Mix Bus Processing Best Practices

Mix Bus Processing PluginsI was recently following a GearSlutz forum topic on mix bus processing. It’s always interesting to watch some of the debate that can happen online.

For those of you who don’t know, mix bus processing is when you put plugins on the master fader in your DAW. Compressors and EQ plugins are common. These mix bus plugins affect all of your tracks.

There are people out there who will tell you that you should never do any mix bus processing. Or at least if you do, that you should remove it all before sending the song off to be mastered.

Personally, I think that mix bus processing can be very helpful if done right.

So today, I want to talk about 5 important tips for how to make mix bus processing work for you and your mixes. If you’re in the camp that believes that you should never do any mix bus processing, then read on anyway, and maybe I can give you something to think about.

Mix Bus Processing Tip #1: Keep it subtle

This is the most important point here, and it’s going to be a common theme through the rest of this post.

Don’t overdo it on the mix bus.

Of course, this can be true of any processing on any track, but it’s especially important for mix bus processing.

When you put plugins on the mix bus, you’re affecting the entire mix. This means that a 1dB boost on an EQ plugin or 1dB of gain reduction through a compressor goes a long way.

Also, for the most part, mix bus processing cannot be undone by the mastering engineer.

The mastering engineer can add compression, or saturation. But he can’t undo any poor choices that you might have made. If your mix is overcompressed, for example, he can’t fix that.

Keep it subtle.

When in doubt about some mix bus processing, dial it back, or remove it. It probably can’t be undone later.

Mix Bus Processing Tip #2: Apply compression and effects first, not last

For me, the point of mix bus processing is to give me an environment to mix through, not a place where I can add stuff at the end.

So after I’m finished my static mix, I will apply my core mix bus plugins. Often this is just a compressor, with a pretty slow attack and release, knocking off 2-3dB or so in the loudest part of the song.

Lately, I’ve also been experimenting with putting tape saturation on my mix bus, to give it a bit of a warm analog feel. I’ve seen people use other analog emulation plugins before as well. Don’t overdo it, but if there are plugins that give your overall mix just a touch of enhancement, don’t be afraid to slap them on your mix bus.

But don’t forget tip #1.

Then, here’s the important part: I do the rest of my mixing through these plugins.

This means that all of my mixing decisions, referencing, etc. are done with these plugins engaged.

I find that this sounds more natural than slapping on some effects at the end. Your mileage may vary, but I would suggest when you’re starting out, mix through the plugins. Don’t just slap them on at the end.

Mix Bus Processing Tip #3: Don’t push the compressor too hard

For heaven’s sake, let your music breathe!

Of course, this is dependent on the genre. But for the most part, it is so easy to overdo compression.

A little bit of mix bus compression can really add some glue and energy to your mix.

But too much will make your mix sound flat and strained.

Seriously, on my mix bus compressor, I usually apply 2-3dB of gain reduction at most. That’s not a lot. Even then, sometimes I’ll dial it back to 1-2dB, depending on the song.

Remember: keep it subtle. Especially the compressor.

For more tips on this, check out professional mastering engineer Ian Shepard’s article specifically on mix bus compression.

Mix Bus Processing Tip #4: EQ at the end with a reference track

The one thing I will do at the end of the mixing process is EQ.

Usually, when I’m doing mix bus EQ at the end, I’m listening to a reference track, and trying to balance my EQ against the reference.

Again, small boosts and cuts are the key here. Remember that you’re affecting the mix as a whole, and what you do here may be difficult to undo later in mastering. 1-2dB is often plenty to boost or cut. If you start going further than 3dB, ask yourself what the problem is, and how you might be able to fix it some other way.

Mix Bus Processing Tip #5: Remove the limiter before mastering

After you’re done mixing, if you mix conservatively, your song will probably be quite a lot quieter than professional music.

If you want it to be a little louder when you’re showing it off, but don’t want it to be clipping all over the place, the limiter is your friend.

I usually do not use a limiter during mixing. There is often no reason to, except in special circumstances.

But when I’m finished the mix and ready to show people, I’ll often slap a limiter on the master fader, after all the other plugins, just to bump the level up a bit.

This is only for listening to the mix. It’s very important to remove the limiter before sending it to mastering.

