If you read my last post, you know that a bad mix can ruin a great song. So, it’s important to get it right, but we all have to start somewhere. This means that mistakes will be made throughout the learning process.
I remember some of the mistakes I made when I was starting out (and I made some fine ones in those days), but I’ve come a long way since then. I even recorded and produced an independent album back in 2010. Feel free to check it out on CD Baby.
I’m telling you this because I don’t want you to feel bad if you’re not able to make a killer mix right out the gate. It’s part of the learning process, and you should be allowed to make mistakes. I still would like to address some of the common mixing mistakes that audio engineers make, especially when they’re learning the finer points of the craft.
1. Using Too Many Effects
It seems like the music of today is in love with effects, and sometimes it seems like pop music is drowning in them. Effects are useful for mixing music because they give you more breathing room, but adding too much will make your tracks sound cluttered.
A good mixing engineer will know how to build relationships among the different instruments in the song, so you want to use your effects to allow your tracks to work together. Still, your goal should be to get the best possible mix with the least amount of processing.
2. Not Creating the Proper Ambiance
Part of mixing music is creating the right amount of ambiance in a recording. This is the backbone of every good mix, so it must be taken into consideration. You want your sound to reflect the tone of your record, so you need be mindful of your musical style. You won’t mix a rock record in the same way as a pop album, and a pop song won’t have the same elements as a piece of classical music.
The bottom line is that there is no “one size fits all” in mixing music, so your approach should vary from one record to another. You also need to be careful about how you use reverb and delay, because being irresponsible with either can cause your mix to fall like a house of cards.
3. Not Balancing Innovation with Convention
A renowned mixing engineer named Dave Pensado once said that “it’s better to sound new than to sound good.” I partially agree with this statement. You want to be bold enough to create something innovative, but you also want to respect the common conventions in recording. Many of them have withstood the test of time, and they’re still relevant to the music of today.
On the flip side, it can be easy to get boxed into one way of doing things (and the over-segregation of music has enabled this to happen), which can result in relying too much on conventions. And it’s this way of thinking that can put a chokehold on innovation.
You have to know when to think outside the box, and you shouldn’t be afraid to do so. New ideas come from people who are bold enough to challenge the status quo, so make sure to experiment so you can see what sounds good.
4. Not Having a Clear Direction
The first step in making good music is knowing where you want to go with it, and your mix should be a reflection of your musical vision. In other words, you want your mix to bring out your intentions and to reinforce the emotional context of your song.
You need to know what will make your mix good before you can make it happen, and it’s all about having a clear vision of where you want to go. The route you take may change, but you need to know your ultimate goal.
5. Not Using Proper Panning
If you’ve been working with audio for a while, you’re probably rolling your eyes and saying to yourself, “Thanks for the breakthrough thought.”
For the record, I share your pain.
Nothing makes a mix sound worse than having every instrument set at dead-center. It’s like listening to the sound of chaos, as every track is fighting with each other in the mix. You can’t fault beginners from making this mistake, but it’s important to drum the idea of a 180-degree stereo field into the heads of audio newbies.
The purpose of panning is to give each track its own unique space in the mix, and not knowing how to use it properly will cause your instruments to fight with each other. Don’t be afraid to use the pan settings to widen your mix, and don’t be afraid to use the “auto-pan” feature in your recording software to add more movement in a track. In fact, the technique is useful in arpeggiated patterns and riffs.
6. Not Having Enough Headroom
It’s easy to fall into the temptation of mixing everything at maximum volume, but it can create problems during post-production. Make sure you give yourself enough headroom. That way, you have something to play with once you get to the final mix. As a rule, you want to stay as green as possible, and make sure you check your master channel. This will give you an idea of your song’s overall volume, and make sure you adjust it if you need to.
7. Not Managing Your Bottom End
Your bottom end is your foundation. So, it’s important to have it in your mix, but not managing it properly can cause problem. In fact, having too much bass can cause distortion, so you will have to use some processing to make your bottom end stick out without muddying up your mix.
I have found compressors to be useful in keeping my bottom end at bay, and EQ’s can be useful for performing more precise surgery on certain frequencies. Be sure to experiment to see what works well for you.
8. Not Managing Your High End
Your bottom end can create problems in your mix, and so can your high end. It may not be that apparent during the mixing process, but it can show up during the mastering phase of the project. So, make sure you do some processing to clean up your high frequencies. This includes de-essing your vocals and tightening up any instruments that play in the high register.
9. Putting Too Much in the Master Channel
There are times when you need to add processing to your master channel, but you need to exercise caution when you do. EQ’s and compressors can be useful on your master channel, but adding too much can destroy your entire mix. You can also run into phasing issues, which can throw off your mix. I almost never add processors to the master channel without attempting to fix the issue from within the mix itself.
10. Improper Vocal Processing
If you have vocals in your song, it’s important to get it right. The reason is because it’s the most prominent part of the entire track. It is, after all, the part that listeners will connect to. It’s all about creating the right dynamic, and you will need a lot of automation to make this happen.
Compressors are useful for processing vocals, but it’s not the only tool you will need. Be sure to experiment to see what works for you.
Mixing music is a process whose purpose is to reinforce the artist’s vision, and it’s a critical part of making a quality recording. A bad mix can ruin a great song, but a great mix can make a well-written piece sound even better. There are no hard rules of mixing, but there are some generally accepted guidelines that can help you on your journey to becoming an expert mixing engineer. Just remember that it’s a learning process, and mistakes are the only way you can truly master the craft. So, don’t be afraid to try new things, and you can always change it if you mess up.