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I often struggle with mixing a song when I have all my recordings ready to use and I get closer to the "whole song". My approach is often to take a single track and add effects such as EQs, compressors, distortions etc... Then I listen to all tracks together, make some adjustments, try to make every track present enough and I try it out on different speakers and headphones.

The problem is, that I am never really satisfied with the sound. Sometimes an instrument is too quiet, vocals sound too limp, after some adjustments I can barely hear an other instrument and the vocals completely cover something else. In the end, my track just gets louder and louder until I undo it, which is quite frustrating.

I figured out how to make a single instrument sound great, but what should I do to make a whole song sound great? Are there different approaches you recommend?


Edit:

Due to JCPedroza's very helpful answer, I did some supplementary research and found another weakness that is very frequent in my tracks: I did not know how to equalize correctly, so I found this article about equalizing which can be completed by this table here to make the instruments sound better.

Combined with the information in JCPedroza's answer, it shouldn't be a problem for any amateur out there to get a better sound out of their tracks.

  • 1
    Mixing and mastering are both skills that take a lot of time and practice before you will be making high quality tracks. And there isn't a one-size-fits-all way to do it. My best advice would be to watch some videos on YouTube about the process and also there are some great books out there on the subject. – Charles Nov 4 '14 at 14:58
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Making everything audible in the mix is not always possible. Elements that share frequencies will mask each other.

The most crucial part of the mix is not actually in the mixing phase itself, but in the composition, instrumentation, and arrangement phase. Experienced composers will give each element its space in the frequency spectrum, so there is little to no masking, and when there's masking they use it to their advantage in the form of textures, ensembles.

The masking effect is the number 1 reason why people end up turning everything louder and louder in the mix. Once one element is audible it masks the other ones that are near it, so you turn up one of those or all of them, and now they are masking something else, and so on.

You have tools to improve this situation, but there's a limit on what they can do depending on the severity of the masking. If the problem is that the elements are too close to each other in both time and frequency, then what you want is some separation.

  • Panning conflicting elements to opposite sides, but your mono mix won't have this benefit.

  • You can give some frequency space with EQ (accentuate different bands in different elements, for example), but too much of it and you'll be messing with the timbres.

  • You can use sidechain compression, but you'll need to choose which element will be quiet while the other is on (works great with kick and bass).

  • You can use an harmonic exciter to make an element cut through the mix, but those added harmonics might be masking something else.

You can also consider getting rid of some elements, or redesign them in a different frequency range (check which bands are available), or use them in another point of time. If the problem is too big, it might be worth to re-arrange the song.

From SoS Mix Mistakes:

Unhelpful Arrangement

The roots of many a mix problem can be traced back to the musical arrangement, and this simple fact renders many of the budget productions I hear effectively unmixable. If your song's verse has more guitar or percussion layers than its chorus, you're likely to face an uphill struggle if you want the chorus to arrive with a bang. Likewise, there's no sense in having different guitar and keyboard sounds competing in the same pitch register if you want to keep any separation between them in the mix. And unless you create some sense of build‑up in the arrangement itself, it's unlikely that you'll hold the listener's attention all the way to your final chorus.

From SoS 20 Tips on Mixing:

Try not to have too many instruments competing for the same part of the audio spectrum. The mid-range is particularly vulnerable, so try to choose the best sounds at source. You can improve the separation when mixing by using EQ to narrow the spectrum of the sound you're working with. Try rolling off some low end and occasionally taking out any excessive top end. This is sometimes known as spectral mixing, where each sound or instrument is given its own space in the audio spectrum. A good example of this is the acoustic guitar which, in a rock mix, can muddle the low mid. If you roll off the low end, you still get plenty of definition, but the mix will seem far cleaner. Sidechain filters on noise gates (set to Key Listen mode) are often very good tools for trimming the high and low ends of sounds without unduly changing the section you want to keep.

The possible problems and solutions don't end here, but that's the most common cause of your issue.

Masking aside, a technique that will make your life many times easier is the use of buses and/or mix groups. For example, route all the synths to one fader and mix them separately (mix only the synths). Repeat with drums, vocals, maybe you want to group kick and bass and all other low freq elements, etc. Then you mix those groups together.

From SoS Mixing Essentials:

Divide And Conquer

Now that modern DAWs are capable of recording huge numbers of tracks, modern productions seem to want to use them all! You might find your mix initially seems unmanageable, but you can make life much easier by separating key elements of the mix into logical subgroups that can be controlled from a single fader. The obvious example is the drum kit, which may have as many as a dozen mics around it or multiple tracks of supplementary samples, and you clearly don't want to have to move a dozen faders every time you wish to adjust the overall drum kit level. There are two ways to do this in a typical DAW, one of which is to group the faders so that when you move one, the others move proportionally. The other way is to create an audio subgroup and route all your drums via that group, just as you would on a typical analogue studio console.

