The Number One Reason Your Mixes Sound Amateur
I get sent tons of mixes to critique each week with artists wondering why their mix hasn’t got that clean, professional sound that they work so hard to try and achieve. As much as it would satisfy my inner engineer to go back with some technical explanation on some precise EQ settings or fancy compression techniques that would solve the problem, the reason is almost always straightforward and more obvious than you might think. It’s balance, plain and simple. Things like, “the drums are too quiet” or “the bass too loud”. The volume balance between individual instruments and elements is, in my opinion, 75% of what makes a good mix. Once it’s right, everything else falls into place, but it’s so often disregarded with the oversight that the problem is down to some kind of processing technique. Here are some ways that you can make sure your balance is spot on everytime...
Everytime you start a mix, take your tracks out of your production project file and put them into a new one dedicated to mixing, committing most of your effects. This way, you can start the process with a clear head and you won’t be tempted to go back and tinker with any settings used in the production process. Next, start mixing using just the faders. Don’t touch any plugins, just get everything sitting as best it can with volume alone. Move things 1db at a time if you need to. If you hear a problem in your mix later on, try not to react by grabbing a plugin, the first thing to check should be the fader balance. It’s all too easy to get sucked into a wormhole of mixing tutorials on YouTube, when in reality your issue may be solved by simply turning something up or down.
Before reaching straight for a compressor or eq to make a certain instrument cut through, or fall back during a certain section part of your mix, just use volume automation to get as close as possible to the sound you need. This is perhaps one of the most underused tools we have right at our fingertips in every DAW.
Always gain stage. When I was first taught about gain staging I probably ignored it. It may seem dull at first, but it’s absolutely key to creating a great mix and will save you many headaches later down the line. For those who haven’t heard of it before, it’s basically the process of making sure that the level before, and after any processing is the same. For example, if you use an EQ and boost a lot of frequencies, the signal coming out of the EQ will be louder than the signal going into it. You must adjust the output gain on the plugin, so that the input and output levels are the same. There are two main benefits to this. Firstly, you can compare any changes you make fairly, without a boost or reduction in level and secondly, with the level remaining the same, you will find yourself making far fewer adjustments on the faders as your mix develops, keeping you nice and close to that original balance.
Be aware of your room’s acoustics
Room acoustics can make mixing records at home or in your bedroom very difficult, sometimes without you even realising. If your room is untreated, there will be frequency balance issues happening. There are a few ways to stop this from having too big of an impact on your mixes. Firstly, you can acoustically treat your room and make sure you’re listening from the optimal position. Here’s a great article on how to do that. Secondly, you should reference your mix on headphones regularly to make sure it still sounds as it should without the influence of the acoustic space around you. And lastly, you can buy software like Sonarworks, which will measure the frequency response in your room and apply some EQ to your system to correct any major issues. Before you end up in a constant cycle of trying to fix your acoustics, remember, there is no such thing as a space with a flat frequency response - no matter what some pro studios will tell you. Although they can be reduced, issues will always be there, you just need to be aware of them.
Image source: Sound On Sound
Use reference mixes
This is probably the best advice I can give for musicians who mix their own music. When I take on a mixing project, I always ask for at least one reference track. This is a song that sounds similar to your end goal. Using this not only helps to make sure I’m on target with the sound throughout the process, but it also helps to make sure the balance between instruments is spot on. If you can closely match the levels in your own mix to those on a professionally mixed reference track, you can be more certain that your balance isn’t off. It’s always a good idea to pull the track into your project file so that you can level match it with your mix and compare more directly.
You ears will try to trick you
When you’ve been listening to your track for hours on end, ear fatigue will trick you and make you question your judgement. Take regular breaks when you’re mixing and if needed, don’t listen to the song for a couple of days and come back with a fresh head. You’ll be surprised how much gets uncovered when you do this. When you think your mix is done, play it to somebody else who can give you an unbiased opinion. They will soon pick up on anything that sounds too loud or too quiet. You can get a free mix critique from me here.
Take your time
Lastly, remember that your first few mixes aren’t going to be perfect the first time around. Just like any skill, it requires practice and patience to perfect. The more you mix, the better you’ll be and the more instinctively you’ll get that perfect balance. I’ve been doing this for years and I still learn something new every single day.