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  • Writer's pictureEmma

Beginner music production: What is a mixdown?

Some people refer to ‘mixing down’ their music as if they’re launching a rocket into space or diffusing a bomb, which is not helpful for a beginner looking to make a quick hit record and retire early.

Sweet harmony

Once you get past the hot air and out of context tweets, a ‘mixdown’ is a process to make each layer of your music – i.e. drums, bass, melodies and vocals – sit well together so that your track sounds the best it possibly can. It’s a bit like arranging a family seating plan to stop any fights kicking off.

A large proportion of the mixdown process falls into three key bits. Firstly, EQing is when you tidy up the frequencies of individual sounds to give clarity as a whole, e.g. to avoid a muddy overlap of bass and kick. Secondly, using compression will help you create a dynamic range but ensures your tune sounds ‘full’. Thirdly, reverb allows you to create unity of space for certain instruments, such as making drum samples sound like they’ve been recorded in the same room.

Think about things like: How do each layer of my sounds co-exist? What are the dynamics of the music (loud versus quieter moments)? Should I pan this snare roll to mimic the movements of a real-life drum kit? I want this kick drum to cut through everything, so how can I achieve that?

These ‘mix’ decisions are creative and help you express yourself further as an artist as well as make the music a more interesting listen. Have an ‘active listen’ to your favourite tracks – see if you can spot what it is you like about them.

Bring yourself to the mix

Everyone will have a different process, but the basic principles are the same. The more you get into it, the more you will refine your workflow, upskill, and train your ears to know what to listen for. Your mixing style becomes part of your creative identity, so if you want your tune to sound like it’s been pumped through an aquarium, go for it!

I like to mix as I go and start with quality samples and synths. I found out the hard way you can’t polish a turd – if you leave it all to the end and realise key elements are not sitting together, it could mess up the whole track. But sometimes you just have to go with your gut and throw the guidelines out of the window. Your emotional connection to the music is the most important thing.

Try to avoid slamming your mix through a limiter so that it constantly hits 0dB on the meter, as the mastering engineer will not be able to do anything with it. Remember, working with a mastering engineer is a collaborative process, so go into any discussions armed with what you like about your mix to make sure it’s not lost.

Try starting with the most important element

Another tip some people suggest is to start with the key element of the track as the focus of the mix and build everything around it. Keep all levels as low as you can to avoid distortion and listen louder – ideally on monitors, or through monitoring headphones.

Use quality sounds and make a decision

After 18 years of mixing music, I can say using quality sounds to begin with - whether that's licensing drum samples or recording your own - sets you up for success. The principles are quite simple, but like many things in life a lack of confidence or an inability to make a decision can often send you down a rabbit hole and lead you to abandon the whole thing.

I've noticed that what's helped me the most is having a strong idea of how I want something to sound and then sticking to it. I don't spend hours comparing to other tracks and feeling like I can't achieve something. I don't download a million effects and sit testing them for hours. As long as I do the due diligence on setting the levels and EQing, my mix decisions are motivated by my emotional response. I get the housekeeping out of the way and then the fun starts. And there's nothing to stop you making something great within a few hours of getting out of the starting blocks.

Let me know how you get on!

A version of this post appeared in DJ Magazine.

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