Guide to Creating a Distinct Music Mix

There are three major steps in creating a solid music mix.  I’ve been following this process for years with great success.  The following outlines my process and will help if you’re having difficulties creating a consistently solid mix each time you are behind the mixer.

The key to making this process work; do each step until you are ready to move on.  If you are at step three, you shouldn’t be going back and making massive changes that should have been done in step one.  While there can be a bit of overlap, consider completing each step as a milestone in creating your solid mix.

Step 1: Volume Balancing

Instruments and singers should not all be set at the same volume level.  Each has their place in the overall mix.  This placement is done through EQ work and volume balancing.  The idea of volume balancing is two-fold; first, addressing the proper overall volume levels of sounds in a song and second, addressing the sounds that lead the song.

Volume balancing is not the same for each church, each genre of music, or even each song.  But that’s ok.  You are only looking at building the initial volume mix.  You just have to take into account those expectations before you start.  For example, if you know the congregation doesn’t like a strong bass line, then keep it low in the mix.

The order for establishing volume balancing

  1. Drums.  The drums providing the driving beat in a song, whether it’s from the kick drum or the use of the snare.  You want the drums to be loud enough in the mix so the congregation can feel that energy.
  2. Bass.  You need to give that bass enough volume so it cuts through the drums.  I find a volume just above the drums is a good place to start.  Before I get into my EQ work, I want to hear the volume difference between the two instruments.  Most of the drum kit that will come into play on this will be the kick drum and somewhat the toms.
  3. Guitars.  Layer the rhythm guitars on top of the bass.  Then, layer the lead guitar on top of the rhythm guitar.
  4. Piano / keyboard.  The keyboard might be used for synth pads or a melodic line.  Place it where it would sound best in relation to the guitars.  For example, a pad would go under the guitars while a melodic line would go on top of rhythm guitar.  There is no definitive answer to each situation as each song is different and each mix can be different but still sound good.  Let your ears tell you where to ultimately place the volume for the piano/keyboard.
  5. Vocalists.  Start with the lead vocalist.  Place their volume so they can be heard clearly along with, yet above, the other instruments.  The congregation will sing along with the lead singer so they have to clearly hear them above the other instruments.  Next, bring in the backup singers and set them behind the lead vocalist.
  6. Other.  This is where I add additional percussion instruments to fill in the right spaces.

Highlighting Instruments

Once the overall volume balance is set, look for the instruments that will be used to drive the song.  For example, one song is lead by the acoustic guitar while the next is lead by the piano.  Make note of this and mark it on your song list so you know to give those instrument some extra bump during those songs.

Step 2: Creating the General Mix

The purpose of establishing a general mix is getting good sounds from your channels.  This means removing or minimizing bad frequencies, increasing the frequencies that benefit the sound, and re-evaluating your volume balance.  The general mix process comes before you ever touch the audio effects.

Your goal in creating the general mix is creating a foundational mix that you can build upon.  Your goal, at this point, is not creating the final mix.  Think of it as building a wooden table.  Before you can put the table together, you need to get the right material.

Keep in mind how you want the instrument / vocal to sound and how you want the whole band to sound.  Doing this, you’ll be performing a bit of natural blending but know the general mix is considered a rough mix, especially at the first pass.

The general mix process can produce an unexpected volume change.  Frequencies play a part in volume.  As you boost and cut frequencies at significant degrees, the volume of that sound may increase or decrease.  That’s when you’ll need to tweak your channel volumes.

Creating your general mix

It’s important you progress through your general mix channels in the same order as you did in your volume balancing.  They are listed below in the same order.  Keep in mind the idea that each sound builds upon the sound that came before.

IMPORTANT:  Please note I can’t give you a lot of specifics on mixing.  That is to say, I can’t say ‘always turn the acoustic guitar frequency up 3dB at 800Hz.  There are no definites in mixing.  There are frequency ranges that are typically beneficial, but not always.  It depends on the sound of the instrument/vocal and the desires of your final mix.  Therefore, use this portion as a generic road map as if you are leaving California and driving to Texas.  You know the city where you are starting and you know the city where you want to arrive.  You have to do the work so the map is specific to your trip.

The foundation of your mix is your low-end instruments, specifically the kick and the bass.  As an audience member, you don’t sing the kick drum but you tap your foot to it.  Both the drums and the bass guitar factor highly into the vibe of the song.  It’s for these reasons you should start your mixing around these low-end instruments.

