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Learn Music and Audio Production | iZotope Tips and Tutorials

How to Mix a Song from Start to Finish

by Nick Messitte, iZotope Contributor July 27, 2022
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You’re at square one, staring at a session of unmixed tracks. There’s much to do, from gain staging, and unmasking the kick and bass, all the way to mixing vocals—where do you go from here? In this tutorial, learn how to mix your track from start to finish and even get a rough master ready—all with core mixing and mastering tools like Neutron for mixing, Nectar for vocal processing, and Ozone for mastering. 

Follow along with this tutorial using all of the intuitive mixing tools included in iZotope Music Production Suite 5 Universal Edition

1. Listen to a rough mix of the song and get your references in order

Whether you produced the track or not, take a minute to listen to the song from start to finish and write down some goals, thoughts, inspirations, or literally anything pertinent to the song while you listen. You want to put on your mixer’s hat and familiarize yourself with what you’re working on, and listening from top to tail is the best way to do so. 

Mixing a song from start to finish is easiest if we have set goals in mind from the outset—so don’t skip this step!

After you've listend to your song, take a listen to the reference tracks that you want your mix to sound like. Take some notes on the way your references sound. You'll need them later! 

2. Organize, gainstage, and balance your mix

Organize your tracks and color code them. Gain stage your tracks in some manner that preserves headroom. Achieve a static mix to start with your balances (you can also use the Balance Assistant found in Neutron’s Visual Mixer to help get your started).

Read through the tutorials above to get a good grasp of these concepts. Once you've reviewed them and applied them to your mix, we'll begin step 3. 

3. Mixing your drums

Drums are always a good place to start, as they are foundational to the music and the mix. Here’s a method for getting good drums quickly. 

First, listen to your static mix, and be sure to pay keen attention to the drums. Ask yourself questions like:

  • What do I want to get out of these drums?

  • What is bothering me about these drums?

  • What’s missing in these drums?

  • How do I want these drums to change from section to section?

Write down the answers for yourself. Answers can be general (“the drums need to smack more”), or specific (“there’s too much muddy resonance in the floor tom”). 

Whatever you do, do not skip this step. 

I know, I know, I know: you want to start loading plug-ins and getting to work. But the goals are important, and writing them down helps you move with purpose and speed! 

Now that you have your action items, you can begin working to get them. For instance, I have a tune from Baltimore artist Micah E Wood in for mixing. Here’s a snippet of the static mix:

Static Mix

And here’s what I wrote down for what I want out of the drums:

  • Get the rubberiness out of overdubbed toms, and add more sustain

  • Get rid of papery snare frequency and add some body to the snare

  • Make a big, impactful change in the second verse

  • Get tom overdubs into the right side of the stereo space, and sidechain them to the kick for groove

  • Sidechain shaker to kick for groove

  • Go-go percussion should go all the way right

  • Kick should hit higher than the bass in terms of frequency

  • Get a crispy and punchy sound over-all

For each of these goals, I have tools at my disposal. 

I can affect my changes to the tom overdubs like so:

EQ settings on the tom in Neutron
EQ settings on the tom in Neutron
Compression settings on the tom in Neutron
Compression settings on the tom in Neutron
Transient Shaper settings on the tom in Neutron
Transient Shaper settings on the tom in Neutron

I can affect my snare changes like so:

EQ settings on the snare in Neutron
EQ settings on the snare in Neutron
Exciter settings on the snare in Neutron
Exciter settings on the snare in Neutron

To make a big change from verse 1 to verse 2, I can use Neutron’s Punch mode compressor module, in combination with Trash mode distortion and Stratus 3D for ambiance, on an aux track, automated in for verse 2.

I can use sidechain compression with Neutron as well, to make my shaker and tom over dubs more grooving. Panning the drums can be done with pan knobs in the DAW, or with the Visual Mixer. On the drum bus itself, I can use compression, room reflection algorithms courtesy of Stratus 3D, and mid/side saturation from bx_saturator V2 to get that crispy, punchy sound.

All that gets us here:

Basic Drum Mix

We’re not done by any stretch with our drums—but we’ve reached a point where we can focus on how the drums interplay with the bass, which takes us to our next section. 

4. Use the bass as a hinge point in your mix

Mixing is paradoxical: it helps to go instrumental group by instrumental group (drumslow end, instruments, vocals)—but they all fit together like a puzzle, so working in solo doesn’t really fly. 

