A Mixing and Mastering Guide for Newbs
Although I mainly teach software production via Ableton Live and Logic, a common question I get goes something like: “I just started recording my music. Any tips for mixing and mastering?” This is a complicated, but totally fair question.
Let’s get to it: my first general piece of advice is that like any admirable pursuit, mixing and mastering skills require patience (i.e., you’re not gonna get it overnight). Second, while both are a blend of art and craft, I believe these disciplines lean towards the art side of the equation; this means you’ll probably spend a lot of time scratching your head wondering why your track sounds bad, even though you’ve “done everything right”—also, you’ll inevitably produce something that shouldn’t work, but does. If that conundrum intrigues you, you’ll be a good mix or mastering engineer one day.
Now that we have those general points out of the way, here are some musings….
To me, mixing starts with your room. The best software with the best plugins, playing out of $10,000 speakers pale in comparison to the importance of your room’s acoustic character. Why? Without getting too geeky, a room without acoustic treatment is almost guaranteed to have acoustic flaws, like too much bass, too much high end, a weird build-up at 958 hertz, etc. Now, this would actually be totally fine if your music was only ever heard in that room.
I’m guessing you want other people to listen to your music in some other rooms—so I’d compare the issue of your room’s acoustics to painting in very dim, eye-squinting light. You might think you know what’s going on, so you do your best. But, come daylight you’ll probably be pretty surprised (in a bad way).
Herein lies the holy grail of mixing: you want your song to sound awesome everywhere.
So how do you achieve this? The quick and dirty method I recommend is to mix on 3-4 stereo systems in 3-4 locations, like a “circuit.” Make your first satisfactory mix on, say, your living room’s stereo. Then, check it on your bedroom’s bookshelf speakers, and make corrections as needed (maybe you noticed way too much high end). After that, try out mix number 3 in your car, and note additional adjustments (for example, muddy kickdrum, lost vocals, piercing guitar solo, etc.). With those things in mind, move back to your living room to make corrections and hear how your new mix holds up. Do this circuit a couple times, and you’ll likely get some pretty good results, despite imperfect room acoustics (and maybe not the most hi-fi speakers).
Got the circuit method down? Then it’s time to level up with reference songs. Gather 1 to 5 songs by professional artists that are very similar to yours (the closer the better) and that you truly enjoy. Drag them into your DAW (Logic, Pro-Tools, Garageband, Live, etc), and every couple of minutes solo one of them to “calibrate” your ears and gain a fresh perspective. When you return to your song, you’ll likely be surprised and, more often than not, bummed out, but that’s a good thing: no pain no gain.
Speaking of fresh perspective, ear breaks are critical. The human ear starts to act funny when it’s fatigued, and bad mix decisions can result. Make sure you mix at a reasonable, non-painful volume, and every 15-30 minutes (at most) take a quick walk, grab some water, etc. There’s no rule here, and everyone’s ears are different. Just remember that less is more when it comes to ear fatigue.
Also, make sure that when using reference songs you adjust them to match the volume of your track. As a newb, I don’t advise mixing with mastering plugins on your master channel (that’s a more advanced technique), so in most cases you’ll need to turn down those reference tracks to match your song’s loudness. Just use your ears to match the perceived loudness. This will give your mix a decent shot at competing with the refs.
If you have a little money to spend, a great plugin for using reference songs is Magic A/B, by Sample Magic. Not only does Magic A/B streamline the process of using reference tracks, but it’s one of the few products on the market for this purpose. I can’t recommend it enough.
Reference songs are an invaluable tool, because they give you a goalpost. As a newb, it’s unlikely that you’ll hit that goalpost with flying colors (that usually takes years of practice), but at least you’re not randomly mixing, expecting good results. Remember, professionally mixed songs should sound good in every environment, so why not cheat a bit and aim for their overall sound.
A word of caution: for a long time, I overdid the reference song approach. Getting bogged down in trying too hard to emulate the pros only lead to disappointment, frustration and no fun. It’s critical to remember that every song should be different, and while as a beginner your song might not be the greatest recording/mix/master ever, keep in mind that many people’s favorite songs aren’t either! It’s the soul that counts. Never forget that, and always mix with it in mind.
Ok, so those were, in my humble opinion, the two pillars of modern mixing: room acoustics and reference mixes. With those pillars firmly planted in the ground let’s look at some of the gears you need to start turning in your DAW.
Inside Your DAW: EQ and Compression
Although your DAW almost definitely comes with loads of different audio effects (phasers, flangers, reverbs, delays, etc.) the most important ones by far are your equalizer (“EQ”) and compressor. To paraphrase my buddy Jake Perrine (an excellent mixer in the Seattle area) these two effects are the salt and pepper of mixing. What Jake is getting at is that there’s a decent chance that every track in your song with have at least one EQ and one compressor on it.
Let’s begin with EQ. Simply put, you should get in the habit of putting a high pass EQ (around 100 hz) on every track in your song, except your low-end elements (kick drum and bass guitar/bass synth). This should look something like this:
This is done to reduce the rumble that is often present (recorded or otherwise) but not needed on elements like guitar, vocal, hihat, snare, synth or keyboard tracks. Cutting out the rumble (that you might not hear at low volumes) on all these type of tracks will free up sonic space for your kick drum and bass to rock loud and proud down there in the low-end. Trust me, this helps.
Know Your Frequencies!
From there, the art of EQ becomes much more complex and subjective, and only experience will lend you Jedi mixing skills. However, I often suggest that my students experiment with cutting frequencies in order to get to know them. This is slightly more advanced, but you can handle it. And trust me, a little of this practice can go a long way.
