Creating a clean and well separated mix

Hi everyone,

I’m looking for some tips to improve my mix (I’m a poet and I didn’t even know it). Now, I’ve been writing and producing for a while, but (and I expect this is a common trait among many composers), I feel my mixes are always a bit flat, not loud enough - at least in terms of perceived volume - or could do with some better separation of each part.

I do a lot of music where orchestral samples and percussive elements feature heavily and while I’ve found that EQ-ing things carefully helps (like removing the harsh high-end of sampled strings), certain elements like percussion start to sound ‘mushy’ to my ears yet sound fantastic in more professionally produced tracks I’ve heard. An example of this is that I heard one of Gareth Coker’s percussion ensemble tracks (something like Epic Drums of Death I think it was) which I think sounds punchy, balanced, big and generally great, while I struggle to mix those things while keeping the clarity.

I’m wondering about the best way to really improve and whether it’s a matter of acoustically treating my room first before going into the details of how to improve my mix abilities. I’d think that’s the first step as obviously you need to be able to hear the mix properly (!), but maybe getting someone to tutor me in person would be better than trying to pick up mix tips on the net as that person could point out problems with my control room?

Another idea I had was to post some stems here and see if anyone fancies helping me mix a track that way, it could act as a resource for other people in the same situation. Any advice on which approach to take is welcome.


I can’t give much advice as I also have similar problems and I still have loooooads to learn about mixing but I will be watching this thread.

Something I haven’t tried but I’ve heard is very effective is multi-band compression, I imagine this done properly could really add punch to the mix and help to separate the instruments. Also, parallel compression may help there too, so you can mix your compressed signal with the original.

Anyway, good luck, I hope some people give some good feedback on this subject :slight_smile:

One quick tip for getting more separation:

Adjust the EQ on each track differently. I mean every track should have different frequency that is being accentuated with the EQ. You don’t want to raise the same mid range frequency on two different tracks that are completely unrelated in their content and type of instrumentation. With other words, every track should have an EQ peak on a different frequency.

I would post stems and see i you could get several different people to post mixes and notes as to what they did. Might be interesting to see how different people approach the same material.

brownhousemedia said

I would post stems and see i you could get several different people to post mixes and notes as to what they did. Might be interesting to see how different people approach the same material.

I love this idea. Could even turn into a tutorial on audiotuts+ if we do this right. So post them up @tacoMusic!

@brownhousemedia and @Stuck_in_the_Basement - ok, I’ll sort it out this week and will focus on something with an orchestral palette and percussion. Are there any preferences as to how to supply them? I was thinking the following groups:

  • Higher-register strings (violins I + II, violas etc.)
  • Lower-register strings (bass, cello etc.)
  • Woodwinds
  • Percussion
  • Other stuff

I’ll keep any kick separate so some side-chain compression is possible as well.

First to check: reverbs (probably too much or have low-frequency tails), frequency conflict of instruments (as is said above - every instrument must have own niche), panorama - make as wide as you can. I think it is better to use small quantity of VERY cool sounds but not huge quantity of low-quality ones.

Great idea guys - I think this will be a great exercise and educational. I wouldn’t mind taking a crack at mixing the tracks as well.

DISCLAIMER: I’m not a pro engineer, but these are tips I’ve picked up over the last 7 years.

Mixing is a LIFETIME’S study. Many people don’t realize this. The best engineers in the world have generally been around studios for a very long time. I’m going to comment more from the orchestral side of things but many of these ideas apply across all genres. These are all things I’ve picked up having been lucky enough to hang out with some super talented people!

That said, there are some simple rules you can follow that will immediately help your mixes.

  • It is far better to cut EQ (reduce frequencies) than raise (add gain) to frequencies. By cutting things out, you’re giving more room for other frequencies to shine. In general, CUT FIRST, raise second.

  • Do ‘obvious’ EQ! If you have a flute playing, why do you need anything below 100 Hz? You don’t. You are always looking to cut the things that aren’t adding anything to your music.

  • Avoid low-end build up. This is related to the first note. When we play an instrument it resonates at multiple frequencies, and if it’s live / recorded in a room, it will pick up the characteristics of that room too. This can lead to an unwanted buildup of low-end. This is a very big problem with the majority of sample libraries - although recently some companies have started EQing out all the low-end stuff (8Dio Adagio is a good example, do a frequency analysis on the violins, and you will not find any low-end whatsoever). Most people’s sample-based orchestral work - including my own - has way too much low-end info, and as a result the mixes can sound pretty muddy, so this is something I always tend to look at first. If you can get the bass (the foundation) of your track right, it’s quite hard to go wrong after that as long as the bass isn’t over-dominant.

