One of the hardest parts of mixing is knowing when to stop. Most engineers have an innate desire to tweak things. It’s part of what makes us good at our jobs—we love to take things apart and tinker with the pieces.
But too much mixing can actually be a bad thing. Eventually, you stop improving the mix and start making it worse. That’s why it’s so important to stay focused while mixing to ensure you don’t lose sight of the big picture. Check out our seven-step checklist for making sure your mix is finished.
You Can Hear Each Instrument Clearly
On a basic level, the goal of mixing is to make sure you can hear each element clearly. Before pressing print on your final mix, listen closely to make sure you can hear what each instrument is playing at all times.
When two instruments occupy the same space in the frequency spectrum, it can make it difficult to hear them clearly. For instance, if you’re having trouble hearing the kick and bass, carve out space in different ranges for each instrument. Try cutting the lows on the kick and the low-mids on the bass to make room for both instruments. For even more separation, boost the low-mids in the kick and the lows in the bass.
You Can Understand Every Word of the Lyrics
Arguably, the vocal is the most important track in any song. It should be the focal point of the mix, which is why it’s important to make sure you can understand every word.
Start by checking the level—the vocal should be the loudest track in your mix. If you notice that the vocal occasionally sounds too quiet or too loud, try using a compressor to maintain consistent levels. Use a slow attack and a fast release for a natural sound, and apply 3-6 dB of compression with a modest ratio.
If you also happen to be the person singing on the track, after you get the vocal level sounding right, bring the fader up by 1 dB. Due to the way that we hear our own voices, vocalists tend to bury the vocal when mixing. Remember, someone who has never heard the lyrics before should be able to understand every word!
The Mix Is Glued Together
While it’s important to have separation between each element, your mix should also feel cohesive. To make sure your tracks don’t feel disjointed, use a bus compressor to “glue” all of the instruments together. Try using a slow attack and fast release settings with very mild ratios like 2:1,and as little as 1-2 dB of gain reduction.
If you find that this throws off the balance of your mix, try using a multi-band compressor to tame any frequencies that stand out. You may find it useful to compress some frequency ranges more aggressively than others. This approach can be great for making multiple tracks sound like they were recorded in the same space together.
There Are No Technical Issues with the Mix
When the vibe is right and everyone in the studio is excited that you’re nailing the mix, it can be easy for subtle mistakes to slip through the cracks. And while it may not seem like a big deal, those tiny issues become amplified during mastering.
Use LEVELS to check your mix for technical issues, including peak levels to make sure there is no clipping or distortion and LUFS levels to make sure you meet the target levels for your streaming service of choice. You can even check the phase of your mix to make sure tracks don’t misspeak in mono, as well as the dynamic range to make sure you didn’t squeeze the life out of the performance.
It Grows and Changes Over Time
Songs that grow over time tend to be more dynamic and interesting. They often start out quiet with the intro, add in a few new elements for the verse, and pick up steam in the chorus before crescendoing at the bridge.
Too much compression can cause your mix to sound flat or stagnant. If you’re going for a punchy sound but still want your mix to sound dynamic, you can automate the level of the mix bus to add energy and excitement throughout the song.
Identify the loudest and quietest moments in the song and emphasize the changes in level during these sections. Bring the verses down 1 dB and the choruses up to really grab the listener’s attention.
It Sounds Good Compared to Other Songs
Every song sounds good in a vacuum. That’s why it’s important to compare your mix to other popular tracks in your genre—not to copy or mimic their sound, but to make sure you’re in the right ballpark.
With REFERENCE, you can easily compare your mix to your favorite tracks. Just insert REFERENCE on your mix bus, drag and drop a few of your favorite songs into the Wave Transport, and select the Level Match feature in the top right corner to make sure you’re getting a fair comparison.
Press play and toggle back and forth between your track and your reference mixes. Listen closely to the balance of each instrument. Try to identify any sonic trends or genre tropes you should be following. Check the Trinity Display for detailed information on the differences between your mix, including frequency balance, dynamics and stereo width.
It Sounds Good on Multiple Sound Systems
Once you get the mix sounding good on your studio speakers, you may think your mix is finished—but it’s only just begun. The true test is to make sure your mix sounds good on every system. When mixing in untreated rooms (like most home studios), frequency build-ups can trick you into thinking your mix sounds better than it actually does.
For instance, if your room has a frequency build-up around 80 Hz, you may cut that frequency out of the kick and bass. But as soon as you play it on another system with a subwoofer, it sounds weak and thin. When you can’t trust what you’re hearing, it becomes very difficult to make critical mix decisions.
Grab a pen and paper and take notes as you listen to your track on a few different systems, including headphones, small speakers like your cell phone or laptop, full-range speakers like a hi-fi system, and your car stereo. Use your notes to guide you through the final steps and refine your mix until you’re happy with the way it sounds on each system.
You Love the Way It Sounds
At the end of the day, the most important thing is that you’re happy with the way the mix sounds. A great mix should make you have an emotional reaction to the song. It should make you want to sing, dance, cry, or jump into the mosh pit. That’s my marker for knowing when a mix is finished—as soon as I find bobbing my head and myself singing along, I know I’m getting close.
Bookmark this checklist and use it next time you’re mixing to help make sure you’ve covered all of your bases and don’t over-analyze your mix.