It’s common when discussing the different stages of the music production process to think of them as separate things. Indeed, each one - tracking, mixing or mastering for example - has its own very specific set of considerations and facets. But in truth, some of them do blur together a little, regardless of whether you’re working on a hardware system, a software setup or a combination of the two.
Steps at different ends of the process are distinct from each other - you’d never find yourself recording during mastering in any real world situation. But mixing is different. A form of mixing usually begins as soon as you have more than a couple of elements recorded, and continues right up until the final mix - the point when your brain switches into “OK now I am doing the mix” mode. There’s a difference however between keeping a working mix on the go and actually doing your final mixdown. Let’s look at some dos and donts when it comes to mixing and production workflow.
In truth you’ll find it hard not to do this - if you are any kind of producer at all you’ll find it painful if not impossible to work with certain elements far too quiet or loud in the mix. Whether you’re composing on the fly or recording pre-written music, literally nobody wants to listen along to a terrible mix. The rough mix or working mix is almost an automatic process - you probably won’t even notice you are doing it.
Having said that, fine tuning the mix is absolutely not the right thing to be doing while you’re supposed to be doing more time-critical things earlier in the production process. Yes, the mix should sound “about right” as you’re tracking, editing and arranging, but those things take precedence over the perfect balance, until later on. If you’re endlessly shaping a cymbal sound, you’re probably not paying enough attention to whether the guitars are properly edited, and so on. Moreover, sections or even whole tracks may well get erased or muted later on, so all that time you spent getting a perfect piano tone might be wasted.
Things like fades in or out of the whole track at the start and end can safely be saved for the end of the mixing stage, when the track’s shape is much more clear. But within a track, automation of certain parameters can be integral to the feel and to the arrangement. Let’s say you take a few minutes to correctly automate the level of some guitars down in the verse but up in the chorus, which is a common trick to allow space for verse vocals but bolster the power of a chorus.
This is technically mixing, but it’s important to do early on because it will allow you to understand whether your arrangement is working, and if anything needs to be added or taken away. The same applies with automating effect levels, synth settings and so on. These processes can affect the feel of a track and it’s important to have them at least mostly in place as you edit and arrange, before final mixdown where you can of course tweak them more precisely.
“Fader creep” is a term used to describe the phenomenon where slowly, gradually, you push your channels louder and louder to compensate for perceived problems in a mix. In truth it usually has a couple of causes. The first is listening fatigue. Listening to the same track hundreds of times over when producing causes you to lose a sense of perspective. Even experienced mixers suffer from this. Because you keep hearing the same sections on repeat you can start to think “maybe that just needs to be a little louder” and then “now that other thing is too quiet so I need to push it up a bit” and soon, everything is too loud. A second cause is more technical - if your master fader or monitors have their levels set too low, you end up pushing mixer faders to compensate, which is bad news. Understand your signal flow and check levels all the way along, and take regular breaks to avoid fader creep.
Even if you are using a DAW you will in almost every case be able to use a MIDI controller of some description to control the faders and possibly the panners and other controls in your software mixer. This might be a full MIDI mixer or hardware that lets you access banks of faders at a time, like NI’s Komplete Kontrol keyboards. Having hands-on mixer control - provided the hardware faders are of good quality - is more satisfying for many people than nudging the mouse around. (Most DAW mixers let you move faders in tiny increments with the arrow up / down keys, which is worth knowing for smaller tweaks). Of course if you do have the option to mix stems on a hardware desk, you’ll find it an amazing experience and really the best way to control levels.
DAWs, technically speaking, let you load up any processing you want, in any order. This means it’s possible for example to strap a limiter or a suite like Ozone across the master buss as you record, edit or mix. This can be tempting, since it makes everything sound cool the whole time. But it’s giving you a false picture of your mix. The mastering processing, if applied, changes the DAW’s whole output. It’s far better to mix, without worrying overly about absolute end-stage level and stereo image, and then take a break. Then come back and master, knowing your mix is a solid foundation from which to work. This also means you can safely send mixes away for mastering, or stems to remixers, knowing they’re not already hard limited or squashed.