In this post I’ll offer some tips on setting up a mix bus for use in your projects; but first we should clarify what a mix bus actually does. I often see confusion about the definition of a mix bus (not to be confused with the amazing DAW Mixbus by Harrison) and how a mix bus works. If you’ve been trained in audio engineering, you’re likely to be familiar with the term. I’ve seen some memes where engineers are mocking people that aren’t using a mix bus, but in reality I can tell you that some of the best mixes I’ve heard were made by people that were still learning. So let’s clarify a few things and hopefully some of these tricks will be helpful.
What is a mix bus?
Let’s keep it simple, it’s the last channel you’ll use on your DAW where all channels/groups/sends/AUX will point. In Ableton Live, many people will use the Master channel as their mix bus; it’s where all your elements mix in the end.
Is there another way to use the master channel?
Yes, there is. While you don’t absolutely need to do it that way, it’s good to know how. it might enhance your workflow as you’ll use the master channel simply for deciding at what output you want to bounce your music (ex. -6dB).
One thing I’ve discovered while following mixing classes with other mentors is they use a channel they’ll call the mix bus and will route their signal to that channel in the end. That one will then go to the master.
All channels -> Mix bus -> Master
One of the advantages you will benefit from is better control of your workflow, easy A/B comparisons with other tracks, and to see how your final mix is really turning out. So if you put your effects on the master, move them to your mixbus and leave the master empty. However, I like to use a utility plugin there for sometimes adjusting the gain, for instance.,
Some people will want to do mastering directly in their project and will put mastering plugins on the master channel, but I really insist that you should not do that. Treat mastering as a different process that should be done on its own and by someone other than yourself (assuming you want the best possible result).
Now, apart from the technical routing, let’s discuss how to optimize your use of the mix/master channel.
- Keep your mix bus light. I find that you gain better results by flexing your creative muscles on each channels individually than trying to fix it all in the end. The more control you have over your sounds, the more detail you’ll have in general, but keep in mind that if you have too much to fix on your mix bus, you’ll also be affecting other channels that might be just fine.
- Don’t compress too much. You’ll lose on your dynamic range if you compress the signal too much. If you’re lacking gain in the end, you have two options: first would be to go on each channel and gain stage there first, or if you compress on the mix bus, do it in parallel.
- Use your reference. So many people mix blindly that once in a club, they’ll see they’re completely off in their efforts. Check some tools down this page or import a reference directly in the arrangements.
- Avoid presets from do-it-all plugins! This is something I see a lot with people dropping Ozone and selecting a preset, then export. If you’re going to do that, please check the compression ratio, levels, gain reduction and attack/release. Those can really mess up your song and that will be a total loss once in mastering. The better mix I get, the better master I can give you. When I compress, I’ll try to keep my gain reduction under 3dB, with a slow attack and fast release.
- Use shelving EQ for tonal balance. As seen in one of my previous posts, the shelving EQs are excellent for you to decide what tone your song will have and quickly readjust the low end or highs.
- No limiter on your mix bus. Keep your signal clean.
Some plugins I always use on my mix bus:
Reference by Master the mix: Perfect to see if I’m on the right path by easily compare it with a reference.
Voxengo Marquis compressor: for smooth gluing.