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Learn How to Mix Music with Young Guru

Young Guru, Grammy-Nominated, Legendary Audio Engineer

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7 Videos (53m)
    • Introduction

      1:15
    • Organizing a Mix

      6:43
    • Determining Levels

      10:31
    • Adding Effects: EQ

      13:15
    • Adding Effects: Reverb

      6:33
    • Adding Effects: Compression

      9:05
    • Tonal Balance

      5:32

Project Description

Create your own professionally recorded and mixed song.

Organizing a Mix

  1. DOWNLOAD: Audio Files I'll Be Using in this Class

    I will be working with one audio file throughout the entire class.  If you'd like to follow along with me using the same files, you can download them here:

    These are raw files, so you can use them in any DAW you prefer.

  2. Organizing a Mix: Choosing your DAW (Digital Audio Workstation)
    1. The first thing you need to do is decide what DAW you’d like to use to mix. I’ll be using Logic Pro X for this demonstration, but others will work too. Some are even available for free online. Here is a guide to helping you choose the right DAW for you:

  3. Organizing a Mix: Labeling Your Files
    1. Label all of the files you’ll be using for your mix. No need to be fancy or cute when naming these files, you want to be able to find what you need quickly and efficiently.

    2. Open the project file in the DAW you’ve selected. Many people want to get going right away when they open their DAW, but you should familiarize yourself with the program first. Experiment for a few hours and learn the controls and the quirks. There are vast resources and tutorials online to help you master your DAW.

    3. Figure out an organizational pattern for your tracks in your DAW that works for you. Label all tracks with easily identifiable names. Group common tracks together (vocal, drum tracks, horn tracks, etc.). 
  4. Organizing a Mix: Listen to your track
      1. In this particular session, for Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition,” we see that most of the audio files are the length of the song. Make sure everything is lined up and that the left-most track is lined up at the 0:00 mark in your DAW.

      2. To get a sense of what the mix is going to call for, bring the fader for every track to full volume. Make sure none of the tracks are muted and play the song in its entirety. This will help you identify what the artist is trying to accomplish with their song.

      3. Make notes of how instruments and vocals are playing off of each other and how the song is arranged while you listen. How do these qualities affect and emphasize the themes contained in the melodies and lyrics?
  5. Organizing a Mix: Sorting your tracks
    1. After listening to this particular song, we can ascertain that there are two vocal tracks (lead and backup), guitars, horns, clav, bass and drums. This is a classic Motown setup. Sort these tracks in a style that makes sense to you.

    2. Personally, I like to start mixing with the drums, so I put them furthest to the left. This is because the drums will typically be the loudest track in the song. Because you don’t want to overdrive the stereo bus, it’s nice to first determine the levels you’ll be using for the drums, and then place other instruments into the mix from there. 

    3. If the drums were recorded live, then mixing them will take a bit more nuance, this is because there’s inevitable bleed in the audio recorded from any organic source.  This bleed isn’t always a negative attribute, sometimes it adds to the fullness of a song. Use your discretion in deciding whether or not the bleed on an organic track is going to be right for the song.

    4. Scan the song for instances of a vocal or instrumental track being used only once. If you trim down audio files to fit only in the sections in which they are used in the song, you ensure that your track won’t be filled with extraneous noises like pops or hisses. It will also give you a better visual sense of how the track’s various elements are arranged in the song.

    5. At this point, you should have a sense for how each individual track matters to the song, and an idea of what should be emphasized or deemphasized in your mix. If you’ve organized effectively, you’ll be able to navigate the rest of the mix with ease!

Determining Levels

  1. Determing Levels: Balancing the Drums
    1. As I covered in the last section, I like to start with the drums. They occupy most of the dynamic range in a mix. As an engineer, you should be mindful of the stereo bus, which is essentially the level of the song when all the sounds have been sewn together. If a stereo bus is blown, your sound will be distorted and some tracks will be clipped. Since we’re working in a DAW, our maximum stereo bus is “0.”

    2. I begin by pushing up the level on the kick drum and varying the volume until it sounds right to me. Then I push up the level on the snare and work out a balance between the two. I do this freely, without paying attention to the stereo bus yet, so that I can get the feel I want. If they are clipping the stereo bus later, I can combine the drum tracks and pull down their overall volume, but for now, we just want to establish a relationship between each instrument in the mix.

    3. There are two approaches to mixing drums, do you want to mix from the perspective of the drummer, or the perspective of the audience? If the former, the snare and the high hat will be placed slightly left in the mix. If the latter, it’s the opposite. The kick drum will remain in the middle from both perspectives.

