“Top-Down” Mixing Approach

Mixing

I want to share with you a fantastic mixing methodology that I started using recently.

Graham over at The Recording Revolution calls it “Top-Down Mixing”. Joe at Home Studio Corner calls it “Backwards Mixing”. Whatever you want to call it, it’s a methodology that can really speed up your mixes, reduce your number of plugins, and help you to focus on the big picture rather than getting caught up in minutiae.

To give you some context, let’s talk about a few other other mixing methodologies I’ve used, and why I moved away from them. Even if you don’t take up the “Top-Down” approach, at least be aware of some of the pitfalls that are present in some of these other methods.

Chaotic Mixing

When I started mixing, I used a “methodology” that today I’ll call “Chaotic Mixing”. I would just throw all of the faders up, and do whatever I thought of next. I might apply some EQ to something if I felt like it. Maybe try a compressor here or there. Turn this track up. Turn that track down. And…that was about it. I didn’t have a method or a plan. I just kept hacking around until it felt “done”, whatever that meant.

I mention that because I think that it’s so important to have a plan of attack, and a reason for doing what you do in mixing. Now, maybe you’re not a chaotic mixer. Maybe you are. But I think all of us at one point or another has fallen into the trap of flailing around, doing whatever comes to mind, without following a plan.

I believe that it’s important to have a plan in mixing. To have a method. It keeps you on track, helps you to get more done faster, and eventually, you’ll know when you are done.

Solo Mixing

I couldn’t think of a better name for the next phase I went through.

Basically, I started learning more about EQ, compression, and other plugins. So I would methodically work my way through my tracks, solo each one, and make it sound great on its own as best I could. Then, when I was done, I would play them all together again, and voila! The mix is done.

Of course, if any of you have tried this, you’ll know that it’s not that simple. Just making each track sound good on its down, doesn’t mean that your mix is going to sound good. The important lesson here is that it doesn’t matter how good your tracks each sound on their own. What matters is that they sound good together in the mix. Which leads me to the next methodology.

Left-to-Right Mixing

This is probably one of the more common ways to mix. You set up your tracks from left to right. Usually the drums are to the far left, vocals are on the far right, and the other instruments are lined up in between in some order that suits you. All the tracks start off muted.

You start with the kick drum. Unmute it. Use EQ and compression to make it sound good. Then unmute the snare, and don’t mute the kick drum. Make the snare sound good alongside the kick. Then the overheads. The rest of the kit. The bass. The guitar tracks. One by one, unmute a track, EQ and compress, make it sound great, and repeat for the next track. Then eventually, all the tracks are in, and they sound great together.

Quite quickly, of course, you’ll learn that it helps to do a “static mix” before starting the left-to-right process. Get all the volumes set, and do some initial panning, with all the tracks playing. Make sure you’re not pushing the master output too hard. You want to keep plenty of headroom in your mix. Then, as you bring everything in, you should maintain that headroom throughout the mixing process.

This is a perfectly valid method for mixing. I used it a lot, until very recently. But finally, let me share with you the “top-down” approach.

Top-down Mixing

Top-down mixing is similar to left-to-right mixing, except we don’t start at the individual track level. Instead, every track is routed through buses (or aux tracks), and the mixing begins with those buses. Let me explain.

Most DAWs have the ability to “route” tracks to a bus. What this means is that the output of the track actually feeds into another fader, rather than going straight to the master output. You can feed multiple tracks into the bus, and then you can set the fader or apply plugins to the bus, affecting all of the tracks feeding into it.

Buses can feed into the master fader, or they can feed into other buses. So for example, say you have two acoustic guitar tracks and three electric guitar tracks. The acoustic guitar tracks can feed into an “acoustics” bus. The electric guitar tracks can feed into and “electrics” bus. And then the “acoustics” and “electrics” buses can both feed into a “guitars” bus, which then feeds into the master fader. That way you can affect the tracks individually, just the acoustics, just the electrics, or all of the guitars at once.

With top-down mixing, you make sure that all of your tracks are being fed into buses. In my most recent song, I had buses for Drums, Percussion, Bass, Guitars, Keys, and Vocals.

