Understanding Mixing Music, a guide to EQ, Leveling and Compression

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Have you ever wondered how professional music recordings sound so polished and balanced? The secret lies in the art of mixing music. Mixing is the process of combining different audio elements, such as vocals, instruments, and effects, to create a cohesive and well-balanced final product. In this guide, we will explore three essential techniques used in mixing: EQ (equalization), leveling, and compression.

What is mixing music?

Mixing music is the process of combining multiple audio tracks together to create a balanced and cohesive final product. It involves adjusting various elements of the audio, such as volume levels, equalization (EQ), and compression, to ensure that each element sits well in the mix and contributes to the overall sound.

Gain staging

Gain staging is like setting the volume levels at each stage of your vocal recording process to ensure clarity, consistency, and optimal sound quality. Imagine it as adjusting the volume knobs on a soundboard to make sure each sound, from your initial recording to the final mix, is balanced and clear. Proper gain staging prevents distortion, maintains dynamic range, and ensures that your vocals sit well in the mix without overpowering or getting lost in the music. It’s about finding the right balance so that your vocals sound clean, powerful, and professional, whether you’re recording at home or in a studio.

EQ (Equalization)

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One of the essential tools in music mixing is EQ, which stands for Equalization. EQ allows you to adjust the balance and tonality of individual instruments or tracks in your mix. It helps to enhance the clarity, depth, and overall sound quality of your mix.

The EQ tool consists of various frequency bands that you can adjust to boost or cut specific frequencies. Each frequency band corresponds to a range of frequencies, such as low, mid, and high. By manipulating these bands, you can shape the sound of individual instruments and make them stand out in the mix.

When using EQ, it’s important to understand the different frequency ranges and their effect on the sound. For example, boosting the low frequencies can add warmth and thickness to a bassline, while cutting the high frequencies can reduce harshness in a vocal track.

To effectively use EQ, it’s crucial to listen critically to each instrument or track and identify any problem areas. You can then use EQ to address these issues by cutting or boosting specific frequencies. Remember to use subtle adjustments and make small changes to avoid drastic alterations that may affect the overall balance of the mix.

In addition to corrective EQ, you can also use EQ creatively to achieve certain artistic effects. For example, boosting the high frequencies of a guitar solo can make it more cutting and prominent in the mix. Experimentation and practice will help you develop your EQ skills and achieve the desired sound in your mixes.

Understanding frequency bands

When we talk about frequency bands, we are referring to the different ranges of frequencies that make up the audio spectrum. The audio spectrum is divided into several bands, each with its own characteristics and importance in the mix. Here are some key frequency bands to be aware of:

  • Low Frequencies: This range typically includes bass instruments and kick drums. These frequencies provide the foundation and impact of the track.
  • Low-Mid Frequencies: This range is where most instruments reside, such as guitars, vocals, and keyboards. Properly controlling the low-mid frequencies can help improve clarity and separation in the mix.
  • Mid Frequencies: This range is crucial for vocals and lead instruments. It is where the intelligibility and presence of the sound are emphasized.
  • High-Mid Frequencies: This range is responsible for the brightness and definition of instruments like snare drums, cymbals, and guitars.
  • High Frequencies: This range is where the airiness and sparkle of the mix come from. It includes elements like hi-hats, cymbals, and vocal sibilance.

Common EQ techniques in mixing music

  • High-pass filtering: This technique involves removing low frequencies from a track using a high-pass filter. It is useful for cleaning up unwanted rumble or mud in instruments like guitars or vocals.
  • Low-pass filtering: On the other end of the spectrum, low-pass filtering involves removing high frequencies from a track using a low-pass filter. This can be helpful in reducing harshness or sibilance in vocals or cymbals.
  • Notch filtering: Notch filtering is used to cut out a specific frequency or frequency range that is causing problems in the mix, such as a resonant frequency in a room or an unwanted hum from a recording.
  • Boosting or cutting specific frequencies: By boosting or cutting specific frequencies, you can enhance or reduce certain elements in a mix. For example, boosting the low end of a kick drum can make it more powerful, while cutting the harsh frequencies in a guitar solo can make it sound smoother.