Follow the order of instruments here;

  1. Drums.  Start with the kick drum.  Don’t assume you need to boost the low-end frequencies.  There’s a lot you can do in the low end and mid-range to affect clarity.  You need to start by having a sound in mind you want from the kick drum.  Do you want it to punch through the mix or do you want it to have a subtle emphasis?  You can mix the rest of the drum kit after the bass.  I’d wait to mix the cymbals until right before the singers.  The cymbals are great for accenting parts of the mix.
  2. Bass.  You can do a lot here depending on your desires.  You can boost the lows for a fatter sound or you can focus around the pluck for a bit of slap bass sound.  It’s all in how it should fit into the mix.  Use a sweep-able EQ control to sweep down to 250 and boost to hear what you can do.
  3. Electric Guitars.  Electric guitars can be a bit troublesome in the mix.  It all depends on if they are playing lead or rhythm and what patches or pedals the guitarist is using for the song.  They can sound bright and clear or heavy and full of distortion.  Combine that with the number of electric guitars you have on stage and you definitely need a plan.Let’s start with a heavily distorted guitar.  This will have plenty of low-end frequencies potentially clashing with the bass.  Go for cutting the lows and seeking definition of the electric guitar just above the bass.  You are layering instruments with only the overlap that benefits the mix.  Look for focusing around the 500 Hz – 600 Hz mark.Contrast all of that with a lead guitar playing a clear line.  You’ll want to focus on the mid-range and highs to get that lead line to cut through the mix.  Look to the 1.5 kHz range for a bit of boost and then jump to the 4+ kHz range for added bite.
  4. Acoustic Guitar.  How you EQ an acoustic guitar varies greatly from one guitar to the next.  The worship leader’s Breedlove guitar might naturally sound a lot brighter than the other guitarist’s Washburn.   The guitar that had old strings last week and not much of a high-end sound now has new strings and an overly bright crisp sound.  What do you do?Mixing the acoustic, you also need to consider what other instruments are available.  A small band might be comprised of only a guitarist and a couple of singers.  When this is the case, you want a nice full sound where you are only EQ’ing to clean up a bad frequency range or two.  A large band with several instruments gives you the need to focus on fitting the acoustic guitar into the available open space either upfront in the mix if it’s the lead instrument, or back in the mix if another instrument is leading.
  5. Piano / Keyboard. Developing the general mix with the piano is the easiest part of mixing.  Don’t do anything!  Not at first.  The piano is a wonderful sounding instrument that can produce sounds in the full spectrum of audio.  By its very nature, it will be through musical arrangement that the pianist plays melody lines in the octave range(s) that accentuate the piano in the mix.Use minimal EQ changes to highlight the melody line and/or add depth to the piano.  As long as the song is arranged properly, you can hear the frequency areas where the melody is breaking through and boost those frequencies.Keyboards, when played with similar sounds to a piano, can be treated like a piano.  It’s when you deal with pads / synth’s that you might have difficulty.  Listen for frequency areas in your mix where there is an empty space.  Imagine a painting with mountains and trees and a small clearing.  That audio clearing is where you can place the synths.  There are a variety of voicings a keyboard can produce so you need to deal with each one independently.
  6. Vocals. The vocals should be the last item you set for the general mix.  The reason is the church worship environment calls for worship LEADERS.  These are people who lead the congregation in worship through the reading of scripture, the spoken word, and in singing.  Therefore, it’s of utmost importance the congregation can clearly hear them.Lead vocal clarity can be achieved by; using the HPF to drop the super low frequencies, using the upper mid-range to boost clarity, and using the high end to add a bit of air / breathiness to the voice.  Make sure you listen for sibilance and eliminate it if it occurs.Background vocals can feel like the hardest part of the mix.  You want them to be heard but you don’t want them at the same layer level as the lead vocal.  Background vocals benefit a song when they bring depth and power to a song.  The depth could be thought of as a vocal line that supports the lead singer as well as a harmony line.  Power can be accomplished through adding voices only to a chorus or during key verses.Derek Sexsmith said it best, “I always tell myself that we don’t need to hear each word of each [background vocalist].” His point was the lead singer is who the congregation follows and therefore, the background vocalists should be treated as a re-enforcing sound, not as a lead vocal.

