Welcome to Day 21 of 31 Days to Better Recordings.

Mixing, mixing, mixing.

I love to mix. I really do. There’s something deeply satisfying about taking a bunch of tracks and making them blend together nicely into one cohesive, rock-solid mix.

Over the next several days, I’m going to share some mixing tips as a part of this last “trimester” of 31 Days to Better Recordings. πŸ™‚

But before we jump in and start talking EQ, compression, reverb, and the like, we need to take a few minutes to set the stage for the mix.

What’s your process for starting a mix? Do you just dive in and start EQ-ing the kick drum? Do you default by putting your favorite EQ and compressor on every channel?

Easy there, turbo. πŸ™‚

Just like we talked about going through the pre-production process before you start recording, it’s important to take some time before a mix session to identify the focus.

Whatchoo mean, focus?

When you start mixing a song, it’s easy to just start EQ-ing the first instrument you hear, then work from there. Or perhaps you work on the drums, then bass, then guitars, then keys…and save vocals for last.

There’s nothing wrong with any of these approaches (I usually start with drums), but what I want you to do is to have a reason for why you use your particular approach to mixing.

Every song you mix should have a focus, a single track (or group of tracks) that demand the most attention. Once you identify the focal element, you should figure out what you want IT to sound like, then build your mix around that element.

ο»ΏTry mixing instruments in order of importance.

For example, if you’re producing a simple singer-songwriter song with only 7 tracks, the focus will most likely be the vocals (since the singer wants his/her lyrics to be heard). In that instance, I would start by mixing the vocal…by itself…solo’d. Once I’ve got the vocal sounding like I want it to sound, I’ll bring in the guitar, etc.

On the flip-side, if you’re working on a heavy rock mix, chances are the vocals aren’t nearly as important as the guitars, so start with the guitars, then drums and bass, then vocals.

What’s the point?

This may sound a bit odd to you. Why does it matter what order I mix my tracks? I’ll tell you.

Let’s say you want the vocal to be the focal point of your mix, but you mix all of the instruments first, and save the vocal for last. Well, you’re going to have a heck of a time trying to get that vocal to sit well in the mix.

Chances are you’ll have to remove a lot of low-mids to keep it from interfering with the rhythm instruments and sounding boomy. The result? That nice, full vocal you were looking for gets lost in EQ.

However, if you started with the vocal, you would then be forced to build the rest of the mix around the vocal, rather than trying to force the vocal to fit in an almost-finished mix.

Day 21 Challenge

What is your normal mixing order? Are you thinking about switching things around? I challenge you to give it a shot.

  • Clayton

    This seems SOOO obvious once it’s pointed out but I have never thought to mix like this before.Β  Thanks Joe!

    • πŸ™‚ It’s those little things that make a big difference. πŸ™‚

  • I was mixing a new track this morning and normally I always start with the kick drum no matter what. But on this new track I wanted the focus to be more on the guitar and the vocals. So I started there and did make a huge difference. Not only did I seem to get the balance of things in the track better the song itself seemed to be more in focus instead of have to tweak everything more over than normal.

  • Arjun Ramesh

    My normal mixing order is exactly as Joe described above, starting with the drums, then the bass, followed by the guitars and vocals last. However, upon reading this article, it makes sense to figure out the focus and the next time I record something, I think I will give it a shot. I have never strayed from my normal routine, as engineers tend to be creatures of habit, but it might be well worth it to do so. I’ll give it a shot. Thanks, Joe.

  • Joe,
    You are so right! You should definitely have a focus for the song. I like to think of it like this…
    In the movies you have your “Star” and then you have your “Co-Star” and then you have the “supporting cast”. The co-star or supporting cast never out-shines the star. They each play a part and make the movie what it is. I try to approach my mixes the same way. First I listen and I ask myself, “what part is the star of this song?” Whatever part I decide is the star, that’s the part of the song that get’s the most attention. Could be lead vocals…could be background vocals, whatever part. But I agree with you, it’s important before you start to always listen and have an idea of where the song is going. Nice post man!

  • I’ve always been a start with the foundation kind of mixer, Kick, Snare then Bass. I’m never 100% on my gtr tones for rock stuff. I think I’ll try to fe-work my flow and start with gtrs and see where that leads me.

    Thanks for a great read.

    J

  • Preshan

    When I mix, I usually mix in this order:

    – Pan positions: Play around with this first, try and set the soundstage, give each instrument its space.