To do this, decide to focus on around 4 tracks: drums, guitar, vocals, and bass, for example. Place a neutral EQ on each track (i.e., it’s not doing anything yet). Now, track by track, make a fairly big EQ dip at 400 Hz, and really listen to what happens with the EQ on and off. Ask yourself, what is the quality that this dip has created? How does that dip in the guitar affect the drums? How does it affect the vocals? Are these cuts helping or hurting? If you had to name the sound you cut at 400 Hz, what would it be?
I’d suggest repeating this same process for 200 and 900 Hz, as well as 2, 3 and 7 kHz. Don’t overwhelm yourself with more for now—those frequencies are more than enough to bite into.
Compression: The sound of modern music
I won’t bore you with a long-winded explanation of how compressors work (plus, there are already some really good tutorials out there that cover this). Long story short, a compressor restricts the dynamic range of an audio signal: it makes the loud stuff quieter, and the quiet stuff louder.
(The ultimate form of a compressor is called a limiter, which will be the final device on your master track in mastering—we’ll discuss that later).
Compression, in all honesty, will probably take you years to master, but the thing I see beginners get “wrong” most often is setting their compressor so that it is always working/doing way too much. How can you tell? Find the Gain Reduction meter (often shortened to “GR”) on your compressor. This tells you how much the compressor is affecting your sound, i.e., how much gain reduction is occurring. If this meter is always showing activity (like every millisecond), you’re probably doing too much.
You can easily fix this by lowering the Threshold control (or the Input on some compressors). The goal (usually) is to have the Gain Reduction meter only occasionally reporting compression. So, if you’re seeing gain reduction happening every couple seconds, every 10 seconds, or even once a minute then you’re on the right path. Most importantly, keeping an eye on your gain reduction and threshold meters will train you to start using compression wisely—not just randomly squashing your audio (granted, sometimes that sounds cool).
Mastering is tricky: it ranges from the most subtle final adjustment, to drastically altering your song by adding multiple stages of EQ, compression, multiband compression, parallel compression, expansion, stereo widening, stereo narrowing, harmonic exciting, limiting… you get the point. There’s so much that can be done that it can be overwhelming.
The good news is that mastering should ideally be done by someone else. Half the point of mastering is getting a third-party’s opinion on your song or album, in this case an audio profession who can hear the grass grow, has an acoustically tuned room and insanely high quality speakers. This professional (aka, mastering engineer) will scan you song for various errors, hopefully fix them, and then highlight the good stuff. They’ll make your song competitively loud, and also deliver the final product back to you in an industry standard format.
Of course, mastering engineers cost anywhere from $30 to $400 a track, and even if you plan to never master your own tracks I recommend that you still learn the fundamentals (it can’t hurt). Also, learning the nuts and bolts of mastering gives you yet another way to hear your mix in a new context—after all, hearing your mix in new ways is always helpful. So let’s assume that you’re gonna do the mastering yourself.
I highly recommend sticking to a simple formula: one EQ, followed by a limiter on your master channel. This will look something like this:
That EQ is where you can make any small adjustments to your song’s overall sound (ideally, only if needed). The above example has a low cut at 25 Hz to knock out any super low rumble, a high shelf filter to give the track some brightness, and a high cut just to gently roll of the super high frequencies. You can also add/cut out certain frequencies like I mentioned in the mixing portion of this article, but I caution against boosting or cutting more than a dB. If you need to boost or cut more than that I recommend fixing the issue in the mix.
Now for the Limiter. How you set your Limiter will greatly influence the perceived loudness of your song. If you’ve heard about the “Loudness Wars,” or remember a certain Metallica album that everyone hated, then you’re familiar with what limiters do. If you’re unfamiliar don’t worry about it—just follow these rules and your limiter use will be kosher.
- Set your Master Volume knob/slider (on your master track, not the Limiter) to 0.00. Do not, I repeat, do not set your main volume higher than 0.00.
- Make sure your Limiter is the last effect on the track. The exception to this is a spectrum analyzer—that’s ok to put after a limiter, as it’s merely an analysis tool.
- Loop the loudest part of your song.
- Adjust the amount of gain reduction (GR) to taste, by turning up the limiter’s gain knob, or otherwise driving more signal into it. How much you do this will depend on the genres you’re producing, the quality of your mix, and the quality of your limiter (some are much better than others). A good rule of thumb for conservative, unobtrusive limiting is to make sure that your GR meter registers no more than 3 dB of gain reduction. Alternatively, 6 dB of gain reduction is getting pretty loud, but usually pretty acceptable. Play around with how much you squash your track, and make sure that you like the sound, and rely on your ears more than your eyes.
But IBG, how about mastering presets, like those found in Ozone? Those can be quite good, and if you own Ozone I recommend flipping through them to hear how they affect your track. However, despite what software companies may claim, every song (even in the same genre) is different and presents unique challenges in the mastering process; so the chance of a preset working on your song without any modification is unlikely. I never use a mastering preset if I don’t know how to finely adjust it to the details of my song. So, until you get quite a bit of mastering experience under your belt, I’d avoid mastering presets. I’ve seen them do more harm than good to beginners’ tracks, and that just sucks. All that said, if you decide that a preset sounds good on your track, go for it!
I hope the above information helps clarify some of the information that you’ve no doubt found online, and helps you to charge ahead recording, mixing and mastering with confidence. In future articles I’d be happy address some more specific questions concerning mixing and mastering; just write to me at email@example.com and I’ll get to work!