Get Better Mixes | The Three Most Common Mixing Mistakes
As a mastering engineer, I hear tons of songs every single week varying from professionally mixed tracks to bedroom recordings and everywhere in between. With so many artists mixing their own music and striving for a sound that competes with their favourite records, I thought I’d share the three things that I think most commonly separate amateur mixes from professional ones, so that you can get your new music sounding better than ever.
Issues in the low end are by far the most common problems amongst amateur mixes and a lot of professional ones too. If there’s too much low end, it will take up a ton of headroom making it hard to get a loud mix that competes in the modern market and translates out of the studio. If there’s too little, the mix will sound weak, harsh and it’s really hard to get it back in a way that’s convincing. However, when it’s right, the rest of the mix tends to fall into place easily. Well balanced low end really is the key to a great final product. Trouble is, it’s so easy to get wrong, because you can’t mix what you can’t hear. Most affordable studio monitors don’t have the frequency response to produce enough low end without a sub and even if you have the best monitors in the world, there’s no way of hearing the bass accurately in an untreated room. Even high end mastering rooms, with thousands of pounds of acoustic treatment will have quirks in the low end that the engineer has learned to handle through experience.
If you’re mixing your own music at home, headphones are probably going to give you the best possible chance of hearing the sub frequencies accurately. To make sure you’re getting it right, invest in a decent pair and learn them inside out. Spend a few minutes everyday chilling out and listening to professional mixes on them and you'll soon get used to how things should sound on them and where that bass should be sitting. From there, take them to your mixes and constantly cross check reference tracks. This way you’re sure to avoid any glaring balance issues!
Too much compression
For whatever reason, over compressed songs are really common when a producer or artist mixes their own project. When a mix is over compressed, it will sound flat and choked. Nothing will really have any impact and the whole song sounds sort of tensed up. This is why 9 times out of 10 (when I’m hired for mixing) just pulling up the faders and getting the balance right, without any compression or EQ, will sound more exciting, more dynamic and have more depth than the rough mix right off the bat.
To avoid doing this, I’d simply recommend making sure you’re compressing with intention. Whenever you’re thinking about adding a compressor to a certain instrument or element of the mix, make sure there’s a clear reason why and a clear end goal for what it needs to do. Does the vocal just need leveling out? Are you compressing the drums to get a bit more bite? Are you using it on the mix bus to gel everything together? Have a clear purpose, never compress something just because you think you should. Further to this, if you suspect you’re over compressing, just get in the habit of applying it and then dialing it back a little.
Another reason a lot of producers might use too much compression is simply because they have too many options for compressor plugins and they don’t actually know any of them inside out. If your computer is overloaded with a sea of plugins, try deleting or hiding the majority, then challenge yourself to mix a song with just one or two EQs and one or two compressors. This is a great way to learn your plugin arsenal inside out and will naturally make you more intentional when you mix.
My final tip for this issue has to do with limiting on the master channel. The majority of producers and mixers will put a limiter on their mix to get it louder and simulate what might happen at the mastering stage. This isn’t going to help you at all. It will only skew your perception of what you’ve done, especially if you’re mixing into it. A limiter is not a volume knob, it skews the characteristics of your mix and adds flavour to the sound, no matter how transparent the manufacturer claims it to be. Perceived loudness doesn’t come from compression, it comes from EQ and tonal balance. Focus on getting a mix that is perceived loudly without any limiting and you’ll get a far cleaner final result. The mix isn’t the finished product and that’s okay, so you don’t need to pretend it is by crushing it with a limiter that you’re only going to take off before mastering anyway. If you’re working for an artist and you’re worried about them thinking it’s quiet, just explain this to them. Your mixes will improve as a result I promise.
If low end is the hardest thing to get right, vocals are the second hardest. I know a lot people struggle to get them sounding how they imagine them and get stuck in a cycle of tweaking the sound over and over again until it’s over processed and they’ve lost all objectivity. I think the secret to getting a good vocal sound is knowing that less is more. Be really subtle with your EQ and compression and again, use them with intention. Don’t aimlessly look for frequencies to cut or boost, go in knowing what you want to achieve. Another common mistake is not editing the vocals properly. You should be dealing with breaths, sibilance, plosives, timing and tuning before you even consider mixing vocals. This will often get you most of the way there with your vocal sound, but it’s so commonly overlooked.
There’s a lot that can go wrong with vocals, but over-processing and under-editing are the most common things I come across. I have a free guide on vocal production from start to finish here. Check it out if you want to get better vocal mixes!