Mixing is an art – it’s almost a cliche to say it, but it is true. Learning professional mixing requires time, effort and money – this last thing you need to learn and buy equipment. There is no denying mixing orchestral music is a hard work. At some point of my musical career I realized the following.
- You either focus on composition.
- Or you focus on mixing.
Because learning how to mix music on professional level is like a full-time job. Thus, the best advise I can give you is this: if you want to be a composer, focus on composing music, and pay someone to do great mixes. And if you want to focus on mixing orchestral music, focus on mixing.
That said, both the mix engineer and the composer should know a little bit about the opposite of their focus. So, the mix engineer needs to know a thing or two about composing music and producing music. And the composer needs to know a thing or two about mixing. That is why on Orchestral Music School I teach both the basics of composition and mixing. And in this article, I will show you 4 plugins, that as a composer you can use to make basic mixes of your orchestral music.
Before I start describing these 4 plugins, let me be very clear: most DAWs already have so called “stock plugins”, which come with the DAW itself. In most cases, they are everything you need. Every DAW comes with a reverb, equalizer, compressor, limiter and so on. If you don’t want to spend any money, use the stock plugins. But when you’re ready to expand your toolset, the 4 plugins described below should be the first thing you buy.
The best thing: these are quite popular plugins, so it’s easy to find tutorials on how to use them.
EQ: FabFilter’s Pro-Q3
An equalizer is used to manipulate sound frequencies and thus create balance between all the tracks in your composition.
Pro-Q3 is considered to be one of the best equalizers on the market. It very easy to use, very powerful, very lightweight on your CPU, and it allows you to cross-check frequencies from another track, so you can actually see where the frequencies collide. This allows you to check for frequencies masking and thus clear your mix better. This is awesome – experienced mix engineers like to say “use your ears”, but let’s face the reality: beginners have no idea what to listen for, thus this advice comes either as empty or even arrogant. It’s very helpful to use your eyes when you’re a beginner and actually have the software show you the problems with your mix, and only then listen – this way you can actually learn what to listen for.
Beside that, there isn’t much to add – it’s a powerful and easy to use equalizer plugin that will make your life easier. It has many additional features that even I have yet to learn, so be sure to read the documentation.
The company behind this plugin does sales from time to time, especially on Black Friday, so you can grab the plugin even cheaper. It’s also a part of a mixing and mastering bundles, that are even more affordable when purchased together, but Pro-Q3 can be bought individually, too.
Mixing Package: Izotope Neutron
Neutron is used for mixing.
Both the Neutron and the Ozone comes in few versions, each more expensive than the other, but offering even more stuff. But for basic mixing all you need is the Elements version of both the Neutron and the Ozone. And you can grab them on sales, too. Check Plugin Boutique, where you can find many plugins on sales: https://www.pluginboutique.com.
There’s already Neutron 3 available, but I grabbed an earlier version quite some time ago, I guess I’m using the very first Neutron. Anyway, Neutron Elements comes with an equalizer, compressor, exciter and transient shaper, and modern Neutrons also offer a useful tool to crosscheck your tracks, thus make sure you have no trouble with masking frequencies and clashing instruments – similar to what Pro-Q3 does.With addition of a compressor, exciter and transient shaper, it’s a useful tool. The Advanced package contains even more plugins, so be sure to check it out.
Neutron also comes with very useful presets that are a good starting point for your mixes – both individual tracks and group busses.
Reverb: Valhalla Room
This is a reverb plugin.
Valhalla Room is probably the best of the affordable reverbs on the market. It’s an algorithmic reverb, and while most professional mix engineers use convolution reverbs for orchestral music, Valhalla Room is considered to be one of the best choices for people with a limited budget. Why? Because it sounds great. I use Valhalla Room for all my orchestral pieces when necessary.
It comes with a huge number of presets and a lot of knobs to work with. As such, it is very useful both for mixing and for sound design.
Valhalla’s producers don’t do sales, but don’t worry: their products are already very affordable. Valhalla Room itself costs about 50 dollars (in some countries you may need to pay VAT tax as well).
Mastering Package: Izotope Ozone
Ozone is used for final mastering:
I use Ozone 8, but current version available is Ozone 9. This is a mastering plugin, and you can use it for final master of your track.
Ozone Elements contains an equalizer, stereo imager and maximizer, and these three plugins are enough to get you started with mastering.
Just like Neutron, Ozone 8 Elements come with basic presets that are a good starting point for mastering your tracks. It has a useful track assistant feature and you can use this plugin to adjust your own mix in relation to a reference track (the Standard Edition). And the Tonal Balance available in the Advanced package is quite useful to making sure your track fits the genre :).
Can You Really Mix Music With 4 Plugins Only?
Yes and no. Obviously, a beginner will find these plugins very useful, especially when you spend time reading the documentation and learning from tutorials. In the end, though, mixing and mastering requires knowledge and skills, and it’s never about the number of plugins, but about your own experience.
That said, these 4 plugins are a good way to start – even if you start with the Elements package for Izotope products, which are very basic, yet very useful.