Using compression to control dynamics

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Compression works by reducing the volume of louder parts of a signal, while simultaneously boosting the volume of quieter parts. This helps to bring the overall dynamic range of the track closer together. The result is a more controlled and polished sound.

When using compression, it is important to set the appropriate attack and release times. The attack time determines how quickly the compressor kicks in when the volume exceeds the threshold, while the release time determines how quickly the compressor stops compressing after the volume drops below the threshold.

It is also important to set the ratio appropriately. The ratio determines the amount of compression applied to the signal. A higher ratio means more compression, while a lower ratio means less compression.

When using compression, it is crucial to use your ears and make adjustments based on what sounds good to you. Every song is different, and there is no one-size-fits-all approach to compression. Experiment with different settings and listen carefully to the impact it has on your mix.

Common compression techniques in mixing music

  • Parallel Compression: This technique involves blending a compressed version of your audio with the original uncompressed signal. It can be used to add more sustain and impact to individual instruments or the entire mix.
  • Sidechain Compression: Sidechain compression is often used to create a pumping effect in electronic dance music. It involves using a trigger source, such as a kick drum, to control the compression on another track. This technique can help create space for the kick drum and make it stand out in the mix.
  • Serial Compression: Serial compression involves using multiple compressors in a row to achieve a more subtle and transparent compression effect. Each compressor can be set with different attack and release times to target different aspects of the audio signal.
  • Multiband Compression: Multiband compression allows you to compress different frequency bands independently. This can be useful for controlling specific frequency ranges or dealing with problematic frequencies in a mix.

These are just a few examples of the many compression techniques you can experiment with in your mixes. Remember, the key is to use compression in a way that enhances the sound and brings out the best in your mix, rather than simply applying it for the sake of it.

Putting It All Together

Now that you have a basic understanding of EQ, leveling, and compression, let’s talk about how to use them together to create a well-balanced mix.

First, start by using EQ to carve out space for each instrument in the mix. This means cutting frequencies that clash with other instruments and boosting frequencies that bring out the best in each instrument.

Next, use leveling to ensure that all the elements of the mix are at the appropriate volume. Pay attention to the dynamics of each instrument and make adjustments as needed to achieve a balanced sound.

Finally, use compression to control the dynamic range of each instrument and glue the mix together. Apply compression to individual tracks and also consider using bus compression on groups of instruments to further enhance cohesiveness.

Throughout the process, remember that mixing is both a technical and artistic endeavor. Use your ears and trust your instincts to make creative decisions that serve the overall vision of the song.

Experimentation is key, so don’t be afraid to try different combinations of EQ, leveling, and compression settings until you achieve the desired sound.

Remember, mixing is a skill that takes time and practice to master. Don’t get discouraged if your first mixes don’t sound perfect. Keep learning, experimenting, and refining your techniques, and you’ll see improvement over time.

Tips for achieving a polished mix

Tips for achieving a polished mix:

  1. Use reference tracks: One of the best ways to ensure your mix is on par with professional tracks is to use reference tracks. These are songs that are similar in genre and style to what you are working on. By comparing your mix to a well-mixed reference track, you can get a better understanding of how your mix should sound.
  2. Pay attention to panning: Panning refers to the placement of instruments in the stereo field. By properly panning your instruments, you can create a sense of width and depth in your mix. Experiment with different panning positions to find the best placement for each instrument.
  3. Use automation: Automation is a powerful tool in mixing that allows you to control the levels, EQ, and other parameters of your tracks over time. By using automation, you can add movement and dynamics to your mix, making it more engaging and interesting to listen to.
  4. Take breaks: Mixing for long periods of time can lead to ear fatigue, which can affect your judgment and perception of the mix. It is important to take regular breaks to rest your ears and give them a chance to recover. This will help you make more accurate decisions during the mixing process.
  5. Trust your ears: While there are technical guidelines and best practices in mixing, ultimately, it is your ears that should guide you. Use your intuition and trust your instincts when making decisions about EQ, leveling, and compression. If it sounds good to you, chances are it will sound good to others as well.


Experimentation and practice are key when it comes to mixing music, so don’t be afraid to try different techniques and trust your ears. Take the time to listen critically to your mixes and make adjustments as needed. With patience and persistence, you’ll become a skilled mixer and be able to create professional-sounding tracks.