You might think you need a storehouse of audio plugins and effects to mix music well. But that couldn’t be more wrong. One of the most common mistakes mixing engineers make is doing too much, using too much processing. A botched mix can ruin a good song. So during the mixing phase, it’s best to keep things as simple as possible while still enhancing the song.
And there are only four plugins you need to start mixing your song: EQ, compression, reverb, and delay. Any good DAW will come preloaded with these.
So in this guide, I’m going to talk about how to mix music as a home producer with these plugins and why they matter.
One general tip: it’s better to do a bunch of subtle moves with these plugins rather than a few drastic changes. A lot of bricks will add up to a house.
Gain Levels and Panning: Your Most Important Tools
80% of mixing involves balancing the gain and panning levels of each element of a song. You can get your mix mostly there with just these two knobs.
In fact, I would suggest trying to mix an entire song with only the gain levels and panning. No plugins at all, just as a practice. You’ll start to understand how to make instruments sit in the mix and not step all over each other.
So don’t touch any plugins until you’ve gotten your mix to sound good with gain and panning. It will make the rest of the process so much easier.
What Is EQ and How Can You Use It?
The point of equalization (EQ) is to be heard yet stay invisible.
When you use EQ the right way, the listener shouldn’t be able to hear that you used EQ but should still reap the benefits of it.
“It’s what you don’t hear that can make or break your final mix,” says Graham Cochrane of The Recording Revolution.
So here are the reasons EQ matters and how you can use it in your mix.
Balance the Tone
EQ is meant to equalize each instrument. It helps you balance the tone of each instrument and balance all the instruments with each other.
Remove Overlapping Frequencies
Sometimes, the more elements you add, the muddier the whole song can sound. This is a common problem.
EQ can help untangle frequencies that overlap with each other (also called “unmasking”). Think of EQ as a shovel you use to scoop out unwanted frequencies. (This is called “subtractive EQ”).
Here’s an example: the bass guitar and kick drum are typically in overlapping frequency ranges. Using EQ as a shovel, you can scoop out some of the frequencies in the bass that are overlapping with the kick, and that allows both instruments to work together better.
Control the Mix
Audio can sometimes be like a wild animal. Frequencies can roar their ugly heads, and it’s the mixing engineer’s job to tame them.
When a bass guitar hits a loud note, ugly frequencies can growl. When a high hat opens up, a harsh frequency can pop out. Sometimes, a vocal can be a bit too muddy.
These things can be controlled with EQ.
How To Use EQ
Alright, now let’s talk about some practical ways to use EQ. There are plenty of very advanced ways you can use EQ, but for this post, I’ll be covering the basic ways.
Step 1: Cut Out Unnecessary Low-end
The first thing I do with most elements in my mix is to remove unneeded low-end. The human ear can perceive frequencies as low as 20 Hz, which means you can cut everything below that with a high-pass/low-cut. This allows the speakers to have a little more energy to push the other frequencies of the mix through.
Depending on the instrument, its context within the mix, and what mix I used, I’ll often cut more low-end than that. I usually find myself cutting 100Hz and below from vocals, acoustic guitars, and most other things. This allows the bass, kick drum, and any other low-end instruments to stand out more.
Step 2: Get Rid of Weird Sounds
If you hear a weird frequency you don’t like, EQ can help you reduce it. I suggest only doing this if you hear it. You don’t need to go looking for a problem frequency if it’s not obvious.
But if and when I do hear an undesirable frequency (which for me is usually a harsh sound in the 2kHz-4kHz range), I use what’s called EQ sweeping.
Here’s how I use EQ sweeping:
- Solo the track I believe the frequency is coming from
- Narrow the band you’re working with
- Launch the band into the sky, as high up as you can go
- Start slowly sweeping the band left and right
- Once you find the weird/unpleasant sound is, cut it by 2-5 dBs at that frequency range
Step 3: Boost the Beautiful Sounds
Next, you can start making the pretty sounds sound even prettier. I don’t go crazy with this step. Typically, I use this method for adding air to a vocal by boosting the higher frequencies by 1-3 dBs.
Also, one way to approach this step is by thinking “opposites.”
For example, if an instrument or vocal needs a bit more high-end, a bit more air, try cutting the lower frequencies instead of boosting the high ones.
