Make a track or instrument sound "softer"

Sometimes I find myself in a situation with a track where I’m happy with the kind of instrument I have, but regardless of the gain my track sounds a little hard or bright. I have trouble working it into the overall mix in a way that it doesn’t either draw too much attention or fail to make an impact at all. These sounds often make my mix sound a little cluttered, but they still play a role in the music. I listen to other people’s work and I’m like “wow, you can really hear everything that’s going on, there’s so much detail”. The quieter details are easy to make out, and the leads stand out, but in such a way that they have a space of their own rather than demanding too much attention. Some of this is attributable to my overall ability to arrange songs well, but I feel like part of it is also to do with my mixing skills.

The main idea I have to make tracks sound softer is to apply EQ to problem frequencies, but I don’t really have a good method for searching for them. Is the main way to soften a track and help is gel with the mic more to take an EQ and frob one parameter wildly until a problem frequency is located then do fine adjustment and A/B with the song without EQ? I think this is what I was mainly doing when I was a bit better about mixing. I have also used panning sometimes to move parts of a song apart, but I’m afraid to pay much further than 15-20 either side most of the time.

I remember having heard of other stuff like chorus being used to make a track sound softer, but I have no idea how that works.

Am I on the right track? Is this a “mix more often and you will get less bad” learn-by-doing kind of thing? Have I completely missed the point?

Practice makes perfect. The more you mix, the more you learn. Just do it and do it often.

But in my opinion, the primary goal should be to know how to write good music first. As Ill Gates says, “I know a couple hundred button monkeys who can mix a tune for you, but only a few who know how to write stuff that sticks around”. Something like that, I’m paraphrasing. Point is, music first, mixing second.