It can be a daunting prospect finding your way 'in' to completing a new piece of music. Whether it's written and in need of a final mix, or you're in the production seat with a blank page in front of you, the path you choose will have a huge effect on your final outcome.
Each track is different, and usually requires it's own considered approach. Once that path is found however we can easily progress through the steps necessary to arrive at something special - and just as importantly, finished.
We've all at some point discovered that special state of 'flow', where a track's demands are so clear that it almost seems to write itself. Here is a suggested workflow for jumpstarting that experience, along with a bit of explanation as to how it can help.
1. Choose your starting element.
Consider your particular track. What's it about? What are the feelings and experiences you want to communicate to the listener, what's the vibe? How does the genre express them? What excites you about it? What elements play throughout? What needs to be biggest?
Answering these questions can often guide you to your most important foreground elements, and inform you how they should behave in the mix. Don't worry if you can't hear your end goal just yet - this is a creative process, just make a decision. You'll slowly 'zoom in' to the final product as it reveals itself.
Many choose the vocal, as this is often what will occupy the foreground for the majority of songs and their listeners. Starting here requires some experience however, as sonically vocals are rarely the largest element in the mix. You'll often end up filtering out frequencies and compressing significantly in order to let them compete up front.
Drums are another popular choice, and arguably one of the most successful ways to begin. The 'backbone' of many a style of track, the drums usually contain energy across the entire spectrum and soundstage. Getting a great drum mix can act as a perfect skeleton to build the rest of your elements around.
Of course the drums are usually built from multiple channels, so if you've opted for this approach, again choose whatever element plays a key role. The kick is usually the main player, fundamental rhythmically and often one of the loudest elements in your mix - a perfect reference for balancing volumes of successive channels. It too is often one of the most regular, sounding consistently through the song and rarely changing in tone. It regularly has a broad frequency range, from the sub bass right up to its initial high frequency transient. This special combination of characteristics makes a well balanced kick a strong reference point for almost all of your initial mix decisions.
2. Choose your starting section.
This idea of framing from the front works on an arrangement level too - starting with a section fundamental to your particular piece of music, be it the chorus, build, introduction (whatever will be a key stand-out part), gives you a moment in the music to build towards or progress away from.
Often these are the moments with the greatest energy, the emotional peak of the track, and usually the loudest and busiest in terms of instrumentation. Starting here has a key benefit in ensuring your mix has space to gel together.
With most of the instruments playing at once we can find unique positions in the soundstage for each, avoiding frequency masking/overlap between channels, and filling the space at its largest. As the listener then later begins their journey through the finished track towards this high energy moment, different instruments will introduce unique parts of the soundstage, before all coming together at the point where you actually began mixing. This experience is of course moderated and further guided by automation and progression in the mix.
3. Begin to balance.
So now you've decided on a channel and a key point in the track, it's time to build a balance that reflects this moment's energy (if you haven't read our overview of the mix-shaping tools available, now would be a perfect time to brush up). Starting with that first element, work your way along a hierarchy of importance in your channels, thinking about what occupies the most space, and what is being presented at the front.
Most foreground elements sit in balance with another - what's the next most fundamental part? Snare? Keys to go with vocal? What can you work on that will be easily informed from the part you've balanced.
If you can add and balance your next element well, you will now have an even better reference point from which to make the next decision. Proceeding like this in hierarchy of importance through all your channels will often lead to a well balanced mix. By the end of this process you should find yourself layering small elements like incidental sounds or fx, small structural harmonies (whichever contributing/supporting parts your piece benefits from), finding their nuanced positions in the remaining space.
Altering your path through the channels can have a significant effect on the balance you arrive at, and can often be a powerful exercise in understanding a piece of music's internal dynamics.
4. Create Progression.
Much as we used one important channel as a reference to inform the next as we built our first section, it can be just as effective to do the same with an entire arrangement. This is particularly helpful in breaking out of 'loop mode', where all too often producers find themselves stuck.
Select another section of your track, perhaps an important verse, or the intro, somewhere with a different function in the piece. Begin to work out how you might change the balances you just created to reflect the contrasting emotional energy in this new section, and consider how to modulate between the two.
What was great about that first chorus, and how can we arrive or progress from there? Think about what could make that journey a powerful experience. This could be a substantial contrast in the soundstage, or a simple form of progression. Automation is of course your friend here, as is your ability to play with expectations - now that you know where you're arriving, you can control the impact of getting there.
From this point you have an arc, an energetic progression of some sort, and if you're lucky it will have clear places to land and begin as you complete the rest of your mix.
And that's it. Continue working in this prioritised manner, and you should find your flow quite naturally. The trick is to find a balance between returning to a structured approach, and letting the music lead your ear wherever it needs to go.
* An unusual first reference point can lead to unusual balances. Pretty much everyone has experienced the frustration of finishing work on a mix, which you thought sounded great, before referencing an existing track and finding the entire mix is skewed poorly in frequency or dynamic. A bad decision early on can be compounded upon with each successive step, and annoyingly will often demand back tracking and starting again. (If you're looking for a reliable starting point, here are some free kicks on us).