The mixdown: these tricks will keep you on track

Mixing tracks made easy – successful mixdown with these simple tips

You have recorded something in the home recording studio and ask yourself: how do you actually mix a song? How does a finished song emerge from several tracks? We have a few tips for you here.

Janosch Held

is a sound engineer and regularly tours with well-known stars of the rock and pop scene, most recently with the rock band Eisbrecher, for example. He did his first mixdown 14 years ago. Since then, he's made some fat mixdowns – but also a few nasty mistakes. You can learn from this now. His tip: just do it. And be brave.


Janosch Held

is a sound engineer and regularly tours with well-known stars of the rock and pop scene, most recently with the rock band Eisbrecher, for example. He did his first mixdown 14 years ago. Since then, he's made some fat mixdowns – but also a few nasty mistakes. You can learn from this now. His tip: just do it. And be brave.

An overview for better mixdowns:

Mixdown: what does it actually mean?

During the mixdown, the sound tracks laid down while recording are mixed together. Various signal processors are used, for example compressor, reverb and delay. It doesn't matter whether it's a live or a studio production: the job of mixing is to perceive all the essential elements of a song and to ultimately create a well-rounded sound pattern. In the process, volumes can be adjusted, audio effects used and the relevant position of a track within the stereo image can be determined. The mixdown is the first step towards a finished product. The stereo track then usually goes to mastering for post-processing.

 

Tip: why you should separate mixdown and mastering

Mixdown and mastering are two disciplines that overlap, but also differ in terms of special requirements (e.g. plugins). There are audio engineers who do both steps during production. I recommend: it's better to separate both of them. Why? Maybe a comparison will help: just because you're a good mechanic doesn't mean that you're good at painting. There are professionals for both areas. And they need special tools that they have to be familiar with.

The basics: what does compressor, reverb and delay mean?

Compressor

It sounds simple, but: the compressor compresses your track or certain sections of your track. It is the most important tool in the mixdown because it can cut the dynamics to such an extent that you end up with a fat mix. Depending on the setting, peaks, i.e. strong deflections, are made quieter and quiet parts are made louder. Generally, the more you compress your signals, the louder the mix will be perceived. Compressors are used especially with dynamic signal sources – for example vocals, bass guitars played with fingers or drums. Tip: be careful with compressors in live action. If you pull quiet parts up too much, you provoke nasty feedback. In the studio, the following applies: trial and error. Just try it – there is no right and no wrong. You can read more about compressors in home recording here.

Reverb

Reverb is the generic term for reverberation. Your drums still sound a bit dry and could do with a bit more reverb? You just have no idea how? In every software, there are (drum) presets. For starting without much prior knowledge, presets are really cool. Subsequently, you can still go into the parameters to change details. If I notice in the mixdown that the reverb is too massive for me, then I not only have the option of making it quieter, but can also go back into the settings and reduce the reverberation time.

Delay

Delay is the classic echo. That means: an audio signal is repeated after a certain time sequence. There are many different delays you can work with, such as ping-pong delays that sweep from left to right, or delays mixed with a reverb. Again, I recommend: if you don't have a clue where to start, take a preset and see how it changes the mix. Important: a delay has a time component. So make sure that the tempo fits the rest of the song.

 

No matter how far you are: always save your mixdown

Your computer crashes just before the mixdown is complete? Super annoying, but has happened to almost everyone. Therefore: always save your files correctly – preferably several times. And at certain intervals also different versions. Basically, you do it like gaming or writing in Word: the key combination for saving simply has to come out of your wrist subconsciously every 5 minutes.

