Mixing & Mastering Electronic Music in 2020
“The actual producing, mixing, and mastering is hard work, harder than what I do.”
— Mandy Moore (singer & musician)
Why is mixing electronic music so damn hard? Even better, why is mastering electronic music so damn hard?
As someone who has spent over a decade honing and perfecting mixing electronic music, as well as mastering electronic music, I’ve come to a slightly radical conclusion.
There are really only two approaches to creating great mixes and masters (without investing in education):
Approach A: Teach yourself, watch hundreds of tutorials, collaborate, network, and do as much work as possible.
This is how most producers do it. And I’ll be the first to say that there is nothing wrong with this approach. In fact, this is exactly how I got started.
The upside? You will be accountable for yourself. The more work you put in, the more you’ll get out. It’s also very cost effective. With all the free content out there, you could theoretically learn how to make amazing sounding music without ever spending a dime on education.
The downside? This approach will certainly take a long time. We’re talking years. Lot’s of em. You will also run into tons of conflicting advice. It will be hard to sort through and even harder to know what advice actually works.
It will also be hard to even know where to allocate your time. You will most likely be Googling the wrong things for a while. This can be a huge waste of time, but most producers chalk this up as ‘part of the process’ — and, to some extent, it is.
The downright ugly? Most producers who chose this route eventually quit. Are there exceptions? Of course. But most producers never get deep enough into the art of music production to experience any true success (professionally and commercially).
Approach B: Hire & pay a mixing or mastering engineer. Focus on being creative.
The upside? This is a lot less time intensive. This will free up your time so you can focus on what you love most: making music. With someone else handling the technicalities of your music, you can get back to having fun by being creative with sound design, layering, and composition.
The downside? It’s expensive. Plus, the reality is that you’ll still be involved in the mixing and mastering process. You’ll go back and forth with edits, or even start attending mixing sessions. Otherwise, you run the risk that the engineer might never be able to fully realize your artistic vision.
The downright ugly? A lot of engineers simply don’t care about your art. They’ll do enough to make your music sound half-decent, but no more than that. It becomes a day job, and like any day job, it leaves them feeling jaded and bored. This means your music will be robbed of the attention and nurturing necessary to make it sound truly amazing. Are there exceptions to this? Certainly. But with over a decade of experience in electronic music, I’ve heard hundreds of this type of horror story.
Add this all up? And wow, mixing and mastering is tough. After all, in an ideal world, you still want to:
- Learn how to actually mix and master yourself
- Focus on the techniques and strategies that you actually need to know
- Save time so you can focus on writing and composition
- Not spend too much of your hard earned money on engineering
That’s a laundry list of asks, and none of them are small. This is why artists have historically always sought out the most talented engineers.
But, the days of million-dollar record deals are long gone, and artists are expected to pick up the slack, leaving you — the artist — responsible for a hell of a lot more. It’s daunting to say the least.
In short, this is why mixing electronic music is so damn hard.
The 8 Most Common Mixing & Mastering Mistakes
When it comes to mixing electronic music, we’ve already talked about two wildly different approaches to the uphill battle of mixing and mastering. In short, while neither method is inherently wrong, both leave a lot to be desired.
Whatever path you choose, I wanted to share some of the most popular mixing and mastering mistakes I see producers of all levels making (including myself at one point in time). So, let’s do it. Here are 8 mixing and mastering mistakes you cannot afford to make:
1. You think your mix is just ‘missing that one little thing’
At one point or another, every producer is guilty of this. You’ve spent a lot of time on your craft, you’ve even made some decent music. But, when you compare it to the producers you look up to, it falls a bit short. You start to think “man, if my mix just had that one thing, it would sound great.”
The truth is, your mix isn’t missing one thing. It’s missing a lot of things. This is our brain trying to solve & simplify a very complex problem that involves a lot of moving parts (EQ, saturation, compression, sidechain, reverb, gain staging, automation, sound design, layering, etc.) and can’t be solved by any one tip, technique, strategy or concept.
2. You don’t need third party plugins
I get it. Your DAW’s plugins are super powerful. And yes, you can get 70-80% of the way there using only your DAW’s plugins. But, this notion that you don’t need to invest in third party plugins is like a painter who won’t invest in some high quality paints, brushes and canvas.
Eventually, if you want to compete with the best in the world, you’ll want to be using at least some of the same tools. Fortunately, you don’t need all of them — all you need is a very select group of plugin bundles that will drastically improve your mixes and masters (assuming, of course, you actually know how to use them).
3. You only check your mix on your monitors
If all goes according to plan, the music you make will be heard on every system imaginable: laptop speakers, car stereos, festival systems, club speakers, iPhones, and even some random gaming speakers that have somehow survived since the early 90s. How can you possibly make sure that your music sounds great on all of these different systems? There is actually a correct answer to this. Can’t wait for the answer? Jump to the PS of this email.
