If your mixes are muddy or directionless, it’s time to learn some fundamental mixing rules and introduce some pro polish to your sound. Follow these nuggets of wisdom and find out how to fix your mix, fast!
First? What are you aiming for?
You can easily argue that a good mix is simply one that allows every instrument or track to shine through, in the right place and at the right time. Follow that philosophy and you will probably get a decent mix, but maybe not a great one. Really, when you sit down and mix a track, you need a direction; a focus, and an endpoint at which to aim. How are the vocals going to sound? What is the rhythmic vibe? Does the overall sound have a great dynamic range? Exactly how immersive do you want the breadth, width, and depth to be?
Grab a great mix
These are just a few questions you need to ask among many. But a much simpler way to get a direction and focus is to use reference material to mix your track against. It’s the easiest way to find out how to fix your mix, fast! It might feel a little like cheating but this is a commonly-used approach, and one made all the easier with modern DAWs. You simply load in a track that you are aiming your mix to sound similar to (and you can also use this approach with song arrangements). Then you compare your track with your reference track in terms of its overall feel, the low end, stereo spread, depth, effects used, how the vocal is mixed, and so on. You then mix accordingly, trying to get your sound close to your professional reference material.
Don’t feel too downhearted if you are not getting close to it after a long mix session. Remember that your reference track has probably been mastered so has extra impact, volume, and sheen. At this stage, you are mixing, so don’t worry about the extras mastering will get you. And if you use the following techniques for how to fix your mix, fast, you might well get pretty close, even before mastering!
Go back to basics
Before we get in too deep, let’s look at basic mixing for a moment. A good mix delivers a clear picture to the listener, that is with every element contributing, to a greater or lesser extent. You can enhance or reduce this contribution by using basic mix tools like volume or panning. Keep volume levels down to start with, perhaps at -6 or -12dB. With panning there are certain rules for certain instruments – vocals, bass and kick drums trend to sit centrally – but for others, go wild and place them where you wish. Sometimes it’s good to envisage a band playing together on stage and pan your instruments accordingly.
Moving away from basic volume and panning, there are the slightly more complex mix tools of compression and EQ that add another dimension; think of it as height or depth. In fact, if you try and picture your mix in these three dimensions, you can consider it a blank canvas to fill. A great mix spreads far and wide, fills the ‘canvas’, and allows all of its parts to shine when you want them to.
No gain, less pain
As we’ll discover, good mixing is all about restraint. Don’t try and change a sound within a mix too much, don’t use too many effects, don’t use too many tracks…! But the very first item on your ‘not too much’ agenda is gain. Gain staging is simply the process by which a signal passes through a mix and gets altered within the process, from the input level on your audio interface right through to the output level of your monitors. You need to keep control over this gain staging, making sure distortion isn’t introduced (unless you want distortion that is!) or the horrors of digital clipping. Remember to leave headroom, especially for your mastering engineer, who will hopefully be taking your mix into the pro stratosphere.
One great, widely-used approach is to simply take all faders down to zero when you start mixing. Bring up your bass and drums first, to around -12dB, and then move up through the frequency range bringing up guitars, synths, vocals, and so on. You’ll hopefully find your mix falls well below 0dB, leaving everything at a manageable level. And look at every track; look for the dreaded digital red clipping. More importantly, listen for it – use your ears!
To EQ or Not to EQ
It sounds obvious, but a great mix should highlight the good stuff and not include the bad stuff, right? To a certain degree, this can be achieved by setting levels with your faders, but using EQ in mixing can achieve more subtle, yet ultimately rewarding results. A good EQ will allow you to surgically adjust precise frequencies – enhancing the good and cutting the bad – so you can really get in there and tweak.
EQs work by boosting or cutting certain frequency ranges with a bell shape or notch (depending on how narrow the ‘Q’ setting is). You can also boost and cut wider ranges of frequencies by the same amount using a shelving EQ shape. This is ideal, for example, for raising the top end of a track in a more controlled way.
