Bouncing the dreaded “final mix” is one of the most crucial steps we take before our song is irrevocably released into the world. While most find themselves spending too much time in a seemingly endless world of final versions, here are 6 common mistakes to avoid when completing the perfect mix.
1 - MIXING WITHOUT A REFERENCE
A few of us might be striving to pave new ways and achieve previously uncharted results, but most of us are trying to make music that sounds good, and fits into the genre in which we work.
While it’s easy to get lost in a sea of creative choices, save yourself from reinventing the wheel, and pull up a reference of two! Think of mixing as an open-book test on how to make your songs sound, and your references as the answers. Listen critically to them - use your analytical ear to scan each frequency range, and understand what’s happening. (And for you producer/mixers, this goes for production as well!)
2 - NEGLECTING SPACE
Music, just like the rest of the world, exists in all three dimensions - left/right, up/down and close/far.
The obvious one handled by panning - use it! Move things around, and do so asymmetrically. Tilt something a little on one side, and don’t balance it out on the other. It may initially feel a bit off, but the end result is one of spatial and sonic interest. Throw that shaker all the way over! You can compensate for hard-panned elements by turning them down a bit so they don’t stick out of the mix.
This refers to the frequency spectrum. Are you covering the entire range? Are you putting too much or too little in certain areas? Are elements competing, or do each have their own carved out space? Does your song’s frequency spectrum stay the same throughout the entire arrangement, or are there variations throughout the song’s sections? For example, perhaps the ultra-highs only open up during the choruses to add a little sparkle and excitement.
Tools like reverb and delay can be used to simulate distance and space. But remember, everything is relative; therefore, something can only sound as far away as there is something close for comparison. In other words, if everything is wet with reverb, the mix will probably sound like a muddy, washed out mess. Similarly, if everything is dry it could sound too invasive and disturbing. Add some elements that are dry and up close, some that are wet with reverb to simulate vast distance, and then fill the middle with things that are in between. This will make your mix sound like it’s taking up a very interesting space. And just like frequency and panning, try changing things up over the course of the song! For example, maybe the far-away elements only happen during the choruses to give the sense of “opening up”, while things get closer during the verses to give a sense of intimacy. A stagnant mix feels and sounds like one; things should be moving and alive. Back in the days of analog consoles with motorized faders, they would say the sign of an excellent mixing engineer was if, when you watched their board while the song was playing, the faders would all be moving, and the board would look alive and responsive to the music.
3 - MIXING INTO A LIMITER FROM THE START
A lot of producers/mixers throw a limiter on the output track as one of the first steps when starting a song. However, I believe doing this will negatively influence all the decisions you make going forward, as well as tie your hands later on when it’s time to do the final mix.
For an analogy regarding limiters, I’d like to briefly turn to the visual arts. Imagine an artist making a painting (the song/mix), and then as a final step they will hang a translucent colored sheet over the painting, ultimately giving the painting a certain desired color cast (the limiter). If the artist were to look through the colored sheet from the start of the painting, I feel they would lose a bit of objectivity. For one thing, all the colors available to paint with would look different from their true color. As the painting progressed and if the artist wanted to make any changes, they would have a more difficult time accurately doing so. Now, suppose while working they temporarily lifted the colored sheet from their eyes to see the painting’s progress thus far - they might be surprised at the colors they’ve been using! As we near a project’s completion, surprises are not a good thing. Instead, I believe the artist is better off keeping the colored sheet in mind while they work, but waiting to add it in until the main elements of the painting are in place.
It’s best to maintain as much objectivity as possible throughout the producing/mixing process, especially when you first begin. If you start with a limiter, you may think your mix sounds really good because it’s loud and the drums are punchy. But suppose there’s a certain issue that needs to be addressed - perhaps the vocals are not coming through clearly, or the drums don’t hit hard enough. You turn them up, but it doesn’t help - the mix just gets muddier. So you bypass the limiter, and you’re shocked at what you hear... We’ve all been there! At this point, trying to rescue a mix is difficult, time consuming and a little depressing. It’s better to catch these issues early on, or ideally avoid them altogether.
