Oftentimes, a mix can sound as though something is missing. Whether it seems dull and muddy, lacks punch and dynamic excitement, sounds thin or boomy, or is simply boring, there's a solution for everything.
In this post, we'll examine five common deficiencies found in subpar mixes, and we'll explore what you can do to fix them.
#1 — Clarity
Mixing is a balancing act. Too much bass, and your mix will sound dark and muffled; too much high end, and your mix will sound harsh and shrill.
A balanced mix will possess clarity: full lows that don't overpower the other elements and crisp highs that aren't piercing. What's more, its lead instrument or vocal will sound focused and intelligible.
In a mix, the biggest clarity-killers are low-frequency mud and unwanted resonant frequencies. Both of these issues — even if they're largely inaudible — can cause dullness, boominess, shrillness, and more.
Inexperienced mix engineers tend to attempt to rectify out-of-control bass by boosting high frequencies; however, this leads to a strident-sounding mix. The most effective way to eliminate low-frequency mud is with a highpass filter.
Most full-featured parametric EQ plug-ins contain a highpass filter. So, fire it up, play back your mix, and let's get to work!
For most instruments, you want to start with a cutoff frequency around 30Hz and a slope around 12 to 24dB per octave. Increase the cutoff frequency until your track sounds too thin, then decrease the frequency until it sounds right.
For bass-heavy instruments, follow the same procedure, but at your EQ's minimum cutoff frequency and with a gentler 6 to 12dB slope.
Resonances occur when a created frequency interacts with the natural frequency of something else within your mix. You'll generally perceive this as an out-of-control vibration or a buildup of a specific frequency or set of frequencies.
Unwanted resonant frequencies can cause a lack of clarity in your mixes, leading to both muffled and harsh-sounding tracks. Our RESO plug-in is an easy-to-use solution for eradicating unwanted resonances — automatically.
Just place the plug-in on your track, click the Calculate Targets button, and RESO will take it from there. It not only provides you with Target Nodes for killing the resonances, but it also gives you helpful setting suggestions for achieving a resonance-free track.
#2 — Dynamic Range
It's rare for a sound source to remain at a consistent volume level for the duration of an entire song. As a result, it can be difficult to get a track to sit in a mix properly; sometimes it's too loud, sometimes it's too quiet.
Inexperienced mix engineers oftentimes reach for a compressor to tame the dynamics of a track, without even touching a fader. This is a mistake, however.
A mix should be a living, breathing organism, and you can't achieve this if you smash everything with a compressor. Conversely, you'll infuse your mix with an artificial, lifeless quality, which is a hallmark of an amateur-sounding mix.
The solution? Use your DAW's automation to sort out your tracks' dynamics before you resort to compression.
To start with, use 1–2dB boosts and cuts. If your track gets too quiet, boost; if your track gets too loud, cut.
This is just a starting point, of course. You'll likely find you'll need to adjust your automation parameters all throughout the mixing process.
Aim to get your tracks 90% of the way there with automation. With practice, you'll be able to make any track sit intelligibly within a mix without using dynamic compression.
Once you've got the track sitting well, then it will be time to deploy a compressor (or more than one compressor) for added sonic character and to rein in any remaining dynamics issues.
Not sure if your mix is dynamic enough? Take our LEVELS plug-in for a spin — it helps identify issues with dynamic range, as well as loudness, peaks, stereo spread, and more.
#3 — Headroom
Unless you're mixing to tape (and kudos to you if you are), you've got a finite amount of headroom.
And what's headroom? In a modern digital studio, headroom is the difference between a track's highest peak and 0dBFS (dB Full Scale).
In the digital world, exceeding 0dBFS is the mother of all sins. Doing so causes clipping, which in turn causes ugly-sounding digital distortion.
It's crucial that you remain aware of the headroom that's available to you while you're mixing, as every element of your mix is fighting for the limited amount of space that's available.
If you want to master the art of mixing, it's imperative that you understand that faders work in both directions. Instead of pushing a fader up to make a track louder, your first move should be to pull other faders down and make competing tracks quieter.
