This is an article provided by MistrrClouds that covers what could be considered to be the 12 fundamentals of achieving a professional sound. 

You can quickly navigate between these sections using the menu to the right ->
 

Those 12 fundamentals are:

  1. Gain Structure

  2. Saturation

  3. Subtractive EQ

  4. Compression

  5. Sidechain

  6. Additive EQ

  7. Reverb

  8. Effects

  9. Limiting

  10. Layering

  11. Referencing

  12. Mastering
     

Let’s run through each of them.

1. Gain Structure 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.” 

 

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 between -6 or -10 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. 

 

2. 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.

That means that 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.

Just Google 'Hyperbits saturation' and the first blog post that comes up will give you 20 of my favorite saturation plugins. 

 

3. Subtractive 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 headroom 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. 

 

4. 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. 

 

5. 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 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. 

 

7. Reverb is my favorite mixing tool because it means translating your mix into 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, even where you sit right now.

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 elements that belong in the front of your mix

  • Halls: for elements that belong in the back of your mix

  • Springs: for guitars and bass instruments

  • Chambers: for claps/snares

 

8. 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. 

 

9. 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)?

 

10. 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 a 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.

 

11. 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 sound-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. 

 

12. 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, you'll be set up to reap the benefits, because mastering will amplify your awesome mixdown.