What Is Compression and How Can You Use It?
Compression basically takes the quietest and loudest parts of your track (called the dynamic range) and brings them closer to “the middle.”
We’ll get into the purposes of compression in a bit, but generally, compression helps make the track louder overall.
One thing to note is that compression should be used sparingly – only when needed.
“…Only use [compression] when you know why you are using it,” Cochrane says. “Otherwise, leave it alone and go back to the fundamental question when mixing: do these tracks sound balanced to me?”
Think about a vocal: it can go from gentle breathiness in the verse to belting emotion in the chorus. After you’ve automated the gain levels, which is when you adjust the volume of the different parts of an instrument, then you can use compression to help further control the dynamic.
Back in the day before compressors, engineers had to manually automate this dynamic range with the volume faders. On every single track. Nowadays, your DAW comes preloaded with a compressor plugin that does this automatically.
Boost the Energy
Bringing up the quiet parts of a track can also boost the energy of the whole mix. Using a slow attack, you can turn up the soft parts and keep the loud parts, leading to a more energetic song. The compressed parts are generally just louder and more upfront, giving the impression of more energy.
How To Use Compression
I try to go easy on the compression, but that can vary depending on the dynamics of a track.
Let’s use vocals as an example. Here’s how I typically compress vocals:
- Use a 3-6 ms attack, a 100 ms release, and a ratio between 2:1 and 4:1
- Find the loudest part of the song and loop it while setting the compression
- Pull down the threshold until the gain reduction averages between 2-7 dB of gain reduction (obviously this can vary depending on the genre, singer, and specific song)
- Bring the track gain level up until it’s sitting well in the mix
These steps have led to great results, or at least results I’m happy with. But again, it’s very easy to overdo compression, so only use it when you need it.
What Is Reverb and How Can You Use It?
Reverb is an effect that can change the sound of the “room.” Some people call this “echo,” but that’s actually not totally accurate, even though it kind of gives you an idea of what it does.
One way to use reverb is to make an instrument or vocal sound like it’s in a bigger room. It can be a nice effect to put on a vocal during the chorus of the song, a snare drum to provide more smack, or an acoustic guitar to make it sound more vibrant.
In other words, reverb can add depth to a track.
You can also use reverb to help blend tracks together. When you have a few elements that would sound good if they were more “together,” like gang vocals or the different parts of a drum set, reverb can help make all the tracks sound more blended with each other. Like they’re in the same room.
How To Use Reverb
When it comes to reverb (and every plugin on this list), it’s best to make little changes.
One tip is to turn up the reverb until you can hear it really well, then pull it down until it’s at a level that’s just below where you think it should be. That’s typically where it will sound best.
And 90% of the time, I’m bussing my reverb. It gives me more control over the presence of the reverb.
Here’s how you can use reverb:
- Make a new channel
- Add your reverb effect to this track (title it something like “REVERB BUS [INSTRUMENT]”)
- Route any tracks that need the same reverb to this bus channel
- From the bus track, you can change the amount of reverb that’s applied to each bussed track or to all of them collectively
What Is Delay and How Can You Use It?
Delay repeats the sound you apply it to, like when a cartoon character yells into a cave and their own voice bounces back at them.
When used subtly, delay can help add depth to a track, kind of like reverb does.
It can also make an instrument sound wider by using a stereo or ping-pon delay, or by panning the delay to the opposite side of the instrument (using bussing).
How To Use Delay
Because every delay plugin can be different and each setting can vary, I have to speak generally here. But here are some general tips on how you can use dealy in your mix:
- Go easy on the delay – too much can easily ruin the stereo effect of the track
- Bus your delay effects (like you would your reverb)
- If your song feels dry or empty, use a little delay to help “fill out” the song, giving it depth
- Use a ping-pong delay to transition to a new part of the song
- If you want more delay, try adding a second delay effect instead of turning up the first delay
Use a Reference Track
This is probably the most important tip in this blog post. Using a reference track can drastically improve your mixes.
This is when you listen to a professionally mixed and mastered song through the monitors you’ll be using to mix your track. This way, you know what a well-balanced and appropriately processed mix sounds like. Then you mix your song to sound like the reference track.
For the full walkthrough on using a reference track, check out this guide.