10 ways to become a better mixing engineer
I’ve seen too many times that people underestimate the difficulty of mixing. Often musicians with a low budget try to mix their songs themselves. But they sooner realize that they haven’t done anything close to the professional mixes. At this point, they think about getting better at mixing or finding someone good.
I always say that learning how to mix is similar to learning to play an instrument. You have to put in the effort every day. You have to read and watch too many materials consciously. And most importantly as always, you have to practice a lot. You don’t understand what you’ve learned if you don’t practice enough.
Instead of trying to learn everything in four hours without rest, spread it into your week. Because your brain needs to process the information that you’ve learned in sleep. And it’s better at processing little chunks of information instead of big ones. If you want to learn about how to learn more check this out.
When I decided to be a mixing engineer I got an education at an Audio Engineering school. I always wanted to be better at what I’m doing, and school wasn’t enough for me. So I’ve been trying every way that could make me better at what I’m doing since then.
Here are the ways that helped me a lot:
1. Ear training
You should hear a sound clearly to make a decision about it, right? Ear training is an underestimated tool for mixing engineers, but it’s the most important aspect of this learning process.
We had homework for ear training at the college. My friends and I didn’t take it seriously, and we didn’t know that it was crucial for our learning. It was just boring homework that we had to finish. We pretended as we finished it but we didn’t.
After I finished that education, I tried to use console emulations without any visual help, and I realized that I can’t hear what I listen to. Thus, I decided to get better at this.
I tried to complete Golden Ears, but it was too old fashion and freaking boring. I searched on Google and I found Soundgym. It’s the gamified version of Golden Ears, plus other games like hearing compression, pan movements, volume changes, etc. I bought a premium membership and played those funny games every day.
It’s an easy and fun way to get better at hearing well. I promise that your mixes will be much much better after a couple of months of effort.
2. Watching tutorials
If you would have wanted to be a mixing engineer ten years ago, you should have worked as an intern at a big studio. You should have watched the engineer while mixing to learn how to mix. Now everywhere on the internet, you can find tons of tutorials. Tutorials are a shortcut for learning how to mix now.
But there is also a rabbit hole about tutorials. They could become a bing watching videos if you watch them unconsciously. Remember I said that practice is the number one rule. If you don’t practice what you have watched there is no point out of this.
You can use the Pareto Principle while watching tutorials. It means that 80 percent of your outcomes come from 20 percent of causes. You can use it as 20 percent of watching, 80 percent of practicing what you’ve learned.
So, what should you watch? These are the ones that helped me a lot:
Mix With The Masters - It’s my number one. You can watch ultra-professional mixing engineers and music producers while they’re working.
Pro Audio Files Youtube Channel - This channel has many ‘how-to’ tutorials.
Pensado’s Place Youtube Channel - Number one Youtube channel of the mixing engineers for years. You can learn many tricks from Dave Pensado, and watch interviews to understand professionals’ viewpoints.
Recording Revolution Youtube Channel - This can be the starting point if you’re a beginner.
Produce Like A Pro Youtube Channel - There are various topics from plugin and gear reviews to interviews.
The House of Kush Youtube Channel - He gives many clever tips while he just talks to the camera. So you won’t hear any audio, and you won’t see a Pro Tools screen while watching this channel. But you can learn a lot from it.
Production Advice Youtube Channel - It’s more mastering related but it’s amazing.
3. Reading books
Tutorials are nice, but books have always been my favorite medium to learn almost for anything. They are more detailed. Also, they progress at a slow pace. You can always stop and think about the subject that you’ve learned.
At the beginning of my career, I read every book that I can find about mixing. They gave me the direction that I needed. I took notes while reading, and I applied those techniques while mixing.
Here are some books that helped me a lot:
Bobby Owsinski - The Mixing Engineer’s Handbook: If you don’t like to read books, reading just this one will help you to improve your abilities.
Thomas Juth - The Art of Equalization: This book will give you a better idea about EQs with a quick reading.
Thomas Juth - The Art of Compression: Similarly, you can learn about compressor types, when and how to use them better in just an hour.
Mixerman - Zen and the Art of Mixing: This is a little bit upper level. So it would be better to read this after the other books that I recommended. Mixerman also has published a new, 2020 version of the book recently.
4. Practicing with multitracks
At the beginning of your career, it’s hard to find people to work with. But how can you practice your skills if you can’t find anyone?
There are some online resources where you can download multitracks of real songs:
The ‘Mixing Secrets’ free multitrack library - You can download free multitracks here but you can’t use those tracks on your portfolio. However, it’s a great resource for practice because there are too many songs from different genres. Also, you can listen to other people’s mixes on the forum. I encourage you to do that because hearing other people’s views about the same song will give you a different perspective.
