Mixdowns: How to Mix Your Songs

Inner Portal Studio - Tarekith - Erik M. - Pyragraph

Photo by Taco Ekkel.

Written by Erik M. of Inner Portal Studio, and reposted with kind permission. You can download the complete pdf guide here. Follow him on Twitter @Tarekith.

Before I get into the actual tutorial aspects of this guide, I need to briefly insert the usual disclaimers. Every time I write a guide, or a How To related to the music making process, I inevitably get emails from people disputing my ideas or the methods I propose. It’s important to understand that I’m in no way saying that the ideas in this guide are the only way to approach a mixdown, nor are they necessarily the “right” way to do things. I can only share with people my own experiences and the way I learned to do things. Certainly people should always keep an open mind and try any and all alternatives on their quest to create their own sound.

So then, what is a mixdown? In the simplest sense, it’s combining all of the separate elements you created while writing your track. But I think it’s more than that too. To me, it’s about making the sum of all parts greater as a whole, about creating something really inspiring based on various unique combinations of parts capable in a mixdown. Anyone who’s ever tried to redo a mix from scratch on one of their songs knows that you can get a vastly different-sounding song each time, using the exact same parts. It’s how they all interact together that really gives the song its feel and emphasis.

How do we start then? Most likely, you already have. It’s not uncommon for people to actually be crafting a rough mix of the song as they write. If one part is too loud and starting to get on your nerves or distract you as you work on others, you turn it down. If you can no longer hear the bass line for instance, you turn it up. A lot of people will not even approach the mixdown as a separate process; they shape it while they write, and when that phase is done, the song is done and they send it out for mastering. Certainly nothing wrong with this; many a good a tune has been written this way.

But I’m going to write this article assuming you want to learn how to mix a song from scratch. You listen to your song and while you can hear all the elements, it doesn’t have the impact you want. Or maybe, it just sounds kind of dull and flat compared to other songs you admire; there’s no depth and detail. Sometimes we can fix this just by tweaking a few parts of the rough mixdown you created while writing, other times we need to start totally over with a fresh canvas if you will. Hopefully the ideas below will help you with either method.

Preparation

Where you start can depend completely on what kind of song it is. I personally don’t approach a mix this way, the process is largely the same for me regardless of what kind of song it is. But it can be important to start by recognizing what parts of the track are the focus, what is most important. In a pop tune this is largely the vocal, in a dance tune it’s the kick and bass line, in an ambient song it could be the textures or pads. So take a second to think about, and to recognize what the focal point is in your song. I don’t think you need to necessarily always pay more attention to this while mixing, but certainly you want to always make sure something else isn’t over-shadowing it.

To begin with, I tend to follow the school of thought that you should not touch the master fader in your DAW (Digital Audio Workstation, i.e. sequencing/composing software) or your hardware mixer. I leave this set at 0dB, and adjust the individual track faders if the song starts to clip the master output. This is just my preference, but I think it forces you to work in a more consistent fashion, and after time, you can easily learn to avoid this happening as you mix or write.

This is only the beginning! Read and download the complete guide at Inner Portal Studio.

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