A Beginners guide to mixing in GarageBand

by Dan Zambonini

Giles Turnbull has already written an introduction to the basics of GarageBand, for those who have recently joined the world of digital recording. In this article, I'll assume that you've already recorded your tracks, and/or used the pre-recorded loops, to assemble the basic parts of your song.

The next step is to mix the different elements together; transforming the raw samples, loops and midi sounds into a professional sounding combination. The importance of "the mix" should not be underestimated -- major recording artists will spend at least as long mixing songs as recording them. A good mix creates a clear, balanced, full sound; a bad mix can be lifeless, erratic and confusing.

Before you begin

Before you start mixing, there are a few chores to perform:

  • Check the quality. Your tracks should have been recorded as cleanly, loudly (without 'clipping', or distorting), noise-free, in-tune and in-time as possible. If you have any bad notes or unsatisfactory parts, fix them now -- the 'Garbage In, Garbage Out' programming adage applies to mixing too.

  • Organise your tracks. Label your tracks with an appropriate name and icon; it'll save you time in the long-run. To set the name of a track, click the track (to select it), then click again on the current name. To choose an icon, double click the track (to open the track properties window), then click the arrow in the icon box. You can also re-order tracks by dragging them above/below other tracks -- this will have no effect on their sound.

  • Spend a little money. If you're serious about achieving a professional sound, you'll need a pair of monitor speakers hooked up to your audio output. If these are out of your price range, consider a set of entry level monitor headphones. These speakers or headphones are specifically designed for mixing, as they handle a wide range of sounds, and transmit each type of sound equally (called a flat response). Most other speakers, such as those in your Hi-Fi system or guitar amplifier, do not. If you use these to mix, you will be mixing your song based on a biased version of the sound; your final mix could then sound wildly different when played on a friends Hi-Fi.

  • Prepare your Mac. During the mix process, you'll be making greater and greater demands of your Mac. Change the Energy Saver settings (under System Preferences) to Highest Performance. Stop any unnecessary applications. Ensure that you have enough RAM (at least 512Mb), free space on your disk (so that you can Lock Tracks) and -- if you're using a PowerBook -- check it's plugged in.

  • Know what your want. Mixing is partly science, but mostly an art -- you'll need to make many subjective personal choices. Listen to some of your favourite sounding songs, and try to identify patterns or ideas that you like in how the sounds are used. Write down any ideas that you'd like to try or emulate -- which leads us on to:

  • Prepare for ideas and change. As your mix progresses, you'll be re-mixing the same tracks over and over again. You'll be listening to your mixes in a range of environments; on your MP3 player, in your car, on your PC at work. Each time you listen, you'll need to be ready to write down any changes or new ideas that come to mind, so always have a notebook and pen ready.

  • Finally, make a rough guess. Play your song through, and roughly adjust the volume sliders so that each track of the song is about as loud as you'd like. This is your 'rough mix', and the starting point of your recursive mixing journey.

The basics of mixing

Let me introduce you to something that I like to call The Cube Of The Night of The Destiny of the Goose:

A cube showing left to right (stereo) on X, up to down (frequency) on Y, and in to out (depth) on the Z axis

The three axes of the cube are:

  • Left to Right (the X-axis): The stereo 'pan'.

  • Up and Down (the Y-axis): The frequency - from low bass frequencies to high treble frequencies.

  • In and Out (the Z-axis): The depth - from "in-your-face" to the distant horizon.

The basic mixing process -- apart from some special effects -- is all about positioning sounds within this cube. And my secret of good mixing can be boiled down to one golden rule:

"Balance sounds within the cube, so that no single point has a concentration of sounds"

As you're mixing your song, you will be moving sounds (instruments/tracks) inside the cube, trying to balance the distribution, and avoid any clashes.

Now that you know the challenge, you need to know how to move a sound around the cube. These are the basic tools in GarageBand that you'll be using:

  • Left to Right: The pan dial. This is the most straightforward axes to adjust, with a simple dial that can be twisted to the right or left, to move the sound accordingly. If you're using a PowerBook, you may find it easier to position the cursor over the dial, then use two finger scrolling to adjust the value.

  • Up and Down: Equaliser effects. GarageBand ships with a wide range of equaliser effects, that let you adjust the shape of an instruments frequency spectrum (i.e. the strength of the sound at each frequency). You'll find all of these in the effects settings for each track (by double clicking the track). There are some presets available, such as 'Clear Vocals' and 'Improve Guitars', which you may find useful when starting your mixing journey. As you progress, you'll want more fine-grained control -- try moving on to the basic manual equaliser (which just lets you adjust 'bass', 'middle' and 'treble'). And finally, when you want to really tweak every little frequency, the multiple-band graphic equaliser gives you the most power. You may also want to try the Bandpass filter, which completely removes (or rather, only permits) 'bands' of frequency. This is useful if you want to remove all rumbling and bassiness from a vocal line, for example.