Telefunken Elektroakustik free multitrack library - You can also download free multitracks recorded with Telefunken microphones here.
TOURNA-MIX Competition - You can get three free multitrack files if you submit your email address. You can also use those songs in your portfolio. Besides that, there are two competitions each month. I don’t like the idea of voting for the best mixes, but it would be great to see what other people did with the same multitracks.
5. Using reference tracks
It’s so hard to picture the final mix in your mind without an aim. Reference mixes give you that aim. It’s not a shame to take ideas from professional mixes. I still do it, and I think I will keep doing it in my whole career.
I use Metric AB from Plugin Alliance for reference mixes so I can only recommend that one to you, but there are other options from other plugin companies as well. You can compare your frequency spectrum, dynamics, loudness, stereo image, and correlation with the reference tracks. Also, you can filter frequencies while you’re listening, and that’s the number one reason why I love Metric AB.
My reference mix routine is like this:
I listen to the most related reference mix before I start mixing so I can have an idea about the destination without too much critical listening.
I mix the song to a point that I feel like it’s almost finished. (But I spent almost the same amount of time after this point.)
AB Metrics has a built-in loudness match, but I want to hear my mix with a limiter on it, so I put one or two limiters to match my loudness to the references.
I listen to the sub frequencies first, below 50Hz. I listen to the relationship between kick and bass there. If I don’t have enough energy, I increase it within individual tracks -not on the mix bus.
After that, I rapidly increase the filter to 100 Hz and 200 Hz. I listen to the relationship between kick and bass again, vocal’s low frequencies, and snare’s low frequencies.
I increase the filter to 200-400, and I listen to boominess. Most of the time I find that I have a resonant frequency on the vocal channels. This is the area that you have to be extra careful with. Because if you cut too much you would lose the warmth, and if you don’t cut enough you would end up with a muddy and boomy mix.
If I’m okay with the low mids I listen to respectively 400 to 1kHz, 1kHz to 2kHz, 2kHz to 4kHz, 4kHz to 7kHz, and lastly 7kHz to Air.
I do my changes to individual tracks instead of using the mix bus as a shortcut because the point is finding the real problems. If you find those problems and fix them, you will learn too much from it.
6. Getting generous feedback from professionals
So, how do you know about your mistakes? Professional mixing engineers’ feedback would be crucial. You can try the points that the mixing engineer said and you can learn about your weaknesses. If you know your weaknesses, you can work on them to get better.
Not everybody has mixing engineer friends. So how can you get good feedback if you don’t know anyone?
You can take classes from a professional, and ask for feedback. This is the best way to get generous feedback because it will be a direct relationship.
You can ask Reddit. This one is a little tricky because anyone can give feedback, and this could frustrate your mind. But it’s better not to ask anyone. You can try people’s feedback and hear yourself. You can also use Facebook groups for this.
You can always ask me! I love listening to other mixing engineers’ and producers’ mixes because it develops my critical listening skills. Also, it’s great to hear others’ approaches to mixing. This one takes us to the next point.
7. Giving feedback to others’ mixes
You can always practice your critical listening skills through listening to professional records but there won’t be too many points to give feedback to. If you listen to the mixes in your league you will find mistakes. And you can learn from people’s mistakes.
8. Listening to different genres of music and taking notes
I love Fridays. It’s not because of the Happy Hours, but I love to listen to new albums. I had a notebook in which I wrote my opinions about the new albums. I was writing about the kick & bass relationship, the character of the snare, reverb and delays, everything. I was reading those notes before I started mixing, and I was trying to implement those points to my mixes.
Listening to the new albums and singles will give you a sense of trends. Also, you will understand the logic behind it if you listen to them critically. Taking notes is another step which is the way to remember and use those ideas in your mixes.
9. Reading the manuals of the plugins that you use
I had so much free time at the beginning of the pandemic. I didn’t know what to do with it. I downloaded every manual of every third party plugin that I used. It was a little boring, but the possibilities were enormous. You can learn about the sweet spots, how to use it better, and maybe some techniques from the developer. Instead of seeking another gear or software, be a master at what you have right now.
10. Watching live concerts
What a good recommendation in the days of the COVID-19 outbreak, right? I miss those shows. I was working at concerts as a sound engineer. I was doing an average of eight concerts in a month. I learned so many things while I was listening to those concerts. I saw what they were playing exactly. This way you can separate sounds in your mind easily.
I can’t recommend you to go to live shows right now, but I can suggest you watch live concerts at your home. There are too many live recordings on Youtube, and there is a streaming platform called Qello just for this reason.
There is not a single way that can make you a better mixing engineer without an effort. The practice is the most important point that you can do to learn how to mix. But the other ways that I mentioned will rocket your way up on your learning. Put your daily effort, and let time do its thing.