You might think you need a storehouse of audio plugins and effects to make good music.
But that couldn’t be more wrong.
First, good music transcends mixing techniques and cool effects.
If you can’t play the song for a room full of people with just an instrument without the song suffering, it’s not good music.
On the other hand, a botched mix can ruin good music. So it’s best, in my opinion, to keep things as simple as possible while still enhancing the song.
Because that’s the point of using plugins — to enhance the already good song you’ve made.
And there are only four plugins you need to start mixing your song: EQ, compression, reverb, and delay. Any good DAW will come preloaded with these.
So in this guide, I’m going to talk about how to mix music with these plugins and why they matter.
And I’m going to use normal-people language and keeps things basic…
(One general tip: it’s better to do a bunch of subtle moves with these plugins rather than a few drastic changes. A lot of bricks will add up to a house).
No time to read this ridiculously long article? Just use this nifty table of contents:
- EQ Definition And Purpose
- How To Use EQ
- Compression Definition And Purpose
- How To Use Compression
- Reverb Definition And Purpose
- How To Use Reverb
- Delay Definition And Purpose
- How To Use Delay
- Learning How To Mix Just Takes Practice
EQ Definition And Purpose
The point of equalization (EQ) is to be heard yet stay invisible.
It’s supposed to be like a child – it makes your life better but only when it’s not being loud and annoying. (I can say that with complete love – I have two kids).
When you use EQ the right way, the listener shouldn’t know that you used EQ but should still reap the benefits of it.
“It’s what you don’t hear that can make or break your final mix,” says Graham Cochrane of The Recording Revolution. “Once you understand this subtle approach to EQ, you’ll wield it with more intentionality and effectiveness.”
So here are the reasons EQ matters and how you should use it in your mix.
To Balance The Tone
EQ – aka an equalizer – is meant to equalize each instrument. Think balance. Mixing, at its most basic definition, is balancing.
EQ helps you balance the tone of each instrument and balance all the instruments with each other.
To Remove Overlapping Frequencies
Sometimes, the more tracks you add in your song, the muddier the whole thing can sound. This is a common problem.
EQ can help untangle frequencies that overlap with each other (also called “unmasking”). Think of EQ as a shovel that you use to scoop out unwanted frequencies. (This is called “subtractive EQ”).
Here’s an example: the bass guitar and kick drum are typically in the same frequency range. Using EQ as a shovel, you can scoop out some of the frequencies in the bass that are overlapping with the kick, and that allows both instruments to work together better.
To Control The Mix
Audio can sometimes be like a wild animal. Frequencies can roar their ugly heads, and it’s the mixing engineer’s job to tame them.
When a bass guitar hits a loud note, ugly frequencies can growl.
When a high hat opens up, a harsh frequency can pop out.
Sometimes, a vocal can be a bit too muddy.
These things can be controlled with EQ. And how to do that is what I’ll cover next.
How To Use EQ
Alright, now let’s talk about some practical ways to use EQ.
There are plenty of very advanced ways you can use EQ (if you’re feeling adventurous and want to get super technical, I’d recommend reading this article on EQ).
But for my article here, I’ll be covering the basic ways you can use EQ: to remove weird sounds and boost beautiful sounds.
Step 1: Get Rid Of The Weird Sounds
This is where I always start with mixing. I listen for the strangest sounds on the frequency spectrum and scoop them out.
I use what’s called EQ Sweeping. After using a high-pass filter to remove room sound and any potential low-end rumbles, here’s how I sweep:
- Narrow the band your working with
- Launch the band into the sky, as high up as you can go
- Start slowly sweeping the band left and right in the general vicinity of where it started
- Listen for where the weirdest sound is
- Wherever it sounds the weirdest, cut that sucker 2-5 dBs at that frequency range and widen the band a little
- Move on to the next band and repeat (I usually use a 4-band EQ and use the middle two to scoop out frequencies)
When you mix, you typically don’t want to solo the track you’re working on. The point is to make the instrument/vocal blend well with everything else in your mix.
But in this case, I find it helpful to solo the track just so I can find the weird sounds. Then I un-solo the track to see how it melds with the rest of the mix.
Step 2: Boost The Beautiful Sounds
Next, you can start making the pretty sounds sound even prettier.
I don’t go crazy with this step. Typically, I use this method for adding air to a vocal by boosting the higher frequencies by 1-3 dBs.
Also, one way to approach this step is by thinking “opposites.”
For example, if an instrument or vocal sounds too bassy, instead of cutting the lower frequencies, you could boost the higher frequencies a bit. And vice versa — if something is too trebly or airy, you can try boosting the low-mid frequencies a hair.
Compression Definition And Purpose
Ah, compression. This one confuses many a newbie producer (including me in the beginning).
Compression basically takes the quietest and loudest parts of your track (called the dynamic range) and brings them closer to “the middle.”
We’ll get into the purposes of compression in a bit, but generally, compression helps make the track louder overall.
One thing to note is that compression should be used sparingly — only when needed.
“…Only use [compression] when you know why you are using it,” Cochrane says. “Otherwise, leave it alone and go back to the fundamental question when mixing: do these tracks sound balanced to me?”