So, rather than increasing a track's level to make it stand out, move competing elements out of the way, either by lowering their corresponding faders, by panning them to another spot in the spatial field, or both.
Keeping your levels down will not only conserve valuable headroom, but it will also allow you to highlight what's important. After all, not everything can be loud!
Your mixes will sound punchier, more open, and much more powerful when they have headroom to spare!
Here's a helpful tip: it's easier to visualize your levels if all tracks are at a consistent level. An average (RMS) level of -18dBFS is often considered the standard in the digital realm, as it corresponds to 0VU on analog hardware.
If your tracks are all over the place volume-wise, you can use a gain utility plug-in to adjust their individual levels (Blue Cat's Gain Suite is an excellent freeware option). Many DAWs also include a clip gain feature.
Using a conservative setting like -18dBFS will safeguard against peaks exceeding 0dBFS. And having consistent levels across all your tracks will guarantee that identical fader positions deliver similar results for each track.
#4 — Well-balanced Bass
Nailing a mix's low end can be difficult, even if you're mixing in an acoustically treated room and on great-sounding studio monitors. That's why so many amateur mixes are either bass deficient or boomy enough to blow the sturdiest of subwoofers.
That's where our BASSROOM plug-in comes in. Instantiate BASSROOM on your mix bus, and this indispensable tool analyzes your mix, then displays the EQ settings you need to dial in a hard-hitting, well-balanced result.
BASSROOM is a cinch to use. Simply place it on your master bus, in front of your brickwall limiter, select a preset or import a reference track, and the plug-in takes it from there, providing you with spot-on EQ target suggestions.
All you need to do at that point is match the bands to BASSROOM's EQ suggestions, then tweak them until you like what you hear.
BASSROOM doesn't employ one-size-fits-all presets, either. Its cutting-edge algorithm actually listens to your music in much the same way that the human ear perceives sound.
This means that BASSROOM's suggestions are 100% unique to your music.
As for sound quality, BASSROOM is top shelf all the way. Its state-of-the-art filters are optimized for low-frequency sound shaping; thus, the plug-in delivers hyper-transparent results with maximum punch and clarity.
Still not sure how your mix's low end should sound? That's why you need to use a reference track.
A reference track is a professionally mixed and mastered song that you use as a basis for how your mix should sound.
Luckily, cueing up a suitable reference track is a breeze with our REFERENCE plug-in. All you need to do is import a reference track you'd like to emulate, preferably within the same genre you're working on.
After that, listen closely to the reference track's low-frequency content and use it as a guide for how yours should sound.
#5 — A Great Song
It doesn't matter how great your mix sounds if you're mixing a terrible song. In fact, most listeners would rather hear an inferior mix of a killer song than a well-produced, steaming pile of poo.
Great songs reel listeners in with engaging melodies, catchy choruses, and interesting chord progressions. Great songs contain lyrics that resonate with listeners' experiences.
Arrangement is equally as important. After all, a mix's audible spotlight can only be so big; it can't shine on everything.
That's why it's important to decide which element will be the focus of your mix at each given moment. Choose what you want to highlight, then move everything else out of the way.
In other words, you need to decide on a focal point then build the rest of your arrangement else around it.
Only include elements that add something to the song. Whenever you add another track to a mix, you should ask yourself, "Does this really need to be here?"
If your project doesn't need 32 tracks of arps and pads, don't use 32 tracks of arps and pads. If your project doesn't need a full orchestra, don't use a full orchestra.
And if a supporting element overshadows your mix's focal point, remove it or get it out of the way.
A good rule of thumb is if you mute a track and it doesn’t sound like something is missing, the muted track most likely doesn't need to be there. And if your mix sounds better without it, it definitely doesn't need to be there.
Learning about mixing is much like jumping down a rabbit hole; there's so much to learn! But that's why this blog exists.
Keep following, and we'll keep providing you with expert mixing tips, tricks, and strategies that are guaranteed to elevate the quality of your mixes.