Rinse and Repeat

You shouldn’t expect to get the general mix right the first time you go through all the instruments.  Feel free to go back and make changes as necessary.  At this point, they should be minor, in comparison to your first round of EQ changes. Keep in mind how you want it to sound and make changes to match up with that.  Don’t try perfecting the mix or do a lot of blending.

Step 3: Creating the Distinct Mix

You’ve created your general mix.  The mix should have a good overall sound and be ready for the next step.  Creating a distinct mix takes your general mix and takes it to the next level.  This will happen through the blending of instruments and vocals, the contrasting of instruments and vocals, and through the use of effects.

There are three goals in this distinct mixing process;

1. Placing Sounds in Proper Places

Placing sounds in the proper places in the mix is also known as having them sit in the right places.  I’m not sure where that phrase came from but it reminds me of an orchestra.  The conductor stands on the podium and knows when he points to a specific section all the performers of that instrument will be sitting in the same section.  Listen to a song with your eyes closed and try pointing out each musician.  In a good mix, they are all sitting in the proper places.

Instrument Placement

The instruments are the foundational part of the music.  For this reason, the instruments need to be sitting in their proper places to support the vocals.  They also need to support each other in the mix.  This supporting can be done via volume and via EQ’ing.  Please note that the below includes EQ frequency recommendations which should be used as a place to start, not a goal.  If you find a different frequency cut/boost gives the sound you want, then use it.

Kick Drum

The kick drum is the foundation for all the instruments.  It needs to be well present in the mix and distinct enough that you can pick it out from all the other instruments.

Listen to your general mix and determine if it needs a volume bump and/or an EQ change.  Regarding the EQ changes, you can get it to cut through the mix by boosting the low end (40 Hz – 80 Hz) and/or focusing on the sound of the beater head hitting the drum head which comes in the 2 kHz to 6 kHz range.

Bass

A lot of what you can do here will depend on the quality of the bass player.  For example, a bass player who has mad skillz and knows how to groove with the song might have a bit more prominence in the mix. I want them to help carry the vibe of the song but, like in the church worship environment, in an understated way.  I could do this with a boost in the 1 kHz-6 kHz range for presence and a bit in the 200 Hz range for power.  I might even tweak for clarity.

In the case of the I-only-play-three-notes bassist, I’m more likely to keep them way back in the mix.  They will still be playing a supporting role but I won’t bring out their attack…or maybe I will.  It depends.

Snares and Toms

The snare should have a good amount of bite.  It will be the instrument that others will follow for the tempo so it needs to shine through to support them.  The problem is that it’s easy to get too much bite in your snare if you’re not careful.

Look for adding bite and depth by boosting in the 400 Hz – 800 Hz range.  You want a sound that conveys, “hello, I’m your friendly-neighborhood snare drum.”  Boost too much and it’s “LOOK AT ME, I’M THE SNARE DRUM!”  You might also find a cut on the low end helps separate it out.

You’ve got floor toms and rack toms.  Each have distinct sounds.  Start with the floor tom and try boosting at the 140 Hz mark.  Once you find the right sound, then move through the higher toms by boosting at around 20 Hz higher (160 Hz, 180 Hz, etc).  The key is first getting that floor tom where It sounds right.  The floor tom is a great accent drum in the kit so make sure it sits nicely in the mix between the drum and the bass.

Electric Guitars

Place the electric guitar above the bass.  You’ll want to give it the depth around 500 Hz and the presence around the 1.5 kHz mark.  The amount of presence can be affected by whether or not it’s played as a lead instrument of a rhythm instrument.  Cut on the low end if you find it’s blending too much with the lower end instruments.  If it still seems lacking in some way, revisit the 4 kHz – 7 kHz to give it some more bite.

Acoustic Guitar

Placing the acoustic guitar in the mix, I go for something that’s supporting a lead guitar, by sitting it just under the lead guitar or along side of it and using EQ to separate the two.  For example, I’d cut the highs on the rhythm instrument so the lead instrument could shine through.

Consider all the instruments in the mix and first decide if the acoustic guitar needs to support a lead instrument.  When this is the case, start with a cut to the acoustic guitar’s highs and consider boosting the mid-range warmth and presence of the guitar.

When you don’t have a lead instrument like a piano or lead guitar, then aim for more presence in the 2 kHz – 8 kHz range and add some high end.  Do be careful that you don’t add so much high end that the guitar sounds boxy or gets caught up with the cymbals.