  • Notch filtering to find unwanted frequencies.

When you have a lot of instruments playing in a room - or even a bunch of different samples playing together - you get a lot of reactionary frequencies that occur that can lead to a buildup in harmonic overtones that you don’t want in your music. This is natural physics occurring, so there is nothing you can do about it. To find those unwanted frequencies, I load up a Notch Filter in my EQ program and do a frequency sweep to zero in on the frequency that is bothering me. A notch filter is simply an EQ with an exceptionally high ‘Q’. It looks something like this.

By clicking on the headphones (this is Fabfilter Pro-Q) - I can isolate what the notch frequency is filtering out and then drag the headphone along the frequency line to listen for other unwanted frequencies.

This technique is particularly useful for precision instruments, but also good in general to find unwanted frequencies.

  • Panning. This is pretty obvious, but it’s especially important in orchestral mixes. Listen to orchestral recordings you’re trying to emulate and work out where the instruments are. It is one of the easiest things you can do to add space to a mix.

  • Reverb. Most of the best film score mix engineers heavily use multiple different kinds of reverbs in their work. (I have seen this first hand from Dennis Sands and John Rodd). You’re trying to put instruments in their own space and give them their own control. Generally I’ll use a different reverb for each section. One for brass, one for high strings, one for low strings, one for woodwind, one for percussion.

NOTE that they don’t have to be different ROOMS for each section, I just like to be able to set the ‘Dry/Wet’ ratio for each section independently. You might want really lush strings (big reverb) but you don’t want them to be muddied out with those warm brass chords also playing through a big reverb - so you put the brass chords through the same room but with a higher amount of ‘Dry’ signal, to give things a bit more clarity.

  • EQ’ing reverb. As always, try to filter out the low-end with reverb, otherwise it can cause havoc with your mixes.

A good reverb for orchestral work is Quantum Leap Spaces.

I’ll also throw my support behind 2CAudio B2 - a phenomenal algorithmic reverb.

That’s about all I will offer for now. The most important lesson I’ve always tried to remember is CUT, CUT, CUT, when it comes to EQ. If you feel like you’re losing volume, just…turn up your master fader. By cutting, you’re going to naturally add clarity. By boosting, you’re accentuating an instrument’s natural sound, and therefore making it less natural. By cutting, you’re only taking away info that we don’t need to hear anyway.

Cut lots, raise little, and things improve very quickly :slight_smile:

@tacoMusic - as for stems. Your suggestions are good, but I would try and separate Violins 1 & 2 if they have independent lines. Also try and separate a stem out for solo instruments if there are any. In general, the more stems the better, but obviously use common sense, as every track is different.

This is the stems I render when I do mixdown my sequence. I used to bounce all of these individually!! But now I finally bothered to set up a good routing system that when I do a mixdown, it renders not only a rough ‘master’ mix but also every stem at the same time.

Probably overkill for this purpose, but you may find it useful for reference. If you want that big punchy percussion sound that you mention (thanks for the shout out!) - then you DEFINITELY need to separate the percussion into low/mid/high.

Hope this info helped a little. This is a good thread.


Yep, I like the idea :slight_smile:

Some quick tip: the room is better treated than not, especially if is small but positioning speaker in the right place can help a lot; without becoming too technical absolutely avoid median lines (tweeters must not be located on any of the tree imaginary planes cutting your room in half).
But what is most important regarding monitoring is to consider your room as an acoustic instrument; it has its particular sound and you should become acquainted to it listening as much music as you can helping to understand it’s characteristics. Than try to emulate good mixes and use different sources and different location to listen to them (walk around and even go in another room).

In mix or better in the arrangement avoid frequency conflicts as johnny said; for instance a nice trick to glue bass and kick besides compression is to cut a freq on one of the two and boost the same freq on the other one; i.e. if you kick needs some 120Hz boost, add it a little and cut it from the bass.

Learn what basic EQ’s and compression’s parameters do; I mean Q for EQ and ratio, attack/release for compressor. To avoid phase problems is generally better to cut then boost to obtain the same result; if a sound is dull cut some mid instead of boosting bass and high.
If you are novice compressors can be a little intimidating but initially use very low threshold and ratios from 4:1 to 10:1 to better understand the effect than raise threshold and/or ratio until the effect is subtle (this in normal use but you can be creative if needed). Generally speaking fast attacks flatten the sound while slow ones give more punch letting transients to pass untouched; faster releases are usually better but can create distortion especially in the low freq range so watch out :slight_smile: If you like the compressor pumping (generally avoided) do it musically, I mean in time with the song; on drum busses is often used. Also if you need big sounding drums squash the bus a lot and add a little of it to the stereo channel to add room and presence.

