Audio Mixing Basics: Know the Principles of Sound Mixing & Avoid Downloading Too Many Plug-ins

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What Not To Do

You’ve laid down the tracks for your home recording. Perhaps you’re using Cubase, or Sonar, or Pro Tools. Maybe you’ve got frustrated with one or more of these and are now trying out one of the new generation products like Reaper or Podium. Whatever software it is that you’re using, now you’re ready to mix.

So what do you do next? Let me guess. You’ve already trawled the web for as many VST plug-ins as you can find. EQ, delay, chorus, reverb, compressors … there’s plenty of stuff out there, some of it free and much of it pretty good. The first thing you’ve got to do is to arm yourself with as many plug-ins as possible, right? That way you’re pretty much guaranteed that no matter what you want to do, somewhere you’ll have the right tool for the job.


Wrong way!

Go back!

The Basics to Begin With

The key to successful mixing isn’t to cram your FX chain with a s many plug-ins as possible. On the contrary, it involves using only as few plug-ins as you absolutely need to help you achieve the sound that you want. And underpinning it all must be your ability to understand and put into practice the basic principles that go into making up a good mix.

Those principles revolve around the nature of sound and the nature of space and how those phenomena interact with each other. The role of plug-ins is to assist in manipulating that interaction to maximum effect. In a good mix, that role will almost always be secondary, not primary.

The most fundamental thing to understand about mixing is that it is essentially an issue of crowd control. Left to their own devices, your various tracks will constantly and continuously battle each other for control and dominance of that finite and limited amount of space that exists between those two speakers. Their natural tendency will be towards cacophony.

If you are unable to succeed in developing a strategy to resolve this, then all of the plug-ins in the world will not help you.

In this series of articles we will be exploring this relationship and the main attendant issues that go with it. These issues will include:

  • The essential characteristics of sound
  • The essential characteristics of space
  • Optimizing the interaction between sound and space
  • The importance of routing
  • The use of FX plug-ins

When you consider the many variables that go into creating a great mix it is in some ways surprising that some mixes sound as good as they do. The amount of work and the range of skills that go in to getting a good mix really are extraordinary.

Mixing is one of the most multi-faceted challenges that you can ever undertake. At times it will seem as if you need not so much a left brain and a right brain as two brains (or more). The job requires scientific knowledge and artistic flair. It requires discipline and organization as well as spontaneity and inspiration. It is at times one of the most frustrating challenges that you could ever take on. It also has the potential to be one of the most satisfying and rewarding.

What Comes Next

In our next article, we’ll start by exploring the nature of sound. We’ll also introduce you to one of the most important plug-ins you will ever need. There’s at least a 50% chance that up until now you’ve never even considered using them. There’s a better than 50% chance that once you get to know it, you’ll end up just about wearing it out.

This post is part of the series: Develop Your Mixing Sense

A series of articles intended to help you develop your mixing sense. Includes tips and tricks on finding the right balance in your mix, fleshing out thin sounds and more.

  1. Mixing Sense: What’s It All About?
  2. The Sound Spectrum & Analysis Tools
  3. Height as a Dimension of Sound
  4. Width as a Dimension of Sound
  5. How to Use Audio Panning to Make Tracks Sound Fuller
  6. Filling Out Vocals with the Channel Splitting Technique
  7. Filling Out a Thin Mix