Rather than starting with individual channels – or the fundamentals (like the kick and bass)…
In part 7 of the One Month EQ Challenge, I’m going to break down the Backwards Mixing technique.
This is a really great way to mix with more efficiency and more speed, but also to get better mixes in less time with less plugins. Finally, it’s also a really great way to have a system about your mixing, because it’s really important to have some kind of system. You don’t want to just move around the mix randomly, adjusting things here and there. You need to have a system.
This is my system. It works for me. If you’re used to this kind of standard system of starting with the kick drum and then bringing in the bass and working from the foundation up, I think this is going to be a really interesting new way of thinking for you.
You might even mix like this already, so I’m going to give you some techniques for sticking to this ideology after I explain it, and then you can try it in your mixes.
I call it backwards mixing because in your mixer, generally people have it set up in a way that you have all your individual channels on your left, and then after that you have your group channels, which are simply the act of sending all of the instruments of a certain group to a group aux channel, a stereo aux.
For example, I generally send the drums going to their own stereo aux channel, all bass parts, guitars, keys, backing vocals, lead vocals etc. So everything is going to a stereo group channel. This is really important. We’re going to talk more about that in a second. But an important distinction here is that you want to change the outputs of the individual channels, not just create an effect send. So the output on the bass guitar, for example, should be the ‘All Bass’ stereo aux channel – NOT the mix buss or master fader.
Backwards mixing is the act of working backwards through your mixer, so from right to left instead of left to right. Instead of starting with your kick drum or your vocal and working slowly, bringing in instruments one by one, and then doing group processing and then maybe some processing on your mix bus…
I suggest doing the opposite: starting with your mix bus, then moving to your group channels, and then adding processing to your individual channels at the very end.
This relates to my overall philosophy of mixing, which is start with the bigger picture and then slowly start to focus on the finer details. You start with big things like balancing, and then backwards mixing, and you end with things like automation, effects, and spot effects – really small details within the mix.
Because if you start with the small details, you’re going to change your mind later in the mix. You need to make those decisions within the context of the mix, and you need to really start to get the mix together at an early stage, with balancing and EQ and bus compression, because that will help with your confidence, it helps you to mix fast, it helps you to stay excited.
I call those overall process of starting with the bigger picture and then focusing on the finer details at the end “slow focus mixing,” because you’re slowly focusing on the details as you progress through your mix.
Now let’s actually talk about backwards mixing and how you implement that, and the actual steps involved as it comes to EQ.
I tend to have quite a lot of processing on my mix bus. There’s a few reasons why I think applying EQ on your mix bus first is beneficial. First of all, it helps with confidence. You can get a good sound straightaway. After you’ve balanced the mix and you’ve got a good static mix, you can compare your mix to your reference, and straightaway you’ll hear if it needs more brightness, if it needs more low end, if it’s sounding muddy in the lower mids, if it needs more aggression. You can make those EQ changes on the master bus, and straightaway your mix is going to sound better. You’re taking a big step towards your end goal, and that’s going to really increase your confidence and keep you excited.
But there’s other benefits. Benefit #2 is that by starting with EQ on your mix bus, you’re mixing into it. You’re considering that with every move. If you dial in more top end on the mix bus, that means you don’t need to dial in as much top end on a vocal or an acoustic guitar, for example, or a piano. Whereas if you did it the other way round and you mixed in individual channels first, and then at the end you added a top end boost on your mix bus, it’s going to completely throw off your entire mix.
So it’s best to start with those moves and then mix into them, because then you’re going to be considering that at every stage and working with that EQ.
Benefit #3 is that it helps you to mix faster and with less plugins. And time is always of the essence when it comes to mixing. The longer you spend on the mix, the less objective you become. Ear fatigue sets in, and you’re going to start doubting your decision. Now let’s look at the steps to implement backwards mixing in your mixes.
Step 1 – Balancing
Before you start applying EQ on your mix buss, you need to have a good static mix going. Spend a lot of time adjusting the volume faders until you feel like you can’t get any further with the faders alone.
Step 2 – Compare to Your Reference Track
The next step is to compare your mix to your reference once you have a good static mix. You can even use several reference tracks (one for the low end, one for the vocals etc). Flick between your mix and your reference tracks a few times and listen out for any obvious differences.
You might hear that your mix needs more top end. Maybe your mix sounds muddy. Maybe there’s too much low end. Or maybe there’s a lack of aggression in the upper mids.
Step 3 – Mix Buss EQ
Now you can reach for an EQ with an intention in mind. If I hear too much low end in my mix, I know that I probably need to reduce the low end below 100 hertz or control it with multiband compression. Then I might need to remove mud by cutting in that 200 to 400 hertz frequency range. Then I might need to boost the upper mids a bit to give the mix a bit more aggression. And perhaps I want to enhance the top end and add some more air by boosting 12 kilohertz and above. It’s important to use a reference and have an intention before you start applying EQ.
Step 4 – Group Buss EQ
Then once you’ve done your mix bus processing, you can move on to your group buses. Again, this saves a lot of time and energy. Rather than going through and processing each keyboard part individually, apply EQ (and compression) on the group busses. If all the guitars sound a bit harsh, try cutting the upper mids on the group buss instead of individual channels. I do the majority of EQ on the group busses.
There’s some channels, though, that you will have to do individual processing, specific processing on the channel. Bass guitar, for example. Of course I’ve got a lot of processing on that because I wanted to shape the tone there, and we’ve only got one bass channel. It’s direct. If I was mixing a direct bass with an amp recording, I’d probably do the processing on a group bus. But because it’s only a DI, I’m doing it there.
Vocals as well, another example of a channel where a lot of the processing is going to be on the channel itself. Snare and kick drums, too. And of course, effect channels – I don’t have an effect bus; I just have individual processing on the effects, because it depends what you’re trying to do with that effect.
So move from right to left. Start with your mix bus. That’s where a lot of the magic happens. Then do your processing on your group buses; that will save you lots of time, and it helps to keep things simple. It’s just much easier, much more efficient. And then finally, any individual processing that can’t be done on a group channel.