What is the Difference Between Mixing and Sound Design?

While producing a track, you might like to separate the ‘production’ and ‘mixing’ stages. The problem is, a lot of the tools that are used in mixing might also be used during production, specifically when designing a sound or layering instruments. For example, you might use a compressor when mixing, but you also might use it during production to ‘glue’ two layered sounds together, creating one larger instrument.

This naturally leads to the question: what is the difference between ‘Sound Design’ and ‘Mixing’? If we’re using the same tools for both, what separates them?

In this article, I’m going to clearly define both mixing and sound design, so that we can tell them apart during our productions.

(By the way, if you’re not really into the whole ‘designing sounds’ thing, and you just want to make a song, it’s totally fine to use loops. I’ve written an article on how professional producers use loops in their tracks.)

The Difference Between Sound Design and Mixing

The difference between sound design and mixing is found in their definition. We have to understand exactly what these two terms mean, in order to know what separates them.

In a nutshell, ‘sound design’ is making one instrument sound good on its own, whereas ‘mixing’ is making multiple instruments sound good together.

That is the defining feature that separates these two concepts. One is about a single sound, the other is about multiple sounds.

The rest of this article will dive deeper into the specific meanings of ‘sound design’ and ‘mixing’, and how they relate to each other, as well as differ.

Deeper Into Sound Design

‘Sound Design’ is the process of creating a single sound (or instrument), to use in a production. This process often involves a technique called ‘layering’, which means taking multiple sounds and stacking them on top of each other, to create one larger, fuller sound.

During the sound design process, mixing tools are often used to make the instrument sound better as a whole. For example, if a sound contains too much dynamic range, a compressor may be used to tame that range and make it more consistent. If a sound is too dry or unnatural, a reverb plugin may give it a sense of space and make it sound more realistic (as if it’s being played in a real room with echoes).

During sound design, it is important that the sound does not have too many effects applied, as this can destroy the sound’s character or make it harder to mix later on.

Deeper Into Mixing

There are several articles on this website going into detail about the mixing process, as it can be a complicated topic. However, at its core, mixing is the process of taking multiple sounds and ‘blending’ them together – making them sound good as a whole. This is why its called mixing – we’re ‘mixing’ the sounds together.

The most fundamental part of mixing is balancing volume levels of each track, but that isn’t the only part. There are many different tools we use in mixing called ‘plugins’, which allow us to change certain things about our sounds, to make them sound better together. For example, we may have the problem of two sounds clashing at similar frequencies and canceling each other out. So to solve this, we would use an equaliser to cut the clashing frequency in one instrument, allowing space for the other instrument to breathe.

As said before, this website has several articles you can read to go into much more depth on the topic of mixing. Its such a big and complex topic that many people actually make entire careers out of doing it.

Should Mixing and Sound Design Overlap?

Because sound design and mixing use much of the same plugins and tools, you might ask yourself ‘should these overlap, or should they be kept separate’?

The answer is, they already kind of overlap anyway. It’s technically impossible to avoid mixing when you have more than one sound at a time.

If you are layering two sounds together to make one bigger sound, you have to perform some kind of ‘mixing’ to make them blend together. You have to adjust the volume of each sound. You might use an equaliser to make the frequencies fit together. You might use a compressor to glue the sounds together.

In a sense, that is technically ‘mixing’, but I wouldn’t define it as such. The general rule is this: if you’re designing one singular sound (or instrument) on its own, even if you’re using multiple layers to create that sound, then it’s sound design. If you’re trying to make multiple sounds (or instruments) sound good together in the context of an entire song, then it’s mixing.

If you remember this rule, it shouldn’t be too difficult to tell the two apart. Therefore, overlapping shouldn’t be a problem.

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