Just how do professional engineers tackle the earliest stages of their mixes, and can the rest of us learn anything from their approach?
Have you ever wondered how professional mix engineers get their projects underway? I invited four of them to share some insights on both the technical aspects and the ‘softer skills’ involved. They each specialise in a different genre, and you can find out more about them in the 'About The Engineers' box.
We began our conversations with an exploration of some of the behind‑the‑scenes discussions that occur before a professional mix takes place, before moving on to the mix‑project preparation and the earliest stages of the mix itself. The engineers also shared some helpful troubleshooting tips, for those occasions when things aren’t progressing quite as we’d like. I also invited them, where possible, to think about how their advice might apply to keen amateur engineers, not just aspiring professionals.
My first questions were about the interactions with clients and artists which usually take place before a professional mixer even thinks about starting work on a project, and obviously this begins with the question of whether it’s the right project. Maria Elisa Ayerbe explained to me that “my lawyer says: ‘I won’t take a case if I know I won’t win it,’ and I apply the same philosophy to working with a customer. When a client reaches out to me, I ask them to send me a rough mix or production demo. I want to judge if I’m the right person for the job, from a craft and experience perspective.”
But even if the project looks a good fit, there are practical issues that need ironing out. Romesh Dodangoda, for instance, stressed that: “The conversation about timescales is one my first priorities. Sometimes when it’s a big project, I may have a team involved, and I need to make sure people are available. I also want to always be on time with the delivery, and that is something that’s appreciated by labels and managers.” Rachel Moore expanded on this side of things: “Budget and timeline of when they want the project done are the first things I discuss. I like to be as upfront as possible with expectations. Once these are agreed, I will draw up a simple contract based on our discussions. Good communication throughout the process tends to solve most things.” Likewise, Dan Gresham stressed this need to have “clear Ts&Cs” and the importance of “ensuring that everyone knows where they stand from the outset”.
Communication about the business side of things is clearly important, then, but I was also keen to understand how these engineers ensure they’re on the same page as the artist from a creative point of view — particularly given that so much mixing is now done remotely. Rachael Moore pointed out that much depends on your degree of involvement at other stages of the project : “If it is something I didn’t have a hand in recording, I like to have a discussion either on the phone or email about the vibe they are going for. If they get specific, then I ask for references to make sure we are thinking the same thing before starting any work on the mix.” Maria Elisa Ayerbe also stressed the importance of speaking to artists and discussing references, especially when working with less established or more ‘up‑and‑coming’ acts: “I want to know what they aspire to. As well as a creative steer, I’m trying to find out if their expectations are realistic.”
Dan Gresham, who works predominantly with electronic artists, pointed out that: “Many of my clients have typically worked hard to get their demo to where it is and are not looking for me to deliver a totally new vision of a track. My job is to pay close attention to what they have done already and focus on improving clarity, separation and, crucially, how the track will translate on both home setups and big sound systems.”
With the business matters and creative aims addressed, I asked how ‘mix‑ready’ these engineers felt the recordings needed to be for them to weave their magic, and what issues they or their assistants might look out for in the raw files. Romesh Dodangoda feels it’s important to establish if there are problems which extend beyond his brief: “If there are vocals that are a little messy with the timing, or noise that shouldn’t be there, we are normally happy to clean this up in the mix prep. If it’s anything more stylistic or production‑related, then we will flag this up with the client”.
Maria Elisa Ayerbe, meanwhile, explained that “my assistant or I will check that all the files work correctly and that the multitrack matches their production demo. I’ve received sessions where the multitrack was 32 bars shorter than the demo, and I make it clear that it’s not my job to amend the arrangement.”
Rachael Moore generally prefers to oversee her own mix preparation “because I’m a bit of a control freak,” and explained that she takes a little time to assess what she has been given to work with. “I look and see if any editing, tightening, or tuning and cleaning of the vocals needs to happen. If it’s something I didn’t track, I will either ask the client to get someone to do that, or I will give it to a few people I trust to clean.”
Dan Gresham also confirmed that he will “check through all the parts and make sure that there aren’t any obvious issues that are going to hold things back (editing clicks, plosives on a vocal). If necessary I’ll top and tail sections to cut out any hissy gaps. I’ll also check timing on rhythmic elements to make sure that things are sitting together tightly (or not ‑ if that’s what’s wanted!)”.
