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Home Studio Guide 101 - Mixing

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Having covered the basics of equipment and some settings, it’s time to approach a mix. The first thing to decide is where to start to build from. This will be something that gives the song a strong foundation, so it’s drums and bass usually, but it doesn’t have to be.

You could just as easily isolate the vocal, get it to sound great, then gradually bring other elements into the mix so they sit well in relation to the vocal. This will make the vocal the focus of the song, and by having it there from the beginning, you can be sure that nothing obscures it.

Let’s take the approach of drums and bass first for now though. If you’re working with a drum machine, the balance of the sounds will probably be ok, but I’d still recommend getting each drum onto it’s own track. Here’s how you can do this, but only if your drums are sequenced:


How To Produce Individual Audio Files for Each Drum Element:


1. Within your music software, work out how many individual drum tracks there are and copy the drum part that many times. This way, you’ll have the original drum part safely unharmed.

2. Go into the first copy and delete all but the kick drum triggers.

3. Go into the next copy and delete all but the snare triggers

4. Repeat for any other drum sounds you wish to isolate.

5. Now solo the first edited copy (the kick drum) and render this MIDI track to a .wav. Or, record a new audio track using the output from your drum machine/synth. Either way, you’ll end up with just the kick drum part as an audio track. Repeat for all the other parts.


Now you have fine control over all the elements of the drum part. Just remember to leave the original MIDI drum track on mute from now on.


Another method would be to adjust the actual sounds on your drum machine to zero apart from the element you want to record. Make multiple recordings of each part using the original MIDI drum sequence.


For information on EQ and Compression, see this article http://www.atomicmpc.com.au/forums.asp?s=2...;c=23&t=496


Kick Drum Vs Bass - Title Fight!

In order to get a solid bottom end for your song, you need to get the bass and the kick drum sounding big! A common mistake made by beginners is to get them both to sound similar, then try and get them to sit well in the mix.. Forget it! There’s only so much space for each frequency, you can’t fit a bass and a similarly sounding kick drum in the same audio space. Here’s a trick! Using your parametric EQ, scoop out a place for the kick drum in the bass part. The actual frequencies to scoop will depend on the sound of the sound of the kick drum. And really, the best way to find any frequencies is by listening, not by reading a chart!

Another thing to try, that will solve many problems is to record with different sounding bass and kick drum sounds. So you would use a bass heavy, dull kick drum with a sharp sounding bass or vice versa. This will really help them sit together.

The mixing of the bass and the kick drum is very important, as they occupy the same frequency area. Therefore, once your mix is complete, any EQ applied in the mastering stage, or even by a listener on their HiFi, will affect both elements. In other words, if one is too loud or quiet in relation to the other, you won’t be able to fix it later. Ultimately, you want the two elements to seem like one instrument, each adding it’s own unique frequencies in unison, unless the bass is playing an extremely adventurous melodic part, then treat the bass as more of a lead element.


Spicing Up The Drums: Ambient Miccing

Having a drum machine sequence playing acting as your drummer is a common option for the home recordist, and using the method described above to gain finer control over the disparate elements of the drum part, you can get some excellent results. However, you’ll probably still think there’s something missing from your drum part. It may sounds too clear, too plastic-y or too clinical. Most probably, it’ll lack depth and atmosphere. I put this down to the way a real drum kit would be recorded. There’d be a microphone on the snare, maybe two on the kick, one on the high-hats and maybe one or two on the toms. Now the samples in your drum machine/synth will be professional recordings of real drums of course, so why the lifelessness? Well, in case you don’t already know, in a proper recording of a drum kit, overhead microphones will be used. Maybe one, but usually two microphones will be place a few feet above the whole kit to capture the performance, and maybe a bit of room character as well. This overhead track/s are then mixed in behind the main drum recording to give that big sound. I’m still experimenting with the following method of ambient miccing a drum machine part, but here’s the basics:


1. Solo the drum sequence and play it back over your monitors, or any good external speakers.

2. Place one or two microphones about a meter away from the playback speakers, but higher than the speakers.

3. For more than one microphone, record the results to a stereo track, once you’re happy with the results.

NOTE - If you’re recording your studio monitors, make sure you have the microphone input muted! It’ll still record, but won’t play what it’s recording back over the monitors. If this happened, you’d get bad feedback, possibly damaging your speakers. Be CAREFUL!


You’re not going for the greatest drum sounds you’ve ever heard here. This recording will be mixed in with the main drums so that it can only just be heard. It’s only there to add that little bit of spice.