Piano / Keyboard

Tuck this either behind the acoustic guitar or on top of it, depending on how it’s being used.  The piano can be played for melodic lines and it can also be played by chunking out chords with embellishments.  Played for the melody, like a lead instrument, I’ll place it on top of the guitar with a cut to the high’s on the guitar.  Then, I’ll listen to see what else is needed.  I might not have to add anything to the piano EQ.  On the other hand, I might need to boost the upper mid-range and/or high frequencies to have it stand out.

In the case of the piano played for chunking out chords, I’ll boost the mid-range in the 600 – 1.2 kHz range to warm it up and get it in-line with the guitar.

Synths…if the keyboard is played with acoustic pads, then I’ll listen to the mix for an open frequency range and place the pads in there.  I’m not going to restrict the pads to this range, just like how you shouldn’t restrict any instrument to that degree.  However, I am going to put the emphasis in that range.  The pads are to support the other instruments, not to dominate them or muddy them.

Vocal Placement

 – Lead Vocals

Considering the state of your mix now, how does the lead vocal sound?  They should be high enough above the mix so the congregation can sing along and clear enough so they understand the words.

Start with any necessary volume adjustment.  Next, listen for clarity.  You can create a clearer sound by cutting the low end and then turning towards the mid-range.  Start with a 4 dB boost at 1.5 kHz and turn your mid-range sweep up through 8 kHz until you find the optimal clarity.  If you don’t hear it, apply a 4 dB cut and sweep again.  Each person’s voice is different so whereas one singer might need a 6 dB boost for clarity, another might need a 4 dB cut at a different frequency.

 – Background Vocals

Where do you sit them in the mix?  It depends.  In the case where they sing to add power to the song, you might want their volume levels the same as the lead singer.  In the case where they sing for support and maybe harmony, you want them below the lead singer in volume.

Background singer EQ should focus on blending all of the background singers together.  Cut the frequencies that don’t fit and boost where they do.  For example, if singer #1 has a rough sound in the 1.5 kHz range, then cut it.  Now how do they sound in comparison to the others?  If they don’t blend, what can you do to the singer or the others so they do blend? There is no one-size-fits-all answer.  Some singers naturally harmonize well together (BONUS!) and others simply don’t.

2. When to Blend Versus When to Contrast

Throughout the mixing process, you are blending and contrasting instruments and vocals.   You are blending background singers.  You are contrasting the bass against the kick drum.  However, there are times when you have an option between contrasting and blending.

The two times you’ll have the blend/contrast choice is with vocals and with instruments.

There are times when two singers will lead a song.  Do you blend or contrast their voices?  It depends.  On one of our worship teams, we have three different people who might lead a song; Jeff, Kevin, or Leshon.   When only one sings lead, then the other two are singing background.  However, if two of them sing lead, I have options.  Jeff and Leshon naturally harmonize.  Therefore, I tweak the EQ so the two singers create one sound.  When Kevin and Leshon sing, they don’t have a naturally blended voice so I contrast them.  Not so much actively contrasting; that sounds bad.  I EQ them so each has a distinct voice when singing together.

Working with acoustic guitars is much the same.  I have three different worship bands and two of them have two acoustic guitarists that play rhythm.  Depending on the musicians, the guitars, and the song, I may blend their guitars for one sound or contrast them wherein I bring out the best sounds in each guitar and sculpt the two so they sit next to each other in the mix yet with enough frequency differences they sound unique.

Deciding between blending and contrasting comes down to asking the question, “what sounds best for this song?”

3. Adding Effects

Effects are the final piece in creating your distinct mix.  Effects can include standard effects like reverb and delay.  They can also extend to compression-as-an-effect as well as all of the effects available on digital audio workstations.  Considering the amount of information I’ve covered so far in this guide, I’m going to leave this up to you with one helpful tip…only use effects to benefit your mix.  Don’t use them to fix a bad EQ job.  Go back and fix your EQ problem – you might even find what you really need is a different mic’ing setup.

Want even more details behind creating a solid distinct music mix?  You can get more details including key frequency areas for instruments / vocals, more detailed instructions, sample audio files, in-depth discussion on effects and even printable reference pages.  Pick up your copy of Audio Essentials for Church Sound today!