I was really interested to know, once they’ve run the rule over the initial files and know they’re ready to work with them, what any further mix preparation stages look like for our engineers, and how important they feel this is to the way they work. Romesh Dodangoda was very clear on the importance of a separate prep stage. “When I’m mixing,” he explained, “I really don’t want to think about the DAW at all if I can help it. I want to focus more on chasing the sound in my head. Having an assistant to handle the prep allows me to not get too close to individual elements.” He was conscious, though, that an assistant is a luxury we can’t all afford: “If you’re on your own, try to do it on a completely different day, so you can be as fresh as possible for the mix.”
Maria Elisa Ayerbe went into a little more detail about what this stage might entail: “My assistant will prep things like track names, colour coding, creating markers, and they will also take care of basic routing, gain staging and panning, and do some initial lead vocal gain levelling or plosive riding to help with compression settings. Gain staging is very important in how I mix, and getting levels in the right place is done during the prep stage, to ensure that my bus compressor is working from the moment I begin the mix”.
Conscious that those ideas of ‘gain staging’ and mixing through master and subgroup bus processing can too easily be misunderstood by rookie home‑studio engineers, I pushed the engineers to discuss more of what they have in mind when they talk about such things, particularly for those mixing in software alone. “When I went from OTB mixing to ITB,” offered Romesh, “I found it really hard to mix inside the DAW until I started having a bit of colour on the mix bus, via certain plug‑ins. It’s key for me to have some excitement to feed off, and I’ll always have it on from the very start. I don’t get too bogged down about trying to meet any kind of specific levels; as long as the faders are playing nice and any master processing is hitting roughly where I would expect it to be, we’re all good!”
Dan Gresham also makes use of bus processing, and discussed how gain structure relates to that. “I will often use subgroup processing, with a good example being the drum bus — to add a bit of ‘crunch’ and to glue the drums together. If I do that, it usually gets added from the start, which is one of the reasons why one of the very first jobs I do is get all the source audio to an appropriate level.” He continued: “I know there are technical reasons why gain staging, in the traditional analogue sense, is less of an issue with 24‑ or 32‑bit audio, but for me it’s about having the audio levels where I expect them to be with how I like to work.” Rachael confirmed that “gain staging is important and is something I address first, as you don’t want to mix yourself into a corner, so to speak. Nothing is more annoying than to get the mix where you want and then see everything is way too loud.”
Dan Gresham: “...one of the very first jobs I do is get all the source audio to an appropriate level.”
I also asked the engineers for opinions on the value of mix templates in their DAW software, and the replies were more nuanced than I’d anticipated. Maria Elisa Ayerbe: “I don’t use a broader mixing template, but I do have an effects template that I like to import to my sessions: delays, reverbs, chorus, parallel compression, parallel distortion, panners, phasers, etc. Every time I create a cool effect for a song, I make sure I add it to my template, so that it can be repurposed for another song in the future.”
Rachael, on the other hand, does have “a general template with effects, a basic mix bus I am feeling at the moment, basic vocal chain, drum bus chain that I like to start with. I almost always will pull those things into the session and then tailor things to the vibe of that specific project (ie. the tonality of the vocal, drums, etc). I will usually figure this out on the first song and then make a template for the project itself that I use as a starting place for the rest of the project. So I essentially create a template for each project.”
Romesh also has a template, “but not in the sense of just importing things into it and hoping for the best. I’m not sure that’s a great way to mix, personally. However, there are certain techniques and plug‑ins I’ve used over the years that I just know I like and will use time and time again. I look at a template as having a bunch of outboard that you know you like, all plugged in and ready to go. It’s like pressing the insert buttons on a console where you’ve already got some outboard patched in and ready to go.”
Dan Gresham prefers not to use a template at all: “I start with an entirely blank project. There are processes that I’ll follow more often than not, but I don’t set these in stone with a template — it pushes me down certain alleys that hamper what I feel is the creative part of a mix.”