Software that you can use for a good mixdown

In my view, there are three good mixdown tools:

However, they are all subject to a fee and some of them are not cheap. Only Pro Tools offers a reliable, free version. Free alternatives:

  • Garageband (included with every Apple device)

  • Cakewalk

Which software you choose is primarily a question of faith. And, of course: a question of the hardware you use. Logic is part of the Apple group. Those who work on the Mac therefore mostly use Logic, those who work on the PC use Pro Tools or Cubase (both are also available for Mac). All three options get you to your destination and are similar in terms of the range of functions. It is advisable to see whether you need a specific plugin that you want to work with – and whether it is available for the corresponding software.


Keep your setup as lean as possible. Be brave. Try it out. Above all: don't be afraid to make mistakes. You learn from them.


You can find out more about mixing and recording here:

What you should consider when mixing down

Pay attention to the level

With the mixdown there is an upward limit. You can't crank it up too much, otherwise you risk clipping. Better to ask yourself: which instruments or tracks do we diminish so that the overall mix is rounder? If you want to know more about this, find out about gain staging.

Avoid simple sources of error

There is a classic source of error where many engineers get bogged down: when recording, you usually record the drums on first, followed by the bass, then the guitar and eventually the vocals. During the mixdown, it's easy to be tempted to maintain this order. That means: first you make the drums fat, then you mix the bass, then the guitar, and maybe some keyboards. At some point, the vocals come along and you notice: oh no, I don't have any more space in my mix! My tip: just go a different way. When mixing down, start with the voice and loop it until you're happy with it. You then build the rest of the mix around it. There is no golden path – and no recipe for success. But that's also what makes the whole thing so exciting. Be brave. Try it out. Above all: don't be afraid to make mistakes. You learn from them. If you want to avoid the classic beginner's mistakes, read more here about the five biggest sound sins.

Build the mixdown like a cascade

If each instrument sounds fat on its own, but should work in an arrangement in which several instruments form a band together, then you quickly have too much – and no more space in the mix. Don't just look at the instruments alone, but imagine the mixdown as a band. In other words, build it up step-by-step like a cascade. If the bass is fat, then I slowly mix in the drums and see in what frequency spectrums there is space still.

Listen to the finished mix on different reproducers.

The mix may sound fat on the studio monitor. The problem is, nobody will listen to the music later on studio monitors. Export the mix as an MP3 and be sure to listen to it on different reproducers. Use headphones, Bluetooth speakers, earpods, preferably a car radio. Rule of thumb: if your mix doesn't sound cool from the small car speakers, then you have to try again. Make different versions of your mixdown and listen to them in an AB comparison. Of all the successful pop songs you hear on the radio, there were many different variations that were discussed during the mixdown process. And send the mix to others and ask for their opinion. The more ears, the better!


How many tracks can you mix?

There are no limits with the full versions of Pro Tools, Cubase and Logic. The software manufacturers mentioned also have slimmed-down light versions, so you can usually mix around 48 tracks. That's more than enough for a start. It's usually more the case that the limit is the processing power of your computer. If you put in too many tracks, the operating memory will quickly fill up – especially if you work a lot with effect plugins. So keep your set-up as lean as possible.

You can get a lot out of the mixdown. But if the recording isn't good, the mixdown won't iron it out anymore.

Want some more inspiration? Read more here:

When is your mixdown finished?

With a well-rehearsed band, a song is in the can in four hours. Theoretically, you can tinker with the mixdown for years. Does the snare drum need to be a bit louder? Does it need a bit of reverb? What are we going to do with the voice? There are always adjustments that you can make. There is no clear objective. Only that at the end of the day, you have to be satisfied with your mix. And recognise that you got the maximum out of it. In principle, it's like any other manual work: a sculptor comes back to his sculpture the next day and thinks: "Oh, I could use the chisel a bit more." It's important to realise that, at some point, enough is enough.


With our tips for a good mixdown, your stereo track can go straight to mastering. Would you like to find out more? Then keep on browsing our magazine. There we have a lot more content on the subject of DIY recording, about how you can record vocals even better, or how you mix the bass to your liking.

Bildquelle Headergrafik: ©  evgenydrablenkov, Adobe-Stock