Keith Everette Smith

Producer, Songwriter, Multi-Instrumentalist

Thoughts in my head while mixing

I consider this to be my most revealing blog post yet. While mixing, I’m constantly having remind myself of fundamental mixing techniques that lead to good mixes. I have a horrible memory so I started to write many of my techniques down so that I could reference them when I was having a bad day. I may not do these things all the time, but in those times where I’m struggling with a mix, it is most likely because I forgot to do one or more of the following.

If I had to point to one thing that leads to poor mixing it’s moving too fast and not LISTENING enough. You’ve gotta be patient. The following all relate to patient mixing.

DISCLAIMER: These are not all MY ideas. They are things I’ve picked up on from all kinds of engineers and mixers. I’d also add that everyone’s mix style is personal. These are just things that I do and I may not do them forever. For all I know I’ll check it up tomorrow :) For now… here they are.


* Listen a lot in mono. Panning, balance, and phase relationships are more easily adjusted when in mono.

* Listen mostly at one volume level. This allows you to judge energy levels and keeps you from getting pumped up simply by turning up the volume. Sometimes you need pumped up, but generally one volume will do.

* Start with Kick, bringing their volume up to -10db on the meter. This gives you plenty of headroom to build a dynamic mix. Next, bring up the snare (probably close to -10db as well). After that bring up the bass (level is typically a touch lower than the K and Sn). Often times vocals are next!

* Balance is the most important part of mixing. Set general levels before adding compression and EQ.

* Set levels with one section of the song (perhaps the second chorus). Set up a loop and start pulling up faders while adjusting balance and panning.

* Try setting up the vocal ambience with just K, SN, bass and the vocal. This ensures that you’re giving priority to the vocal’s needed space in the mix.

* Try filtering out the low end and/or high end before reaching for the EQ pots. This could be the needed solution when your trying to get instruments to pop out in the mix

* Make things bigger and more exciting by using chorusing, harmonizers, delays and other audio enhancers

* Make small adjustments! A little goes a long way.

* Even when using many FX in a mix, try using one reverb to glue things together. I’ve had a lot of success with a large hall setting for “bigger than life” mixes and medium studio spaces on more intimate tracks.

* You can use more ambience if you use pre-delay. Try using a delay plugin on the bus before the reverb instead of using the pre delay on the reverb itself.

* Listen to see if compression to control dynamics is actually needed before automatically adding compression. Yes, at times you want to “color” the sound with a compressor, but many times you don’t. Being conservative with compression will make your mixes bigger.

* Leave overheads, toms and room mics out of the mix until much of your levels are set, then begin adding them in as needed. This will make for a very direct sounding drum sound, but I can even get a nice roomy sound with this approach.

* Separation and clarity are the goal. Don’t automatically try to dirty things up.

* Make automation changes manually rather than drawing them in. This helps the mix breathe and stay organic. It will also challenge you to use your ears more!

* EQ FX sends before the FX unit/plugin. This helps keep phase in check.

* Ride verbs and delays around the vocal to keep things clear and “in your face.”

* Use different FX for different parts of the song.

* Find the most important elements of the arrangement and emphasize them! … or de-emphasize things around them.

* Ride the master bus to add energy and dynamics. (i.e. bump the master bus by .8db during the choruses)

* Subtractive EQ is cleaner, but additive EQ can be very musical and can bring things forward in the mix.

* Ride the vocal for excitement or to gain intimacy. Particularly listen for interesting parts of the vocal that might get missed… bring these up.

* Make balance decisions at low volumes, especially vocals.

* EQ the vocal after you compress it UNLESS odd frequencies are being emphasized by compressions. If this happens then add an EQ before the compressor and notch out the bad frequencies.

* Vocalists often have a different tonality when singing high and singing low. Try automating EQ when needed OR set up separate tracks and EQ each track a little differently.

* Keep the “motor running” throughout the entire song. Be sure that the motor (hihats, ride, ghost notes on snare) are present in each section.

* Use “EQ Carving” to make space for each instrument. This is even important when instruments are panned hard left and hard right. If carve these instruments too, your mono mix will be better and so will the stereo mix.

* Do fade outs in mastering (because the master fader is pre-fader… the mix will fall apart as the master bus compressor is disengaged)

* Compress less than 3db on the master bus.

* Be conservative when limiting the master bus. Take the limiting off (or decrease it a great deal) when sending off for mastering. I try to limit less than 3db.

* Begin the mix with nothing on the master bus, ½ way add some buss compression, when you’re close to the end add a limiter just to see what mastering might do to your mix.

* If the groove is off or everything seems unsettled, try nudging certain tracks. It may be that the guitars or bass are ahead. Nudging things back a big can make things settle down.

* Step away once every hour or so for a 5-15 minute break. If you get to the point where nothing sounds good… just stop. You’re getting nowhere.

* Check balances sometimes from the bathroom or hallway. This “real world” listen will help you make good decisions.

* The vocal is most important… don’t forget it.

* Even when creating a dry sounding mix, FX can still help with dimension. Just use short verbs and very short delays.