  • Incredibly good answer, thank you so much! :D You pointed out the masking effect which I will try to avoid now, and the solutions you suggest are very helpful as well. I also added some more information about equalizing in my question, because I think it might be a great issue for me and other amateurs as well. – muffin Nov 5 '14 at 12:52
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The best technique I've come across for making each instrument clear and audible in the overall mix is to do your mixing in mono. First, pan your instruments to where you want them in stereo because the pan law can affect the volume of the instruments. Then once you have your instruments panned to where you want them, use the "mono" button on the master bus of your DAW (if it has one, otherwise you could use a plugin which sums to mono as the very last plugin on the master channel) and start your actual mixing here.

The reason against mixing in stereo is that you can create "pseudo-separation" by simply panning instruments to make it appear as though they each have their own space when in reality they are stepping all over each other. Your mix might sound great while you are sitting in the sweet spot right between between your speakers, but what happens when you move away far enough from the speakers?...the entire mix becomes mono and that separation you had from panning goes away. Now (for example) the two guitar tracks that you panned opposite each other so you could hear each guitar clearly both turn to a muddy mess once you hear them together in mono.

Mixing in mono lets you hear these problems immediately and once you can hear how the guitars are masking each other and neither guitar riff can be clearly heard you will be in a better position to fix these problems. When you can get your mix sounding good in mono when every instrument is fighting for the same space then your stereo mix will sound even better and your mono mix won't completely fall apart.

This is such a simple principle and it really works wonders!

2

The missing piece in your mixing arsenal and gear is called sidechain ducking or sidechain EQing.

If you learn and know how to use these audio processors, you can take any mix with as many instruments in it and make them all heard properly.

If you still want to use the old traditional way of adjusting volume and EQ, here are a few tips:

  • Use compressors. A compressor is very essential in balancing the dynamic range of an instrument, and this in itself can make a big difference between losing an audio track somewhere in your mix, or keeping it heard all throughout the mix.
  • Noise gate other instruments when they are not playing. Alot of mixing producers skip this step and its realy bad because some tracks still have noise in them when they are not playing, and noise captures your entire frequency range and can cause other instruments or tracks to get lost.
  • Make sure that there are no 2 instruments that share the same frequency range. Mixing is the mathematical equation of simply adding (+) the volume levels of all tracks together, so if 2 instruments share the same frequency range, you'll get an overload in that range that will cause other instruments in your mix to get lost. So if for example you want a Singer and an Acoustic guitar heard together, and you applied EQing on the singer in the range 500-800hz, don't do the same on the guitar. Instead, add some treble and bass to the guitar on the 200-300hz range on one hand, and on the 2000-3000hz range on the other hand.
  • if you are not sure about which frequency range each instrument takes, use a spectrum analyser whenever you can.

I hope this answered your question.

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Assuming you are in stereo (JCP answers assuming you're not) because there is nothing to say you aren't, definition of some instruments will be enhanced by where in the mix you place them. Similar tonal instruments, and ones which at a particular time in the recording, are playing notes close to each other, need panning away from each other. Let's take an organ sound and a harmonica sound. Both panned left OR fight will have the similar sounds getting mixed up. If one was hard left, other hard right, you would be hearing them from different directions, and they would be distinct from each other in the mix.Vocals often work best in the centre, so if other instruments are likely to mask them - they are probably the most important bit - pan the latter away from centre.

  • 2
    My answer assumes stereo, all suggestions but one (I suggested panorama too) apply to both mono and stereo. Panorama is rarely the unique solution, though, because 1) mono mix will get actually worse (and a lot of systems still use mono, specially clubs, bars, and most live setups) 2) unless headphones are being used, the elements will be mixed back again acoustically 3) masking can happen in both the mid and side region 4) ideally you want panorama as a design, as a carving, not as a patch (just to name a few). – Jamm Nov 4 '14 at 18:10
  • @JCPedroza - My comment appears to have 'got lost'. If you downvoted me, what was the reason? – Tim Nov 4 '14 at 20:48
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    A moderator deleted both your comment and my reply. My reply was more or less: I think your answer (suggesting panorama as unique solution) has more potential of making the situation worse than to improve it, and it completely ignores the masking happening within the panorama. I talked about that in my first comment. – Jamm Nov 4 '14 at 20:51
  • panning is a CORE technique to add separation and intelligibility to a mix. Every single method you might employ has distinct downsides, each is a compromise. I firmly believe that frequency carving and ducking (sidechain compression) have far more potential to cause issues than panning. – dwoz Aug 10 '15 at 15:22

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