I can still remember the first time I used a compressor.
I had no idea how it worked, so I tinkered for a few minutes…
Then decided I would be better off without it.
I was too scared of ruining the sound. So I did nothing.
Let’s face it:
Mixing is complex.
For years I felt completely overwhelmed with all the complicated software, all the plugins, and all the complex techniques…
There was just way too much to learn.
Fast forward 14 years, and mixing is easy. It’s second nature. I even get paid to do it, which is awesome.
But it took a lot of hard work to get to this point.
Why mixing is tricky to learn
If you’re new to mixing and struggling to get to grips with it, you’re not alone.
Every day I hear from musicians who are having trouble. In many cases, people simple don’t know where to start.
Sure, most of the information is out there now…
But sifting through it all is the hard part. It can take years of watching YouTube videos and reading before you truly understand the mixing process.
Some of my students have been doing this for well over a year and still haven’t finished a single mix.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. There is a simple solution to these issues – a different approach that will help you to finish your next mix with little effort.
Here’s the thing:
You don’t need to understand every aspect of mixing to finish your first mix.
The same way you don’t need a degree in music theory to put a few chords together or write a melody.
Your DAW comes with a hundred different plugins. Does that mean you should be using all of them? No.
If you’re new to mixing, there are only three plugins you need:
These three tools account for around 90% of the sound of a mix. Forget about everything else for now.
How to finish a mix with just three plugins
You’ve finished recording a track and now you’re ready to start mixing.
Before you reach for any effects, you need to volume balance your mix. Volume balancing is the act of setting the individual volume faders so that every track is audible.
(Of course, some tracks will be louder than others. You will want the lead vocal to be louder than the bass, for example.)
This is the most important step of the entire mixing process. Spend a good 10-30 minutes adjusting the volume faders.
After that, you need to apply panning.
Start by panning each channel hard left, dead center, or hard right. This might sound weird at first, but it’s the simplest way to create a wide mix with lots of separation.
After you’ve done these two things, you can start applying effects.
I can’t go too deep into how to use these tools in this post – otherwise we’d be here all day – so instead I will explain why each tool is crucial.
EQ is the most important effect you have in your DAW. This is how you make things sound better and make them fit together.
It’s the tool that you use to address the TONE of your mix.
But EQ doesn’t do anything to the DYNAMICS of your mix. That’s where compression comes in…
You need compression to level out the dynamics (volume) of the important channels like the vocal. This will make the vocal easier to place in the mix. Without compression, the vocal might be too loud one moment and too quiet the next.
You can also use compression to add more impact and punch to different channels, but that’s a more advanced application.
For your first few mixes, focus on using compression to make the volume of specific channels more consistent.
Okay – once you have shaped the TONE and the DYNAMICS of your mix, there’s one more category we need to address.
Using reverb, you can add SPACE to the track.
With EQ and compression alone you can create a good mix, but it might sound a little flat and two-dimensional.
To fix that, you can use reverb to put everything in the same space. This is done with a “global” reverb, which is just a single stereo reverb plugin that you add to an effects/aux channel in your DAW.
Then you can add reverb to each channel using “sends”.
The more reverb you send, the further away something will sound, and the more it will blend into the mix.
On top of this, you can further enhance the sense of space in your mix by using a different reverb on the channels you want to stand out, like the vocal and snare.
So, there you have it:
First, you address the BALANCE with the volume faders and add WIDTH with panning. Then, with these three plugins alone, you can address the remaining aspects of your mix – TONE, DYNAMICS, and SPACE.
Other plugins you might need
This three plugin limit doesn’t apply to the recording, producing, or editing process.
During those phases, there will be numerous other plugins you might have to use – things like amp sims, VSTs, synths, and drum software.
It’s fine to use these plugins as you put the track together. But as soon as it’s time to start mixing, try to finish your mix using just EQ, compression and reverb.
UPDATE: Dylan put together a short video telling you why plugin order mostly doesn’t matter:
When to start using more plugins
Once you have one or two finished mixes under your belt, you can increase the number of plugins you use during the mixing phase.
But don’t go straight from using three plugins to using all of them.
Once you start to get more comfortable with EQ plugins, compression, and reverb, start experimenting with these effects:
Once you’ve nailed those, you can move onto any other effects you want to learn. But for 90% of mixes, you won’t need much else.
UPDATE: We released a new video recently that shows the top 5 mixing mistakes most people make:
Now I want to help…
So, if you’re still new to mixing and either a) haven’t finished a mix yet, or b) only have a few mixes under your belt, I highly recommend you give this approach a try.
Now that you know WHAT you need to do, and WHY you need to do it…
You need to figure out HOW to use these three tools properly.
I’m looking to work alongside a handful of people who want learn the fundamentals of mixing and finish their first mix this year.
If you’re interested, you just need to complete this short survey:
Audio professional, musician and founder of Musician on a Mission.