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You’re not alone in feeling overwhelmed by the idea of mixing.

We’ve all been there. (Some are right there with you at this very moment.)

That’s why I’ve put together this as-simple-as-it-gets guide on how to mix music. This post should get you started if you are new to mixing.

Here’s what you need to know about to mix music:

  • EQ
  • Compression
  • Reverb
  • Delay
  • The mixing process
  • Videos to help improve your mixing

The Only 4 Plugins You’ll Need

You might not believe this, but you only need four plugins to mix music that sounds professional. A lot of beginner musicians think that buying the most expensive plugins will automatically make your music sound amazing.

But if you don’t know how to use those expensive plugins, they’re useless. So all you need to do is master the easy-to-use free plugins that come with your digital audio workstation (DAW).

The only four plugins you need are EQ, compression, reverb, and delay.

1. Equalization (EQ)

An equalizer (EQ) is meant to balance the frequencies. And it does this subtly.

EQ is more about subtraction than anything else. You typically cut frequencies that sound weird or distracting so that the instrument sounds the best possible.

It’s meant to balance the tones among the different instruments so they cooperate together, to remove overlapping frequencies.

For example, bass guitar and a kick drum are usually in a similar frequency range. EQing the bass can help allow space for the kick drum to punch through.

2. Compression

Compression takes some practice to get the hang of, but once you do, it makes all the difference in your mix sounding professional or not.

At the most basic level, compression brings the quietest and loudest parts of a recording toward each other. The louder parts are made a little quieter, and the quieter parts are made a little louder. This is called the dynamic range. It helps bring consistency to the volume throughout the whole track.

One important thing to remember with compression is to go easy with it. Don’t overdo it.

Another thing compression can do is boost the energy of the instrument you’re working with. We’ll get into how to do this below.

3. Reverb

Reverb helps create the size and sound of the “room” your instrument is in. By adding reverb to an instrument or vocal, you can make the room size sound bigger. It works well on a vocal take during a big chorus, on an acoustic guitar to add vibrancy, or on a snare drum if you’re looking for more impact.

Reverb can also help blend tracks and takes together. You’re probably recording a bunch of different instruments together, especially if you’re using a home studio or if you’re a solo artist. And when you do that, each instrument can have its own individual natural room sound. Reverb can help blend them together and make them sound like they were recorded all together.

4. Delay

Delay is often confused with reverb but that’s understandable. Delay is sort of like a sibling to reverb.

Delay could also be called “echo.” If reverb helps determine the room size, then delay helps you decide the size of the cave you’re in. In the same way your echo comes back to you, so does delay (at varying levels of repetition).

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The Mixing Process

Okay, now let’s dive into how to use these plugins, step by step.

Whenever you mix, the best order in which to use these plugins (i.e. the signal flow) is as follows:

  • EQ
  • Compression
  • Reverb
  • Delay

In almost every case, especially if you’re relatively new to mixing, this is the order you’ll use (assuming you’ll be using all four plugins). And with each plugin, it’s better to make little changes rather than huge ones. That way, all the little adjustments add up to one positive impact.

Part 1 - Equalization

You’ll want to grab your 4-band EQ and use it to look for weird or distracting sounds at the different frequencies.

The way you do this is by using the EQ Sweeping method:

  • Use a high-pass filter (on band 1) to cut out low-end rumbles or ambient room noise.
  • Narrow the band range of band 2.
  • Drag the band up as high as you can.
  • Start slowly sweeping the band right and left in the general area from where the band started.
  • Play the track while you listen for where the weirdest sound emerges.
  • Once you find the frequency where the weirdest sound is, drag the band down until it’s cutting that frequency about 2-5 dB.
  • You can widen the band a tad to cut a little of the surrounding weirdness.
  • Move onto band 3 and repeat this process.
  • You can use band 4 for boosting/curing the higher frequencies if it makes the instrument/vocal sound better (but it’s not always necessary).

But in this case, I find it helpful to solo the track just so I can find the weird sounds. Then I un-solo the track to see how it melds with the rest of the mix.

