely together.

Once bass and drums are done, turn up all the rhythm instruments: keys, guitars, etc. Carve out a place in the frequency spectrum for each instrument using EQ. Use compression to tighten up the dynamic range of individual tracks.

And finally, once you’ve got a great-sounding instrumental track, add in the lead vocals. Again, use EQ and compression to get the vocals to “sit” in the track.

This is a fairly common approach. It allows you to focus on getting the instrumental “bed” right, then add in the vocals.

The problem with this approach is that you usually have to go back and adjust the instrumental mix to “make room” for the vocals. The guitars may sound awesome, but they might have too much energy in the heart of the vocal range (200-600 Hz), so you’ll have to go back and do some EQ cuts in the guitars to help the vocals fit in the mix.

It can become a balancing act, and you almost always end up changing the instrumental mix once you add the vocals in.

2. Identify the Focus, and Start There

This is an approach that I wish I did more, because it seems to make more sense than the first approach (for a lot of songs).

Every song has a focus. Is it the lead vocals? (Probably.) Is it the guitar tone? Is it the piano? Is it a synth pad?

Before you dive in and start EQ-ing a bunch of tracks, take a few moments to identify the focus of the song. The song will tell you if you listen carefully.

What is the one part of the songs that absolutely needs to be heard? 9 times out of 10 it’s the lead vocals. Start there.

With every other track turned all the way down, bring up the lead vocals, process them until they sound AWESOME. If they need to be nice and warm, make them nice and warm now, before adding any other instruments.

Next? Ask yourself what’s the next most important element in the mix? Turn it up, and work with it until it it sits nicely with the vocal. Continue until everything has been added to the mix.

The idea here is that once you get one element sounding awesome, you try not to go back and change it once you add another element. For example, if you started with the lead vocal, made it sound amazing. Then you added in a guitar. If they’re not blending well, try your best to manipulate the guitar rather than the vocals.

If nothing else, this is a good exercise to help you think through a mix and learn how to commit to mix decisions as you go. Chances are, if you’re constantly second-guessing your earlier decisions, your mix will suffer.

Pick an instrument, make it sound great, and move on. Make the other instruments work with the instruments you already mixed.

How about you?

What approach do you take to mixing? Are you happy with it? What changes do you think you should make? Leave a comment. Let’s think through this.

If you like mixing and want to learn more, consider joining Mix With Us. The course re-opens on Monday!

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  • Hmm i prefer the second method. Ususaly i start with the kik and snare and then basee. then mix it with the pads and/or strings. Then i mix the lead vocals and the lead instruments all at the same time. finally any effects or small things i want to be in the song.

  • Julian

    Happy Birthday HSC!
    If the track has drums I almost always start there and move to bass etc. But I learned in Joe’s MWU course that if there’s a track that has more acoustic emphasis and less focus on drums, the other method of focusing on the vocal works very well for me.

  • ldiazmusic

    Feliz Cumpleaños HSC!

    Great post Joe! You’ve covered pretty much everything. I’ve heard some pros justifying mixing drums first because of the wide frequency spectrum. Once they get that right, then they move on, having that as a frame for the remaining elements. Personally, I prefer the 2nd method although a little more subjective in a way.
    There are times that the focus may shift around depending on the arrangement; making it a little challenging to maintain interest.
    I approach my mixes generally by getting an overall feel and understanding the song first, then setting basic levels, panning etc and maybe performing some fader movements without using automation; just to get a feel as if I’m playing an instrument. Then, once the sections and focus for each one are identified, I’ll tend to work them separately and revise as I progress in order to maintain cohesiveness as well as to avoid getting to static if that makes sense at all. At that point, automation comes in handy for me if the focus kind of moves around throughout the different sections.
    Again, thanks for keeping your readers/followers well informed. This site is awesome!
    Feliz cumpleaños (spanish) means happy birthday just in case!

    God bless!

  • first of all, happy birthday HSC!
    in my ecuador, april 13th is also Teacher’s Day, so to me it all makes a lot of sense.

    thanks for everything, joe.

    i was mixing a song with approach no. 1 (drums first), but i had read somewhere else that you need a focus on your mix, and make everything else fit around it. reading this post reminded me about finding that focus.

    i’m mixing the song again, but now i’ll use approach no. 2, focusing on the vocals.

  • happy birthday, website.

    I have never thought about using that second method, seems like such a good idea but never gets any thought.