When I first started mixing music at home, I wondered if there was a correct order to mix instruments. After reading and watching many mixes by pro-mixers, I finally settled on a set order for each genre.
So, in what order is it recommended to mix instruments? Most music genres begin with the drums and vocals - get these to sit in the same acoustic space. Next move on to the bass guitar and get it to sit nicely with the kick drum. Then by order of importance with the song, mix the instruments one by one.
The lists below are suggested as a guide or starting point for those of us who have not mixed a particular genre before and are unexpectedly presented with the task. The guiding principle for any mix order is ‘musical importance.’ One shaker sound in a Punk Song is much less critical than the vocals, for example.
Also, decide if you will mix into a processed mix bus or a dry mixed bus. At WSS, we send all our tracks into a preset, standard mix bus, but this is a matter of preference.
Figure 1: Mixing Instruments
Let's get to the mixing orders for each music genre:
Note: Rhythm Guitar and Lead Guitar can be mixed in the reverse order, in certain parts of Rock and Pop songs.
Note: If the music was recorded in a large space, mix the Decca Tree first, but if not mix the spaced microphones at the end.
Note: If the Jazz has vocals, mix the vocal inbetween the drums and bass.
Most of the lists above prioritize mixing drums first. Mixing drum parts has an order of its own, and is explained below.
It is recommended to mix all your drum sounds into a single bus (the drum bus) so that the volume of the whole drum kit can be raised or lowered with one fader.
Here is the suggested drum mix order:
Notes: If you augment your drum sounds with samples, mix the sample at
the same time as the original sound source. For example, combine and mix a
recorded snare sound and a sampled overdub snare at the same time.
On mono room microphone recordings try sending the mono signal to a stereo reverb as a separate auxiliary track and blend in the two.
In every case, mix lead vocals before backing vocals – lead vocals are always the main thrust of a song. Mixing vocals in the verses and choruses require different treatment. For a lot of music, the chorus is the part of the song which should stand out. How you treat all instruments in verses and choruses is essential but more so for the vocals.
If your vocals sound thin and lack body, try some double-take vocals (if your vocalist is still available), or add a doubler like The Waves Doubler or Soundtoys’s Microshift – both of which work very well for thickening a weak vocal recording.
Figure 2: Vocal Mixing with Waves Doubler and Soundtoys Microshift
What are the typical mixing levels for each instrument? To get instruments to sit in their own space in the mix, you need to make sure that one track does not mask another. Avoid frequency masking by filtering less important frequencies from instruments that do not need those frequencies, for example, filter low and low-mid frequencies from an acoustic guitar in a rock mix. Also, use panning and reverb to place instruments around the soundstage.
How do you balance a mix? First, hardpan all instruments right or left except for the kick drum, bass guitar, and vocals - leave those in the center. Find the loudest and quietest parts of the song and create two loop markers. Bring all of your instrument faders down. Next, at the loudest part of the song, set the vocal fader so that it's level dances around -20 dBFS (if using the K-20 system for mixing). Now switch your output from Stereo to Mono, using a plug-in, stereo fader panning, or your console's mono button if you have one. Turn the vocal volume to a ‘can just make it out’ level and start to bring up the other faders so you can hear each instrument in the song. Do this for the two loops you made earlier and adjust to find a happy balance. Now turn the volume back up to your normal monitoring level and switch back from mono to stereo. You should now have a pretty good initial mix balance. Finish this process off later with some automation when fixed fader levels make one instrument too loud or too soft where they shouldn't be.
How do you get good at mixing? There is no easy answer to this question. Like getting good at anything, mixing improves with experience and time. Mixing requires the right balance of study, copying other peoples processes and adapting them for yourself, practice, comparison, more practice, and refining your own tastes, workflow and processes, and technical know-how. Keep reading, practicing, and learning - you will get good!