When I started making music, most of the pieces I wrote sounded really weak. I compared them to commercially successful tracks and they always had some weaknesses.
For example the loudness, the dynamics, equalisation or panning. Referencing tracks is always a good idea, even when we couldn't reach completely the sound we are after. But every small step counts in the process.
A couple of years later I learned how to mix and master on my own.
And in the last three years I've been using this mental checklist I created for myself. It comes handy to have a clear process in my head about engineering. This list is also in my free book, that I wrote in 2015 in my mother language, Hungarian.
When I'm mixing I always base my actions to the feelings. Emotions I feel when I'm listening to the song.
After that I am moving in the direction towards the genre and sub-genre. At the preparation phase I create, rename and colour each tracks and make groups for them.
Grouping helps to process each part differently. This also helps the workflow.
I start with the drums in this order: kick, snare, hihats, rides, percussion, loops.
For basses I like to fit each bass in their respective octave, for example: sub, normal bass, high bass. These are usually in the region of 0-50 Hz, 50-100 Hz and 100-200 Hz.
Usually I make a low cut at around 100 Hz to make space for the kick and basses. These are the tracks which I pan more widely than others. I usually pan in symmetrical ways in pairs.
For example guitar to left and piano to right.
4. Vocal and Fx
I also make a low and high cut with EQ here. It is enough to have that in the group track.
1. Phase and Polarity
If the track is sounding weak, strange or jumps out one of the speakers then probably there is a phase or polarity issue. I switch polarity or rotate phase until the problem is resolved. For this I'll use the Utility module in Ableton Suite.
2. Volume Balance
This is the most important part for mixing. When done right, there is not much need to EQ tracks. Because the sum of the tracks is itself a kind of EQing like on a global level.
I'll pull down all faders to -8 or -10 dB. Then I will add each track one by one. After that I'll adjust the levels.
I usually pan tracks which have similar role. I choose pairs of tracks which have similar frequency content and also similar in rhythm.
With this process, the sound will be pleasant to the ear. It also helps avoiding ear fatigue.
On the mids and fx groups I use low cuts. These help to allow space for other parts like drums and bass.
I don't use much compression. Although I use side-chain compression. I'll usually set a side-chain fed by the kick, to control the volume ducking of the bass.
Most of the effects I use are filter modulation, delays, reverbs and saturation. Sometimes I'll add a touch of chorus, flanger or phaser.
This part is very important. It can give life to ordinary or boring tracks. Basically this is an art in itself like almost writing a new music inside the bigger picture. Like music inside music.
I'll generally use volume, filtering and effects automation for this.
1. Mono Compatibility
I use the Ableton Utility module for this phase. I set to mono and check if the music stays intact. If something is strange, I will go back to stereo and often decrease the reverb and delay. Or fix the EQ.
These help solving mono problems.
Sometimes I use saturation to add a bit more loudness to the music. I use it very gently. Generally I use between 1-3 decibels of saturation. I set to use the softest, Analogue setting on Ableton Saturator.
I usually make a 30 Hz low cut in mono. And a 150 Hz low cut in the sides part (mid-side EQ with EQ Eight). Apart from this, I also make a high cut at around 18-19 kHz. This helps to remove unnecessary parts from the mix.
I use the limiter to give the material the final loudness level. I usually make a DR6 and a DR12 version. These are the dynamic ranges (DR). You can measure it with different plugins. Generally the bigger the dynamic range the better.
The dynamic range topic is in connection with the loudness war. The dynamic range is inversely proportional to the loudness level.
5. Visual Helpers
I use visual plugins to check if there is a problem somewhere (like DC offset or phase issues). With these I check oscilloscope, frequency spectrum and stereoscope. Each give a different representation of the music.
In this tutorial, I shared the mental checklist I'm using in mixing and mastering. I presented you each step, in what I do and how I do things.
Feel free to experiment and try out what I mentioned. As you gain more and more experience you can make your own custom process. Good luck!