    4. In the initial listen through, it’s obvious that the clav is the most important instrument in this song. Since we have five different recorded clavs, we can put them in several different places to make it sound extremely full. Be mindful of placing them in spaces not already occupied by a previous track.
    5. After the drums, I do the same with each instrument, adding it in and determining its level by ear, until the tracks are interacting with each other in a way that sounds natural.

  2. Determining Levels: The Art of Panning
    1. While I’m setting these preliminary levels, I’m also determining “panning,” which is where each track will sit inside of our final mix. Audio envelopes us, but human beings process it through our two ears. Consequently, a song will sound different if a track is placed directionally in a mix. An effective way of thinking about panning is to imagine how orchestras organize their various instrument sections on stage. I mix the same way: where would I place this instrument on a stage?

    2. Another important tip on panning: too many engineers think that panning is merely arranging left or right in the spectrum. It’s important to also think about how sound hits us front to back. Keeping that in mind will give your mixes added depth and richness. But for now, we can focus on deciding what we’ll place left to right, while we determine our initial levels.

  3. Determining Levels: Balancing the Guitars & Horns
    1. For the first guitar, I’m going to move it to the right. In some cases, a good technique can be to double the guitar and then have them placed symmetrically, but it depends on the track. Since this track has a second guitar that sounds a little brighter, I’ll move that one to the left. This will give the effect that you’re sitting between the two.

    2. You want to achieve a balance in the way you place each instrument, they shouldn’t all be on one side or too heavy with frequency on one side. You want to create a mix that engages and interests the listener. 

    3. When determining the levels and where you’ll place your bass, you want to make sure the relationship is solid between it and the drums, since they form the foundation of the song. So for now, place the bass track by the drums and solo all three together. We want to feel the bass, but we don’t want it to overpower the drums.

    4. Now we can add the horns and make sure they relate to the instrumental mix we’ve formed.

  4. Determining Levels: Balancing the Vocals
    1. With the instruments taken care of, we can focus on the vocals. I return to the start of the song and unmute the lead vocal, to get an idea of how it should lay over the backing instruments.

    2. I give this vocal a little bit of movement so that it sounds like a double track.

    3. At this point we’ve listened to the song enough to have a great feel for the song, and we have a pretty good idea of where each track belongs and how loud they will be in the mix. 

Adding Effects

  1. Adding Effects 1: EQ

    EQ -- Equalization (or EQ) is the process commonly used to alter the frequency response of an audio system using linear filters. Most hi-fi equipment uses relatively simple filters to make bass and treble adjustments. Graphic and parametric equalizers have much more flexibility in tailoring the frequency content of an audio signal. An equalizer is the circuit or equipment used to achieve equalization. Since equalizers, "adjust the amplitude of audio signals at particular frequencies," they are, "in other words, frequency-specific volume knobs."

    1. I’m starting by using one of my favorite plugins: the SSL plugin. This takes the channel strip of the SSL and applies it to every track, so that I can EQ each one separately. 

  2. Equalizing the Kickdrum
    1. Starting with my kick, I need to decide if it’s going to be a punchy kick or a subby kick. Those are terms that help me determine what frequency I should mix the track to. “Punchy” means around 200hz, “subby” means around 50-60hz. Deciding which way to mix depends on the overall feel of the song, and the tracks that comprise it.

  3. Equalizing the rest of the sounds
    1. Now we can unmute the rest of the sounds, with the SSL processing on them. EQ each track to the appropriate levels, keeping in mind the relationships between the instruments that you established and planned for in Unit 2. 
  4. Determine the Frequency of the Kickdrum
    1. As I play the kick, I note what frequencies are prevalent in the kick. In this recording, the microphone picked up a little of the bottom end of the snare, so I gate the kick to isolate it. Gating creates a filter that only allows sounds above a certain threshold to come through.

    2. To gate properly, have the threshold high enough that the kick comes through and nothing else. Sometimes you have to go over and then back off slightly to find the right level. In this instance, I also increased the release time to get the full kick.

  5. Find the "Sweet Spot"
    1. Now we can begin to EQ. I like to turn the plus way up and sweep through the frequencies. That makes it easier to hear the “sweet spot” of where we eventually want the kick to be. Pick an estimate of where you think it should be, and then listen to it a few more times, slightly backing off on the EQ until you’ve reached the optimal sound. 