4. You fully outsource your mastering
The problem with entirely outsourcing your mastering isn’t the cost. It’s the fact that by avoiding mastering, you’ll never know how your music sounds as a finished product until you get it back from the engineer. This means, every time you have edits, you are theoretically mixing blind (because you don’t know how your track will sound once it hits your engineer’s mastering chain). Trust me, there is a MUCH better way to solve for this.
Struggling with doing everything yourself? Me too. That’s why I put together an epic, FREE 90-minute workshop covering some of my favorite production techniques.
5. You spend a lot of time mixing in mono
Somewhere, somehow, someone spread the myth that all clubs are in mono. Maybe this was true in the 70s, 80s, or even the 90s, but it’s 2020. Club systems are in stereo. I’ve played hundreds of them. I know several artists that have played thousands of them. I (and they) can confirm: clubs are not in mono. The reality is, 99% of your music will be heard on stereo systems, on headphones, in car stereos, on laptop and iMac speakers, etc.
Positioning your mix to sound beautiful in stereo should be the absolute focus, mono should be the after-thought. How to actually execute this can be fairly difficult to grasp at first, but a healthy understanding of the stereo spectrum, stereo imaging and panning is an outright necessity.
If you don’t believe me, check out this hilarious response from Mario (formerly of Myon & Shane 54). It gets better every time I read it!
6. You think loudness is just about limiting
Oh, the loudness war. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that loudness is achieved solely through limiting. Loudness can be achieved in plenty of stages, like mastering, mixing and even in the composition stage. Certain sounds are inherently tougher to ‘get loud’ when compared to others. Knowing the difference can save you a lot of wasted energy and effort in the pursuit of making commercially-loud music.
Don’t be fooled by loudness either! Make sure to check out The Ultimate Guide to Loudness.
7. You are lazy with automation
If you want your mix to move, bounce, groove, vibe, etc — you are going to have to utilize automation. And lot’s of it. Not just in drawing automation nodes, but in auto-filters, auto-panners, tremolos, and responsive effects like sidechain, LFO routing and so much more. Without automation, our music would be dull, static, and dead.
8. You don’t use a reference track
Our ears need to get re-calibrated every once in a while. Mixing without a reference track is a sure-fire way to get truly lost in your own project. From ear fatigue to terrible mixing decisions, avoiding a reference track is asking for trouble. Better yet, make sure to never take a break — this puts your ears through a clinical form of torture and is often the #1 reason why mixes lack proper gain structure, and generally lack a sense of professionalism and commercial viability.
The Solution: 12 Fundamentals of Creating a Professional Sounding Mix & Master
I’m going to run through what I consider to be the 12 fundamentals of achieving a professional sound. They are:
- Gain Structure
- Subtractive EQ
- Additive EQ
Let’s run through each of them.
1. Gain Structure
Gain structure, essentially, is the art of volume, and man, is it important. In fact, in my opinion, it’s THE most important mixing tool at your disposal. And hey, even Porter Robinson agrees. In a Reddit AMA, he said…
“Getting the relative volume levels of each instrument correct is a more important task than EQing. New producers often prefer a sound after it’s been EQed and in many cases it’s only because the levels have changed.” – Porter Robinson
There is so much inside of gain structure (beyond setting your volume). And an absolutely awesome place to start, is simply by anchoring your kick drum. Next time you start a mix, anchor your kick at -6 or -8 dbs, and once it’s set, you never touch that again. That means that if you want to raise the volume of your kick, you lower everything else, you don’t just blindly raise the kick drum, and then have to raise everything else, and end up with no headroom. And we’ll talk a little more about gain structure in a few minutes when I bring up referencing.
Saturation is the #1 most underrated mixing tool. In short, saturation adds harmonic frequencies both above and below your source sound. But, it’s important to note that achieving a full, analog and warm sounding mix has everything to do with proper use of saturation.
because saturation plugins are emulating analog equipment, the plugins you use here really, really, really matter…the right plugins and flavors of saturation will help you achieve that full, analog and warm sounding mix.
And for me, I have a ton of favorite saturation plugins and use-cases for all of them. In fact, if you just google hyperbits saturation, the first blog post that comes up will give you 20 of them. But for now, I’ll give you 3.
The DSP Reviver has some absolutely sick third-order harmonics that to me, simply sound amazing in drums. So this is something you can slap on your drum bus or even put on individual drum sounds, and it’s affordable. It’s not an expensive plugin at all.