4 - NOT LEAVING ENOUGH HEADROOM
While we’re talking about limiters, leave enough headroom! Pull the faders down, turn your speakers up and leave PLENTY of room. All meters should be in the green 100% of the time with room to spare (unless for some creative reason you intentionally choose to have something clipping or in the red). Not only will this yield a better end result, it will also leave you the space necessary for corrections down the road. If you mix into a limiter from the start you’ll never have the opportunity to achieve this proper balance (and if you eventually employ a mastering engineer, they will be very upset with you). Don’t hide behind a limiter hoping it covers your mistakes; put it on and attain the very best mix you possibly can.
5 - MULTITASKING
You wouldn’t wear two hats on your head; so why would you perform two very different, demanding jobs at the same time? Produce first, then when it’s time, switch to mixer. Naturally, as you work on a song you want it to sound good, and so there will inevitably be a bit of mixing as you go. Nevertheless, do your best to focus only on production until the song is completed, and then switch gears into mixing mode to finish (and stay there). Bouncing back and forth will only yield poor results in both domains. Studies show that when we focus on a single task, we perform much better and more efficiently!
Don’t worry too much about the mix during production phase. Let your creative brain run wild! Focus on the artistic elements: the flow of the song’s arrangement, the instrumentation, sound design, vocal production (if applicable), etc. Once the song is in place, all elements are present, and the arrangement is satisfactory - commit things to audio and switch to the mixing phase. I’ve even pulled all faders to zero and began a mix from scratch. One song I was working on just wasn’t feeling right - the choruses weren’t getting big enough, the beat wasn’t driving enough, the vocals weren’t present enough... I was struggling with what I had originally thought were production issues. Rather than battling the song, I decided to pull everything to zero and do a “final mix”. In doing so, I discovered a lot of very interesting space. As elements were brought in one-by-one, I was able to hear the song in a new light and realized I didn’t need everything in all at once.
6 - AVOIDING MIX BUSSES
A common goal we all seek in our final mixes is to make the sounds feel “glued together”. Things should gel, mesh well and feel like they fit together nicely. Part of making this happen comes from careful work in the frequency spectrum (as mentioned earlier), while utilizing mix busses. After all, what better way to make sounds come together than to actually process their signals together? If we think back to the days of analog consoles, some of the magic these pieces of equipment offered came from their signal flow, the way multiple sounds were combined into single channels and treated as a whole. Eventually, the entire song would be summed into two output channels (left and right). This was not through software, but rather “analog summing”. When this summing occurs, sounds are literally combined by way of meticulously selected electrical components, making them sound and feel like one singular thing. (At this point in music technology history, it becomes clear why we referred to mixing engineers as “engineers” - they really were!) We can achieve something close to this effect in our DAW by bussing separate tracks into groups, thereby treating things in larger chunks.
Let’s analyze how a 20-track production can be mixed down to 4 tracks. For the sake of simple math, let’s say we have 4 tracks of each category of instruments: Drums, Synths, Guitars, FX, and Vocals. Let’s say the drums are Kick, Snare, and 2 Cymbal tracks (Hi Hats & Crashes). For the Vocals, you have 2 leads, and 2 background tracks. Start out with each track getting its own compressor and EQ.
Let’s start with the drums: Buss the cymbals together to bring the drums from 4 tracks down to 3 (Kick, Snare, & Tops). Taking Vocals next: buss the leads together, and the backgrounds together, bringing total Vocals from 4 down to 2. Now buss each subgroup together (Drums, Synths, Guitars, FX, Vocals) so that your total mix is down to 5 tracks. Then, stuff the Synths and Guitars into another subgroup and compress them again. Now you’re down to 4. At each bussing stage, you should be adding a light compressor. Think of each reduction stage as a round of glue. Each time the separate sounds get processed together, they will mesh and become one.
Another way to use mix busses are with effects. (This also relates to working in all 3 dimensions.) For example, instead of putting a separate reverb on each individual track, make a reverb buss and send a few tracks to it. This will create the sound of those instruments existing in the same space together. Creating two or three of these reverbs (perhaps small, medium, and large) will allow you to cover a variety of sizes and spaces in which your instruments can exist. And remember what we mentioned earlier about moving, dynamic, alive mixes? Creating these effects busses is a perfect opportunity for some interesting automation! Now you can modulate the sends of your separate instruments over the course of the song, creating a nice spatial dynamic interest.There we have it! Avoiding the 6 mistakes listed above will hopefully help us all get to that “final final final mix” just a little bit sooner, and with a few less gray hairs. Please leave your questions and comments below. What are some of your tips and tricks we can all learn from? Good luck, and happy mixing!