  6. Adding Sine Waves
    1. Since we’re working with live drums, you may want to add something extra to give it a more modern feeling. For instance, we can send the kick through a “sine wave.”

    2. Create another track and “bus” (send) the kick onto it. With the kick on bus 1, go into your DAW’s “audio effects.” I’m using the “test oscillator” to create a low-frequency tone to place under the kick drum.

    3. Now, place a “sine wave” plugin on the track. Then gate the sine wave, using the kick as the “side chain input.” This places the subfrequency beneath this gate, which only opens when the kick hits, giving it a more full, bottom-heavy sound that we can control and blend. Adjust the threshold on the gate until the kick and sub hit at the same time. Once you’ve achieved a nice balance, group them both to treat them as one sound moving forward.

  7. Equalize the Bass
    1. Start with the bass.

    2. Sometimes the bass and the kick battle for frequency range. I like to go underneath the frequency that I chose for the kick (177hz in this case) for the bass (ie: 80hz), to give the track a full feeling without making it sound overstuffed.

    3. Turn up the midrange on the bass to give it a bit more punch and then EQ the overheads for the drums. I’m also keeping that in the middle for this mix.

  8. Equalizing the Instruments and Vocals
    1. Add back in the clav and the rest of the instruments, EQing them to the appropriate levels that you determined in Unit 2.

    2. After layering in all of your instruments, add in the vocals. I’m going to bring up the volume in our main vocal and our ad lib.
  9. Adding Effects 2: Reverb

    Reverb

    Reverb (reverberation) effect is one of the most common effects in audio production. It’s a way of artifically adding a sense of space to your sounds and can also be used to create some special effects.

     

    1. Now we can add reverb. Deciding how much or how little reverb to add depends on what acoustic space the song was recorded in. If a room is not set up for optimal recording, it may create “standing waves,” where the sound waves bounce into each other and alter the recorded track. All that reverb does is place the sound closer to you or further away.

  10. Set-up Your Vocal Reverb
    1. One of the best ways to setup reverb is through our bussing system. Place a reverb on one bus channel and then bus all the channels that you’d like to place reverb on, to that channel. For this project, we’ll start with the default “church” reverb and bus the lead vocal over. Tweak the reverb so that we create some distance on the vocal, without washing it out.

    2. Bus the ad-lib vocal over to the reverb as well, so that it matches the lead vocal.

  11. Set-up Your Guitar Reverb
    1. Now we can add back in the guitars. We’re going to keep the “direct guitar” dry. But you can filter and add effects to guitars easily on DAWs. These effects are called “cabinets.” If you’re recording yourself, you can add natural reverb effects in a hallway or a bathroom.

  12. Adding Effects 3: Compression

    Compression is the process of lessening the dynamic range between the loudest and quietest parts of an audio signal. This is done by boosting the quieter signals and attenuating the louder signals.

    1. Sometimes to better control a vocal, we need to compress it. With compressors, we can squeeze the vocal. Squeezing the vocal helps shrink the dynamic range so that we can better mix for both loud and soft parts of a vocalist’s delivery.

    2. The most essential element to a compressor is the threshold. The threshold tells compressors when to work. The compression ratio, another element, tells the compressor how hard to work. Ie: if you have a compression ratio of 3:1, it means that for every 3 decibels that your audio signal goes above or below your threshold, it will only sound like 1 over/under. The “release” tells us how long it will take to return to normal levels after the compressor is done working.

    3.  You don’t want your compressor to “squash” the vocal. You just want to have control over the parts of the signal that are below or above the average signal level.

    4. Since compressors also grab the bottom ends and pull them up, be aware that it will also be bringing any background sounds from the recording up. You want to ensure that the compressed signal is clear to better sit it inside of a mix. 

  13. Compressing the Overheads
    1. Sometimes you may want to compress your overheads with a technique called “squashing.” For instance, I’ll set my compression rate at 5 and have a release of 0.2. Then I bring the threshold down to grab all of the overhead sounds, which allows me to get a better feeling for the drums. It will brighten up the cymbals, and have a gluing effect on the kick and the snare.

