Three Reasons Music Theory Could Help Your Mix

Dave Cracked Up (Blog), Creating, Engineering, Music/Audio Leave a Comment

You’ve heard of all the pre-mix “rituals” and administrative things that you’re supposed to do before you mix … haven’t you?

You know, all those things about organizing your tracks, editing your tracks, putting in markers, colouring things, loading templates… all that stuff. Well, of course, that’s golden advice! Anything that’ll help you work more efficiently and effectively is going to be a plus.

I like to include creating chord charts (and possibly lead sheets) of the track I’m mixing as one of those key pre-mixing essentials. I haven’t taught music theory at Ai for a while now, but when I did, I’d always have a course pre-amble about how music theory can help the audio engineer.

Sure, it’s not absolutely necessary and you can definitely create a good mix without them, but hear me out.

Pitch Correction

I am participating in Brandon Drury’s Slate Digital Cup event – a year long mixing competition where there are monthly mixing challenges that forum members compete in. March’s mix challenge was a very non-standard song – non-standard in structure and in harmonic content. It was a very cool song – you can listen to my mix of the song if you’d like.

I started out by trying to figure out the basic sections of the song and inserting the appropriate markers – while listening to the tracks, I could tell that the chords being used weren’t your standard I, IV and V chords. I then went through and dove into chord analysis mode only to confirm what I’d suspected – the song was using non-diatonic chords throughout. This meant that there wasn’t a specific “major” or “minor” scale from which all the chords were being derived, but rather the chords being used were borrowed from a variety of keys and scales throughout.

The singer had a very interesting voice, but his pitch was challenged in some places. … In comes the pitch correction plug-in (I like to use the Waves pitch corrector).


What most pitch correction applications will allow you to do is pick which scales to limit the pitches to (or you can do this manually by selecting notes you’d like to include or exclude). In the instance of this song, if you assumed that the first or “home” chord you heard was the key of the entire song, and you set your pitch-correction software to limit pitches to that key, then once the chord changed, you’d be excluding notes that might be crucial to and possibly including ones that clashed the next chord.

A couple of mixes unfortunately fell into this trap and nothing sticks out more than a pitch-corrected singer hitting the wrong note.

Having knowledge of the harmonic content of the song you’re mixing and how different notes will work with that harmony will definitely keep your pitch-correction adventures from going down the wrong path – you know, the path with quicksand at the end…

Mixing & Matching

Unless a band or artist has explicitly told me: “DON’T MUTE, ADD OR MOVE ANYTHING AROUND”, I’ll venture into those territories to see if there’s some added value that I can provide.

I’ll very rarely pull out my musical instruments and add my own tracks to someone else’s song – unless they’ve asked me. Rather, I like to see if there’s something I can do with the included material to give the client a possible alternate spin on the track. It’s usually subtle, but sometimes, inspiration strikes! My rule when doing this is to be able to mute or take out my changes easily if need be – never to destroy the original tracks.

Besides using the mute button (an often overlooked creative tool!), I’ll look to see if there are possibly parts of tracks played in other parts of the song that can be used in another section.

Having a chord chart handy allows me to easily determine whether something played in a specific section would fit harmonically in another section. In other words, can I copy and paste a portion of one track to another section of the song? It cuts out a lot of trial and error and guess-work.


This last point may not be quite so obvious. but I’ve had some great success adding “punch” to a song by using EQ to emphasize frequencies that are important to the song and de-emphasizing ones that are not.

Let’s say you’ve got a typical five-string bass with a low B string and there’s a section of the song that comes home dramtically to the tonic note of C. The bassist strikes that low string to really lay down that foundation … and it didn’t come through with the intended punch or that rumbling-in-your-chest party you wanted.

The problem could be the mic, it could be that the strings were dirty, it could be …

Before you get the bassist in to trouble-shoot and do another take with a new bass or new strings, perhaps EQ is the problem. Did you apply a high-Q high-pass filter at 40 Hz? That low C comes in at 32 and change and it’s probably getting totally suppressed.

That’s just one example – you can probably apply the same thing to pretty well every tonal instrument to which you’re applying EQ: how do the frequencies that you’re cutting or boosting affect the harmonic impact of the entire track?

Seventh String Software has a fantastic page on the notes and their corresponding frequencies here.

Theory and Practice

Can you mix successfully without knowing music theory? Of course you can and lots of mixers do so everyday.

It’s just one of the many tools that I can pull out of my ever-expanding mixing toolbox that helps me put together mixes.

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