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How to Start a Mix: 5-Step Approach

Jul 23, 2020

Where do you start your mixes? With the low-end, the vocal or maybe the faders? We present a 5-step approach to give your song a proper foundation, so you can seamlessly mix to completion.

By Josh Bonanno

How to Start a Mix: 5-Step Approach

Starting something can be overwhelming and can often be the scariest part of the process. This can be especially true when it comes to mixing a song, specifically those with big track counts or sessions that are new and unfamiliar to you. It’s important to have a clear and defined plan of how to attack a new mix, so when these situations arise, they’re no longer overwhelming, and the path forward is clear. While everyone’s workflow may look different and there are no hard-and-fast rules to starting a new mix, here is my typical 5-step order of operations when approaching a new track, which hopefully can provide you with a nice foundation.

1. Start where they left off

If you’ve been hired to mix a song for a client, whether they’re an artist or producer, the chances are that they have a roughly mixed version of the song that they have been listening to throughout the process of recording, and have approved it before sending you for mixing. Listening to this rough mix is a great way to mentally prepare yourself for mixing and get inside the mind of those who worked on the project before you.

Before even touching a fader or opening a plugin, listen through the rough mix once or twice. Take notes while you listen.
- What do you like about the song sonically?
- What can you improve on?
- Where is the energy coming from?
- Where is the emotion coming from?
Writing these things out will give you a basic roadmap of what needs to be done in the mix and prevent you from doing unnecessary mix work.

If you’re mixing a song that you engineered or produced for a client, or one of your own productions, this is still a crucial step that will save you plenty of frustration later in your mix. Bounce your song out once you are done with the production and take it into a new listening environment to make notes. Whether it’s your car, headphones or a friend’s studio, a new physical space will allow you to hear your song with a fresh perspective and write your mixing roadmap with more clarity.

2. Faders First

Once you have this checklist and roadmap for where to take your mix, I find the next logical step is getting a balance using nothing more than the faders and pan knobs. This is a stage that often gets overlooked as it is very tempting to start opening plugins and turning knobs to manipulate sounds. But the truth is, volume and stereo placement are two of the most powerful mix tools. Using nothing more than volume, it is possible to create depth and separation that will save you dozens of plugins and much frustration later on in your mix.

This step also allows you to familiarize yourself with the tracks themselves and listen to what each instrument is contributing to the overall arrangement of the song. This is the one time in the mixing process where I am not afraid to use the solo button to listen to individual tracks. Doing so will familiarize your ear with the parts and allow you to catch problems that might need fixing later on.

It’s also important to note; you should not be afraid to pull all the faders back down to zero and start over. It may take two or three tries to find a balance where everything feels right, but establishing a balance with levels and pan knobs will bring a solid foundation to your mix that will make the rest of your job easy.

3. Big Picture Moves

The next place I turn to is my mixbus and all other sub-busses. While everyone’s preferred mixbus chain looks different, it is common for the mixbus to include a tape machine emulation like the J37 Tape or Kramer Master Tape along with some other form of analog console summing like the NLS Non-Linear Summer. These plugins are designed to color your sound and have the ability to create a cohesiveness to the arrangement using harmonic distortion. I recommend dialing in these plugins before processing individual channels, because your bus processing affects everything, and can drastically change the overall vibe and direction of a mix. Engaging these colorful plugins at the beginning stages of the mix also feels inspiring to work through and saves you time, as it polishes your mix and feels closer to a finished “record.”

J37 Tape

J37 Tape

I also like to put some form of EQ on my overall mixbus. A plugin like the PuigTec EQP-1A is great for boosting some top-end shine on a mix or some low-end weight, which will get things sounding closer to a “mix” in a timely fashion. Again, making this broad stroke EQ move across the entire mix will save you from having to make multiple EQ moves on individual channels.

You can hear in the example below how nothing more than a few instances of NLS on my sub busses, a J37 Tape on my mixbus, and a small amount of top-end EQ can really start to craft a mix and make it feel more polished.

4. What Is Selling the Song?

With all of our big-picture moves made, the mix should have a firm foundation and direction. Now it is time to dive into individual elements and tweak them to fit the overall vision of the mix. I generally like to begin with whichever element I feel needs to be the “star” of the song. The majority of the time, that is the lead vocal, but it’s also possible that it is something else like the drum groove or bass line. Refer back to your original notes that you made while listening to the rough mix to remind you what your initial reaction was to the song, and what its most important elements were.

PuigTec EQP-1A

PuigTec EQP-1A

By starting with the most important elements of the mix, you are ensuring a firm founda-tion is made where, as the mix progresses, everything else can eventually fall into place. Every processing decision also affects the one after, so you want the important elements to lead the charge. If you have a strong vocal that has your desired tone or a great drum sound dialed in, the rest of the mix will have a much clearer direction moving forward.

A few questions I like to ask myself when making something the focal point of a mix are: “What do I like about this element?” and “What don't I like about this element?” Once I answer those two questions, I know what needs to be done in order to make it really shine. If it’s a vocal, it may be that I like the emotion and tone, but I don't like how dynamic it is between the quiet and loud sections. Now I know I can compress it in order to smooth out the dynamics and make it truly shine in the mix.

5. Everything Else

Once your mix has its star and its selling point, the next step is to let everything else fall into place and support the song. If all the previous steps were done appropriately, I find that this part of the mix does not take as much time as you might think. Because you already treated the mix’s focal point, the task is now to ask yourself if the remaining elements are supporting the main part or distracting from it. Answering this question, when approaching each track, will inform you of the next moves to be made.

The exact order of instruments moving forward can largely be left to one’s own preference.

Sometimes starting with the elements that are the most distracting and working backward can be helpful. Often times, I find this to be the bass or other low-end elements, as they hold a lot of power and can mask the vocal or main melodic parts. I will solo out those problematic instruments along with the key elements of the song and focus on the relationship between the two: adjusting how they are sitting together by EQing out competing frequencies or controlling distracting dynamics. Once things are interacting well, I reintroduce the other instruments back in and finish the mix.

Other times, working on elements that highlight the core of the song and feel almost as important as the main elements can be a good approach. By mixing these “fun” elements like percussion tracks or background vocals to be bright, vibey and supportive of your lead vocal or main drum groove, you’ll quickly get your mix feeling exciting, which will keep you inspired to continue.

The most important question to continually ask yourself as you move forward through the mix is: “Is what I’m doing adding to the impact of the song or taking away from it.”

The key to successfully navigating through your mixes is to have a logical order and workflow. You may prefer to do things in a different way than what I suggested here, and that’s okay. The important part is having a plan, and constantly making moves that support each other in natural succession to avoid extraneous work.

Tell us in the comments how you begin your mixes!

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