Give to any instrument the right stereo position/ambient but always check phase issues in mono.

Hope it helps as a starting point bur it’s not an exact science thus feel free to experiment and leave the final judgement to your ears :slight_smile:

1 Like

Thanks for this Gareth, lots of good info. One issue I have with panning is that many sample libraries are set up with panning already in place, so it makes it difficult to try and alter this (or maybe I shouldn’t because the layout is as it should be?).

Take EWQLSO Gold for example, which I’m using less and less, but trying to pan within Kontakt doesn’t seem work for me because the signal disappears if I pan in the opposite direction to that which it’s been set up to pan to (hope that makes sense i.e. if EWQLSO is panned right, then trying to pan left with Kontakt makes the patch very quiet).

Your point about EQ’ing reverb is great, I should do more of that I think. Reading your recommendations, I also think the low end is my problem for sure…

Will also do as you say about separating solo instruments and the Violins I from Violins II. As soon as I’m back in the studio, I’ll get some stems sorted. Thanks for all the feedback, I hope this thread will become a reference point for basic mixing of orchestral tracks (also thanks to EdC_arts for his / her points).

tacoMusic said

Thanks for this Gareth, lots of good info. One issue I have with panning is that many sample libraries are set up with panning already in place, so it makes it difficult to try and alter this

You’re welcome. Just because the panning is in place, doesn’t mean it can’t be changed :wink: - but yes, in general they’re in the right place.

Really, the more important thing to have is separation between the instruments so you can have independent control over them. For example, the violin 1’s are panned ‘left’ in Eastwest Gold (if I remember correctly, it’s been a while!) - but you might want to push them MORE to the left. This is something you could after you’ve bounced the stems.

tacoMusic said

I also think the low end is my problem for sure…

It almost always is!!! Usually right up to about 300 Hz.

I have a busy week, but if I have time I’ll definitely have a go at mixing your track. I hope it’s good :stuck_out_tongue:

Hey Gareth, we posted quite at the same time :smiley:
Very useful tips there!

garethcoker said

I have a busy week, but if I have time I’ll definitely have a go at mixing your track. I hope it’s good :stuck_out_tongue:

Haha, it will be INCREDIBLE!!! No, I hope it’s listenable and works for the purpose of this experiment if nothing else. Would be great to hear your take on how to mix it too.

I’ll add a couple tips (I just skimmed the thread so it might have already been said).

The best way achieve depth is EQ. Instruments that have a strong presence in low and high frequency ranges will sit in the front and the inverse of that would sit in the back. Reverb can also help with that. Picture the soundstage you want in your head and use EQ to help sculpt that.

Gareth mentioned cutting lows to clean up the mix. Sometimes cutting unnecessary highs can help achieve additional clarity by letting the right instruments shine through and darkening secondary ones.

Process your mix in multiple levels, or sub mixes. Start with making the instrument sound good by itself. Then buss with other similar instruments on an aux and make those sound good. Group sections together and treat those. Repeat until you end up at the master channel. Idea is to make small adjustments and corrections at different levels so you won’t need to make big adjustments later, which usually make your track sound not all that great.

Use reverb and compression sparingly. The more you use of those, the more your mix will become denser. Use both with a purpose. Experiment with what things need it and what doesn’t. You may be surprised how little compression you need to get things to sit if you’ve done your EQ’ing and panning properly.

Last tip: develop your ears. The best mixers have great ears. That level of listening is a skill which will need time to develop and need a lot of practice. Learn what frequencies, or ranges, sound like by ear. Once you have that, you’ll be able to make the right adjustments and not make choices that create other problems in your mix.

Out of time and got to head out. Hope that helps if someone else didn’t already mention it.

1 Like

Some really awesome tips here, thanks guys!

A lot of the time I feel like that dog flying the airplane, I don’t know what the hell I’m doing.

  • cough * pre-delay * cough *

Mixing is just like anything else - the more you do it, the better you will get. That being said, it’s also somewhat SUBJECTIVE, meaning, what sounds great to one person might not sound that good to another. However, I think most people can recognize when a mix is really bad.

