32 Tips for Mixing Music That Sounds Awesome

Tips for Mixing header image

Mixing is a critical part of the creation process. It helps give your music clarity and makes it interesting to hear.

This guide will help you improve your production chops no matter what style of music you create.

These tips for mixing aren’t meant to be hard rules. They’re more like guidelines and suggestions to get you started. My hope is you’ll find at least one thing that helps you along your musical journey.

My Philosophy on Mixing

For me, there are two main goals for mixing audio:

  • Creating clarity
  • Generating interest

When you create clarity, you’re guiding listeners on what they’re supposed to hear. You also get rid of unwanted noise that pollutes your audio and detracts from the listener’s experience.

Mixing is also a vital part of the creative process that helps make music interesting. Without it, your music stays static and boring.

Keep these goals in mind when writing and mixing your music.

General Mixing Tips and Best Practices

These are some basic things to consider as you mix your music. For the most part, they’re very simple. But oftentimes, it’s the simple things that make the biggest difference.

1. Louder Isn’t Always Better

Sometimes, the best thing you can do for your mix is to bring things down. Many people (including myself at times) conflate loudness with sounding good. But just because the waveform looks like a sausage, doesn’t mean it’s going to sound better.

This isn’t limited to adjusting fader levels. Messing around with settings on a compressor, EQ, or another plugin might give the satisfying result of making something louder. But ask yourself: does this actually sound better?

2. Leave Plenty of Headroom

To expand on the last tip, try bringing your audio levels down a bit. If your levels are too high, your audio will start to distort or compress.

Even if your individual tracks don’t have any issues, too many channels playing too loudly will pile into the master output. And if your master’s peak levels are too high, your audio will distort and potentially hurt your listeners’ ears. 

Peak levels on individual tracks and stems should be somewhere between -9 and -10 dBFS. This will hopefully leave plenty of room to work with for the mastering phase.

3. Use Your EARS, Not Your EYES

Many DAWs and plugins give you visual feedback as you make adjustments to your track. These are nice quality-of-life features that are super helpful in certain situations.

But your senses can deceive you. So don’t rely on these visual cues too heavily. 

Remember, you’re mixing audio (as in vibrating noises you hear with your ears). Close your eyes every now and then. Your ears should have the final say on how your track sounds.

iZotope Ozone 10 Advanced

Arguably the greatest set of mastering plugins ever made. Give your music an extra layer of polish before sending it out to the world. The AI-powered Mastering Assistant can also help you get quick, pro-sounding results.

Check Native Instruments Check iZotope
We may earn a commission if you make a purchase, at no additional cost to you.

4. Think of the Big Picture

Picture this: You spend an excessive amount of time fine-tuning and editing an individual instrument from your mix – tom drums have never sounded so good before! But then you play the toms in the mix, and they sound like hot garbage.

You have to think of the context of each track. Individual instruments might sound great when solo’d, but sound muddy or out of place in the mix. Figure out how each component fits into the track and mix accordingly.

5. Use Automation As a Creative Tool

A static texture can make for a boring mix. Automation is a creative tool you can use to add some sizzle and interest to your track. It’s most commonly used for adjusting volume, but you can use it for so many more things.

Nearly every parameter of every track and plugin in your DAW can be automated. So do some experimentation. Use automation to toggle effects on and off, do an EQ frequency sweep, or pan an instrument between left and right speakers.

6. Automate Volume On Repeating Patterns

To expand on the last tip, Say your track starts on a killer guitar riff, and that riff gets repeated throughout most of the song. Then you add a lead melody on top, but you can’t hear it very well. 

Instead of increasing the volume on the lead, you can automate the guitar’s fader so it decreases slightly after you introduce the lead. This way, you cleverly bring out the lead while keeping volume levels in check.

7. Check the Raw Mix Without Effects

My friend would apply what he affectionately called “forgiving reverb” to bad vocalists. While effects can enhance a recording – or even save a bad one – they can also be used as a crutch.

Too many effects can even negatively impact your track. In other words, don’t drown your track in reverb.