You can also use a very subtle compression (maybe 1dB of gain reduction) on your master track to control the volume, boost the energy, and shape the tone of the whole song.
Automatic Volume Control
Think about a vocal: it can go from gentle breathiness in the verse to belting emotion in the chorus. This dynamic range needs to be reigned in, and compression helps with that.
Back in the day before compressors, engineers had to manually automate this dynamic range with the volume faders. On every single track.
Nowadays, your DAW comes preloaded with a compressor plugin that does this automatically. Thank the heavens.
So now you can tame the super loud and harsh parts of your track and lift up the quiet and soft parts.
Boost The Energy
Bringing up the quiet parts of a track can also boost the energy of the whole mix. Using a slow attack, you can turn up the soft parts and keep the loud parts, leading to a more energetic song.
The compressed parts are generally just louder and more upfront, giving the impression of more energy.
Compression can actually help shape the tone of your track. Depending on the type of compressor you have, you can get a different (subtle) tone.
But if you’re just starting out with mixing, you may not need to worry about using a compressor for tone shaping and sustain.
How To Use Compression
I try to go easy on the compression. I typically only use it on vocals, just to be safe. But it can work very well on bass.
So let’s use the example of compression on a vocal track. (Note: I always use EQ before compression, regardless of the instrument).
In the above image, this is showing the compression on my song “Everybody Breaks,” which is the vocal I’m most happy with on that album.
For vocals, this is what I typically do:
- Use a 3-6 ms attack, a 100 ms release, and a ratio between 2:1 and 4:1
- Find the loudest part of the song and loop it while I’m setting the compression
- I’ll pull down the threshold (on the left in the pic) until the gain reduction (to the left of the “Output mix”) averages between 2-7 dB of gain reduction (obviously this can vary depending on the genre, singer, and specific song)
- Then I’ll bring the track volume up until there’s 3-6 dB of headroom
These steps have led to great results, or at least results I’m happy with. But again, it’s very easy to overdo compression, so only use it when you need it.
If you want to get even more detailed, check out this guide on using compression.
Reverb Definition And Purpose
Reverb is an effect that can change the sound of the “room.” Some people call this “echo,” but that’s actually not totally accurate, even though it kind of gives you an idea of what it does.
So one way to use reverb is to make an instrument or vocal sound like it’s in a bigger room.
It can be a nice effect to put on a vocal during the chorus of the song. Or a snare drum to provide more smack. Or on an acoustic guitar to make it sound more vibrant.
You can also use reverb to help blend tracks together.
What I mean is, when you record a bunch of different instruments separately from each other (as you often do in a home studio), each can sound distinct from the others.
And reverb can help make all the tracks sound more blended with each other.
How To Use Reverb
When it comes to reverb (and every plugin on this list), it’s best to make little changes.
One tip is to turn up the reverb until you can hear it really well, then pull it down until it’s at a level that’s just below where you think it should be. That’s typically where it will sound best.
I’d suggest finding a reverb setting that you like and use that on any track that will have reverb (I use a preset that I’m happy with).
This way, it gives the song a more consistent feel — it makes it seem like all the instruments are in the same room.
Here’s how I’d suggest using reverb:
- Make a new track
- Add your reverb effect to this track (title it something like “REVERB BUS”)
- Route any track that needs reverb to this REVERB BUS track
- Using the REVERB BUS track, you can change the amount of reverb that’s applied to each bussed track
You can try muting the reverb then unmuting it to see what kind of difference it makes. You should notice a difference, but it shouldn’t be extreme.
Delay Definition And Purpose
Think of delay like a close cousin to reverb.
If reverb makes it sound like you’re in a bigger room, delay can make it sound like you’re in a cave or a canyon.
Both reverb and delay are subjective, meaning there are so many different styles and sounds you can use. It depends on what you’re going for.
What type of space do you want the song to be in?
How To Use Delay
Because every delay plugin can be different and each setting can vary, I have to speak generally here.
Let’s do this list-style — here are some basic tips for using delay:
- Go easy on the delay — too much can easily ruin the stereo effect of the track
- Use delay only on tracks that are not panned (just right up the middle)
- Bus your delay effects like you did reverb (see the reverb section above)
- If your song feels dry or empty, use a little delay to help “fill out” the song
- Use a ping-pong delay to transition to a new part of the song
- If you want more delay, try adding a second delay effect instead of turning up the first delay
Out of these four plugins, delay is the one I have to play around with the most. There’s no formula. You pretty much just have to experiment and go through some trial and error.
But that’s what makes delay so fun.
Learning How To Mix Just Takes Practice
You’re not going to get everything perfect right out of the gate.
You may have to make several attempts at EQing or compressing a track before you get it to where you want it.
And even after you’ve gotten the mix you want, you’ll probably listen back to it next year and realize all the things you did wrong.
That’s just part of learning. You try something, realize you didn’t do it perfectly, make adjustments, and try again.
So just mix as much as possible and you’ll eventually get better.
Fortunately, you only need four plugins to get a good mix. Plus, they’re all free and already built-in to your DAW.
Want some helpful tips on how to navigate being a part-time musician? Grab the free PDF guide How To Be A Musician With A Day Job below.