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The 6 Stages of Mixing a Great Record

New to mixing music? This article will walk you through 6 clear steps for mixing commercial quality songs, and help guide you through the process.

When your mixes don’t sound like the commercially released songs you hear on Spotify, it can be quite frustrating. It seems like there’s an ocean of great mixing tutorials out there, but translating that into better mixes isn’t always so straightforward. The truth is that mixing a great record is a relatively simple process, but the devil is in the details. Getting from point A (raw mix) to point B (polished mix) requires you to make a series of well-informed decisions, and this is where a lot of producers fall off the wagon.

Mixing a great record requires you to start with great recordings, set rough audio levels, let “fluff” go, add clarity, create mix layers, and reference your mix through different playback systems. Let’s take a look at each of the 6 critical steps of the mixing process in detail.

1. Start With Great Recordings

As the old saying goes, “you can’t polish a turd.” One of the biggest misconceptions about mixing music is that if you have the right plugins and you know the right mixing techniques, you can make anything sound professional. Well, you can improve upon almost anything, but if you’re attempting to hit a certain standard of quality, your recordings need to start off sounding great—both from a performance and recording quality perspective.

When you’re handed a poor performance, there’s sometimes nothing you can do to fix it other than re-record. Even with the best recording gear at your disposal, a singer who delivers a performance that’s dull, boring and void of emotion isn’t going to sound good. The same goes for a guitarist who doesn’t practice their guitar solo and sounds sloppy; all the EQ and compression in the world isn’t going to fix a performance issue like this.

As the recording engineer, you can contact performers a few days before their session and gently remind them to come prepared, which obviously involves practicing. If you want to take things a step further, research a few warm-up routines for vocalists, guitarists and pianists online. You don’t necessarily need to know how to sing or play instruments like a pro to coach someone else through a basic warm-up. Loosening up a performer in this way can make a big difference to sound and tonal quality.

For example, a “cold” vocalist is going to sound much less powerful and confident than when they’re warmed up. Comping together cold and warm recordings sometimes sounds like comping together two different vocalists—it doesn’t work. Often, you won’t be able to use the cold recordings at all.

Beyond that, make sure to set your input levels appropriately so that clipping doesn’t occur in the recording. To do this, aim for a consistent peak level within the -18 to -12 dB range; this should provide you with plenty of headroom.

Remove as much potential background noise as possible; this might mean turning off your air conditioning briefly, blocking outside noise with a sound-dampening curtain, or taking other measures to reduce the noise floor in your recordings.

Despite your best efforts, your recordings may still contain some low-level noise. You can use a plugin like the NS1 Noise Suppressor to apply automatic adaptive real-time noise suppression.

Finally, run a few tests to see which one of your microphone and preamp combinations suits your performer the best. If you’re recording through a hardware compressor and/or EQ, experiment with a few different setting options. Your recordings should sound great from square one, and amazing once you’ve finished processing them.

Don’t worry too much about small pitch-related performance issues. Pitch correction plugins like Waves Tune allow you to set new pitch targets after you’ve recorded, letting you experiment with alternative melody lines. Tuning a vocal a few cents to ensure a pitch-perfect sound is a cakewalk in comparison to what Waves Tune is capable of.

EDM artists who aren’t necessarily recording acoustic sounds themselves should focus their attention on sound selection and sound design at this point. Make sure that the samples you’re working with were recorded well so that you don’t put yourself in a difficult mixing position.

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