Before you sign a record deal, you're basically on your own as an artist. Booking time in a professional studio can be expensive—that's why so many musicians and producers start out doing everything themselves. But, just like performing, mixing is an art in itself, and it takes practice to get good at it.
In this blog, we'll share some of the most common mistakes musicians make when mixing their own music to help you improve the sound of your tracks while you learn the ropes.
Getting Too Attached to the Rough Mix
Often referred to as "demo-itis," many songwriters and producers find it difficult to re-conceptualize or reimagine a track after listening to the demo recording for an extended period of time.
Eventually, your brain gets used to the way the track sounds, and starts to identify any changes as negative—even if those changes are objectively positive.
For instance, maybe there's a flat note or an out of tune guitar in the demo recording. After listening for several days, weeks or even months, you may stop noticing these issues. Then, after re-recording your parts, you might feel that the new version is “lacking the feel or energy of the original."
It can be a difficult skill to master, but learning how to view your music objectively can really streamline the creative process.
Mixing Too Loud
The most common, and potentially most dangerous mistake that artists often make is mixing too loud. Look, I'm not trying to sound like your parent here, but mixing at high volumes can have a negative impact on your music and your hearing.
I totally get it, music sounds better when it's loud—it really does! According to the equal-loudness contour, listening to music at high volumes can exaggerate the lows and highs, making it sound more exciting.
However, the music doesn't retain that same level of excitement at low levels. And unfortunately, you can't control how loud someone will listen to your music. That's why it's best to mix at low levels—about as loud as our average conversation. If your mix sounds good when it's quiet, it will sound great when you turn it up!
Plus, there's no risk of damaging your hearing, which is pretty important if you plan to work in the music industry for a living. And, if you still need another reason to turn down the volume knob, mixing at low levels can help eliminate frequency problems caused by untreated rooms.
Not Using Reference Mixes
Ask for advice in most audio forums and you'll likely be greeted with some form of "use your ears." While it's not inherently bad advice, it doesn't actually offer anything constructive.
When you're first starting out, you don't really know how to "use your ears." Sure, you know how to listen, but you don't know what to listen for. Until you can create a mental catalog of how every instrument should sound in a given setting, try relying on others to help guide you.
Download a few of your favorite tracks in a similar genre and use them as reference mixes. REFERENCE is a mixing plugin that helps you compare your track to other professional mixes and guides you on how to dial in a similar sound.
Grab the free trial here, then insert REFERENCE on your mix bus, drag in your reference mixes, and REFERENCE will provide detailed info to help you match the true peak, loudness, EQ balance, punch, and stereo width of your reference tracks.
Burying the Vocals
The lead vocal is the most important track in any mix—except for instrumental tracks, of course. That's why your top priority should be making sure the vocals are clearly audible at all times.
However, when mixing your own music, it can be difficult to gauge exactly how loud the vocals should be. That's because most of us hate the sound of our own voice. It's a phenomenon called "voice confrontation."
Basically, because we hear the sound of our voice coming from within our own body, it allows us to feel the low-end vibrations in our skull. These vibrations don't transfer through the air, making your voice sound high-pitched (and just generally weird) to your ears.
Because of this, we tend to bury the vocals when mixing our own music. Thankfully, the solution is fairly simple—just bring up the level of the vocal. Still not sure quite how loud it should be? Use reference mixes to help guide you!
Using Too Much Signal Processing
You've probably heard the phrase, "a little goes a long way," and the same is true for mixing. Sure, there are instances when it makes sense to crank the gain on your EQ or peg the needle on your compressor—but generally speaking, it's best to use moderate settings.
If you find yourself consistently cutting or boosting EQs by more than 3-6 dB, or applying more than 3-6 dB of gain reduction with a compressor, step back and ask yourself why.
Could you achieve a similar (or better) sound with less signal processing? Could parallel processing help retain some of the original sound? Is there a problem with the recording of the track causing you to use this much processing?
Use LEVELS to quickly check your mix for any technical problems. Use the Peak and LUFS tabs to make sure your mix isn't peaking, or too loud for streaming services. The LRA and Dynamic Range tabs help you visualize your mix, making sure it has enough dynamics for your given genre. The Stereo Field tab helps identify phase problems, while the Bass Space tab checks to make sure your mix has enough room in the low-end for the kick and bass.