If you feel stuck, turn off any reverb, delay, EQ, and other effects. Then gradually add and re-apply effects until everything sounds juuuuust right.

8. Mix In Mono

Years ago, I worked some live sound gigs. One of the things my mentor encouraged me to do was to mix in mono. There were two main reasons for this:

  1. People are sitting, standing, and moving all over the place in a live setting. If you’re mixing in stereo, they might miss some crucial parts of the music.
  2. The acoustics in the venue (or lack of acoustics) would make it so some people wouldn’t hear parts of the music even if they were staying still.

While live mixing is a different beast from (home) studio mixing, the same principle can be applied in both situations. 

Your listeners won’t always be using headphones, earbuds, or a nice set of speakers. You have to take into consideration the people listening through mono speakers from their phone, TV, car, or a single Airpod (read more in Tips #28-30).

9. Stay Organized

A messy track layout in your DAW can really kill your workflow and creativity. Keeping everything organized makes it easier to find things and saves you mental energy for actually writing and mixing your music.

Here are a few quick ways you can keep your DAW session organized:

  • Correctly label your tracks
  • Group similar tracks together
  • Color code your tracks
  • Use track folders
  • Delete unused tracks

10. Combine Tracks

Way back in the day, recording engineers would try to save tape space by grouping similar instruments together into a single track. We have nearly unlimited digital storage space now, but that can also be a creative detriment. 

Mix similar instruments down into a sub-mix. That way, you’ll commit to a specific sound, have fewer tracks to work with, and save yourself a lot of headaches later on.

After you combine tracks, delete or hide the ones you aren’t using. This clears up visual clutter in your DAW and has the added benefit of saving CPU.

11. Use Sub-Groups and Sub-Masters

Creating sub-groups lets you output several instruments to a single channel and make adjustments to the whole group rather than individually.

So say you’re working on a project that includes violins, violas, and cellos. They’re all pretty balanced with each other, but come in pretty quiet compared to the rest of the mix. Instead of raising the volume three separate times, you output them to the Strings sub-master channel and raise just one fader.

This doesn’t just apply to volume levels though. You can apply and automate effects, EQ, compression, and whatever else to these subgroups.

Equalization Mixing Tips

Using EQ is an essential part of mixing that either gets overlooked or overcomplicated. Again, think of equalization as creating clarity and definition within individual tracks. It’s also good for cleaning up unwanted frequencies. 

12. Cut Away Before Boosting

Boosting frequencies can have unintended effects and muddy up your mix. Rather than boosting, try lowering or cutting away frequencies you want to de-emphasize.

Similarly, you can bring down frequencies on other tracks to bring out the desired sound from a specific track. Which brings us to the next tip…

13. Cut Away EQ Levels From Conflicting Tracks

Some instruments in your mix might be fighting over the same sonic space. For example, a synthesizer might be playing in the same range as the guitar. Give each of them breathing room by cutting out overlapping frequencies.

My friend, Steven Melin, demonstrates this concept in a chiptune track he wrote.

14. Boost a Little, Cut a Lot

Generally speaking, boosting a frequency too much can distort your audio in unexpected ways. If you do decide to boost something, don’t go overboard with it. As mentioned earlier, lowering and cutting away other frequencies can have the same desired effect.

15. Use EQ to Make Small Groups Sound Bigger

Say you’re dealing with a small 4- or 5-piece band. You don’t want the texture to sound thin. So you probably won’t need to cut out huge swaths of frequencies from each one. Use EQ to give each instrument more presence in the mix.

16. Use EQ to Make Dense Groups Sound Smaller

Some of your mixes will have such a large number of instruments and channels that everything sounds muddy at first. Clear everything up by narrowing each element into a specific lane, grouping them together or cutting frequencies away when it makes sense.

Recording Tips for Mixing

You can’t rely on the “fix it in post” mentality. If you’re working with live vocals and instruments, getting the best recording possible will solve a lot of problems before you even start mixing.