    – EQ: Define each instruments’ space further by giving them selected frequency bands to pop out or slip under the mix. HPF on pretty much everything πŸ™‚

    – Dynamics: compress only where necessary, just to neaten things up, or sometimes as an effect. I have some favourite compressors that can add lots of punch, which I love. I rarely use gates/expanders.

    – FX Sends: Reverb, delay etc. Find something that works for the song and use it. I’ll usually use 1 reverb send for everything, sometimes 2 (one for instruments, one for vocals etc.).

    – Overall level balance

    – Fader automation: A static mix is a boring mix. I like to make stuff jump out of the mix with the faders at different times to keep the listener interested πŸ™‚

  • listen

    Come from the old analog days and it was a staple to start with the kick, snare, bass, etc… Got into the habit of doing that way and never thought differently.

    Well I guess you can teach old dogs new tricks – I like the logic and right brain thinking on focusing and I will begin to come out of my mixing paradigm and try it a different way…

  • Ryusei Kawano

    When I’m mixing my bands songs I usually start with guitar or vocals first and then move on to bass, drums and keyboard/synth parts last. This works for me because we are a rock group so the main focus of the song is vocals and guitar.

  • But I have one question, Joe. What about sound cohesion throughout an album. If I use different approach to each song how to make it sound as one album? Thanks!

    • Dean

      That’s where mastering can help πŸ˜‰

  • Good points there, Joe. I’ll try your approach. Thanks.

  • Paras Pradhan

    For my instrumental songs, I start with drums, bass, rhythm guitars and finally the main guitar. I usually run in to lot of problems trying to produce a good mix. It looks like I can start with the main guitar and end up mixing the drums.

    Paras.

  • Frank Adrian

    My normal operational order in the past has been kick, add bass, add snare, add hat, add rhythm guitars, add keys, add fill drums, add solo instruments, refine instrumental mix, add lead vocals, add backing vocals, finalize overall mix. Adding vocals late may be the reason why I occasionally have an issue with vocals sitting in the mix.

    Now that I’ve read what you’ve written, I’ll probably try starting with the lead vocal and then add the instruments (still in the order above, as the kick is the basis for the rhythm and the kick and bass need to be tight), stopping right after the point where I add the hat to add backing vocals. We’ll see how that goes.

  • Rock,pop,country, etc. I build the rhythm section first. Just kinda makes sense. I find that I do try to start with the instrument that is the most featured. I’ve also found that if I’m the one tracking the project I tend to be mixing from the start. I can hear people saying duh, you’re alway finding balance, but I have opened projects that other people have tracked and it doesn’t even sound cohesive. That’s not to say when you reach the mixing stage it doesn’t change. I just find it helpful to be “mixing” from the start if you’re the one tracking.
    Joe, congrats on fatherhood. I’m a father of two and it is a blessing.

  • Everett Meloy

    Generally my focus is on the vocal lyrics to present what is the songs message. Wrapping the guitars to augment the message. The tone, volume fill the hopefully message in a balance to invite the listener in. Drums are the glue but not dominate.

  • Eric

    Joe, what you say makes sense. Why is it, though, in almost every article or book I’ve read, the advice is to start mixing the drums, then bass, then rhythm guitars, etc.?
    Thanks for you for all the helpful work you do.

  • Joe R.

    Awesome point Joe!

    I start with Drums, Bass, guitar, keys, then vocals.

    It makes sence, If the vocal is the focal point, why mix it last? Carve the insruments to support the vocal.

    Next mix I will do diffrently! Thanks Joe…. Great post!

  • Christopher w

    I usually mix drums first followed by bass, rhythm guitar, lead guitar, keys, vocals.

    I wondered why my drums and bass sound “amazing” whilst the main instruments (vocals and lead guitar) seem to bee hidden within the mix, and volume/panning dosen’t help the problem. I will try the way you suggested in my next mix and I will report back my results.

  • Matt

    I will admit, mixing has always intimidated me. That said, I usually start with the rhythm section. I get my basic drum sound and balance and then add the bass guitar and build from there. I balance and EQ as I go. Once I get the basic rhythm section done (drums, bass, guitar or piano) I then bring in the lead vocal and other vocals next. I make sure everything is working with those things and then I move on to the additional “ear candy” stuff like solos, percussion et cetera. All along the way, I am tweaking everything. In general, it is my inclination to want the rhythm section powerful (like a strong foundation) and the vocals natural sounding. I find that, if I wait too long before bring the vocals into the mix, I have to go back and make to many EQ changes in the instruments to allow the vocal to sit in the mix. It’s just easier for me to bring the vocals in as soon as I have the drums and bass sounding good.