Mixing Beats – The Fundamentals

Let’s talk about mixing beats for a bit. I don’t mean the stuff that DJs do in the club, but the stuff that engineers are doing in recording studios – or nowadays what we beatmakers are doing on our latops in our bedroom studios.

Mixing is a huge topic. Many books have been written about it. Whole websites are dedicated to this craft. I often felt it’s always more to learn and I’m never able to get the hang of it.

That’s why I want to give you a few shortcuts in this series of posts. We will focus on the three essentials of mixing: Editing, EQ and Compression. With just a few tips & tricks for each of these topics, you can massively improve your sound. And let’s be honest, I think we all know that the success of your beat is heavily dependent how well you can blend your different elements together for a clear, smacking, in your face sound!

Is this for you?

If you’re anything like me then you’ll be familiar with the following scenario. You found a killer sample a few hours ago, you chopped it, flipped it, added drums, played a dope bassline and put on some bells and whistles. Bro, this beat is fire right? Like if you put this up on Instagram, your followers will shower you with emojis and rappers will flock to you to buy leases or outbid each other to get the exclusive. Then Drake will call and say forget the others, I’ll fly you out to Toronto tomorrow and let’s record this track! Woah, that’d be dope! That’ be… Yo chill, you need to come down, you’re hyperventilating…

You decide to check what’s new on instagram before you post the beat. Oh wait, this guy posted a new beat just now. It sounds so crisp and full. Then you go back into your DAW and listen to the beat you just made and reality sinks in. It sounds thin, the 808s are way too loud and drown out the sample. Honestly it sucks if you compare it to the beat of that other producer… You feel devestated and decide its enough beat making for tonight – off to bed…

I know how it feels because I’ve been there. Hey, it still happens every now and then and it’s frustrating. I don’t want you to keep having this experience. It’s why I started beatproduction.net – and it’s why we post sound packs and write these long tutorial type posts.

To be perfectly honest, I’m not a mixing engineer or am even super passionate about it. But in order to have your beats sound dope, you need to develop an ear for a good mix and you need to know how to use a handful of tools that get you there.

I don’t want you to get lost in information. I just want to give you the absolute essentials that you need to know – a couple of clearly defined, quick to implement actions & tips. Things you can start doing right now and that will have a positive effect on your sound. 

Sounds good? Let’s go!

3 Fundamentals of Mixing Beats.

Mixing can be a long process. Really long! There’s so many steps to follow, so many plugins to choose from and each song is a unique snowflake that needs different treatments. All these things are important, but at the very core you need to worry about are three fundamentals. If you mess these up at the beginning, you’ll have a hard time messing with the details later…

A track needs a good foundation. During the beatmaking phase it might be the drunken drum groove, a heavily distorted 808 bassline or a sick chord progression. But in the mixing stage there are three fundamentals that form a solid foundation: Avoiding Phase Issues, Editing and Gain Staging. They can make or break your track, so you better pay attention!

1. Avoiding Phase Issues 

If you know what phase is, then you’ll also know about how badly it can hurt your chances of your beat sounding great… Wait, you don’t know what phase is? 

It goes like this: When you have two signals from the same instrument (for example a guitar recorded with two microphones), their wave signal can be “out of phase”.  It means the two sinuses don’t align when you zoom in really close. At best this is going to cause a phaser effect that you’ll either love or hate – at worst it’s going to eliminate the sound completely, because the sound waves cancel each other out. If you’re an old school head and you know how to extract acapellas from songs with the help of the instrumental – same principle.

Sounds bad, right? Luckily, there’s a simple solution. Here’s a video that explains the problem and shows you how to avoid and fix phase issues.

2. Editing

Yeah, editing is super boring, I know, but not spending enough time on editing is a great way to achieve a shitty mix! It’s simple housekeeping tasks, which really lay the foundation for a good mix. Here’s three things that I consider the essential editing in every project I’m working on. 

Remove silences — If you’ve recorded something (especially analog gear, acoustic instruments or vocals), you’ll have moments of near silence in there. These moments are like deadly ninja’s that can If you are great at recording these might not be too apparent on each individual track, but when you have accumulated 20+ tracks, that background noise is a huge factor in not getting a clear mixdown. Just spend a few minutes going through your project and get rid of the silences.

Fix tuning — When recording, you’re going to make mistakes and it’s important that you fix them. If the song isn’t in tune, the mixing can’t hide it – it will always sound off. You can fix tuning issues either by re-recording the parts that sound wrong or you use a pitch correction plugin such as Melodyne or AutoTune. Don’t be fooled, people use these ALL THE TIME – it’s not just T-Pain and Kanye Fix those off pitch notes, and fix them now!  

Fix timing errors — If there’s one thing that annoys me (even) more than an off pitch singer, it’s a drummer, bassist or guitarist that can’t keep time. One off note can kill your groove in an instant. So make sure there’s not a single mistake apparent in your mix. I’m not talking about lo-fi beatmakers that use heavy swing or the whole off beat style from Detroit. When they place notes off the grid, it’s fits the groove. But if you can’t pull this off, properly, don’t make me say “I told you so”. Fix any timing errors you encounter in your song, right now! 

3. Gain staging 

Imagine that all your tracks are at about the same volume to begin with when you start a mix… Ah pure bliss…! That my friend is called gain staging. Gain staging is making sure that your tracks are at a proper level before you start mixing. 

It should really begin when you record material: Aim to record your tracks so that the VU meter peaks at around -18db. If you have tracks that don’t measure up that well. They might be recorded too quiet. If it’s an analog recording, your best bet is to record it with the right again, because each analog recording introduces noise and you want the signal-noise ratio to be low. If it’s a digital recording (soft synth, plugin, etc), there won’t be any extra noise introduced, so all you do is insert a gain plugin and ramp up the db’s.  Done! 

But why? Well, if your faders are all the way up (or all the way down), you don’t have much space to move anymore. Best to keep the faders near the center when you start mixing.

Next, set the levels roughly to get a feel for the overall vibe of the track. The levels can and will change during the course of the mix, so just get a general balance you feel comfortable with, and move on to the next part.

On to the next one…

We started off with laying the foundation for mixing in this post and you are setup for a great mix. Now it’s time to start mould the sounds into shape. Stay tuned for Part 2 on EQs and and Part 3 on Compression.

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