We all develop our own ways around this paradox. I rarely mute things, but I’ll bring down elements I’m not actively working on by 18 dB on their respective submixes. Drums might be going at full volume, but the keys, guitars, vocals, and bass are dimmed to help me focus. This ensures that I’m always considering them, even if I’m not working on them.

I also like to use hinge points to get from one section to another, and the bass is one such hinge point.

The bass has to hang with the drums—I can’t successfully mix a bass without having my kick in. The bass also has to fit with the other instruments: I can’t get a good feel for how to EQ my guitars without the bass in there. So, the bass becomes an excellent pivot point from rhythmic instruments to harmonic ones. 

If you’ll recall, I wanted to make a kick drum that would “hit higher than the bass in terms of frequency.”  I want the bass to hold the super low end, and the kick to sit just above it. 

At this point I work on both kick and bass together. As before, I listen to the song and ask myself what I want out of the bass. Here’s my notes from that part:

“I want a fat bass you can hang your hat on.”

To achieve that goal, I have my tools. I’ll use Bx_subfilter to tighten and emphasize the low end. Then, I’m going to use Neutron’s Assistant View, which gives me an easy way to squeeze the bass into the shape and tone I want it to take, like so:

Assistant View in Neutron on the bass
Assistant View in Neutron on the bass

And from here, I can use unmask to help the kick cut through, so the bass can occupy the sub end unimpeded:

Unmasking the bass and kick in Neutron
Unmasking the bass and kick in Neutron

This was our original tone, before processing:

Unprocessed Bass

Now, with the bass playing, I’ll use Neutron again—this time, to give myself the kick sound I want, which sits not in the subs but in the punchier frequencies.

And now I have a balance that I like, which allows me to move onto the next group of instruments. 

Processed Bass

5. Focus on harmonic and melodic instruments

Our hinge point is once again our bass, as we lower the drums and bring up the harmonic instruments to hear the relationships.

Again, we have to listen to the song and ask ourselves “what do we want from these instruments?” 

Here I took the following notes:

  • Add a nice delay to guitars, and compress them as well to make them spank more

  • Add atmosphere to the mono piano on the far left

  • Add an atmospheric delay to lead synth line 

  • Spread out that organ 

  • Lead synth is a little undefined

And again, I follow my notes. I use Neutron’s compressor on both guitars at once, and send them to the bx_delay2500, which has a lot of character, and can duck the echos out of the way of the dry signal.

Applying compression on guitars with Neutron
Applying compression on guitars with Neutron
Delay settings on guitars with bx_delay 2500
Delay settings on guitars with bx_delay 2500

To the far left piano, I add some Stratus for atmosphere:

Stratus reverb on left piano
Stratus reverb on left piano

The lead synth on the right gets some bx_delay for atmosphere, as well as some EQ to give it more definition in the mix.

Adding Neutron EQ for definition on lead synth
Adding Neutron EQ for definition on lead synth

And the organ gets stereo treatment in the form of bx_shredspread:

Organ widening with bx_shredspread
Organ widening with bx_shredspread

Altogether now the musical instruments sound like this:

Harmonic Instruments

Not necessarily the most flashy thing on their own, but again, this is supposed to be heard in the context of a mix. 

To recap, this was our static mix, just drums bass and instruments:

Basic Drums, Bass, and Instruments

And this is where we are now:

Basic Mix: Drums, Bass, and Music

6. Move to vocals and background vocals 

With our rhythmic, foundational, harmonic, and melodic beds created in a holistic way, we can turn to mixing vocals, safe in the knowledge that we’ve been subliminally subjecting ourselves to them all along (because we never mix in solo!). 

We obviously have some idea of how we want them to fit into the mix, but I’m still going to suggest listening to the song, writing down your goals, and working to achieve those goals. 

You could’ve guessed that by now.

This time, however, you must keep a few considerations in mind:

How much corrective work is required? Maybe the vocal was recorded in a noisy room, with bad equipment, or in a sloppy manner. If so, problems have to be taken care of with tools like RX before we can consider mixing.  

Do these vocals need pitch correction? If they do, you’ll have to bust out a program like Melodyne 5 Essentials, or use some sort of global pitch correction software, to get to the desired result.