Personally, when it comes to orchestral works, I don’t like percussion that overwhelms the track, because I don’t think it sounds very natural. Now, it is a popular (modern) practice to layer and bed percussion to create a larger sounding track and grab people’s attention, but it’s not something that composers throughout history have traditionally done. In fact, it’s something composers have traditionally gone out of their way to avoid.

"The student will probably pass through the following phases: 1. the phase during which be puts his entire faith in percussion instruments, believing that beauty of sound emanates entirely from this branch of the orchestra—this is the earliest stage; 2. the period when he acquires a passion for the harp, using it in every possible chord; 3. the stage during which he adores the wood-wind and horns, using stopped notes in conjunction with strings, muted or pizzicato; 4. the more advanced period, when he has come to recognize that the string group is the richest and most expressive of all. When the student works alone he must try to avoid the pitfalls of the first three phases. "

Principles of Orchestration, Rimsky Korsakov.

Something to think about.

Great posts Lmz and garethcoker :wink:

Ok people,

I’ve whacked together something quickly this morning so we can start this experiment - I haven’t touched anything other than adding a limiter to the mix.

It’s a simple set of instruments and only 1m19s long, but it should serve the purpose of learning to mix better. I’ve kept it fairly heavy on the low end on purpose and have of course taken off the limiter when preparing the stems:

Original version (just with limiter)

Gareth - there’s a special dedication to you at 49s :slight_smile:

Logic session / stems (with and without reverb)

This is a Logic project ready to be mixed (just load up the stems found in the folder /Audio/ in your own DAW if you don’t use Logic):

These are the stems you’ll find which are pretty self-explanatory from their titles. The dry versions are in a separate zip, so you’ll need to replace the ‘wet’ stems if you want versions without reverb. Bear in mind, that some of the samples have reverb recorded into them already, so I’ve isolated as many as possible:

  • 120924 AJ Mix Expt - BassCellosEns.wav
    Bass and cello with string ensemble patches
  • 120924 AJ Mix Expt - Brass.wav
    Brass section
  • 120924 AJ Mix Expt - CelloOstinato.wav
    Cello ostinato
  • 120924 AJ Mix Expt - CymbalAndVocal.wav
    Cymbal and vocal samples
  • 120924 AJ Mix Expt - DistortedRhythmic.wav
    Electronic rhythmic parts
  • 120924 AJ Mix Expt - Piano.wav
    As it says on the tin
  • 120924 AJ Mix Expt - SnaresTaikosEtcPercussion.wav
    Snares, taikos and other heavy percussion parts
  • 120924 AJ Mix Expt - ViolinsViolas.wav
    Just the violins and violas

Let me know if you want any other part separated out and I’ll upload it separately. It would be great for people to share their techniques for mixing (or even upload their Logic / DAW session - especially if you mix using only the tools available within your DAW).

I’ll be having a go at this myself and will report back what I do here.



PS, this is for educational purposes, so please don’t just download the stems, mix and then release this as your own work, I’m not providing this work as a copyright-free download.

Nice Piece! Thanks for posting it and letting us take a crack at a mix! Here is a mix I quickly put together.

I did not listen to your MP3 before mixing so it was interesting hearing it compared to what I did.

I went for a very aggressive mix and broke a lot of the standard orch mixing conventions. I almost mixed it as a pop track rather than an orch track. I really liked the piano hits and used it almost as a percussive instrument. I put it in mono, wacked out the EQ - +12db at 3k, +9db at 4.5k and +6db at 100hz. I also compressed it a ton at a 8:1 ratio compressing the hits 6db.

On all of the string I brightened them a bit between 3db and 6db at around 7k. I also compressed the low strings 2.5:1 with 3db compression.

The percussion track was very aggressively eq’d to pull out the taiko drum.

Overall I compressed almost every track to a minor degree with the compression being heavier on the percussion and piano tracks.

For reverb I used two reverbs. A bright hall with about 2.2 seconds of decay and 60mili seconds of pre-delay. I also used a Truverb Bijou Theater setting which just adds depth and ambience to acoustic instruments. I used this on the strings.

As a side note, I use the Waves SSL channel strip quite a lot in my mixes. I have found that you can be pretty aggressive with the eq and not get a really harsh sound. If I were not using the SSL eq I would be much less aggressive with my settings.

On the 2mix bus I used the SSL comp with a slow attack compressing to around 4db at the peaks. Then an Oxford inflator followed by a limiter to grab any peaks and clips on the 2mix bus.

I then mastered it quickly using Ozone 5 and the Scoring preset with a few minor tweaks.