These are the “bread and butter” tools of a mix engineer’s kit. Learn how to get your song sounding like a finished record with faders, pan knobs, EQs, compressors/limiters, saturators, delays and reverbs.
By Charles Hoffman
Mixing tools are problem-solving devices; you use them to overcome roadblocks on the way to your final destination and the realization of your vision for the song. There’s a small, core set of mixing tools that I utilize about 90% of the time and a vast library of other tools that I dive into about 10% of the time. This guide is going to focus on the 90%, the “bread and butter” tools for mixing that should get you pretty close to the final balance.
Setting a rough fader mix is the first thing I do when I receive stems from a client. I usually have some vision of how I want the final product to sound based on the genre and arrangement of the song. By getting a general sense of how the client’s rough mix sounds with the track levels set appropriately, I can start to develop an informed plan of attack.
Throughout the mixing process, I’m quite diligent about using proper gain staging. Gain staging refers to making sure that the level of an audio signal entering a device matches the output level. Usually, this is somewhere in the ballpark of -18 to -12dB. Some analog-modeled Waves plugins actually specify optimal input levels.
Avoiding output clipping is one reason why gain staging is important, though if you’re working in a 32-bit floating-point digital environment, that’s less of an issue. The main reason to use proper gain staging is to ensure that your track levels remain balanced as you work; this lets you make informed mixing decisions that aren’t negatively influenced by loudness and perceived volume.
Towards the end of a mix, I’ll get really technical with my fader levels. Once I’ve applied all the processing to my tracks that is required, I’ll set all my faders to within 1dB of where I think they should end up, and then dial them in within 0.5dB during a second round of adjustments.
The average person can’t hear much less than a 3dB change in level, whereas a professional mixing/mastering engineer will be able to hear a difference of a fraction of a dB. When you get to the end of a mix, a 0.5dB change in the vocal or key instrument can feel like the biggest difference in the world. It’s often the simplest mixing tasks, like setting fader levels, that take the most experience to execute well. Luckily, this is something that you naturally get better at through practice and repetition.
2. Pan Knobs
A channel’s pan knobs let you position track elements along the X-axis of your stereo field. This allows you to create a wider soundstage for your mix, helps prevent similar instruments from clashing with one another, and provides more space in the center for your lead vocal.
In a sparse mix, panning a track one direction, and then panning its dedicated reverb the opposite direction can create a sense of width that sums well into mono; for acoustic tracks, this is a common mixing technique. Folk and country music can benefit tremendously from panned reverb as well.
Denser mixes have a lot to gain from panning as well. When you’re tight on space, panning tracks with your output monitoring summed to mono can help you pinpoint where there’s available room. For example, if you pan a hi-hat left/right in mono, the setting at which it sounds the clearest and most present is likely where it will sound best in stereo. Some rock and EDM arrangements make use of so many stereo widening techniques, like doubling guitars and synths, that this panning technique becomes invaluable. You can also try a plugin like Brauer Motion, which is a circular auto-panner that creates movement and space along the X, Y and Z axes of your mix, and would be particularly helpful in conveying an exciting sense of space to the listener.
If you’ve created a solid fader mix and panned elements appropriately, the project you’re working on should already sound good. If there are significant issues, it likely means that you need to go back to the drawing board and either re-record the material you’re working with or reassess the arrangement. Fixing problems at the source is usually much easier than relying on processing tools.
From this point forward, the processing you’ll need to apply to your mix won’t be that drastic; moderation is the name of the game. An equalizer (EQ) will allow you to sculpt the musical character of individual tracks by “cutting” and “boosting” EQ bands.
EQs are great for reducing the effects of masking; they can attenuate the level of an audio signal within a specified frequency range to free up space for other elements in your mix. “Masking” occurs when similar sounds overlap with one another and compete for the same space. EQs are also great for bringing out the “personality” of an instrument or vocal, which may exist in certain frequency ranges that need to be emphasized.
Before you default to applying EQ to a channel, make sure that adjusting the overall level of the track isn’t all that’s required. It’s easy to get carried away cutting and boosting frequencies when all that’s needed is a small fader adjustment.
For general EQ purposes, I like using the F6 Floating-Band Dynamic EQ. It provides all of the conveniences of the digital world like surgical processing, 6 dynamic bands, mid-side processing, a real-time frequency analyzer, sidechain input and monitoring, zero latency, and multiple filter types. This is probably the most versatile EQ that Waves offers thanks to its numerous features and ability to be used as either a static or dynamic EQ. You can check out this guide on choosing an EQ.
When the goal is to provide some color or a little more “spice” to a vocal or instrument, I reach for an analog-modeled EQ. Analog modeled EQs don’t apply processing in a way that is as predictable or clean as digital EQs, which leaves plenty of room for happy accidents. Waves PuigTec EQs for example, can add character that a digital EQ won’t bring and achieve tones that are unique to the curves of the original analog unit. This guide can help you choose which vintage EQ will work best for your track.
Compressors reduce the dynamic range of an audio signal; they can make loud sounds quieter and help you to craft mixes that feel “dense.” Heavy compression has become a characteristic sound of genres like pop, rock, EDM, and modern music in general. Even dynamic musical arrangements make use of light compression to enhance a listener’s experience in noisy environments, such as via headphones on a bus, on a TV in a bar, etc.