Is there a rough mix or reference vocal that outlines the overall approach? In the mix I’m using for this exercise, the artist sent me his rough mix, which was a great indicator of how he’d like his finalized vocals to sound: he wants a fair amount of reverb and vocal effects—not a dry, upfront feel. That’s what his rough tells me.

Maybe your vocals don’t come with a rough mix, but with a reference track to match. The same thing applies: does the reference have any obvious reverberation trickery? Any delays or modulations? Is saturation the name of the game? Always keep these things in mind when working with vocals. 

Do any instruments obviously conflict with our vocals? By now you have a good idea of how all the instruments will sound. So you should be able to hear if your snare might get in the way of the vocal’s frequency content. This is another consideration to keep in mind as you mix. 

Thankfully, iZotope provides tools that help with many of these issues. Unwanted resonances, appropriate methods of saturation, and more can be dealt with rather quickly using Assistive Technology

In a previous article, I displayed how to use Nectar on a vocal in just this manner. I got myself a leg up with the Vocal Assistant, and found a sound that dealt with resonances in the vocal and provided the reverb I wanted for the track, right in the plug-in itself. 

In this case, I’m going to show you a chain I came up with using Neutron, Ozone, Neoverb, and Bx_Delay2500, and of course, my ears. Observe:

We also have our background vocals to mix. We have tutorials that cover background vocal mixing that will help you get the sound you’re looking for. 

7. Tweak your mix and consider automation

We don’t have a finished mix yet. What we have now is the ability to tweak our way to a fun, finalized mix—having gotten there with minimal processing thus far. I’m a big believer in using the least amount of processing that will suffice.  

To keep things purpose-oriented, I like to bounce down what I have at this stage, take a break, listen again, and write down notes of things I’d like to see happen. 

Again, these notes can be granular (“too much 650 Hz on main bridge vocal.”) Or they can be conceptual (“try putting the drums in mono for the bridge and really emphasizing their roominess”). 

The notes are always written in a way so that any problem is matched with a solution. So, “I need the chorus to hit harder” is always matched with an actionable note, such as “Automate Neutron’s punch compressor in parallel on the drums to emphasize their transients.” Or, “widen the instrument bus with Ozone in chorus to give us a contrasting feeling of immensity.” 

This is where a mix might take on its more finished form, where personalized touches such as effectual flourishes or bus-processing on whole swathes of instruments bring cohesion and flare to the mix. 

I like to do three rounds of this sort of tweaking before I send off to clients, often using reference mixes to ensure I’m giving them something that competes. 

And, as the mix goes on, this phase invariably utilizes a technique engineers should always employ to give their mixes a sense of flow and movement: automation. 

Mix automation means telling the DAW to change the parameters of a sound over time. You can draw in the automation with a variety of DAW-specific tools, use the mouse to execute automation, or route the parameter to a MIDI controller so you can “play” the automation. Whatever is comfortable for you! 

Just remember that automation is super important. It is literally your best opportunity to inject your personality into the mix! 

8. Hear how your song would sound “mastered” with Ozone 

Hopefully you’re going to hire a professional to master your tunes—or master them yourself in an educated manner. Still, Ozone’s Master Assistant can help you see what a master might sound like compared to a reference playlist on Spotify. Observe how I get three different flavors of mastering out of where we are now in the track using the assistant:

This is an interesting exercise in seeing what a mastering job might bring out of my mix—or what mastering might try to fix within my mix. Basically, it’s a great tool for checking what’s working and what isn’t. For instance, this exercise told me a lot about my low mids, and how there’s room to cut them down a bit.

Also, if I wanted to, I could set any one of these masters to play back on my system at -14 LUFs and hear how it sounds against a normalized Spotify playlist. This too will tell me a lot about where I stand. 

Learn even more about getting a quick master with Ozone

Start mixing your music from start to finish

This is but a roadmap—a methodology that will help you work towards the goals you want to achieve. It’s not a substitute for studying the tools of the trade, or the principles of how sound works in a recorded medium. Those matter quite a bit. You can say “make the kick more punchy” all you want, but at the end of the day, you still need to know what that means, and which tools will help you get there. 

Like most things in life, developing that knowledge takes time and practice. Luckily, iZotope has a treasure trove of content to help you educate yourself. Dive in, practice, follow this roadmap with all of the tools available in Music Production Suite 5 Universal Edition, and you'll be on your way! 

Get more mixing tips to improve your next project:

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