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Top 9 Mistakes I Hear In Amateur Mixes

Mixing is difficult. As I’ve been isolating, thanks to this coronavirus, I’ve had a chance to take up online coaching and give feedback to people who are not pro mixers. And over the course of listening to dozens of people’s work, I’m hearing two things. (1) In general, the bar for mixing is getting pretty high. Most people are actually doing pretty decent mixes. (2) There’s a lot of common mistakes that folks seem to make.

So, without further adieu; here are my top nine mistakes I hear in amateur mixes.

1. No Real Pan Plan

This is something I see all the time. Stuff is just panned around, ostensibly to get it open up the center of the mix, but there’s no concept behind it. Stuff is just coming out of everywhere and it makes the mix confusing and distracts from the key elements. While our star actress takes center stage, all the other cast members have to be somewhere — decide where they’re gonna go, otherwise, they’re just there being awkward. And don’t be afraid to use the extreme left and right positions.

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Tips for Planning Your Panning in a Mix

Mixing is difficult. As I've been isolating, thanks to this coronavirus, I've had a chance to take up online coaching and give feedback to people who are not pro mixers. And over the course of listening to dozens of people's work, I'm hearing two things. (1) In general, the bar for mixing is getting

2. No Initial Gain Staging

Gain staging in the digital world is something you either get right or wrong. Getting it right means turning down the initial level of everything enough so you have room to work. Getting it wrong means … not doing that. To get your initial gain staging right, you literally just have to select everything and clip gain it down — or maybe put utility plugins on the first insert if your DAW doesn’t have a clip gain function.

If we don’t do this, we run out of room pretty quickly and bump up against our digital ceiling. This means we either get awkward levels, or we clip our mix. If all else fails, switch over the 32-bit floating architecture and turn your level down at the master channel. It’s 2020, no excuses to get this part wrong anymore.

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Gain Staging 101

Mixing is difficult. As I've been isolating, thanks to this coronavirus, I've had a chance to take up online coaching and give feedback to people who are not pro mixers. And over the course of listening to dozens of people's work, I'm hearing two things. (1) In general, the bar for mixing is getting

3. Too Much Separation

The quest for clarity has been fulfilled. It is very easy in this day and age to make a mix where every element can be heard. We can dial it back a notch. Some elements need to run together in order to work as a cohesive unit. If we could hear every single string instrument in an orchestra, it would feel weird.

In fact, we often hear the entire orchestra as one cohesive unit. That’s intended. We don’t want to hear every voice of a choir. We want to hear one element. When I’m mixing Rock records, a lot of the times I want the bass and the rhythm guitars to run together and make one big, heavy sound-of-guitar. When things sound too clean and clear, they can be a bit boring.

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4. Sections Run Together

As mixers, we are dependent on what we get from the arrangers and composers in terms of how things are laid out. But that doesn’t mean we don’t have the responsibility of fixing things if they weren’t laid out in the best way. A constant issue I have with records is that the sections don’t have clear separation. The chorus sounds like the pre-chorus which sounds like the verse which sounds like the second verse. Everything just streamlines together.

You will lose the listener this way. And adding one beep beep synth is not going to make the chorus unique enough to get the listener excited. So whether it’s through levels, panning, drops, chops, our own added elements — whatever, we have to pick up the ball when it’s fumbled. If the chorus sounds like the verse, that’s a big fail.

5. Not Enough Focus On Transitions

Similarly, sections need to transition from one to the next. As a listener, I need to feel some kind of tension that implies a change needs to happen. Making me anticipate that change is what keeps my attention through the song. Again, a reverse cymbal is not going to cut it. I don’t care if it’s filters, levels, risers, delays, reverbs, animal noises dubbed in … beat the listener over the head with it! Do not make us guess if the section is going to change.

6. No One-Time Events

This kinda falls in line with the transitions thing. A song is just a series of moments. We allow the composers to establish patterns for the listener and then allow the arrangers to break up those patterns to keep the listener’s interest. As mixers, we are effectively “sound arrangers”, and we should be doing the same. Allow patterns to be established but then highlight individual moments by incorporating “one time events” into our mix. A simple example of this is a delay throw. On the end line of a phrase, we can use a delay throw to make the last word more important and create more of a moment. If there’s a riff of some sort that connects a phrase or section, automate that to come out. This is really a feel thing — the moment the song feels like its excitement is waning, find a way to pull the listener back in.

7. Cheap Top-End

The extremes of the frequency spectrum are the hardest to get right. Top-end extension is typically associated with high-end recordings and mixes because they aid in the clarity of things. However, not all top-ends are created equal. And to my ear, an overextended top-end sounds cheap, doubly so if the recording is already grainy up there. In fact, one of the hallmarks of a cheap microphone is the sound of 10 kHz+. Very high-end recording setups you can kinda boost the top-end for days, but on cheaper setups that graininess or harshness just becomes more apparent. Unfortunately, many folks are recording at home on cheap gear. That’s ok — just don’t go crazy with the top-end. A lot of Serban Ghenea’s vocal sounds feel very high end and expensive, but if you really listen you’ll hear that they’re actually rolled off a bit in the super treble and not as bright as they first feel. This is not just true of vocals but of every single element — a lot of top-end is good, but too much top-end feels cheap.

8. Out Of Phase Low End

Always check the phase relationship between low-end elements. Low-frequency waveforms interact more obviously than mid and higher range stuff. Especially sounds that play together, like the kick, kick layers, and 808. It is incredible how much more power and definition you can get in your low end just by getting your kick layers in phase.

And the final, and most important mistake I hear is:

9. Trying To Make the Mix “Correct”

There is no correct. Get it out of your head. There’s no such thing as the way a mix should be. Sometimes we want crazy separation, sometimes we want things to totally run together. Ultimately the only thing that matters is how the end listener will feel the song. The right mix is the one that gives the listener an experience. A mix never inherently needs more or less top end: it depends on the arrangement and the intention. A mix never inherently needs to be wider or narrower: again, do we want a big, scopic pop tune or a raw, in-your-face rap tune. We want to mix to the intention of the song and if do that we’re doing it right. And if we don’t, well, we’ve made a bigger mistake than anything else on this list.

Matthew Weiss

Matthew Weiss

Matthew Weiss is the recordist and mixer for multi-platinum artist Akon, and boasts a Grammy nomination for Jazz & Spellemann Award for Best Rock album. Matthew has mixed for a host of star musicians including Akon, SisQo, Ozuna, Sonny Digital, Uri Caine, Dizzee Rascal, Arrested Development and 9th Wonder. Get in touch: Weiss-Sound.com

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