It’s all too easy with creative endeavours like mixing to overlook the ‘human angle’, and when asked about this Romesh clearly felt strongly: “I think the mindset conversation is massively important. What you have to remember is we’re humans, and some days it just doesn’t work. When that happens, I will just leave it and come back to it the day after and, suddenly, it’s all so easy.”
With this idea in mind, I asked the engineers what they do to try and get themselves into a mixing mindset. Rachael Moore feels that deadlines help: “If I have a deadline, it makes me focus, not get bogged down, and trust my first instincts.” Dan Gresham concurred: “I’d also mention how helpful having a deadline can be for a project. As well as helping me schedule projects, it brings some clarity to getting up and running with a mix.”
Most were also conscious that they work better at some times of day than others. Maria Elisa Ayerbe, for example, said: “I try and keep a certain part of my day clear for mixing — I find I do my best creative work in the afternoon and evenings. I try hard to stay organised with my admin and keep it away from my ‘mix time’.” Dan Gresham, on the other hand, tends “to work on mixes in the middle of the day. By that point I’ve gone through my admin, dealt with a few audio jobs and my ears and brain are warmed up.” Rachael is equally conscious of when she works best, and how to get into the zone when that’s not possible: “Evening is definitely more inspiring for me but needs often must, and if I’m working in the day I like to light Palo Santo [wooden incense sticks] and maybe listen to some music in the vibe of the project, just to get my brain going before I start.”
So far, we’ve talked largely about what happens to get an engineer to the point when they can start mixing in earnest. But I also wanted to glean from them a sense of what the early stages of the mix itself actually look like: while, clearly, the approach will vary in some respects from one project to another, is there anything they typically do during the first, say, 10‑20 minutes of every mix? Which instruments or song sections might they focus on first, for example?
Romesh stressed that “the first period of a mix is crucial for me. I work fast and like to quickly get a feel for the song and where things should live sonically. I want my gut to dictate things as much as possible, and within about an hour the song is usually in a pretty good place. It’s the finer details, such as automation and finer balances, that take more of my time”. Rachael stated that “generally, I like to work on getting a solid balance among all the instruments first without hitting any solo buttons. I want to see how the vocal is sitting and then start to get a vibe for what I need to home in on first.” And Dan Gresham’s early moves reflect the more defined electronic elements he usually works with: “I’ll listen through to the raw tracks with all the faders at unity. I’m listening out for how the rhythmic elements work together with the bass, what the instrumental elements are doing and where a vocal might be sitting in all of that. I want to quickly establish what’s important in the tune and what has more of a supportive role”.
As for which instruments are tackled first, for Dan Gresham, working with electronic sources “more often than not... it’s about nailing the drums and the bass. Often, initially, just the kick drum and the bass. Getting those two working together cleanly is critical. I’m generally looking for a solid bass that can underpin the entire tune, and a punchy kick drum that pokes through with enough clarity and definition.”
Maria Elisa Ayerbe starts in a similar place, but also mentioned some other priorities: “I’ll quickly look to get the groove locked, (the kick and bass, before focusing on the main storyteller — the lead vocal — the snare, and then any primary accompanying parts, such as guitars, piano or loops, make accommodations for their best friends (background vocals and harmonies), and then I just deal with the crowd (the rest of the band).”
Romesh also starts with the groove: “I like to plant my kick, snare and bass into a good place and then if I’ve got those right, it’s a lot easier for me. I find that with rock music if you get the drums to stand proud, everything else falls on top so easily. If you haven’t got the drums right, you spend a lot of time covering it up and that’s when it can all sound a bit undefined. I rarely start at the vocal, I can totally see how that works for people but it rarely works for me”.
Rachael Moore: I’m a fan of the Prince ideology, where he said that any one track in a song, paired with the vocal, should sound like a record!
Rachael offered up a slightly different perspective: “I try to determine the core, or heart of the song first. If it is something where lyrically the singer is telling a story then I will start with that and the main instrument propping that up. If it’s a singer‑songwriter track, for example, I will start with the vocal and acoustic guitar track and work everything else around that, making sure nothing is hindering the core of the song, which is the lyric. If it is a pop track, where the lyric isn’t as important, then I focus on the groove of the song and the excitement factor first. I’m a fan of the Prince ideology, where he said that any one track in a song, paired with the vocal, should sound like a record!”
