Mixing is complicated. If it were easy – everyone would do it well. It requires an investment of time and effort spent on understanding, and a lot of practice.
When I’m teaching, I’m constantly trying to help my students become more efficient so they can make better music and spend less time mixing it. I find that most lackluster mixes suffer from the same collection of problems – or really mistakes made from inexperienced judgment. These are also mistakes I find I’ve made in the past when listening back to my old mixes, especially when I was first starting off in music production
- Not Gain Staging Tracks Properly
I think this is number one for me always. Many people who are new to mixing under-estimate how important gain staging is. Many big time engineers cite proper gain staging as more important than EQ and compression when it comes to mixing. I wholeheartedly agree.
What is gain staging? Gain staging is how you can manipulate a signal’s gain over stages. Depending on your DAW, you can adjust a signal’s gain via:
1) the volume fader of the track
2) the clip gain on the actual audio clip that lives on the track
3) with a plugin on the track such as a Trim, Utility, or any plugin that has an input/output/gain knob.
Gain staging is about maximizing volume and dynamic range. It’s also about preventing clipping and other ugly artifacts that may happen as a result of a signal being too loud or too quiet. It’s about preserving headroom so you can let the mastering do it’s job later.
You can’t turn up a master that’s already clipping. Gain stage your tracks effectively so they are balanced and preserve headroom while utilizing as much dynamic range as possible. For more info on this, read my article: What Is Gain Staging and Why Is It Important?
- Using Additive EQ and Not Utilizing Subtractive EQ
While this isn’t a blanket statement – I find its more common for new mixers to focus on adding and boosting when using an EQ. I say this because I was the exact same. Constantly boosting frequencies- more bass, more high-end, more everything.
The problem is – there is only so much headroom in a track. Boosting requires adding gain to a signal, and effectively reducing the amount of headroom available. On top of that – boosting a frequency, and having that frequency combine with the same frequency across multiple sounds can lead to that frequency range becoming overwhelming in a mix. This will result in tracks that sound bloated and unbalanced.
Pro Tools EQ-7 filtering low-end and performing subtractive EQ in the low-mids while boosting the high-end
The key to a clean mix (keyword: clean) is to utilize subtractive EQ and strategic filtering. Removing and/or reducing frequencies does the opposite of the above– it creates headroom, and makes space for other sounds harmonically. For more information on this – watch this tutorial on How To Get A Clean Mix (Using EQ)
- Over-Compressing Tracks
Compression is an often talked about yet highly misused mixing process. Experienced mixers are always talking about compression, which I think causes many new mixers to feel they should use it on everything. I was certainly at this stage early on in my career- compressing everything without knowing what it did or why I was even using it in the first place.
This is problematic because of the nature of compression – compression is intended to limit dynamic range. Simply put – it reduces the volume of sound when it gets too loud. Mixers often end up sucking the life out of their tracks because they are unknowingly killing the dynamics with compression. To emphasize this point: a track’s dynamics are what make it feel energetic.
I tell all of my students this: don’t reach for a compressor without having a solid reason to. For example, I would put a compressor on a Drum subgroup to help gently reduce the dynamics 1-2db and help “glue” the drums together overall by reducing the difference in volume between the kick and the snare. I can compensate for this volume loss with some internal gain staging on the compressor as well. This is logical reasoning.
As an aside – I am often not compressing individual tracks (especially drums) very much, if at all. I will, however, do some parallel compression and create a blend between the compressed and uncompressed sound to help them cut. I also rely more on subgroup and master bus compression to help glue things together and increase volume overall.
Since I know you’re probably curious, I have a more in-depth article about this topic called What Is Compression and How Do I Use It In A Mix?
- Not Making Use of the Stereo Field
With so much emphasis on EQ, compression and gain staging, many forget that we have an entire stereo field to play with. It never ceases to amaze me how a mix can be enhanced with a few simple panning decisions. Not only that – but panning can help create separation amongst sounds that mask each other in a mix. Got a piano and guitar that are fighting to be heard? Pan one slightly to the left and the other to the right and see if there is an improvement.