  • In and Out: Volume, reverb, echo and little equaliser. If you think of a person talking to you in a large room, try to imagine how the sound would change as she moved further away from you, towards the back of the room. The sound of her voice, from your perspective, would become quieter, a little 'wetter' (basically, more echo-y) as her voice echoes off the walls, and also slightly bassier (because lower frequency bass notes have more 'energy' and hence are the better travellers). You can therefore push a sound further away, along the Z-axis by decreasing the volume, adding reverb and/or echo, and possibly tweaking the equaliser treble parts down a little.

GarageBand pan dial
GarageBand basic manual equaliser

GarageBand graphic equaliser

GarageBand bandpass equaliser
GarageBand reverb and echo settings
The GarageBand Pan Dial GarageBand equalisers GarageBand reverb and echo

You probably won't want to fill the entire cube with sound; to get a natural sounding mix, you'll want to avoid the extreme edges of the cube. So, none of your sounds should be panned far right or left, have extremely high or low frequencies, or be dry and overpowering (in-your-face) or have maximum reverb and low volume (distant horizon). Of course, if you want to try a more experimental sound, go wild!

Now you know how to move sounds around the cube, where do you start? Well, if you want a natural sounding mix, many of the sounds will have natural/intrinsic positions within the cube, which you shouldn't alter too much.

The natural (starting) position of a sound will be decided by the type of instrument (e.g. a double bass will naturally have low frequencies, hence be low on the Y-axis) and by the typical position that we're used to hearing it at. If you watch a band live, the members of the band will typically follow traditional positions, as in the following diagram:

Traditional band member positions. The singer is happy because he gets all the attention

So, the starting point on the Y-axis (frequency) is determined by the type of instrument, and we can use the diagram above to place the sound in the stereo (left to right) and depth (near to far) fields. For example, you'll notice that the drums, bass and lead vocal tracks should all appear close to the middle of the stereo field, and you could mix a guitar track to each side. Similarly, backing vocals and strings (or keyboards) could be further 'back' in the mix (in depth/Z-axis) - with more reverb and slightly less volume.

Probably the most difficult axis to handle is the Y-axis, the frequency. GarageBand's graphical volume display gives you useful feedback about how loud and panned each track is, and the track properties window (double click the track) quickly shows you the amount of echo and reverb. However, the frequencies that each track transmits is not directly available. So, to get you started, here are the typical (equaliser) changes you should try making for common instruments, to help condense (move) them into less cluttered parts of the Y (frequency) spectrum:

  • Vocals: Like many people, I don't have a fantastic condenser microphone (I use a gig-quality Shure). As with many of the cheaper microphones, this doesn't have a wonderful dynamic response, so it tends to give quite a muddy, bassy sound. Try reducing around at 200Hz or 250Hz, and increasing at around 3kHz and 5kHz. You should also try adjusting at 10kHz, which may need a kick up or down, depending on your mic.

  • Guitar: You won't want to keep much beneath 100Hz (which will interfere with the Bass drum), but you can try adding at anywhere between 150Hz to 5kHz to get the correct sound; possibly even higher frequencies (up to 7kHz) if you directly recorded your guitar (i.e. not a Mic'ed amplifier)

  • Bass Guitar: As with most instruments, drop the very low frequencies that could detract from the drive of the bass drum -- for the bass guitar, this means a drop at about 250Hz, 300Hz. You could kick some life into your bass guitar by increasing at 2.5kHz to 5kHz.

  • Bass Drum: Keep it nice and tight; increase at around 80Hz, maybe 100Hz. Drop above this, from 150 up to 600Hz. Again, you can add some bite at around 2.5kHz to 5kHz.

  • Snare Drum: A tricky one; the snare drum is often said to be one of the most important sound shapes in the mix, as it defines the rhythm. Spend some time to get the sound you want, but you could try cutting some boxiness at 800Hz to 1kHz, and adding at 8kHz to 10kHz.

  • Cymbals: You won't want any bassiness from these, cut below 200Hz, and again at 1kHz to 2kHz.

There were some additional topics I wanted to cover, but this entry is now getting far too long, so I'll just quickly jot them down and leave them as exercises for the interested reader:

  • Start mixing with the rhythm/drum tracks.

  • Using the Compressor is critical for reducing 'wandering' on the Z axis (sounds changing from very loud to very quiet).

  • Lock tracks when you're not mixing them; reverb and echo have a high impact on the CPU.

  • Use the repeat/loop feature whilst mixing.

  • Learn the keyboard shortcuts! And for added efficiency, check out iControl.


2005-11-07 12:18:17
The Fourth Axis: Time
I find it helpful to approach mixing as conducting: After getting the basic balance right, you generate the expression and interest by shaping that balance from moment to moment. Our ears are naturally drawn to changes in sound (probably a survival mechanism); good mixing is dynamic.

Mixer Ralph Sutton makes a great analogy in Howard Massey’s Behind the Glass: “The feature is always supposed to be the feature. It’s like setting up a fruitbowl, and the artist is the apple. He has to be seen, but he’s still part of the bowl.... The surroundings are supposed to make you just want that apple.”

—David Battino

2006-05-18 13:46:12
How do you remove vocals from a song and how do you make acapella (remove instruments and keep the vocals) in GarageBand?