Spicing Up The Drums: EQ

Place an EQ on the kick drum, and seriously boost a very narrow band (a high ‘Q’ setting). Now sweep through the frequencies from 60Hz to 150Hz. Listen where the kick drum gets boosted the most, this will be it’s ‘fundamental’ frequency. Let’s say the frequency was 70Hz, the first harmonics of our kick drum will occur at double this frequency, 140Hz. In fact, any factor of 70 will have a powerful effect on the kick drum. We’re interested in using the EQ to add some ‘point’ the kick drum. This can be achieved by boosting high harmonics, found by multiplying the fundamental frequency of the drum (in this case 70Hz). How high? It’s matter of listening of course, but start above 5KHz. Having said that, try all the ascending harmonics and see what it sounds like, if nothing else, it’s a good exercise!

Now try the same thing with the snare. The high-hats should be fairly easy to EQ. Basically, cut every frequency below 2Khz and boost some very high frequencies relating to the fundamental frequencies at around 10Khz or more.


Spicing Up The Kick Drum: Compression

Funnily enough, compression is used to make drums sound ‘bigger’. As with everything I’ve discussed so far, it’s up to your ears to make settings, but here’s some basic advice on using a compressor on individual drum elements.


Making the kick drum suck:

For the kick drum, you need to carefully adjust the ‘attack’ on you compressor. You want the compressor to allow the initial ‘hit’ through, but then apply it’s compression very quickly. Release is only important inasmuch as don’t release too early before the sound finishes. This’ll sound weird. The amount of compression should be pretty severe! Try ratios of 6:1 and above for starters, and find the threshold that sucks the most… =)

After doing all that, bring the output gain up so your kick drum is back to normal level.

Another approach is to know the initial hit down with a very fast attack setting. Once again, use aggressive ratios and thresholds that will really push the sound down. This time, play around with the release to end up with a big, boom-y kick drum. You’ll lose some definition, but if your bass player has a sharp sounding bass, it’ll work great with this approach.


Spicing Up The Snare: Compression and Distortion

I’d assume the first method described above for the kick drum will yield the most successful results in most cases. Play around with it!

Copy your snare track and overdrive it! For best results, run it out of the computer and through a guitar overdrive device, then back into the computer. Cut most of the low frequencies from this new track and boost the higher harmonics of it’s fundamental. Mix this back in, in the same space as the original snare, with heavy compression applied.


Spicing Up The Drums: Reverb

Simple guidelines here. Long reverb will make the drums sound distant and small. Short reverb will make them sound close and big. Short delays can have the same effect, but I personally don’t use delay on drums very much at all. If I do use delay, it’ll be barely audible. Something very short, with minimal feedback, only noticeable if removed.


Spicing Up The Base: All Together Now!

Finally, bring the ambient drums, the individual drums and the bass up together and listen to what you have after all this work! The first elements to bring up will be the kick drum and the bass. Get their balance right before proceeding. Next, get the snare working nicely with the kick and bass. This is the life of the song, the snare drives the music forward. It needs to command a very special place in the mix. Make sure it is big and powerful and not overpowered by the bass and kick drum.

Bring in the other drum elements and balance their levels. Here you can start panning the high hats and toms. It works well if you imagine a real drummer sitting on a stage playing. Pan the high-hats to a logical position and do the same for the toms.

Now, carefully bring in your ambient drums. You might add some subtle ‘room’ reverb to them. If you have a stereo ambient recording, pan each track about 25% each side to begin with. Move more if it doesn’t sound big enough. Don’t let the ambient recording sound prominent. It should not really be noticeable, just an enhancement to the main drums. Bring it up until you can just hear it.


That’s all for this guide, but in the next instalment, we’ll bring other instruments into the mix and see what we can do with them.

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Mixing is the art of taking usually more than one recorded track, and manipulating them until they sound good. In the home studio environment, this usually means a group of wave files, a software sequencer and a stereo wave file as the result.


If you’re like me, your mixing room is your recording room too. You just have to make do with the acoustics in the mixing environment you have. You might be lucky enough to have a great room for mixing in, but if there are acoustical problems with your room, the room will influence what you hear from your monitors. We can overcome some issues, so read on!


Set up your speakers as shown in the diagram below. Make sure the speakers point towards you, and you’re not too far away. The idea is to be able to hear things properly at fairly quiet volumes, known as near field monitoring. Doing it this way, will minimise the influence of the room where you’re mixing.


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During the tracking stage of your project, try to think ahead to what it’ll be like to combine the tracks you are now recording, together. If you have clear recordings, your mixing task will be easier than if your tracks are noisy and/or distorted, or not well defined.

