Not happy with your mixes? One of these reasons might be why
By Craig Anderton
Mixing is tough enough as is, but avoiding the following mistakes just might help the process go a little more smoothly—and give you audibly better results.
1. Mixing in a lousy monitoring environment
If you mix in a room with horrible acoustics or use inaccurate speakers that do tricks like hype the bass, your mix is doomed. You may think it sounds fine, and it might, because you’re compensating for the monitoring deficiencies. But as soon as you get the mix outside of your environment, it will likely sound dreadful.
To solve this problem, strive to use speakers that emphasize accuracy. They may not flatter your music that much, but that’s the point: If your mix sounds great over accurate speakers, it will at least sound decent over other speakers.
Proper acoustic treatment is ideal, but may not be possible. IK Multimedia’s ARC can help with fixing your acoustics (normally I see little value in “room tuning,” but IK’s system is quite effective). Also consider buying a really good set of circumaural headphones, and use them as a reality check compared to your speakers. Just remember that headphones give a particular “flavor” of reality that accentuates ambience and stereo separation; their main use in this case is evaluating the amount of bass because room acoustics aren’t a factor. However if you use something like Beatz, that won’t help—you want headphones designed for monitoring, not consumers.
2. Too much reverb or too little ambience
Some people seem to think that adding lots of reverb will compensate for a problematic part. Actually, all it does is give you a problematic part with too much reverb. Mitigating factor: If you’re doing a 60s revival/tribute recording, then make sure you do use too much reverb if you want to be authentic.
On the other hand, an overly dry sound doesn’t do you any favors either. We usually hear music in an acoustic environment of some kind, so adding in audio like room mics on drums (Fig. 1) can create a much more realistic and satisfying mix.
Fig. 1: Take advantage of the room mic option in Addictive Drums to give a more “real” feel.
Note that with recorded drums that already have some ambience, you can often make the existing ambience more prominent by putting the drums through the Concrete Limiter. By reducing the peaks, this allows the lower-level signals (like ambience) to become more prominent.
3. Falling in love with a part because it’s cool
The question you really need to ask isn’t whether a part is cool, but whether it contributes to the song. Removing unneeded parts emphasizes the parts that are left—there’s a reason why sometimes the most compelling music is a solo piano, or a singer with a guitar. Exercise the mixer’s Mute button often and ask yourself “is this part (or section of this part) really necessary?” If the answer isn’t a resounding “yes,” nuke it—the remaining parts will thank you. (Note: Muting parts in certain strategic places can also add drama. Again, the mute button is your friend.)
4. Starting your mix in stereo
This isn’t really about something wrong, but a recommendation. If you start your mix with all tracks panned to the center (Fig. 2), it will be much more obvious which parts obscure each other, and which need to have sections of the spectrum “carved out” to make room for other parts.
Fig. 2: The panpots for all the Console channels are set to center, so that all the tracks are in the center of the stereo field.
You’ll also want to check your Console strips in wide view, so you can change all the track interleaves to mono (just remember to change them back when you start the stereo placement process). The bottom line is that If your mix can sound spacious in mono, then it will sound mega-wonderful with judicious use of stereo.
5. Keeping your faders at the same level throughout the mix
One of the great “aha!” moments in my life was watching the engineer who mixed the song “Brandy (You’re a Fine Girl).” As the song played he had his eyes closed, and was moving the faders rhythmically—albeit subtly—with the song. It added a lot of life that you just don’t get if you keep all the faders at the same level all the time. If there’s a part that needs to be emphasized, don’t be shy—give it a kick. That acoustic guitar part that hits hard just before the vocals? Boost it, baby!
6. Not paying attention to detail
Before starting a mix, listen to every track, in isolation, from start to finish and delete sections that contribute noise or other audio garbage (Fig. 3).
Fig. 3: Sections between vocal phrases are cut to reduce preamp hiss and similar noise.
A lot of “track crap” (like mic handling noise, plosives that weren’t removed, preamp hiss, the hum from a guitar amp between phrases) may not be noticeable when all the tracks are playing. But if you get rid of this unwanted audio on all your tracks, the effect is cumulative and the result is a much cleaner overall sound.
7. Improper gain-staging
Sure, a floating-point, 64-bit end-to-end audio engine cuts you a lot of slack. But go into console view, and make sure that the clip LEDs aren’t glowing red (Fig. 4). Maybe you won’t hear any audible distortion, but it does seem that the overall sound is cleaner if you avoid overload indications as much as possible.
Fig. 4: The three Console channels on the left are showing overload conditions. The effect may or may not be noticeable, but if the overload condition doesn’t exist, you know for sure it won’t be noticeable.
8. Burying the vocals
This can work when you want the voice to sound like it’s fighting to be heard. But with a lot of the project studios mixes I’ve heard, there’s a tendency to mix the vocal too low. Unfortunately, your hearing works against you because of the Fletcher-Munson curve; at higher levels the bass and treble are more prominent, which makes the vocals sound lower by comparison. At lower levels, the voice can seem to dominate. If you get the mix so the voice sounds too loud at low levels and not quite loud enough at really high levels, you probably have it just about right.
9. Adding effects in the stereo output bus when the song is going to be mastered later
If you’re mastering your own material within SONAR, this doesn’t apply—but hopefully, you know what you’re doing well enough to do a good mastering job within SONAR. For anything that’s going to a mastering engineer, give the best balance possible of your tracks but don’t add overall EQ, compression, limiting, etc. Let the mastering engineer make those decisions.
10. Soloing every track and processing each one to sound as wonderful as possible
The tracks all have to work together as a team. You may spend a lot of time aiming for a great bass sound, only to find that when you bring in the kick and piano, they both fight with the bass and you need to prioritize which instrument will dominate in the mix. The human ear can cope with only so many diverse sounds at the same time; choose which tracks you want to prioritize, then make the other tracks subservient.
And here’s one final tip: Don’t believe there are “mixing mistakes.” I’m not trying to argue with myself here, but there are plenty of classic pieces of music that were mixed in horrible acoustical environments, have too much reverb, are clipped, feature gratuitous parts, and made not just some of the mistakes I’ve mentioned here but other ones as well—yet the music still connected on an emotional level. So don’t go too nuts with the rocket science part of mixing. If your mix maximizes a song’s emotional impact, you got it right.