This is because the limiter, like a compressor, removes dynamic range from your song, which the mastering engineer cannot add back in.

So give your mastering engineer plenty of headroom, and get rid of that limiter.

I can hear you asking already: “So, should I also get rid of my mix bus compressor before sending off to mastering?”

I would say, if you’ve followed my guidelines above and kept it subtle, no. Leave the compressor on there.

This is because the compressor is shaping the overall tone of your mix, not reducing the dynamic range significantly.

However, if you’ve overcompressed your mix, or you’re unsure, then you may want to remove it or dial it back, just in case.

So there you go. Mix bus processing is fine, but keep it subtle.

By the way, mix bus processing is not necessary. You can get a fantastic mix without any plugins on your mix bus.

But using a few plugins to give a nice environment to mix through can add a little bit of extra shine to your music, as long as you don’t overdo it.

What plugins do you put on your mix bus? Do you think mix bus processing is evil? I’d love to hear from you! Leave a comment below.

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6 thoughts on “Mix Bus Processing Best Practices

  1. Alex,

    Nice article. Lots of good advice here!!

    After I have done a static mix and have created subs for my drumset, guitars, bass, keyboards, vocals – just so I can reduce the number of tracks I am looking at. At this point I usually add Eq to the master fader if I want the whole mix to have some sort of lift and often I’ll add a limiter that I set to -3db. Sometimes I’ll add a compressor but usually I like it on specific things (drumset, vocals) so I add it to my subs and only in small doses.
    Back to the limiter – While I am drawing automations, adding reverbs/delay sends, and carving out eq space, I keep a close eye on when the limiter kicks on and how much it is squashing my mix. I try to get the mix to hit that -3db in its loudest points without the limiter cutting anything. Sometimes I’ll let a .5db reduction slide if it is only once and I can’t hear the mix suffer.

    When I send the Master to my Project section in StudioOne I know I have a good 3db of headroom. In this section I will add a multiband compressor to the stereo track. Usually that is all I need to do and I am really happy with the results.

    It’s quite a journey and I love hearing what other people do!

    Thanks!

    Like

  2. Hey Joshua,

    Very interesting use of a limiter. So, basically you’re almost using it almost like a meter to be sure that you’re not peaking above -3dB, at least not much. Very neat. I hadn’t thought of that.

    Also interesting that you EQ first, whereas I tend to EQ last. Just another example of how it can work differently for different people. And of course, it can work differently for different songs as well.

    My mastering process is pretty simple too. Gain and limiting, some EQ touch-ups, multiband compression, and maybe a bit of stereo processing. I’m not extremely good at mastering, but I definitely get results that I’m happy with. I’ll have to write a post about my mastering process sometime 🙂

    Thanks man!

    Like

    1. Alex,

      Usually that EQ that I do on the Master Fader is a gut thing. I listen to the track (all parts present static mix done) usually after a break – like the next day – I’ll sit down with fresh ears, not much time, and listen and if I am going this needs “more air” or “less mid” then I’ll carve just a little or add just little. A few dB – a slight curve. I’ll toggle on and off with eyes shut and usually I don’t touch it again if I like the enhancement of the sound. Everything else I do on groups or individual tracks because I have already made the big fader moves. Just going for clarity.

      Yeah – I think of the Limiter as the “Glass Ceiling” – I can see what is above but I don’t want to break it to get through. Also, I might miss when the meter goes above (I blink-ha ha) but the Limiter doesn’t lie or sweet talk – it’s an Honest Evaluation. I don’t really know when I started using that way but I do.

      Thanks for the community!! It helps!

      Like

      1. Hey Joshua,

        Your EQ method sounds really cool. I think I will try that on my next mix. I like the idea of “big picture”, “gut feeling” creative decisions, and that’s a really cool way to do it 🙂

        And yeah, I like the limiter idea. Might experiment with that too. Do you calibrate your monitoring levels? I the K-system metering and mix at K-20, so I have pretty conservative levels, and usually lots of headroom. Might be something worth blogging about sometime. It’s a little technical, but it helps me to know that I’m mixing at the same volume, every time.

        I’m glad that you’re enjoying the blog and community! It’s still very much in its infancy, and I greatly appreciate your support, and all the great ideas you’ve been sharing!

        Thanks man!

        Like

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