I listen to a LOT of home studio and non-professional recordings. I mean…a friggin’ ton. Sometimes it’s hearing the first draft from the guitar player/nominated band mixer or maybe it’s from a studio that doesn’t have the most capable guy manning the console and I’ve been called in to save the recording. Either way, after hearing thousands (no exaggeration here…if anything, an understatement) of these mixes, I’ve noticed some commonalities that separate the truly kickass mixes from the “Is this a rough mix?” mixes.
About 95% of the bad mixes I hear are muddy, woofy, low-end messes. The other 5% are ear-shredding treble happy. I’m going to assume that, if you’re having mix issues, you’re in the 95%.
Before we dive in, a disclaimer…a great mix is about 3 million tiny tweaks. Avoiding these five common mix mistakes won’t make your mix great, but it will help you a ton on the road to a “good” mix.
1. Too Much Friggin’ Low End
There you are…with your speakers blasting…you crank up the 60 hz on your kick drum and the floor starts shaking, your pants get a bit tighter in the crotch, and you have finally seen the light!
But guess what…it sounds like shit. Yes, in the moment, it feels awesome to blast that low end and feel the vibrations. But when you bring the volume back down to non-ear-damaging levels, your mix has turned into mush. That low end is covering up everything else.
How to fix this? Always (always, always) work with mix references. And listen, for the most part, at rather low levels. Taking a listen to your reference mixes and quickly flipping over to your mix will show you just how ridiculously overpowering your low end is. Trust your initial gut reaction. A few beers with friends is good. Drinking 30 beers in one sitting is not. A slamming low end is good. An overpowering muddy low end is not. Mix in moderation and focus on your balances. Keep your kick drum and bass guitar in check; your mixes will thank you!
2. Unnecessary Mud
An average rock mix can vary anywhere from 10-100+ tracks. Each track is adding audio information to the mix…make sure it’s the kind you want. There is just no need to have rumbly 50hz on a vocal track, snare track…hell, sometimes not even on kick or bass. Use high pass filters. And use them with a vengeance.
Be brutal here, you can always add it back in later. High pass filters add up to less cumulative mud down below. You may not notice their effect on just one track…but spread throughout the mix, they will dramatically decrease all that toxic mud that is just waiting to screw up your mix.
On the same note, low pass filters can be used for the same idea, though to a lesser extent. Do you really need 10k+ on your bass guitar? I rarely use anything above 5k. Cut the unnecessary to leave room for the necessary.
3. Not Enough Focus on the High End
Most of the amateur or home studio tracks I hear are not only muddy, they are far too dark as well. Tread carefully here as it is very easy to overdo high end, but some top end work can really make your mix shine. If you’re unsure if you’ve added too much top even after comparing to your reference mixes at a low volume, then do the pain test. Blast your mix loooooud. Does it feel like you’re being stabbed in the ears with a fountain pen? Yeah, you’ve added too much top end.
When I feel a mix that I’m working on is too dark, I typically focus on four or five spots.
- If it’s a hard rock or metal song, I look at the kick first. Am I adding enough 4-6k to really get the click happening?
- Then it’s the snare. Sometimes you need a bit of 6-7k or something higher like 10k to brighten it up. It’s amazing how much a mix can change with a few db added to the snare’s top end.
- Distorted guitars (if the song has ’em). After cutting the mud with high pass filters, I want to make sure the guitars are cutting through without interfering with the vocals. I’ll actually low pass filter the guitars and then get tricky with boosting them back up only at 14-16k. This helps cut the “fizz” while keeping them bright.
- Vocals…check out around 6k and around 12k and up. Vocals are the most important part of the song, make sure they’re heard and not buried underneath low end information.
- Overall mix. I often will gently boost the top end “air” on my mixes. Again, tread carefully here, it is very easy to overdo. But sometimes adding a db up top to the entire mix can really help.
4. The “Scooped” Mix, No Mids
This is so very common. It plagued my mixes for years when I was starting out. Your mid-range is extremely important, don’t neglect it. I would highly suggest popping a spectrum analyzer on your master bus. Does your mix have the dreaded smiley curve happening?
I bet you that’s where the lack of power in your mix is coming from. If I feel a mix of mine is too scooped, I have no problem with throwing up an EQ on my master bus and boosting a bit of 1k with a small Q (affecting a wide area). But I’ll also look to my distorted guitars and bass.
A mix without proper mid range will sound weak and will often lead to guys reaching for the low end knobs. Check your mid range first before adding more low end information.
5. It Just Aint’ Loud Enough
Ok, I’m no fan of the loudness wars but I do think there is a happy medium. And our mixes are, after all, competing with crushed, heavily limited mixes. So we need to at least be in the ballpark otherwise when our mix comes on after your typical rock track, it will sound small and weak.
Get a mastering type limiter on your master bus and get your volume around the same range as your reference mixes. This one is easy. Really easy. I’ve actually gotten in the habit of doing the last half of my mix through a mastering limiter. Before you start banishing me from the purist mixing kingdom, at least read my reasons why.
Of course, if your mix is going to a mastering house, you’ll want to pull off this limiter before you bounce down the final mix!
These five steps alone will dramatically improve your mixes. Be aggressive with your mixes, but be smart too. Happy mixing folks!