If you have the luxury of multiple instruments, try to select those that have the overall sound you’re aiming for the project.


Most importantly of all, try to keep in mind a clear idea of how you want the project to end up. Work towards this idea, and try not to be distracted by things that may seem useful, but really are only getting in the way of your ‘vision’. Basically, you don’t want to be mixing just to fix things up. Mixing should complement the tracking stage, not be a solely remedial step.



There are some common elements to most mixes. Rhythm, Balance, Panorama, Equalisation and Dimension.


Rhythm deals with not only the drums, but anything working in the same ‘space’ as the drums. Anything that helps build the timing momentum of a song is considered to be part of that songs rhythm element. Often bass, guitars and choppy keyboard parts fit this category.


Balance describes the relationship in volume between the various tracks of your project. There’s only so much space available to you, so it’s a balancing act. Balance relates closely to equalisation, in that equalisation deals with the volume of certain frequency ranges. You can also use equalisation to help a track stand out, without boosting it’s volume with the track fader.


Panorama is where you ‘place’ sounds in your mix from right to center and left. It’s controlled with the ‘pan’ control available to each individual track. Often a convenient way of separating similar sounds, panning can also be used to expand the perceived space your song occupies.


Equalisation is a touchy subject! I mentioned in the previous guide that some engineers/hobbyists discourage the use of equalisation all together! I feel there’s a place for EQ if used wisely and subtly. As we will soon see, many sounds you’ll be dealing with, occupy similar frequency ranges. Without EQ, you will find it difficult to get some tracks to ’fit’ together without your mix sounding unclear. Or, some instruments might get overshadowed by others if they share similar frequency ranges.


Also, remember that sounds have fundamental frequencies that determine their pitch and carry most of their energy, but there are harmonics of these frequencies that continue upwards with a doubling of the original. This means, sometimes you can EQ the harmonics of an instrument and leave the fundamental frequency alone, maintaining a more natural sound.


Here’s the frequency ranges of some common instruments (estimates):


Kick Drum 20 - 200Hz

Snare Drum 100 - 900Hz

Bass 40 - 500Hz

Guitars 100 - 750Hz

Vocals 1 - 16KHz

Piano 1.2 - 15KHz


You can see that things will get quite crowded around the mid frequencies of 500Hz - 1.5KHz.



Isolate the track by selecting solo on the mixer. With the transport rolling and a single band parametric equaliser selected on the track, set gain to about +5dB and sweep the frequency selector through it’s full range. You should have a high ‘Q’ setting also, so as to be sweeping a narrow band. By listening to when the sound gets the biggest boost, you can eventually pinpoint where this particular instrument holds the most energy.



Guitars and vocals are obviously going to fight for the same space, so either pan the guitars away from the vocal, EQ the guitars to remove some of their mid frequency energy or balance the volumes of both so that only one or the other is loud at one time.

By themselves, drums are very easy to mix, as each element of the modern kit fits pretty nicely into it’s own range. And even with the rest of the band present in the mix, the drums generally skirt the outside of the mix frequency.


Bass and Kick Drum:

Here, we have a delicate area. Looking at the frequency ranges of each, you can see that they overlap. This is where the harmonics come into play. If a kick drum sounds strongest at 230Hz, it will also be affected strongly by altering EQ at any multiple of 230Hz. This is the harmonic component of the sound.

When it comes to combining two sounds that share such a close range as these two, one trick can be to let them share the loud a bit. Take the energy away from one, say the kick drum at 230Hz. Then boost the bass in this range slightly. It’s no good trying to get them to both be clearly represented in the mix. There’s just not enough room for them!


Another trick is to use different sounding instruments to begin with. Use a sharp kick drum with a smooth bass sound, or vice versa. If you get it right, they will sound like one percussive instrument. For the sharp sounding instrument, you can accentuate it’s sharpness by carefully boosting some of the harmonics close to the fundamental frequency. You’ll notice much better definition when everything is playing together. Finding this frequency is explained above.



Guitars are very strong in the mid range frequencies from about 2KHz to 4KHz. But they are also a very harmonically rich sounding instrument. This means, you can sometimes cut the fundamental frequency as long as you keep some harmonic energy around. First, find the place where the fundamentals live, and then double this frequency for the place to boost. Cut the fundamental and you should be able to fit the guitar and vocal parts fairly well into the same ‘place‘.