One of the earlier decisions I make in every mix after gain staging is where each of these sounds will live within the stereo field. Take some time early on in your mix to pan elements appropriately, even if it’s only a few things.
- Relying Too Much On Effects
Less is more – isn’t that what they say? I certainly believe that, although every now and then I need to remind myself.
I find my best mixes are the simplest ones. They use very little effects – whether that’s EQ, compression, reverb, etc. They are primarily focused on point #1 – gain staging. If the production is done right, then all I really need is some strategic gain staging and volume manipulation to make it impactful. Mastering will then take it over the top and to an industry level (in my experience).
Messy mixes are usually packed to the brim with effects and unnecessary processing. Each plugin you introduce will fundamentally change a sound – and sometimes the more you do the worse it gets. If you’re unsure – read points #2 and #3 above.
Focus on the essentials (gain staging, panning) and only introduce other processing such as EQ and compression when you have a good reason to. If you find yourself doing stuff “just because” – you may want to re-evaluate your approach.
Furthermore – if you find that after making a bunch of adjustments, the sound is only marginally better – consider removing those plugins and starting again with a new strategy. This is something I do in most of my mixes, even if it’s just to see if I can make a better decision.
- Only Using Static Volume Levels & Ignoring Automation
One of the first steps in mixing a song is to set all of the static volume levels – the initial volume fader position of a track. This is an important starting point of every mix – however, it’s unlikely that a sound will sit perfectly at a static volume throughout an entire song full of other sounds and dynamic changes.
Often a sound, such as a piano, may sit well during moments of the track as you’re initially setting it’s volume. As the song plays through, the piano will likely need to come forward or be pushed back during moments of the song in order for it to function effectively in the mix. This is where automation comes in and saves the day – adjusting the volume of the piano in real-time so it sits perfectly at every point of the song. No EQ or compression required.
I encourage you to implement automation towards the end of a mix after applying other processing like EQ and compression to individual sounds.
Volume automation being applied to an audio clip in Pro Tools
- Having Too Little or Too Much Ambience
Ambience is tricky with mixing. On one hand – we need it to create dimension and space within the mix. On the other hand – too much can lead to a washy, muddy mix that lacks detail.
The latter would be because reverb pushes sounds further away into the background, which is not ideal for sounds that you want upfront like lead vocals, kicks, snares, etc. The key is to then use it selectively to add ambience, and strategically with EQ, side-chain compression and/or volume automation to help prioritize it in the mix.
I personally find I try to utilize delay a bit more than reverb as it will add the “repeat” many listeners want, without creating distance from the element, or the mud that reverb often creates in a mix.
- Using The Wrong Tool For The Job
If you had to nail two pieces of wood together – you wouldn’t grab a screwdriver- you’d grab a hammer. So how come if there is a sibilance issue in a vocal, a mixer reaches for an EQ when they would probably be better off reaching for a de-esser?
As I say to my students- there are usually 13+ ways to approach a problem when mixing. Usually, more than one solution can and will work – you just have to know which is best for the scenario you find yourself in.
The only way to know is to spend time learning the craft and the different tools, technique and strategies available to you. This is challenging at first – especially when you don’t speak the language yet. Times like this are when my mixing tutorials and my blog come in handy. But once you understand, it makes making decisions and mixing efficiently much easier.
If you want to take a shortcut with this last part – I’ve been hosting a Producer Mixing Workshop on a regular basis for residents of Toronto. The workshop is focused on mixing strategies and my personal 10 Step Mixing Process that will help you mix faster and better than ever before. Most importantly – I’ll be teaching you how to think like a mixer so you know when and why you should be using tools like EQ, compression and more.
For more information, check out the Producer Mixing Workshop page.