Reducing a song’s dynamic range allows a listener to increase the song’s noise floor by turning up the volume so that it sits above the noise floor of the environment they’re in. Compression also tames the transient peaks so that when the noise floor is increased, the transient content doesn’t appear overwhelmingly loud.
The reason it’s beneficial to own different compressors is that each one is unique in the way that it applies gain reduction. In the analog world, a compressor’s unique character is a direct result of the components and signal flow that make up the unit. Analog-modeled compressor plugins emulate their analog counterparts, which means that unique attributes like distortion, and variable release times based on input level, are taken into account during the modeling process. The results can range from simple gain reduction to extremely musical shifts in the “feel” of the source material after the compression has been applied.
Some of my personal favorite compressors for mixing purposes include the CLA-2A, CLA-76, API 2500, and H-Comp Hybrid Compressor. The SSL G-Master Buss Compressor does a great job of preserving transient material, allowing me to produce tight and punchy masters; it’s become an essential part of my mastering process. Your instrument/vocal busses can also benefit from a moderate amount of buss compression and/or limiting; a limiter like the L2 Ultramaximizer excels at group processing.
Learn more about which compressors to use for your mix.
Saturators apply both distortion and compression to an audio signal. Originally, saturation was achieved by overdriving the input of a tape machine, so that the electromagnetic tape became entirely “saturated” with a signal. This effect, along with other types of saturation, is now emulated via the use of plugins.
By applying saturation to a signal, you’re able to generate additional harmonic content while taming harsh frequencies. Instead of instantly reaching for a de-esser to tame sibilance, or a dynamic EQ to tame resonance, try using a saturator. Saturation is not a transparent form of processing, but it does help to “sweeten” and “thicken” the source you’re working on; this is often very desirable.
In moderation, saturation can add life to a dead mix, but in excess, it can do the exact opposite. If you over-saturate a sound, unpleasing distortion will be the red flag that lets you know to dial back your processing.
Some analog modeled plugins will begin to saturate their input signal even if they aren’t classified as saturators; Scheps 73 is a prime example of this. It was designed based on the Neve 1073 preamp, and when you overdrive it, you’re able to achieve superb saturation and harmonic distortion. The slightly unpredictable processing that analog modeled plugins provide keeps mixing fun and exciting.
Abbey Road Saturator and J37 Tape are both great options for adding that controlled “edge” to your mixes. The J37 sounds great on vocals and electric guitar, and Abbey Road Saturator is a versatile distortion palette with results ranging from subtle to extreme. Kramer Master Tape does an excellent job of creating a warm, cohesive sense of space when placed on groups, along with your master bus. For more creative and extreme results, try Berzerk Distortion. You’ll produce sounds you never even thought were possible.
Check out 3 subtle ways to use distortion in your mixes.
A delay feeds its output signal back to its input by making use of the time delay that you’ve selected; the result is essentially an echo or multiple echoes. Using a delay is a great way to create depth and space in a mix. Slapbacks and throws are two particularly useful delay techniques that are simple to set up and wildly effective.
Slapback delays are short delays in the area of 30-60+ ms (just above the listener’s echo threshold), which are great for making vocals and guitars sound livelier. If the source you’re working with feels somewhat “stale,” a slapback delay can make it pop and feel more organic. To set this up effectively, turn the feedback amount on your delay to 0, so you only hear one instance of the delayed feed. For even more of an organic feel, avoid setting the delay time to a value that aligns with a note value at your song’s tempo.
Throws are commonly heard at the end of vocal phrases, and they’re used to emphasize the last word, or phrase, through repetition. This effect can be heard quite clearly in the song “New Light” by John Mayer. It’s used to fill space after he says “night” and “light” during the chorus. This effect helps to push the song forward and prevent a lull from occurring.
The Waves H-Delay Hybrid Delay is a plugin that I use for almost every project. To create a throw, place a delay on an aux track and set its delay time to a note value like 1/8th. Automate the send level of the track so that just the word you want to be repeated is delayed.
Check out these delay tips for mixing vocals.
Reverb allows you to emulate both real-world and imaginary spaces. They’re useful for creating a believable, shared sense of space for the elements of your song to live within, as well as other-worldly effects to produce interesting vibes in your mix.
Using multiple different reverbs can end up confusing the listener, which is why many engineers choose to use just one or two reverbs, one with a short decay time and one with a long decay time. They’ll send varying amounts of signal from each track they want to apply reverb to off to the aux track containing the designated reverb; using aux tracks in this way drastically simplifies mixing and reduces CPU load along the way.
Reverbs vary widely in the effect they produce. The type of reverb you select will play a significant role in the emotion of the track, whether it’s small and intimate, big and roomy, grand or spacey, etc. Some of the more common types of reverbs include room, hall, chamber, plate, and spring reverbs.
The H-Reverb Hybrid Reverb is a tremendous all-around reverb plugin. It’s versatile in the spaces that it can emulate, making it an essential piece of my mixing arsenal. If you’re looking for more specialized reverbs, Abbey Road Reverb Plates sounds great on pop vocals and EDM leads, whereas Abbey Road Chambers is perfect for ambient tracks, as well as smooth RnB vocals.
Check out these vocal reverb tips to make your mix sing.
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