The Sound Toys Decapitator is pretty much the best all-purpose saturator on the market, it gives you 5 different settings or emulations you can toggle through (my favorite is prob the E setting which stands for EMI because it is the brightest and the zestiest saturation) and it’s just amazing. At the end of the day it’s probably my favorite saturation plugin and while it isn’t cheap on it’s own, when you get it as part of the Sound Toys Bundle, its super super affordable. And btw – side note – Hyperbits Masterclass students get 50% off the entire Sound Toys bundle which is prob the best deal on the internet…but anyway.
Softube Saturation Knob – don’t get me wrong, there are a ton of better saturation plugins out there, but the reason I love this one is because it is free. You can literally google this and have a really amazing saturation plugin for nothing. It might require an email or something but otherwise, it is free.
3. Subtractive EQ
Subtractive (or reductive) EQ is significantly more important than additive EQ. A lot of professional engineers will tell you: amateurs boost, professionals cut. And while hard to grasp at first, this means that if you want the vocal to cut through, try removing frequencies from other instruments before boosting the vocal itself. Boosting everything will result in a mix that lacks head room and struggles to balance competing sounds because everything fights for the same space.
Understanding the art of EQ and how to make room for multiple sounds is an absolute necessity in making professional music. Here are a few quick EQ tips for you to walk away with:
- 2 small moves is almost always better than 1 bigger move, because it allows you to be more gentle and more subtle.
- This is more for additive EQ but, in general, shoot for narrow bumps in the low end, wide in the high end. If you’re overly wide in the low end it can really mess up a mix, there’s just too much powerful information in the low end to be too wide, and in the high, being too narrow will just be too sharp and kind of hurt the ears.
- Another amazing tip: use Fabfilter Pro Q’s auto-gain feature so you can take volume out of the equation here. That means you can just hear coloration changes instead of the volume changes that naturally come with that.
- When you want to boost something, try finding its fundamental frequency and once you’ve found that, instead of boosting it, try actually removing that fundamental frequency from a conflicting sound. This is just one of many examples of how to make room in a mix by cutting.
Compression will decrease your dynamic range by helping remove the transient peaks of your instruments. Overall, it can create a perceivably louder mix, tighten up live performances and help glue sounds together. But, it’s also one of the most overused techniques on this list.
When it comes to actually using compression, the majority of sounds we are using in electronic music, the samples, the digital synths, working in midi, etc. – these sounds are not overly dynamic to begin with! So using compression on fairly flat sounds to begin with is actually kind of pointless. I would focus on compressing live sounds, like live performances like vocals, guitar licks, sax solos, etc. more so than the digital stuff.
Sidechain has exploded into the electronic dance music world as an effect, even though it was originally meant to be a mixing tool. Understanding that difference (sidechain as a mixing tool vs. sidechain as a pumping effect) was a HUGE realization that helped propel me into making professional sounding music.
And btw — you can sidechain against anything in your mix to help create additional room (you aren’t limited to only your kick drum). You can sidechain against your vocal, leads, synths, instruments, and hell — you can even sidechain some of your effects (like reverbs and delays) to get them out of the way of sounds you want listeners to focus on.
6. Additive EQ
Additive EQ speaks to the reality that digital EQs and analog-emulated EQs are very different from each other. This means that the way you create color in your mixes can drastically vary simply based on the type of EQ you use. After all, do you want a clean, digital sound? Or, do you want a dirty, analog your sound? The answer depends on who you are as a producer, and the end result you are trying to create, but the implementation of additive EQ is a lot harder in practice.
Some of my favorite additive EQ plugins:
- API 550
- Peugtec EQP1A
- Sonalksis SV517 MK2 stereo EQ
- Sound Toys Sie Q
Reverb is my favorite mixing tool because it means translating your mix to a real world environment. Think about it. Reverb exists everywhere. It’s literally in every room you’ve ever spent time in: every gymnasium, every amphitheater, every bar, every club, every classroom…every space you’ve ever been in. You can’t avoid it. And that means that the absence of reverb is actually highly artificial. Your mix will sound extremely unnatural by NOT putting reverb in your mix.
This makes reverb an absolute necessity, and the way you use the various reverbs available to you (rooms, plates, halls, chambers, springs) matters. For now, here’s a quick rundown:
- Rooms: a cohesive gel for almost everything in your mix
- Plates: for things in the front of your mix
- Halls: for things in the back of your mix
- Springs: for guitars and bass instruments
- Chambers: for claps/snares
Effects can be a real love-hate thing for mixing engineers. They provide a lot of potential polish, gloss and movement to mixes that would otherwise sound dull and flat. But, at the same time, effects can cause huge problems in your mix. Often times, artists do just that: sloppy reverbs and delays, overly dramatic tremolos, auto-panners bouncing around the entire stereo spectrum…things get messy in a hurry.