Given our earlier discussion about bus processing, it wasnt a surprise to learn that the engineers all focus on the biggest or most crucial section of a song first. For Maria Elisa Ayerbe this means she likes “to focus on the big chorus first, then verse 1, then intro, and then everything else. There are musical and technical reasons for this, as I like to get any bus processing working well as early as I can. Master bus processing is important to how I mix, and I find it works best when I focus on the loudest part of the song first.” Rachael offered similar thoughts: “I will identify where the biggest part of the song is and work to balance that section. I can then understand where the sections before and after it need to be dynamically — from a musical as well as a technical perspective.” And Romesh also expanded on this theme: “I think one of the things that can be forgotten is to make a chorus big, you need to think about the arrangement and what the verse is doing. If the verse has so many layers and parts, the chorus is possibly not going to have the impact they want. So, often, starting at the chorus is a good way to see how far you can push everything.”
Dan Gresham’s advice again had a slightly different focus, borne of the nature of the genres in which he works — dance tracks are not typically based around traditional verse/chorus song structures: “I’ll usually start with the most important section of the track, which in dance music is often the first drop. Although a track will often build from there, it is the most critical section.”
Even if the engineer doesn’t work on a vocal first, most put significant work into them fairly early. Romesh, for instance, confirmed that: “The vocals will be in pretty quickly, and it’s important to remember that they are almost certainly going to be the focus of the mix. If you’re spending all your time EQ’ing guitars without the vocals in place — these elements can often sit in the same range frequency‑wise — then you’re likely to have a hard time getting the vocals to fit in. There are certain plug‑ins that I just know I love on vocals — the UA  Blue Stripe, for example — so these might come into play very early on.” Rachel expanded on that: “The vocal is one of the first things I like to get sounding like a record. With the right treatment, it can get your creativity moving and dictate where to go next in the mix — do we want the drums to be a certain vibe now, based on the vibe of the vocal, for example?”
Dan Gresham, though, again highlighted that the considerations in dance music can be somewhat different. “I’ll usually have the instrumental mix fairly well established before introducing the vocal,” he told me. “Whilst [the vocal] can be important, in a lot of dance music it can be more of an instrumental layer rather than the primary focus. Sometimes that leads to reworking the instrumental mix though, depending on the writing and arrangement”.
Coming back to that point about being human, even engineers at the top of their game and with a strong track record of creating well‑received mixes can face the same sorts of issues and moments of doubt as the rest of us! So I asked our engineers when they find themselves struggling, and what they do about it — and, specifically, if they ever feel it’s better to just start over.
Rachael suggested that “if I run into problems, it’s usually because I’ve become too engrossed and have started to hyper‑focus on one particular part of a mix. I don’t tend to start again, but if I’ve completely lost the vibe of the track I will bypass what I was doing and return to the core of the song again, to figure out where I went wrong. Generally, the culprit is too much processing!”
Dan explained earlier how important the demo is in his line of work and how he uses that as a reference point: “The only time I’ll start things again is when I go back to the demo and I feel like I’m not adding anything to the mix. That usually leads to a change in approach, which hopefully [delivers] an improved result.”
Maria says that she “used to backtrack a lot in my early career, but not anymore. I have become good at keeping track of my decisions and staying on top of my moves as I advance further into the mixing process. This ‘only’ took me about eight years to figure out correctly! If I feel I am getting stuck, I will just move to a different song, go for a walk, or grab a glass of wine and chill for a moment.”
Romesh told me that: “I usually know within the first 30 minutes if the mix is going to be straightforward or a tricky one to finish. For me, I always want to be super proud of the mix before I send it to the client so whatever it takes to get there is what I’ll do!” The question also prompted a relevant anecdote: “I was mixing Bring Me The Horizon’s Live At The Royal Albert Hall. It was such a hard mix, as the band were playing with a full orchestra and choir. I mixed six songs initially, took them home to listen and felt it wasn’t exactly what was in my head. I had two options: I could either edit the existing mix or just go again from scratch. I chose the latter and I’m so glad, because when I started again everything fell into place and it was exactly how I wanted it to sound.”