All of these settings will be approximates. There’s no exact fundamental for an instrument that’s playing many different chords and notes. Just like a singing isn’t going to hold the same note for the whole song! And you can’t select one frequency on the EQ. You can select the center frequency, but those frequencies surrounding it are also affected to a lessor degree depending on how sharp the ‘Q’ curve is.


This brings us back to the old maxim… If it sounds good, it is good. Play around a lot with the equalisers you have. Try to get sounds from the same frequencies to fit without resorting to panning. In the next guide, we’ll look at the other elements mentioned above, Panorama and Dimension.

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Arranging and Tracking Revisited:

To begin this guide, I’d like to remind everyone the importance of planning the whole song and tracking things correctly. The mix is not the place to remedy poorly tracked instruments, or to try to fit things in that are not arranged properly. An example of bad arranging would be a loud rhythm guitar and organ part playing at the same time as a delicate vocal phrase. Obviously, since the thee instruments occupy a similar frequency band, they will block each other and make it difficult for the listener to decide what to listen to. And if the listener is trying to hear the vocal, which is likely, the organ and guitar parts will be hiding the vocal from the listener.

This type of thing should be sorted out before you come to the mixing stage. There are ways to fix this problem in the mix, with panning, balancing or EQ, but it’s always better to not need to user the mix just to fix things. Try to approach the song making process in a planned way from start to completion. You may not be good at doing this when you first start, but getting in the habit of approaching song making in this way will get easier, and make your life easier in the long run.

Start the planning by considering the frequency areas of the disparate instruments. Then think of the important elements that need the spotlight to give your song it’s identity. Usually, this will be the vocal, snare drum and guitar. There are other instruments of course, but they contribute in a less obvious way to the overall sound of the song. The listener knows they are there, but wouldn’t really notice them unless they were suddenly removed. Then, their role would be obvious. I’m talking about bass, keys, backing vocals and rhythm guitar.

With your important, song defining parts, don’t write parts for other, similar frequency occupying instruments that play at the same time. You could always have a stab-y guitar riff come in and fill gaps between the lead vocal lines, but writing it to play all through the verse/chorus would only present a mixing challenge later on. So, you can already see how the planning stage can be used to build a better song. The bass and kick drum shouldn’t present any problems for the important elements mentioned above, but they can cause problems for each other! This is not something that can be solved through planning and treatment of these two elements was discussed in the previous guide.


Finally, you may hear people talking about never EQing instruments separately. This is because your aim is to have one balanced sound for the overall mix and the EQ to get separate instruments ‘sitting’ well within this mix may be different from what they need in order to sound good by themselves. I agree with this approach to a certain degree, but I’d also suggest the following advice.

1. Make sure the instruments are tracked as clearly and cleanly as possible. Try to capture all the important frequencies and harmonics of the instrument. Applying EQ only works on frequencies that have been recorded! You can’t change something that’s not there.


2. Before you mix instruments together, play around with EQ on them and try to get them as natural and clear sounding as possible. I nearly always cut a little bit from around 400-450Hz. This usually helps to clear up a track and remove some annoying qualities. But feel free to try whatever you like.


I feel it’s important to have things as clear and clean as you can to start with. In other words, remove any obvious problems before introducing the problems into a mix!


Vocal Mixing:

In the preceding guide, I discussed how to get drums and bass to sit together in a mix. Now, we will look at what’s considered by many to be the most important ingredient to any rock/pop song, the lead vocal. Having recorded a nice clear, vocal track, you can start your mix with it alone. Bring the vocal track up in volume until it’s peaking at around -3dB. Try bringing in the rhythm guitar backing and see how well it supports the vocal. If they seem to clash, you may need to think about the arrangement and record a different guitar part. Or, you can make sure you keep the level of the guitar/s down when there’s a lead vocal line. The guitar will really hide the human voice, so it’s very important to keep them out of each others way. You can also try bringing in the bass and drums based on what you learned in the previous guide. But of course, you are free to and should do whatever sounds best!


Go through the process of finding the fundamental and harmonic frequency zones of the particular voice track you have. Roll off any frequencies below 80Hz, as there’s nothing there that would come from a human voice, but there might be some lurking room noises or traffic or something else you don’t want. Have a try yourself, but you probably won’t find much energy until the 200Hz zone. Boosting frequencies here though, will probably only make the singer sound boom-y and unpleasant. Remember the lower frequencies carry the most sonic energy, but they are not as perceivable to our ears. So even though your meters might be peaking out, the track may not seem loud. By cutting the frequencies of the voice that are not as noticeable to our ears, you can boost the vocal more and not risk getting distortion.