  14. Determining Frequencies
    1. People often ask what the frequency of the lead vocal should be. It’s up to your interpretation of how it best fits the mix and the requirements of the song, but a good rule of thumb is matching it to somewhere close to the snare’s frequency. Most times, you want the performer to be a little above the rest of the instruments, but it shouldn’t be so loud as to “drive” the mix.
  15. Vocal Rides
      1. Now that we have a base level for our vocal, we need to go through the track and add “vocal rides,” for when the vocal delivery isn’t consistent. We do this through automation of the track, turning the vocal up or down where appropriate. This allows for less reliance on the compressors.
  16. Check Your Stereo Bus!
    1. At this point, you should check your stereo bus, some of your levels may be pushing the stereo bus into overdrive, or closer to the red than we’d like. If that’s the case, group all the instruments and pull down the volume. This will save your stereo bus, while keeping the relationships between your tracks proportionally the same. It’s the same mix, but with more headroom and better audio quality.

    2. Deserving of its own bullet point: STAY OUT OF THE RED
  17. Adding Effects: Conclusion
    1. Now you’ve completed most of the mix. Give it a thorough listen through, and prepare to make the final decisions that an audio engineer makes in the mixing process.

Completing the Mix: Tonal Balance

  1. EQ the Master Bus
    1. To check the tonal balance one last time, I put an EQ over the master bus, which will give me a graph to show where the tonal frequencies are. I’m going to bump the track up a little in the 10k and 2k ranges.

    2. We want to make sure that tonally, all of our frequencies are represented inside of our mix, to ensure that the mix is even. Once you’ve achieved that balance, you’ve completed the mix!

  2. Formatting Your Final Mix
    1. The last step to your session is determining what format you want to deliver the mix in. This is dependant on what the project is being used for. For instance, a song being used in a movie is going to be saved in a different format than something being distributed on the web.

    2. Most DAWs can export in several different formats and bit depths. Bit depth is a measure of how much information the audio file will contain. Most of the time, it will be either 16 or 24 bits. Because the 24 bit file is bigger, it will sound better and more full than the 16 bit. Decide what works best for your project, export and you’ve successfully mixed a record! 
  3. Compress your Master Bus?
    1. Many people ask whether they should put a compressor or an EQ on the overall “master” bus, which is what your completed mix is called. This is a subjective creative decision based on what you want the project to sound like. For years, I have never placed a compressor on the master bus. This is mostly because I trust my Mastering Engineer, but also because I like to have all the tracks present on my project file if I’m giving it to someone else to experiment with.

    2. If you do want to experiment with compressing your master bus, follow the rules of compression that we went over in Unit 3. You don’t want to squash your mix and rob it of its dynamic range.

  4. Remember You're In The Service Business
    1. As an engineer, it’s important to remember that you’re in the service business. It’s somewhat similar to being a barber. You’re doing the work, but you’re also realizing the artistic vision of people other than yourself. They may ask for suggestions, but at the end of the day, it’s the producer’s record.

    2. You may ask the producer whether or not the song is going to fade out or get cut off. This isn’t typically your decision to make, but it may be something you execute at the behest of the producer.

  5. Young Guru X Skillshare Contest

    Young Guru x Skillshare Contest

    Young Guru x Skillshare contest sponsored by AIAIAI Headphones andiStandardProducers.com

    Students will have the opportunity to submit their tracks to be mixed by me!

    Rules: 

    1. One entry per student.

    2. The submission must be an original song owned by you or an artist/producer you work with directly (you will be asked for proof if your track is chosen)

    3. Tracks (you must submit the unmixed and mixed versions) must be uploaded to Soundcloud and link shared on the projects page with the subject: Young Guru x Skillshare contest

    3. Please tag your tracks #YoungGuruMixContest, so we can find them easily.

    4. Submission deadline is Thursday October 17th. Winners will be chosen and notifiedwednesday, October 30th.

    5. Good Luck!

Additional Resources

  • Guide for Pro-Tools

    For all you Pro-Tools users (beginners, experts, or those looking for more info on the DAW), this is a great guide for you.  Check out the "Pro-Tools for Musicians" guide here: 

    http://snip.ps/ZcW

  • Tips and Tricks to Great Recording

    Making sure you have the best recording from the time you receive your unmixed track is impertive to making sure you have the right levels.  Check out this cool guide for tips and tricks to get the best recording.

    http://snip.ps/Zcq

  • Additional Tips on Using Effects

    Awesome resource on using effects from Sound on Sound:

    http://snip.ps/ZG3

  • Guide to Building a Great Home Studio

    To make sure you have the correct tonal balance and quality final mixdown, you must take into account the environment you're mixing in.  Access to large studios may be hard for the beginning engineer, and It's been proven that most music is made and completed in home studios.  Check out this great guide on building and maintaining a great home studio: 

    http://snip.ps/ZhM