Here’s my ultimate beginner mixing tip. It’s a concept I’ve seen shared by some of my favourite mixers and producers including Dave Pensado, Steve Duda and Mat Zo. It’s also a concept I wish I’d spent a lot more time exploring and studying before I started watching and getting lost in more complex YouTube tutorials.
Balancing is the foundation of all good mixing.
What is balancing? In case you haven’t heard the term before, balancing in mixing simply refers to the fundamental process of setting the level (or balance) of each element in your mix. The name Balance perfectly describes this concept because without everything finely balanced, your mix will fall apart quickly and you’ll never get to the other side.
Like a lot of people that learned to mix in the post YouTube world I fell into the trap of immediately trying to use complex techniques and plugins on every sound and channel without properly addressing the fundamentals. I’d end up over using plugins but my final productions never seemed as loud or deep as professional mixes. Especially the drums. The mixes just couldn’t get close to professional tracks no matter how many plugins I threw at each channel.
Old school mixing
About 10 years ago I was chatting to my friend Grant at Lovers Lane Studios and he pointed out the importance of balancing and how he’d learned it working on an old school analogue desk. I also remember watching a masterclass with Steve Duda in which he stressed the importance of balancing. To quote Steve ‘I used to teach a mix and production class in LA and would say to the students “I bet I can beat most of your mixes without using any plugins” ‘.
The Problem – A Foreground Mix
When you first start learning to mix it’s not uncommon to end up with what I call a foreground mix. By a foreground mix I mean a mix where everything seems to be vying to be equally loud. Instead of a mix of depth and contrast, this mix is like a photograph where there’s no background and just a foreground.
The hooky synth part you wrote fights with your bass. The vocals fight with the snare drum. The drums seemed loud and punched at first, but by the time you’ve finished they’re drowned out by your guitars and bass etc. Everything is competing with everything else. It’s a constant cycle of tail chasing.
To give a mental picture to this, here’s a picture of the Ableton mixer with everything fighting against everything else in a very simple stems mix. Although it’s unlikely you would ever have a mix where you’d have the faders all set at 0 this is just to illustrate the idea.
The solution to a foreground mix is to try to achieve true depth with balancing. A helpful analogy you can use is one borrowed from visual art. A good painting will often employ a foreground, a middle ground and a background to create a compelling effect of depth in the visual field.
You can see this in action here in the painting ‘Gas’ by American realist painter Edward Hopper. If you look closely you’ll see that you can fairly easily identify a foreground, middle ground and background.
- Foreground – Man at the pump
- Middleground – Lamp post and forest
- Background – The sky and sunset
What this means for your own mix is establishing a hierarchy of level through delicate balancing:
- Foreground – the 1 to 2 (3 max) most important elements in your mix
- Middle Ground – a layer of other important elements that are subtly quieter than the foreground but still fairly prominent
- Background – the much more subtle layers underneath (often pads or drones for example)
This might sound like it’s too simple to be important but really mastering the art of balancing can take years. Having just one element (for example the bass) too loud can suddenly throw off all the other elements in your mix and have a domino effect on the overall balance.
How to Practice Balancing
To practice balancing, I recommend you download some stems from this great resource at Cambridge MT. You could also download a project from Splice and do a blindfold balance and compare your results with how the artist mixed it.
One thing I recommend you try is to pick and start with one element which you build everything else around. I like to set a kick level of around -8 and then fit the other elements around that. Always checking that the kick stays at that level and I’m not readjusting it because the other elements have crept up too loud.
Load the stems into your DAW and set aside a few blocks of time every week to practice getting the mix as balanced as you can with some practice stems using just level faders. Always strive to try to create this feeling of foreground, middle and background.
That’s my ultimate beginner mixing tip. In summary:
- Balancing is 90% of what makes a good mix
- Balancing is your greatest tool to create depth and loudness in your mixes
- A well balanced mix with no plugins beats a poorly balanced mix using the most expensive plugins
- Use the painting analogy of a foreground, middle ground and background
- Something can’t seem LOUD unless another thing seems quiet
- Everything is relative – you can’t just keep turning everything up FTW
Here’s a quick video breakdown of the above technique:
Have fun trying this and let me know how you get on or any questions you have in the comments below. For more on mixing fundamentals check this post.
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