The top-down mixing technique

Illustration: Gabe Alcala

“Top-down mixing,” or the practice of starting your mixing process at the stem / master bus level, is becoming more and more popular.

It not only helps you keep a bigger perspective on the mix, but it also improves the cohesiveness of your final product.

In this article, I will explain the techniques used, as well as offer insight into how to make it more effective.

How to set up top-down mixing

In order to try this out for yourself, you’ll need to do a little bit of prep in your session.

First, set up your aux tracks for each group of instruments. I like to use the following busses:

  • Vocal stem
  • Background vocal stem
  • Synthesizer stem
  • Pads stem
  • Bass stem
  • Drums stem

Sometimes, I will use other busses as needed, such as a “Guitar” bus, or a “Keys” bus if I am using a lot of piano/organ/electronic piano in the track.

Next, route the appropriate individual tracks to the stem tracks you created. Once they’re properly routed, do a quick balance of the individual tracks. Don’t worry about getting too specific at this point, just do a rough pass of the mix to make sure that nothing sticks out or is inaudible.

Now you’re ready to get started!

Applying signal processing on the stem tracks

Now that you’ve got a basic balance, start with soloing out a specific stem. I like to start with the drums.

I usually like to use iZotope’s Neutron 3 Advanced on these stem tracks. I’ll start with an EQ module and sculpt the sound of the drums in an overall manner. Next, I’ll add some compression, transient shaping, and even stereo imaging as needed.

This approach forces you to listen to the overall sound of the part, rather than getting too focused on individual tracks and getting lost in the mix.

Balancing the stem tracks

After you’ve added signal processing to the stem tracks, you’ll want to balance them out and get the best level between these parts. Again, this forces you to listen to the overall drum and bass level, how the synths compare to the vocals, and how everything fits together on a global scale.

Don’t worry about the minor adjustments that you might be hearing at this point. Just get the overall sound levels balanced between parts.

Getting into the details

Once you’re satisfied with the levels and have done all you can on the global stem level, it’s time to get into the details and individual tracks. Make any adjustments you need to in order to finish out your mix.

You’ll most likely find that, at this point, you’re not making too many changes. This is a good thing because you won’t be over-mixing and over-thinking the individual tracks.

The reason why this technique works for a lot of people is because they worry too much about the individual sounds and not enough about how they all fit together. By starting at the top of the mix (meaning the stem level), you’re able to just focus on the few stems and how they sound together rather than soloing out the kick drum, for instance, and over mixing it.

Try this out for yourself on a mix you did a while back. Duplicate your project and reset the mix and try this approach. Then, compare the results with your original mix. When I started using this technique, I was shocked at how much better my top-down mix sounded, and I spent way less time to get there.

Try it out and let me know how it worked for you!

January 8, 2018

PALA PALA is a pop songwriter and producer with over a decade of experience. He has worked with many of the top organizations in music including the GRAMMY Foundation.