Get a booster
One fast way to identify mix anomalies with EQ is called ‘boost and sweep’. This is where you sweep a particular track using a boosted parametric EQ to magnify and isolate any issues within it. You can then make precise cuts where necessary. You might take out a ‘plosive’ sound on a vocal or a crackle from a vinyl recording, for example.
One mix favorite used by many producers is to use another more dramatic EQ, a high pass filter, on every track in the mix except on the low-end instruments. This effectively cuts out any low-end information – often rumble or noise – present on tracks where it has no right to be. Leaving the bass guitar or elements of the kick drum intact, the high pass filter is applied to everything else, cleaning up the bottom end of the track completely, and leaving room for the low-end instruments to shine.
Which leads nicely onto our next point, where these low-end instruments – or other instruments that sit in the same frequency range – might clash. You could, of course, use panning to separate instruments that occupy the same frequencies. But when it comes to your bass and kick, most mixers correctly place them in the middle of a mix, so not only do certain parts of their frequencies clash but so do their stereo positions.
EQ is again your friend here as you can identify which frequencies are clashing – use the meter displays, or boost and sweep to emphasize the anomaly. You then, say, boost this frequency in the kick and cut it in the bass (experiment for the best results). One sound will effectively move away from the other, even though they are both sitting in the same position in terms of their stereo placement. No panning or volume adjustments are required!
Don’t overdo… anything
Whatever processing you use and methods you employ in mixing, perhaps the best advice is: just don’t overuse them. Don’t boost too much, chain too many effects together, or group too many tracks together.
When we started mixing, as we’re sure so many other people do, hearing reverb for the first time on a vocal just sounded so professional. So we employed it on the drums, then the guitar, then the synth… Then we realized our mix was a mess. It’s an easy mistake to make, especially using DAWs packed with plugin mix effects. But just because they are there, it doesn’t mean you need to use them. In fact – hey, let’s be controversial for a moment – you might not need to use any effects on a track. If it sounds good ‘dry’ then, get this, it is good! Trust your ears, not the number of effects you use.
Mix in context
Solo mode is great for identifying mix anomalies – you can hear a track in isolation, warts and all – but try to avoid using it for sustained periods. Remember, you are ‘mixing’, that is playing parts in the context of your song. Too much attention focussed on one aspect of the song could lead you down a rabbit hole at the expense of the rest of the mix. Always mix in context; at least as grouped tracks (drums, bass, etc), or maybe when you are trying to get your low-end instruments to sit well together. Just use solo mode when you’re hunting for problems.
What you hear is what you get
The message of trusting your ears is a great one. If it sounds good, then it is good! But sometimes, you might well have done all of the above but you’re still getting bad mixes. Your ears are good, your mixing methods are solid, but your mixes are still consistently translating badly to other playback systems! What to do?
Well, it might well be that your ears and your methods might not be at fault. That’s the good news. The bad news is that if everything else is sound, it could well be that your speakers are not delivering an accurate sound for you to mix with. If your mixes sound too thin on other systems, for example, your studio monitors might well be delivering too much bass, so you are pulling the bass back in the mixing process, resulting in a weedy translation.
You need the truth
The solution is to get more accurate monitors, ones that give you a truthful response across the complete frequency range. You also need to be able to mix flat – with no EQ curve – so your mixes translate to general playback systems. (If you introduce an EQ smile curve when mixing, for example, this could be disastrous on a playback system with coloration.) We go into more depth on this here and have a guide to the best budget monitors here, so this might not be as costly a problem to fix as you might think. Your great mix might well be just a few hundred bucks away!
Fix your mix, fast
Mixing can be a daunting process, but if you can step back from the process and (literally) take a look at the bigger ‘mix picture’, you can employ a logical approach. Use some basic rules and you will hopefully end up with a much more polished sound. As ever, if you have any mixing tips you’d like to share, get in touch at email@example.com.