Compromising on Bad Sounds
The recording studio is a magical place. There's a lot of energy and emotion floating around, which makes it easy to get excited about things. But that can actually be a bad thing if it distracts you from your goal.
The studio can be a great place to experiment with sounds and explore new ideas, but sometimes, those tangents can lead you down a rabbit hole that goes nowhere. It's easy to get caught up chasing a certain sound, but it's important to be able to step back and recognize when something isn't working.
Instead of wasting hours in the studio trying to make an idea work, try a different approach. It's a skill that takes a long time to master, but being able to recognize when an idea isn't working and when it's time to move on can seriously improve your mixes.
For instance, instead of using every plug-in in your collection to get a synth part to sit right in the mix, just accept that it doesn't work with the song and mute it. Or try a new patch. Or record a new part all together! Remember, there are no rules when it comes to making music.
Check Your Mix On Multiple Systems
When you're first starting out, you probably won't have 24-hour access to a world-class recording facility with a top-of-the-line monitoring system. You'll probably do most of your mixing on some affordable monitors in your bedroom—and that's fine.
You can mix a record on literally any system with enough time and patience. The key is to check your mix on multiple systems to see how it will sound in a variety of settings—not just your studio.
If you're mixing in an untreated room, you may run into translation issues, meaning your mix sounds great in your studio, but doesn't translate to other systems. One common problem is too much or not enough bass.
Most often, untreated rooms cause issues with the low-end. The bass frequencies either get trapped and hang up in the room, causing you to think there's too much bass. Naturally, you cut the low-end, only to discover it sounds weak or thin when listening on other systems.
Or maybe you're suffering from phase cancellation, making it difficult to hear the bass in your studio. You might crank the low-end, only to discover your track sounds boomy or muddy on other systems.
Thankfully, both of these issues can be resolved by listening to your mix on multiple systems. Even if you're mixing on an old boombox, by checking your mix on different systems, you can ensure that it will sound great no matter where you listen.
Take notes while listening and compare. If you took the same note more than once, head back to the studio and make some adjustments. Try listening to your mix on the following systems:
Your studio speakers
Small speakers like a laptop or smartphone
A full-range system with a subwoofer, like your car or home theater system
For more tips on how to identify problems with your mix when listening on different systems, check out our blog; Why Does My Mix Sound Like Trash In My Car?
Have you ever heard of paralysis by analysis? It's something that happens when you're presented with too many options—you just freeze up, unable to make a decision.
Years ago, when records were recorded to tape, engineers had to commit to decisions early in the process. There was no way to change or alter a recording after it was on the tape.
Today, with modern DAWs, we have the luxury of non-destructive editing, which means we can make changes to any track right up until the final mix is bounced down. However, this feature has spoiled us a bit.
Because we can make these changes, we're less likely to commit to a sound. Since we can always change the way something sounds later, we put off making any real decisions. Eventually, after doing this with multiple tracks in the mix things start to sound disjointed.
By committing to a sound early on, you can build the rest of the mix around it for a more cohesive sound. For instance, by deciding early on that the kick should sound tight and punchy (as opposed to big and boomy), it leaves more room to boost the low-end of the bass.
And since you know the kick isn't going to provide the low-end support for the song, it makes it easier to make decisions about other tracks as well. By committing to sounds early in the process, all of the other tracks in your mix will fall into place.
Mixing For Too Long
Look, I get it. I love mixing too, and I wish I could do it all day, every day. But, just like anything else, too much of a good thing can actually be a bad thing.
Mixing for extended periods of time can negatively impact your hearing—especially at high volumes. Over time, your ears start to become less sensitive, especially to high frequencies.
When I first started engineering, I would mix late into the night. I refused to go to bed until my track sounded great. Then, I would get up the next morning and listen with fresh ears, only to discover that the high-end was overpowering, causing my mixes to sound harsh and brittle.
That's why it's so important to take regular breaks while mixing. Try to take a 10-15 minute break every couple of hours to help "reset" your ears. You might be surprised at what you hear!
Follow these tips during your next mixing session to help you dial in professional-sounding mixes.