Buses

Now here’s the important part: after you get your static mix done with just volume and panning, start mixing with the buses. Instead of going from left to right across the entire set of tracks, go from left to right across the buses.

Start with the “Drums” bus. Mute all the other buses. Don’t touch any of the individual drum tracks, but put EQ and compression on the drums bus. Get the drums to sound as good as you possibly can without touching a single drum track.

Then unmute the “Bass” bus (don’t mute the drums!). Apply EQ and compression. Then move on to the “Guitars” bus. Keep going until all the buses are in the mix.

If you take your time here and really do your best to get things to fit together and sound good at this level, you will be almost done your mix, and most of your tracks won’t even have a single plugin on them.

Sure, you’ll have to go to some of the tracks and tweak some things. That’s natural. But you’ll be mixing from a “big picture” standpoint, and many of the little tweaks won’t be as big a deal.

I’ve only started using this methodology fairly recently, and so far I’m loving it! It helps me to get my mixes done faster, I use less plugins (which really helps on my 5 year old MacBook Pro), and I keep the big picture in mind.

So let me know what you think. If you want to see how this works, let me know and I’ll do a screencast showing how to set it up and how to use this methodology. Leave a comment, or send me an email. I’d love to know what you think.

Oh, and don’t forget to like the Facebook Page, follow me on Twitter and subscribe to the YouTube channel if you’re into that sort of thing.

What’s your mixing methodology? Have you tried top-down mixing? What do you think of it? Leave a comment below.

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7 thoughts on ““Top-Down” Mixing Approach

  1. Outstanding post Alex. For me.. everything I do is a learning process. I am not the best at mixing and have been concentrating on my writing and recording. But thanks to you I have a new method and understanding of options as to how I attach my mixes in the future. Thank you greatly for another informative post.

    Keep it up.. your going to make me a pro..lol

    Al Tone

    Like

    1. Hey Al,

      Man, it’s great that you’re in the process of learning this stuff. Heck, I am too! It’s great that you’re focusing on your writing and recording lately. That’s truly what can make or break a good song, right there 😉

      Thanks man!
      Alex

      Like

  2. Hey Alex, that’s an awesome article.

    I have been through what you call Chaotic Mixing”, but from quite some time I have been following some parts of this top-down mixing approach, like using busses. However, I am not following this approach as you have suggested or how it should be followed, so I think I should definitely give it a try as it sounds quite interesting and beneficial.

    One question: By static mix do you mean not muting any track in the mixer and then just starting to set the levels and planning quickly by listening through the song? I mean have all the tracks routed to their mixer channels, setup busses/groups as required, and start the static mix with only the mixer inserts first and then go to mix the busses.

    Thanks, and keep up the great work!

    Like

    1. Hi Kaitav,

      Yeah man, it’s definitely at least worth a try. I’ve found that it’s been really helpful for my last few mixes.

      For me, a “static” mix is a mix with no plugins and no automation. I just set levels and panning. It forces me to really think about where everything should sit in the mix, and how to get the song to sound as good as I can despite the limitations. I actually usually spend quite a bit of time on this stage. I’ve found that more time spent here can really reduce the number of little tweaks I have to do later, while I’m mixing.

      Then, after the levels and pan positions are set, I’ll go start mixing with the busses. Try to get that to sound as good as possible. And then if needed, I’ll drop down to the individual channels for some tweaks. But only if it’s actually needed. In my last mix, there were over 60 tracks and *most* of them had no plugins on them at all.

      Alex

      Alex

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  3. Thanks a lot Alex for the explanation. You know what, I just implemented this approach in the song I am currently on. The song was being done in a chaotic way, until I realized that if I want to use the top down mixing approach, I should start it with this one. I “cleaned” all the mixer tracks to their default stats, create fresh new busses, routed all the instruments to their channels, scrapped some, started with static mix and then some mix buss EQ and compression, and man… I am stunned! There are literally no plug-ins on the individual inserts and the track is already sounding much much better than it was when I did it chaotically. I will hopefully finish it soon and release it.

    Thanks again. I followed this post and could “hear” the difference. 🙂

    Like

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