Treating and processing your effects with extreme detail can single-handedly clean up your track, liven up your mix and provide the much needed polish, movement and energy that most amateur mixes lack.
Limiting is often thought of as a mastering-only tool. But in reality, the purposes of limiting stretch far beyond mastering. Did you know that a lot of professional mixing engineers use limiting to flatten sub-bass layers? Also, did you know that limiting can be the best way to flatten out transient peaks (which in turn, will help maximize your headroom)?
Layering isn’t traditionally thought of as a mixing tool, but man, can it help with mixing. A lot of times, poor sound choice can be layered with great sound choice and still result in an beautiful finished product. Plus, layering has two major components: layering to sound unique, and layering to sound full, huge and warm.
This distinction is critical when it comes to utilizing layering in your mixes. But just like effects, layering can create a ton of problems which require everything from saturation, EQ, reverb, compression, and various other effects in order to be fixed.
Referencing is everything. If you only do one thing as a result of this email, do this: create a reference playlist with 10 of your all-time favorite, best produced tracks (wav files would be ideal). Next, listen to those tracks everywhere. On every system you possibly can. Then, when you sit down to make music, treat your reference playlist as a bible — your music isn’t done until the gain structure, coloration, loudness and energy of your music matches at least a few of your references. This is a lot easier said than done, but it’s surely some of the best advice I was ever given.
Mastering can be difficult, but it isn’t nearly as hard as you might think. That said, slapping an Ozone preset onto your music will do substantially more damage than good. You need to learn why you are applying things like the Sonnox Inflator, EQ matching and limiting to your mastering processing chain. Once you learn why, you’ll see that mastering is simply a way to accentuate what you already have.
Mastering is kind of like becoming rich, it just amplifies who you already are. If you were a jerk before getting rich, you’ll be even more of a jerk with a lot of money. Masters are exactly the same — if your mix is sub-par, mastering will showcase that even more. But, if your mix is beautiful, polished and balanced, mastering will amplify that.
The Ultimate Solution: Mix Master Flow
We’ve established that mixing and mastering are extremely difficult to learn. We’ve offered a ton of advice and solutions in this blog post alone, but perhaps you need more. That’s why we put together a ridiculously special course for you.
It’s called Mix Master Flow, and it’s an incredible collection of 9 start-to-finish style mixdowns, stem masters, and masters + 50 technical mixing & mastering video tips.
All in, we’re talking about over 115 no-bullsh*t videos spanning over 25 hours worth of content.
Hands down, this is the most extensive course we’ve ever put together (aside from the Masterclass).
Here is everything the course includes:
- 3 start-to-finish style Mixdown Courses
- 3 start-to-finish style Stem Mastering Courses
- 3 start-to-finish style Mastering Courses
- 50 Technical Mixing & Mastering HD Video Tips
- Bonus: Live Q&A Session w/ the Hyperbits Team
- Bonus: The Ultimate Mixing Sample Pack
- Bonus: Mixing Presets & Channel Strips for Ableton & Logic
- Bonus: Mixing Templates for Ableton & Logic
- Bonus: Access to 3 Recorded Hyperbits Workshops
You will literally watch me (and our entire team) mix, stem master, and master 9 projects entirely from scratch, and along the way, you’ll discover some super cool stuff, including:
- How to use advanced processing chains to make professional sounding music
- How to literally transform your productions with saturation and distortion
- How to properly use automation to create attention-grabbing professional transitions
- How to organize and optimize your workflow as a mixing engineer
- How to use both reductive and additive EQ to achieve separation and distinction
- How to process synths, basses, drums, and vocals so they sit PERFECTLY in the mix
- How to use reference tracks to make your track stand up to the big boys
- How to actually set up your mastering chain
- How to achieve commercial loudness without sacrificing quality and clarity
- How to use a little-known technique called “EQ matching” to sound more like your favorite producer
- How to use gain structure to anchor your kick and properly achieve headroom
- How to use effects (like delay, tremolo, auto-panners, and auto-filters) to excite your mix
- How to use layering as an engineer to fill up your productions
- How to use room, plate and hall reverbs to polish your productions
And this doesn’t even include everything you’ll get from the 50 technical tips (which are highly actionable, technical production techniques you can apply in your project instantly).
Here’s what really matters though…
After getting through Mix Master Flow, ALL of your music will sound WAY better… it’ll be clearer, sharper, and more dynamic… it’ll be more powerful while also being clean, thanks to the proper use of reductive EQ and saturation.
You’ll be able to get back to creating ideas (because you won’t be focusing on the technical side of things), you’ll construct music with more movement, life, and energy, and most importantly, you’ll learn to mix and master your own tracks, saving you time and money.
Have any questions about mixing and mastering? Questions about Mix Master Flow? Get in touch.