And don’t forget about the harmonics. Finding these and boosting them will add presence to the vocal. Presence is a way to describe how ‘close’ to the front of the mix a sound is. Cutting harmonics will place a track perpetually ‘back’ in a mix. Our ears are also tuned to certain harmonic frequencies responsible for word definition. If these are missing, the vocal will just waft off into the rest of the mix. It’ll be hard for the listener to hear definite words. Once again, there are no magic frequencies. You need to find them using the techniques I’ve described in the other guide. To quickly recap this technique, it involves setting a band of your parametric EQ high, and sweeping the frequency selector through a narrow band (high ‘Q’ setting). Where the sound gets loudest is it’s fundamental. Not this region. Any factors of this number will be harmonics of the sound.

If the vocal lacks presence in the main mix, you can bring it ‘forward ‘ by boosting a harmonic frequency range. In other words, once you have a ballpark or average frequency zone for a vocal track, just find the frequencies three or four times higher and boost those.

Any frequencies above about 12KHz will not bring any great change to what can be perceived by the audience. But frequencies above this point add an airy quality to the performance. It’s commonly just called ‘air’.


Here’s a technique you can use to get guitars and vocals to sit better. Juggle the frequency areas occupied by both a little. If the guitar is strong at 600Hz, boost the bottom half by narrowing the bandwidth parameter. This means increasing the Q amount. You can then point your frequency ‘center’ below 600Hz at say 500Hz and boost there. For the vocal, do the same thing, but on the upper side of 600Hz. Straight away, the two will sit better together, and more importantly, they will fight less.



If you’ve tracked your guitars well, they shouldn’t need very much EQ work. But try the old 400Hz cut and see how it sounds. You might also want to ‘roll’ off the lower frequencies, starting at around 80Hz. The guitar needs a bit of bass though, as bass helps to convey a feeling of power that comes from the amplifier cabinet. Also, you can make the guitar sound ‘bigger’ by boosting frequencies around 350Hz and 550Hz. But of course, like everything else in this pursuit, adjust to taste and per instrument.


The guitar has it’s upper fundamental frequencies at around 1000Hz, but of course, it’s harmonic structure extends well beyond this. You can get a guitar to sit up in a mix without boosting it’s actual level, by carefully nudging it’s harmonics with the EQ. Different factors of the fundamental will shine a light on different tonal characteristics of the guitar. And this concept will work for any instrument except for sine waves, which have no harmonics!


Quite often, to achieve maximum space and separation from vocals (99% of the time panned to the center), I will record two of the same guitar part and pan one 100% left and the other 100% right. This sounds great and makes you mix sound really big too. The vocal also has a place of it’s own now, allowing you to increase the level of the guitars. You could also do this with a copy of the original guitar part. Doing it this way, I would shift the second guitar track by about 20-40ms to simulate stereo slightly.


General Tips for all Instruments:

Everything balances, and every adjustment one way, affects something the other way to a certain degree. For instance, if you boost a guitar part, it will cover up a keyboard of vocal. If you lower the level of a guitar part, you’ll expose the vocal. If you cut a frequency, other frequencies will seem stronger.


Don’t pan every stereo effect hard left and hard right. You’ll end up with too much audio information in those areas, defeating the purpose of panning in the first place. Try to use the whole stereo field. One approach is to mimic the positions of a real band on stage. You can imagine this field from the perspective of the band, or the audience. With the individual drums, maybe put the kick in the center, the highhats and snare off to the right and the toms spread across a short pan range. This would be the audiences perspective of a right handed drummer.


Make small adjustments to the faders; smaller than you think! The difference between something sticking out a little bit in the mix, and something sitting nicely can be a very slight fader movement.


Listen to a recording that’s the same style of music as you’re trying to create. Note the levels of the individual elements, the types of delay and reverb effects, the panning and anything else that’s been used to suite that style of music. Most important of all, note the arrangement. Try and work out why certain instruments play when they do. Try and notice when instruments move out of the way to let a different element stand out more.


These guides have been brief. That’s because you should spend as much time as possible using your gear. You should take any advice as an idea, not a law. Most suggestions are ballpark estimates to get you at least in the right area. From there, you just have to practice with your own gear and your own music. If it sounds good, it is good! But if it sounds good only on your gear, you’ll need to try it out on a few different systems and learn to compensate on your gear.


So get inspired, plan your attack and sustain your music in a controlled release!

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It seems like you're an expert when it comes to these equipments. I'll be asking you some tips soon when i'll be able to have one for my own.

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