One tip with EQ is to boost high frequencies if a track is too bassy, and vice versa. So if an acoustic guitar has too much trebly highness, you can boost the low-end a bit to help even it out, rather than cutting the high-end.

Part 2 - Compression

If it sounds like you need compression, slap some of that on there after the EQ. If the track needs more energy or if the volume is inconsistent throughout the track, compression can help.

Remember to go easy on the compression, especially if you’re just learning how to use it. Compression is often used on vocals, so we’ll use that as an example.

Here’s the general way to use compression on vocals:

  • Set the Attack to 3-6 ms.
  • Set the Release to 100 ms.
  • Set the Ratio between 2:1 and 4:1.
  • As you play the track, pull down the Threshold until the Gain Reduction averages between 2-7 dB.
  • Then use the Makeup Gain (or the track volume if your Compression plugin doesn’t have a Makeup Gain control) to turn up the gain, leaving about 3-6 dB of headroom.

Part 3 - Reverb

You can use some reverb if you think that would help.

The basic way you can use reverb is to add a bit more roominess to an instrument. A rule of thumb is to turn up the reverb until you can hear it clearly, then bring it down a couple notches so it’s just below where you think it should be. Usually, that’s where it sounds best without being distracting.

It may also be a good idea to bus your reverb rather than applying reverb to each individual track that needs it.

Here’s how to bus tracks for reverb:

  • Create a new track in your DAW project.
  • Add your favorite reverb effect to this track.
  • Title it “Reverb Bus.”
  • Send any tracks that need reverb to this Reverb Bus track.

By bussing your reverb, you’re able to adjust (or completely change) the reverb for all the tracks that have reverb. And it’s best to only use one reverb per song so everything sounds more cohesive.

Part 4 - Delay

Lastly, delay can help fill out an instrument and, in turn, the whole song.

Delay is an effect that takes a little experimenting with in order to figure out what sounds best. But, like reverb, you should bus your delay effect using the steps above.

When using delay, here are some general tips to get the best sound:

  • Don’t overdo it.
  • Apply delay only to tracks that are not panned at all (this allows the delay to show you its full potential).
  • Bus your delay and only use one delay plugin per song.
  • If your song feels empty or dry, adding delay can help fill it out with its repeating nature.
  • A ping-pong delay can help transition from one section to another.
  • If you need more delay, don’t just turn it up — try adding a second layer of delay instead.

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Videos to Help Improve Your Mixing

As helpful as this post is, it’s not your only resource for learning how to mix. Or at least it shouldn’t be. This guide is only meant to get you started with the basics of mixing. Mixing, the simple way.

I want you to continue to get better at mixing, which is why I’m going to give you some of my favorite videos on mixing.

The first video I want to share comes from WickieMedia, which provides a lot of audio engineering tutorials. In this one, called “The Basics Of Mixing Music,” they cover the philosophy of mixing — the main idea and goal.

It talks about how you should mix your song as if the band is on stage. So it involves panning instruments left and right in proportion to each other, paying attention to the balance of high, medium, and low frequencies, and using volume to create the illusion that the drums are in the back and the singer is up front.

It’s super helpful. If you’re fairly new to mixing, check out this video.

The next video I want to point out is “The Basics Of How To Use EQ.” This short video shows what a few Professional Mixing Engineers say about how to use (or not use) EQ. Very insightful.

Another video that’s a must-watch is “How To Mix Vocals” from Graham Cochrane. Cochrane runs the well-known website The Recording Revolution, which helps DIY musicians create radio-ready songs.

What he’s great at is simplifying things for musicians who may not be familiar with an idea. In the above video, he covers two ways to mix vocals.

While we’re talking about Cochrane, I might as well mention another one of his videos on mixing, “How To Mix A Song From Scratch.” This one takes you through the process of mixing an entire song, start to finish.

After you’ve watched the other videos, you can check out “Mixing Vocals To Sit Properly In Your Mix,” which is a bit more technical than the others.

The Pro Engineer in the video, Warren Huart, doesn’t simplify things too much, so you’ll need to be somewhat familiar with mixing to really benefit from this video. But at this point in this post, hopefully, you’re ready for this video.

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