How to Mix a Beat
Know the leveling, EQ, compression and reverb settings to use to make your beats sound polished and professional
Mixing is a very broad topic, so we’ll limit this to the topic of drum beats, both electronic and acoustic. Every point we make below assumes that you have every non-percussion track muted or disengaged; otherwise, it’s going to be difficult to hear the nuances that will make or break your tracks. Besides, when you’re mixing a whole song, you’ll want to mix individual track groups in isolation first (leads, chords, FX, etc.) to get the most polished track possible. Once you finally bring everything together, the process becomes much more manageable. Whether you use Studio One, Ableton Live, or perhaps Reaper, this process is consistent across all DAWs!
Getting the groove right
Before you dive headlong into mixing, make sure to do some housekeeping. Listen to the subtle timing in the beat. Is it swung too much? Should every beat be exactly on the grid, or should things be a little imperfect?
If the tail on your snare or hi hat is too long and your sampler allows it, taper or chop off the release. If your kick doesn’t have enough punch or bassiness, swap it out for a sample that does. Trying to mix a beat with poorly chosen or edited samples is an impossibly frustrating task, so make sure you make all the adjustments you can before moving onto the drum mixing phase!
A great way to shortcut the mixing process is to build out grooves from Beatmakers; the samples are already adjusted for you, and each kit comes with multiple MIDI grooves you can drop directly into your DAW session. Each one is tailored to a different style: VICE with synthwave, VOID with drum & bass, DOPE with hip hop, and more. Check out this article for a brief rundown of how sound designer Daniel Ruczko uses DOPE to quickly build out a full beat in minutes.
Balancing levels and panning
Before you touch an EQ, compressor, reverb, or any other effect, focus on getting the volume and pan of each instrument just right. If you don’t, it will negatively affect the behavior of your compressors, fool you into thinking you need to make harder frequency cuts with EQ, and potentially cause one instrument to overwhelm the ambience you throw across your drum buss.
So how do you know when your levels are right?
By using the same leveling principles that apply to all mixing. First, collapse everything to mono (either on your audio interface or by using a stock plugin across your master bus; every DAW has something that will accomplish this). In fact, mix in mono as much as possible, because this will show you exactly how cluttered the mix is; in stereo, it’s easy to fool yourself and rely on panning to create more perceived space in the mix.
Next, raise the volume level of the mix (assuming you aren’t already listening to it super loud, which is terrible for your ear health) until it’s just a little loud. Balance everything until it sounds right to you. Now lower the volume until it’s just barely audible; you’ll probably notice that some instruments sound too strong relative to the others. Adjust the levels until everything sounds right again. Now raise it back up to a normal loudness and do the same. This process gives you three different perspectives on the same mix, and you can repeat it until you’re happy with the result. If this seems like it will confuse your ears, try it anyway; you’ll probably find that you’re less likely to second guess yourself when your task becomes to make things sound great at any volume.
Don’t stress panning too much. If you’re mixing in mono, you’ll be able to create plenty of space in the mix, so panning becomes a strictly creative decision that just happens to give your mix a tiny bit more room. If you want a bit of help visualizing levels in a more concrete way, check out the Levels plugin from Mastering the Mix.
The more you mix, the more you’ll find that each instrument tends to create the same frequency problems in nearly every mix. Kicks have a lot of mud in the lower mids, snares are resonant and sluggish, open hi hats are harsh in the upper mids, and the list goes on. One of the biggest challenges with EQ is mitigating all these issues without cutting out too much and making things sound unnatural.
To keep your ear as objective as possible, find a problem area and cut into it hard. The result will sound terrible, so then you slowly back off until you feel the cut is just right. Even the pros often repeat this process several times with the exact frequency range, so don’t be concerned if you can’t seem to get it right the first time.
When it comes to boosting frequency ranges, try cutting other instruments in the same range first so you don’t inadvertently add clutter. If the original instrument still needs the boost afterward, great! Now you can safely boost with less risk to the integrity of your mix.
How much compression to add
Please don’t worry if compression doesn’t come easily to you. It’s one of the most difficult processes to develop an ear for in all music production. First, let’s clarify exactly what compression is.
Compression is simply reducing the dynamic range of an audio signal. For every decibel over a threshold you control, the volume of the signal will be reduced by a specific ratio. Then you can use the makeup gain knob to restore the average volume level to where it was before. The attack controls how quickly the compressor engages, and the release is how long it takes to disengage.
Reach for a compressor when the volume contours of your kit feel uncontrolled or the instruments don’t sound like they’re playing together. Compressors have a way of making things sound like they “belong together” when you slap them on an instrument group. When you’re first choosing your settings, air on the side of overcompressing and then gradually back off on the threshold and ratio until things sound about right (similar to making EQ cuts, as mentioned earlier).
Play around with the attack and release. If the attack is too short, everything will feel squashed; too long, and you’ll get spikes in volume and lose control over the drums. If the release is too short, you won’t notice much compression and the audio may begin to distort since the volume shoots back up so rapidly; too long, and the compressor won’t conform to your beat (everything will just be quieter, possibly with sharp peaks on each drum hit).
It’s normal after all this to still not quite understand what compression actually does. As you experiment with it more and more, trust that it will gradually click into place for you. It always does! And once you understand how to use it effectively, you’ll have a massive advantage over the producers who simply add compression to make things sound louder and suck the life out of their tracks! For a more in-depth explanation of compression, check out this tutorial from iZotope.
Reverb and ambience
If you’re using acoustic drums, you definitely want to add a bit of room ambience since listeners are subconsciously expecting to hear the drums in a physical location. You have a lot of creative freedom here, but keep in mind that the ambience should be appropriate for your mix once you bring other elements back in. With electronic music, in general you’ll want to avoid applying it to the kick; ideally, the other instruments should have their own ambience baked in so that you have more control.
Let’s go over some essential verb settings you’ll want to know.
Think about the dimensions of that space, and adjust the pre-delay (the time it takes for the reverb to start) and size accordingly. Many reverbs allow you to control density as well, which is basically its thickness. It’s possible to dive into the math behind all of these, but try going by ear first or you might end up down a rabbit hole. As with EQ and compression, make your initial adjustments dramatic, then scale back to taste.
A polished drum mix will significantly level up the rest of your track, and it pays to learn the nuances that make for a better mix. None of the processes and effects we discussed above are terribly difficult, but it will take regular practice for them to become second nature. When you nail your levels, pan, EQ, compression and reverb, you’ll have the ingredients to a pro-quality mix. Don’t be afraid to push effect settings to the limit and bring them back to the point of sanity; eventually, you’ll learn to make gentler adjustments and achieve the perfect mix faster than ever.
As always, happy producing–practice every day, and soon you’ll know more about the ins and outs of effect chains than your peers!