17. Get the Best Mic Placement

Aside from the performer’s ability, where you place the microphone will have the biggest impact on the sound you capture. Understand what it is you’re recording and where the sound comes from. 

Discussing the best ways to mic every possible instrument goes well beyond the scope of this book. You can find plenty of reliable guides online to help you. I’d also suggest checking out Bobby Owsinki’s book The Recording Engineer’s Handbook.

The Recording Engineer's Handbook 4th Edition

Basically, the Bible for recording engineers. It covers topics like mic placement, recording techniques, and interviews with legendary studio engineers.

Buy Now
We may earn a commission if you make a purchase, at no additional cost to you.
10/02/2023 06:02 am GMT

18. Don’t Record Too Hot

Assuming you’re recording digitally, there’s no need to have your signal peaking at 0dBFS. Leave plenty of headroom while you’re recording (see tip #2). That way, your signal won’t distort and you have plenty of room to work with effects and plugins.

19. Choose the Right Microphone For the Job

Not all microphones are created equal. The size, type, polar pattern, and frequency response of a microphone will all have an impact on the sound quality.

Knowing your microphone’s pickup pattern will help a lot with this. Here are some of the most common ones you’ll encounter:

  • Cardioid – These are great all-purpose microphones. This is a mostly directional pattern that picks up a signal directly in front of the microphone
  • Supercardioid These mics have a narrower pattern compared to cardioids. They’re great for isolating signals directly in front of the mic while cutting out sound from the sides.
  • Bidirectional – Sometimes called “figure 8”, it picks up a signal from two opposing directions at once. This is great if you want to record two different sources at the same time.
  • Omnidirectional – Records in every direction around the microphone. Great if you want to capture the room sound.

Some microphones have switches that let you toggle between each of these patterns. These can be extremely versatile and helpful for a wide range of situations.

20. Isolate Tracks When Possible

If you’re recording multiple sources at the same time, try to isolate them as much as possible. This reduces the amount of bleed between stems and helps you get cleaner recordings to work with.

21. Apply Sound Treatment To the Room

The overall  “sound” of a room can be just as important as your mic choice and placement. Investing in some sound panels or acoustic foam can bring a new life to your recordings.

A sound-treated room can also help with monitoring. If your room is treated well, you’ll hear a more accurate representation of your music. 

JBER 12-Pack Acoustic Foam Panels (1" x 12" x 12")

An affordable set of foam panels for sound absorption. Place them in any room to help dry out your audio recordings.

Buy Now
We may earn a commission if you make a purchase, at no additional cost to you.
10/02/2023 06:27 am GMT

Arranging Your Music

Whether you wrote the music or not, you’ll want to be aware of how each instrument works together. Some instruments complement each other quite nicely. Others will compete for the same sonic space. As you’re mixing or writing music, be aware of how these instruments might interact with each other.

22. Keep Things Simple

In his book The Mixing Engineer’s Handbook, Bobby Owsinksi lays out the five main elements of a song:

  • The foundation – Normally, this is the bass and drums. But this could include other instruments as well.
  • The rhythm – Any element that plays against the foundation. Usually this element is made of shakers, percussion, or a rhythm guitar.
  • The pad – This is the long sustaining notes that “glue” the arrangement together. Usually, the pad is made up of stuff like synths, strings, keyboards, and (sometimes) guitar power chords.
  • The lead – Lead vocals. Lead guitar. Lead synth. Basically any sort of melodic instrument.
  • The fills – Generally occurs in the spaces between lead lines. This is usually made up of stuff like backup vocals or other lead instruments.

As a general suggestion, stick with four or less of these elements at a time. As tempting as it is to add lots of loops and “musical” details, they can quickly muddy up your mix. If your track is too busy, listeners will get overwhelmed and fatigued. 

The Mixing Engineer's Handbook: 5th Edition

The companion to Bobby Owsinki’s other book. This is a great reference with priceless advice for mixing great-sounding tracks.

