Need somew mixdown tips? As a mastering engineer, I hear a lot of mixes. Some are great and some really aren’t so great. While it’s now true that anyone can create a good mix with almost any gear, it’s still easy to mess up a mix and betray the fact that you didn’t spend thousands at a top studio.
Frustratingly, the same errors crop up time and time again, and it’s these that separate the greats from the not-so-greats. Mastering can be the stage where the final layer of magic is applied, but mastering is always the stage where, if you haven’t mastered the mix, problems will be ruthlessly exposed.
Think of mastering like holding up a big magnifying glass to your tracks… there is nowhere to hide! What follows is a small list of the most common mix errors I see, how you can avoid them to go your best music mixing and give your mastering engineer the best possible chance of creating an awesome final product. So let’s look at some useful music mastering tips and common mixing mistakes to avoid.
1) THE BASS AND KICK ARE TOO LOUD
Without doubt the biggest error I see is the low frequencies being pushed to a needlessly loud level. This is a misguided practice for one main reason – overly loud bass eats up headroom and makes it harder to get a loud master. This can be a problem especially in progressive house mixing, if you are willing to get professional assistance these are some of the best Rates around.
At the mastering stage, an overly loud bass can make it very difficult to achieve the holy grail of “LOUDNESS” as the highs and mids won’t get to be that loud before the bass or kick starts clipping or distorting. Not cool if you want your track to be as loud as the vast majority of commercial releases. So why do so many mixes have this issue? When speaking to people who have submitted tracks where the bass has been mixed too loud, the answer is either, “We wanted the bass to sound really big in the club” or “We didn’t realise it was so loud”. To deal with the first point, if you are making music that will be played in clubs, remember that club sound systems will already be designed and calibrated to make sure that any bass frequencies are amply represented. Mixing should be a time to balance levels, sculpt tones and get your music sounding good, not loud. The second point, however, needs a slightly more complex answer…
HOW TO AVOID IT
Bass frequencies are hard to accurately reproduce in listening environments, and if it was easy to fix then this mistake wouldn’t be a common one! However, the best thing you can do is ensure that you have the most acoustically neutral mixing environment that you can get. It is not possible to overstate the importance of this. You can have the latest plugins or most expensive hardware but if you’re using them in an untreated room then you’re mixes are always going to struggle. You can achieve this through use of acoustic products such as diffusers, absorbers, and bass traps, and you can even use well placed blankets and duvets if money is tight. Get used to your space and listen to plenty of reference tracks.
Using acoustic products will not only improve bass reproduction but, done properly, you will notice improvements in stereo imaging and reproduction in the highs and mids. Another way to improve here is to periodically check your mix through a frequency/spectrum analyser. It may take a bit of time to get used to an analyser and learn what you should be looking for but the rewards can be huge. Again, listen to plenty of reference tracks while watching the analyser and start to piece together how the producers and mixers got their track to “look” like that.
2) ELEMENTS DISAPPEAR WHEN THE MIX IS CHECKED IN MONO
Hang on, mono? Didn’t that die in the 1970s?? No! Many places and items use mono – stadiums, clubs, shops, TVs, cell phones… the list goes on. Lots of electronic items use mono speakers as a convenience or for cost reasons, but systems in big spaces will use often use mono to ensure an even sound across a location. As part of the mastering process, I’ll sometimes check what I’m doing in mono and when I hit that button, elements of the mix just disappear! So why does this happen? The main reason I’ve encountered is misuse of stereo widening effects. Many widening effects work by adjusting the phase of a stereo signal (phase is too big a topic to try to explain in this article but there are good articles and resources all over the net) and when pushed to the extreme the signal disappears in mono.
HOW TO AVOID IT
This one is easy – check your mix in mono! Nearly all DAWs have a Mono switch on the master channel (if you lack this function then Brainworx do a great free tool called BX Solo which allows summing of all incoming signal to mono, amongst other things). Quickly checking in mono will immediately tell you if anything’s wrong and you can do something about it there and then. If the offending cancellation is coming from a part that has been recorded in from a real world stereo source then you can use your mixer’s polarity inversion switch to counter act. Another thing that may help is to grab one channel of the stereo recording and nudge it forwards or backwards until it starts sounding good. This approach can also help if you have a multimiked source like a drum kit. If the offending cancellation is coming from an effect then ease it off until it’s sweet, or find an alternative effect. Bear in mind that not all stereo widening effects are equal, and you may get results close to what you want without phase cancellation using a different plugin. Experiment and see which works best for your track. Phase monitoring plugins are also available to help give you a quick visual aid with any phase issues.
3) THE ENTIRE MIX IS TOO BRIGHT
On with the music mixing tips! Making audio sound bright is a big temptation when mixing. Lifting up the high frequencies can be a great way of adding extra sheen to a production and making your music sound “big money”. Also, human hearing is particularly sensitive to frequencies between 2kHz and 5kHz, and it’s a great temptation to load up this area with information in an effort to make parts stand out or have presence. But what can happen is the highs are inundated with extra additive EQ, extra energy and extra bite, and it all turns into one big spiked brick of harshness.
HOW TO AVOID IT
Subtractive EQing is your friend here. If you have a part that you want to stand out carve out some space in the other tracks that occupy the same frequencies. Automate your EQ to give space to the main lines when they appear and let that shine. You can achieve the same effect with a dynamic EQ if you have one available. Compression can also help if the offending part is percussive in nature or has a spiky edge so experiment with faster attack times, or even with a transient processor, to tame high energy spikes. Try to avoid EQing parts in solo as it’s all too easy to mix a part to sound great on its own and lose sight of the overall picture. If you want to add more to a part remember that with additive EQing less is more. Use your ears and don’t be afraid to back off if you’re unsure – at the mastering stage it’s much easier to add a touch of “something special” than to remove a problem.