I asked our engineers if, once they’d got the mix underway, they had any other tips on where to take things from there. Nearly all of them stressed the importance of taking regular breaks, to avoid fatigue and retain their perspective. Rachael, for example, told me: “I force myself to take a break every hour to an hour and a half to reset, and I’ve noticed I have a bad habit of wanting to mix louder when I’m feeling something. I frequently like to zoom out and assess what I am doing to make sure it’s working. You learn a lot [through] freshening your perspective frequently.” Romesh felt the same: “It’s so important to take breaks. When you’re constantly listening to the same piece of music on repeat, you can start to lose perspective.” Dan offered some different advice: “I always work at a consistent monitoring level and also a consistent RMS level [at the mix bus]. I know how things should ‘feel’ at that level — how heavy a bassline should feel, how punchy a kick, how snappy a snare. It helps me to get to a sonically balanced mix without having to refer to analysers.”
Before we wrapped things up, I asked each engineer if they had any final words of wisdom to offer less experienced mixers who are keen to improve. Dan Gresham explained that “a good mix starts with good writing and good arrangement. Sometimes, elements in a track just won’t sit together well even with a good mix. If you’re struggling to get things to work, ask yourself whether a change in arrangement or choice of sounds would solve the problem.” Romesh reiterated something he’d mentioned earlier: “If you feel a mix is not coming together, don’t be afraid to start again on a different day. More than likely you’ll find it all comes into place much easier!”
Maria suggests that you “don’t hyper‑focus on single elements or instruments — it’s always about the big picture. Remember you are mixing within the context of a song and that the bypass button is your best friend. If the EQ you worked on in solo does not sound good within the context of the song, it’s pointless.” Rachael also focused on EQ: “If you’re struggling to get something to come through in a mix, or you can’t get the vocal to sit above the track, it is almost always an EQ thing... Use any of the amazing visual EQ tools we have now and figure out where the [frequency] build‑ups are and what track is causing it. Manage the space in your mix frequency‑wise, and you’ll find you suddenly don’t need to make things louder or use loads of automation. Resist making things louder and focus on what is taking up your room frequency‑wise.”
So what lessons can we draw from all of this? I’ve focused on the process of starting a mix because of the relatively short window in which we can assess what’s really going on with a piece of music. A few things struck me in these conversations, but what came across most strongly was the disciplined, professional approach; the effort put into organisation and communication.
If they work to understand their clients’ aims and expectations, and then to get some of the niggly technical stuff out of the way, an engineer can focus on the more creative, instinctive side of the job when they mix — and that enables them to deliver something that really works in terms of the music, energy and all the stuff that really matters. We might not all have the luxury of an assistant, but any of us can approach our mixes with that sort of mindset! I’d like to say thanks to these engineers, who were very generous with their time, and I hope you’ve found some ideas in here that will help you get your next mix off to a great start.
Rachael Moore is a Grammy‑nominated engineer/mixer who, as T Bone Burnett’s engineer, has worked with the likes of Robert Plant, Alison Krauss, Elvis Costello and Jessica Chastain. Based in Nashville, Rachael is also a busy freelance recording and mix engineer.
Maria Elisa Ayerbe is a Latin Grammy‑winning and multiple Grammy‑nominated engineer, producer and composer living in Miami. She has been involved in the musical productions of a host of successful artists, including Mary J Blige, Ricky Martin, Marc Anthony, J.Lo, Natti Natasha, Il Divo, Laura Pausini, Juanes, New Kids On The Block, Aterciopelados, Gian Marco, Kronos Quartet and Adriana Lucia.
Romesh Dodangoda is a Grammy‑nominated record producer/mixer from Wales. Specialising in rock/pop and metal, Romesh has worked with the likes of Bring Me The Horizon, Motörhead, Nova Twins and Twin Atlantic. He also runs Control Room, an online collaborative networking space for the production and mixing community: www.control-room.net
Dan Gresham is a British artist, producer and engineer who is well known in the drum & bass world under his Nu:Tone pseudonym, and for his long association with Hospital Records. Dan also works as a mixing and mastering engineer, specialising in all forms of electronic and dance music. You can find out more at www.ntmastering.com