Buy Now
We may earn a commission if you make a purchase, at no additional cost to you.
10/02/2023 12:55 pm GMT

23. Highlight the Point of Interest

No matter what you’re listening to, there’s something going on that’s more interesting than everything else. This could be the hook, a riff, a solo, a lead vocalist – whatever!

Your job as the mixing engineer is to bring out the most engaging element. That doesn’t necessarily mean making it louder. But find a way to give it more presence:

  • Use EQ to cut out conflicting instruments & frequencies
  • Lower the volume levels on the less interesting tracks
  • Double the instrument/vocalist to boost its presence
  • Generate interest by adding effects

It’s always heartbreaking to hear a great vocalist or soloist get buried by everything else in the mix. Don’t let that happen.

24. Avoid Conflicting Instruments 

There’s a reason you never hear lead vocals with a guitar solo at the same time. When two or more instruments conflict, they occupy the same frequency and volume.

Unless they’re in unison, avoid having these conflicting sounds at the same time. Otherwise, the human ear gets fatigued trying to listen to them at the same time.

Monitoring Your Mix

Every now and then, you need to stop making tweaks and listen to your track from start to finish. Some of these tips involve using other devices which you may or may not have. If you don’t have them, that’s okay. The important thing is you take time to carefully listen to and analyze your music.

25. Mix To a Reference Track

Listening is not cheating. Chances are, your track is inspired by another track in some way. While I’m not advocating musical theft, there’s no shame in emulating music you love listening to. That’s true for both writing music and mixing it.

If there’s a similar track to yours, listen to it closely and try to reverse-engineer the production. Figure out panning, effects, instruments, and so on. 

26. Use Headphones or Monitors With a Flat Response

Many consumer-level headphones and speakers artificially boost the bass. While it might sound good to some people (depending on who you ask), it gives a somewhat false impression of what your track actually sounds like. Use monitors and headphones with a flat response to hear a more accurate-sounding mix.

Audio-Technica ATH-M20X Studio Monitor Headphones

A budget-friendly pair of headphones with a flat response. They produce an accurate sound that's great for mixing and monitoring.

Check Amazon Check Sweetwater
We may earn a commission if you make a purchase, at no additional cost to you.
10/02/2023 09:58 am GMT

27. Step Away From Your Monitors

Listening to the mix at your desk is one thing. Listening to it from the other end of the room is another. Even going back a few feet can help you hear things you otherwise wouldn’t when you’re up close.

28. Check Your Mix In a Different Set of Monitors

Your music will sound different on other devices. With that in mind, you should check your mix in a variety of different headphones and monitors:

  • A second pair of mixing headphones
  • Your laptop’s built-in speakers
  • A second pair of studio monitors
PreSonus Eris E3.5 Powered Studio Monitors

Powerful, yet affordable studio monitors that sound incredible and look good in any studio, office, or bedroom.

Check Amazon Check Sweetwater
We may earn a commission if you make a purchase, at no additional cost to you.
10/02/2023 10:05 am GMT

29. Check Your Mix On Phone Speakers

Chances are, some people will exclusively listen to your music on their smartphone speakers. No, it won’t sound as nice as your studio monitors. But that’s the point.

If your mix sounds good on phone speakers, it’ll satisfy most listeners.

Checking your mix this way also helps uncover issues you wouldn’t hear in a set of studio monitors or headphones. There have been times I’ve fallen in love with a mix, only to discover some glaring issues when played back on my phone.

30. Listen To Your Mix In the Car

This is basically the same as the last tip, only using your car speakers instead of your phone.

Cars are another likely place where your music will be heard. If you can, make sure the mix works well in an average car.

31. Take a Break

Your mind and your ears can only handle so much in a day. Give them a much-needed rest and spend a few hours away from your music – preferably overnight. After that, you’ll feel refreshed and your ears will hear new things you couldn’t before.

32. Get Feedback From Another Musician You Trust

You can only make it so far on your own. Getting feedback from another musician can be eye-opening. Ask one of the following people:

  • A friend you trust to give honest feedback (not your mom or significant other)
  • Online musician groups who make similar music to yours
  • A mentor who’s guiding you through your musical journey