What is mixing in music is a question I often get asked from people I experience across my journeys. To me it's common knowledge like surgery to a surgeon or car repair to a mechanic, but I have to remember to many it's true wizardry. It's something that few understand and that many underestimate. In this article, you'll learn what audio mixing is, what steps are involved, can it fix a bad recording, and why you should consider hiring a professional mix engineer for your work. So sit back, relax, and prepare to take a deep dive into the world of audio engineering and the art of mixing.
Mixing is a process in audio engineering where two or more sounds are combined. A mix engineer will balance the levels of these sounds to create an optimal soundscape for a listener. They'll also add effects like reverberation, delay, and equalization to alter how the overall product will sound. Mixing is used on many different types of audio projects including music recordings, film dialogue/soundtracks, and radio advertisements.
Mixing engineers will always try to listen for the "lowest common denominator" in a mix: what is the weakest instrument in any given song? The engineer might find they need to lean harder on EQ and compression in order to help tracks like vocals stick out. These effects must be applied carefully in order to maintain a good balance with the other instruments.
An entire song is usually mixed at once, not each individual instrument or element of the mix one by one. Treating a mix as a whole leads to a much more cohesive final product. Listening in a context is the key to creating a successful mix. Of course, if something needs fixing later on, then the mix engineer can just go back and fix it. In the world of digital mixing, everything is non-destructible.
Mixing is a complicated process that takes time and patience to perfect. There are five main steps in mixing music: balance, panning, equalization, effects, and automation. Mixers use these terms interchangeably as they all apply to the same general concepts of how audio levels are set when recording or playing back an audio signal for listening purposes. A good mix balances the various sounds so that they are easy to listen to and don’t overwhelm each other.
Balancing is the blending of levels between different instruments. For example, how loud are the vocals in comparison to the guitars. Mix engineers will start by creating a "static mix" which is just strictly balancing levels. This needs to be done first as it sets the foundation for the following steps.
When audio is played, the sound that bounces off of walls and objects will be different. Audio engineers use panning techniques in order for listeners to hear a more realistic representation of what they would actually hear if present at an event. The end result creates separation between instruments and their placement in a recording.
This is an important step for sound quality as it ensures that the frequencies of each instrument are appropriately balanced with one another. The end goal here is to create clarity between all the instruments. This steps fixes all unnecessary noise or interference from other frequencies so listeners can enjoy the music just how they should.
Audio effects come in two different formats, dynamic-based and time-based. Dynamic-based effects help control or expand the dynamics of a sound or mix while time-based effects can add space. The most popular dynamic effect is compression and the most known time-based effect is reverb. Effects are what truly polish a mix and take it to the next level. Below are some of the most popular effects along with detailed information on what they do.
Audio compression is a key technique in audio mixing. It takes an input signal and reduces the dynamic range of that information, lessening the difference between loud & quiet sounds. The goal of any compressor on a track or mix bus should be to control average levels by evening out peaks without losing too much high-frequency detail (which can sound too "sterile") or low-frequency punch.
Saturation is a measure of how much energy the signal has. If it's low, your hearing will respond by decreasing sensitivity in order to avoid overloading. If it’s high, you risk reaching that point where everything sounds like noise because too much information is crammed into each sound wave. Saturation can be used to give individual tracks or a whole mix more character and definition.
The purpose of reverb is to create the sense of an acoustical space. Reverb helps to create an illusion of depth and fullness. It can be used to make vocals or instruments sound like they are being played in a specific room.
For example, if you want your vocalist's voice to sound as though it were coming from inside a cave, you would want to use a reverb that has the characteristics of being in a cave. If your song contains heavy drums and bass, using a larger pre-delay in conjunction with the reverb will help the instruments not get lost in the mix while still giving them space. Dialing in reverb takes time and patience.
For an even more immersive sound experience, you can also use reverb on the master bus. This will guarantee that all the instruments end up in the same space. However, this is not a recommended technique when mixing the majority of the genres of music out there today. Using reverb on buses is the most popular practice and produces the best results.
Delay is an audio effect that creates a copy of the original sound and delays it by a specified amount, usually in seconds. The result is to make you feel like you are hearing two sounds at the same time as if one was coming from another room. Delay is often used as a creative effect to replace or assist reverb in creating space and depth.
Automation is the process of altering a parameter over time in order to create dynamics. You can automate volume, panning, & EQ on any number of tracks or busses within your mix to make it sound more interesting and dynamic (versus static). If you ask any professional they will tell you that automation is what separates them from the amateurs.
The short answer is no. Even with the best mixing in music, there will still be issues that cannot be fixed. However, mixing can help improve an average recording and make it sound good enough to release. It will give it a chance to compete against the millions of songs out on the market today.
Using editing tools such as noise reduction, de-essing, and de-plosing can really clean up bad recordings. It is important to keep in mind that these tools do degrade the audio quality slightly so they have to be used with caution. With that being said, they can really work wonders for less than perfect recordings.
The lesson to be learned here is to spend time on making a good recording. It doesn't take a long time to mic up an instrument properly. It's not time consuming to learn how to work the mic as a singer. All these techniques will create better recordings and produce an end result everyone can be proud of.
A professional Mix Engineer can complete a task such as audio mixing much more quickly and at higher quality than you could do it yourself. You may be able to mix your own music, but with the quality of records that are being produced today, can yours compete? The honest truth is probably not.
A professional Mix Engineer is going to be able to blend the tracks that make up your song to perfection. They also might be able to find a bad frequency or background noise of an instrument and turn it down so you don't hear it anymore. With having high-end equipment and tools they are able to make adjustments like these.
It is also important to hire a professional Mix Engineer because they are simply experts in their field. They have years of experience and know what it takes to create high-quality audio mixes. Mixes that will sound perfect whether you play them on car speakers, earbuds, or club sound systems.
Hopefully now you have a better understanding of what mixing in music is. I don't expect you to fully understand it as it's something that only audio engineers will ever truly know. Just know that a lot of experience, training, and talent goes into mixing every song that you hear on the radio. Next time you hear you favorite song, maybe give a small thought to the little mix engineer behind the scenes who made it come alive. After all, in the end that song will probably bring you more satisfaction then most people in your life. Happy Mixing!
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