18 september 2014

6 Common Mixing Mistakes

If you’re relatively new to mixing music, chances are good that you are making a ton of mistakes. But is it really all that surprising to say? I don’t think so. Most of us got into home recording as a hobby, with no formal training, and we spend time on sites like this one, trying to put all the puzzle pieces together. I applaud you for your dedication and determination.

Most of the learning process when it comes to recording and mixing involves making a lot of mistakes (and bad music along the way) until we finally stop doing stupid things. What a concept! Today I want to start a 3 part series pointing out six common mixing mistakes I see people making, in hopes that you will pay attention and stop making those same mistakes yourself. Your mixes will thank you for it!

Mistake #1 – Mixing Too Hot

Probably one of the most overlooked aspects of mixing for the newbie engineer is proper gain staging. People will literally open up a session in their DAW and start dropping in plugins and effects. They want to get to the “activity” of mixing as soon as they can, likely because that’s what is talked about a lot on blogs and in books. The truth is, you’ll get more clarity in your mix if you leave enough headroom.

In a nutshell, what I typically do when opening up a mix is to get an initial rough volume fader balance all while watching how my level is looking on my master fader (or mix bus). Every track in your mix is dumping to a final stereo track, so you want to see what kind of damage you are doing at that dumping point. I try to keep the meters dancing really conservatively, maybe 50% to 60% of the way up, this leaves plenty of headroom for all my mix decisions later (EQ, compression, saturation, etc). Don’t worry about your mix being too quiet, simply turn up the volume on your monitor speakers for now, and trust your mastering engineer to get the mix louder in the mastering stage.

Mistake #2 – Mixing In Stereo

Mixing in stereo is a mistake? What the?! More accurately I should say that mixing in stereo for the entire time of your mix is a mistake. What you should be doing is mixing (or at LEAST referencing your mix) in mono. Why mono? Two big reasons: first, mono is your worst case scenario. If your mix only sounds good when sitting perfectly between two speakers then I hate to burst your bubble, but 90% of your listeners won’t hear your mix the way you do then. In reality most mixes are heard (or more accurately, perceived) in mono because our ears are rarely in a perfect stereo environment. Better to make your mix sound legit in mono, only to have it sound HUGE in stereo.

The second reason to mix in mono for a good portion of the mix is that you’ll actually pick up on phase issues you might be having. With multi-miked instruments like drums or stereo guitar recording, you open yourself up to phase cancellation problems, where your tracks start to sound thin and weak. It’s hard to notice this in stereo, but the moment you flip to mono, your mix collapses. Mix in mono, identify any and all problems, fix them, then your stereo mix will be that much better!

Mistake #3 – Boosting With EQ

By way of preface, let me just say that there is nothing inherently “wrong” with boosting frequencies with an EQ. The point I’m trying to make rather, is that it is way smarter to train yourself to cut instead of boost. The reason is simple, when you boost an EQ frequency in order to shape a sound, you are only adding noise to the track and to your mix. If you could achieve the same sonic result by cutting other frequencies, then you would have less noise, more headroom, and more clarity in your mixes.

This was one of my mistakes for many years. If a kick drum needed more low end and more beater “click”, I would simply boost some lows and boost some highs. Turns out, you can get the same “effect” by simply scooping out some of the mids. What a concept! Same result, but only this time I took noise out of a track, instead of trying to boost what was there already. If you can approach using EQ this way on the whole, your mixes will be clearer and will come together faster. Trust me.

Mistake #4 – Not Riding The Vocal

If your mixes have vocal tracks (and most modern music does) then the lead vocal is generally the most important part of a song. It carries the melody and the lyrics (i.e. meaning of the song). Most people wouldn’t fight me on this. That being the case, many amateur mixes don’t seem to line up with that sentiment. The vocals are usually buried in the mix and it’s hard to make out what they are singing. If you think just because you compressed a vocal means that it is good to go, think again.

The final step in any good vocal mix is to do some simple volume automation and “ride” that vocal track so that every word and every syllable sits right on top of the other tracks, declaring it’s dominance over them (OK, maybe that’s a stretch). Every pro mixer will tell you that much attention is placed on the vocal to get it sitting just right. This takes time because vocals are a very dynamic thing, and they rarely work with one static volume setting. If you want that final polish on a mix, make sure you take the time to do a little vocal ride automation at the end, trust me.

Mistake #5 – Not Taking Breaks

The more you mix the more you come to realize that you simply can’t trust your ears at all times. The “golden rule” of audio, that if it sounds good it is good, only applies if your ears aren’t shot. Unfortunately our ears aren’t consistent like speakers or microphones, they hear things differently depending on the time of day, how tired they are, and even the moisture in the air. Our ears are literally made of drums, that change constantly. The only way to gain perspective on your mix is to take frequent breaks.

How many and how often you break is up to you. I know some guys who mix for 20 minutes, then break for 10. This becomes their pattern. Others can go for an hour before needing a break. The time frame doesn’t really matter, what matters is that you DO take breaks. It seems counter productive (to stop mixing), but the truth is, each time you’ll come back to the mix with reality in mind and you’ll actually mix faster. It sounds simple, but most people don’t do this. They mix for hours at a time and then print the mix, only to find that it sounds like garbage the next day. What a waste.

Mistake #6 – Not Referencing Other Pro Mixes

At the end of the day, if you really want your mixes to sound pro, you need to compare them to pro mixes. I know it’s painful to mix for so long, thinking you’re doing your best work ever, only to compare it to some pro mixes and it sounds like poop in comparison. Been there. Got the t-shirt. But if you simply shy away from that kind of “pain” and stop referencing other mixes, then you’ll actually never get better. Sure you won’t be as discouraged, but you’ll be fooling yourself into thinking you’re actually any good!

How you reference other mixes is up to you, but it’s a good idea to do it a few times during the mixing process to see if you are on the right track. Be sure to reference these mixes on YOUR SPEAKER SYSTEM. If you are mixing through your DAW’s converters and monitors, then run the reference through the same setup. You want to compare mixes on the same setup so you can make accurate decisions. As you listen to these other mixes, take note of what sounds better about them and try to go back to your mix and “copy” that sound. This is how you learn people. It’s painful, but it’s worth it in the end!

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