Top 10 Mixing Mistakes
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Today I’d like to talk about the fundamental mistakes that we make, and things that we should do when mixing. As ever, please leave some comments and questions below. I’d love to see your insight and your process. I learn from you as well. I really do, I pick up loads of tips from everybody out there, so please, let’s have a discussion about mixing.
So, I’ve been truly blessed as a producer and an engineer and a song writer. I’ve been truly blessed to work with incredible mixers. Mark Endert mixed The Fray record, the first Fray record, the second one was mixed by Michael Brauer, Jim Scott mixed the Augustana record I did, so many different mixes. Also, Spike Stent mixed some Vedera stuff I did. So many — oh, Chris Lord-Alge did some Aerosmith, Neil Avron did some Aerosmith. I’ve been really blessed, if I start thinking about it, there’s so many great mixers that I’ve had the privilege to work with.
So what this is to me is like, stuff that I’ve learned from them, as well as my own mix stuff. What I’ve noticed is these things are pretty true whether they’re mixing in a box or mixing through a console.
So the number one thing that I really want to talk about is take breaks. Don’t mix for long, long periods of time, especially at high volumes. Take a lot of breaks. Mix for like, fifteen or twenty minutes of actual mixing time, and then take a couple of minutes break here and there.
There’s no rule as to how long you should mix before taking breaks, but it’s good to give your ears a little bit of a rest.
One of the things that I do is when I am listening to things in detail, I make sure that I turn in down, because what we might do is we’re listening to a song at a high volume for short periods of time, which is fine to listen for short periods of time, just to see how it feels played at a certain volume.
But then if I want to go and do something detailed and I’m just soloing something for a second, like a vocal, which I do think it is important to listen to vocals in detail, and maybe there’s a frequency that’s poking it’s head out on the vocal, and I try to identify it, so I solo it. Turn it down. Listen at a lower volume.
So volume and breaks are very, very important to me, and — but, number two for me is make sure you don’t always only listen in solo.
One of the biggest things I see is people listening in solo consistently soloing tracks, soloing tracks, soloing tracks, try to always remember that we don’t listen to music in solo, we listen to it as a whole.
So if you are going to solo things, do it for specific reasons, because you know, the vocal in particular is always good to listen to in solo, because there might be certain frequencies that are poking its head out. So don’t only listen in solo. If you’re going to spend three hours on a mix, spend most of that time listening to it as a whole.
One of the biggest issues I get when given tracks to mix is people using virtual synths, and there’s nothing wrong with using a virtual synth. Please use virtual synths, but a lot of DAWs and a lot of plugins that come with those DAWs, their widening is really just a case of taking the left and right, and throwing them out of phase. There are some sounds, like widened bass sounds that literally, all they are is the left over here, and then the right inverted, so it’s coming out of the — just super wide, and there is no middle.
So it’s fine to do one or two things like that. Personally, I find that is not the way that I like to widen things. So be very careful with what you choose to widen. I’m very traditional. I like to have my kick and my snare and my main drums solid down the middle, and the same thing with bass. If I’m going to widen things, I personally try to look for like, certain string sounds, or something like that that maybe I can use an M/S technique. Maybe I can use a widening plugin just to kind of get it away a little bit.
The way that most widening software works is they’re using M/S, but they’re essentially just taking the high end and pushing that out wider, and I think that is smart. You know, have some of the top end kind of over here, but make sure the center is really, really tight, and that really is important that you don’t take a bass sound and try and widen that.
Maybe you can do it with left and right kind of effects and things like that. I’ve done bass sounds where I’ve had it, [imitates bass] pumping from left to right but if you’re going to take a bass sound and just flip the phase left and right so the polarity is different, it’s really disconcerting when listening to a mix. So be careful how you use widening software.
Now, this gets talked about a lot, and I think that it’s important. Cutting over boosting. I get asked a lot about this. I think when you’re using — when you’re using really good analog EQ, you can get a little bit more aggressive with it. If you do — if you are blessed to have a 1073 EQ, or an API 550a or b, or something like that, or a 560, if you’ve got one of those EQs, or obviously, a Pultec, I mean, those are relatively expensive pieces of equipment, but if you’ve got those when you’re going in, it’s a lot easier to boost and really get a great, great sound going in.
However, when mixing, in a completely digital domain, I do boost. I definitely boost EQ on it, but you’ll notice in vocals in particular, I do small boosts, and then sometimes I’ll put a de-esser on there just to control that top end, then maybe compress lightly, and then put another boost afterwards.
But you’ll notice quite often, I don’t do massive boosts of EQ. I find that digital simulations, love it or hate it, personally, a lot of them get very brittle when doing huge amounts of EQ boost. So with vocals in particular, if you’ve got a vocal you’re mixing that you might consider to be badly recorded, or a microphone that’s picking up certain resonant frequencies — I got a vocal the other day, for instance that had some really crazy standing waves going on in a little vocal booth that somebody had recorded.
So there was like, 200 and 400 going backwards and forwards, and so I had to sit there and use multiband compression, and detail — you know, find those areas and then cut them, and just compress and EQ just those areas.
Now, what I could’ve done is I could’ve gone to the top end and taken a shelf at the top end and boosted that, and that would’ve given the same appearance, you know, because I’m taking the high end and boosting it, as opposed to taking the low end and cutting it.
However, it would’ve sounded dreadful, because I’m using a lot of digital simulations. So when you can, when using corrective stuff, try to cut more to get rid of issues.
I’m not saying don’t boost. Definitely boost. There’s no — as far as I’m concerned, there’s no rule. It’s not — with live guys, they definitely like to cut rather than boost, and I totally understand that, but where possible, use boost in a minimal amount of a way. If it’s a corrective thing, go to cut first. If you’re correcting something.
Don’t correct it by boosting. If you’re hearing something nasally or muddy in there, try to find where that is and cut it, and get rid of it before you automatically boost. You know, like I said, if you’ve got really beautiful analog EQ going in, that’s fine. You can do some of that stuff, but I find that digital simulations don’t quite do that same thing for me.
Next one is a big one and we talk about it a lot.
Now with Logic, there’s a lot of headroom there, and they have a floating point system where it’s very difficult to clip inside of your DAW, but it’s very important on your mix buss not to clip on your mix buss, because you’ll really, really hear it. Clipping is a big one. Be very careful in some DAWs where sending one plugin to another — I know we’ve talked about this in the past, this is important — not to send an overdriven signal, a clipped sounding signal to another plugin, and then just merely turn the input down on the next plugin. That really is not going to solve the problem. If you’re sending a square wave distorted signal to another plugin, turning that next plugin down is not reducing the clipped sound.
So make sure you’re not clipping from one plugin to another, to another, to another.
You know, that’s really really important. Now, there are some plugins that unfortunately, don’t have input and output gain controls, so you’re going to have to maybe use in Pro Tools a Trim plugin if your signal is already too hot before going into it, and sometimes you have to do that. You have to control the level going to the plugin so it’s not clipping within the plugin. Clipping is a big one.
I don’t have a problem with signals being hot. I come from an analog world, so in analog, we tended to always print relatively hot to get the sound of tape. We’d hit the tape a little harder, and also we wanted a greater signal to noise ratio. So it’s not a case of printing super, super low, tiny levels. I get that quite often from people that send me stuff to mix, and the levels are so tiny, sometimes I don’t even realize there’s audio there, because there’s no visual audio.
Don’t do that. Don’t be so terrified to print a decent level, but don’t print such a hot level that it’s clipping all the time, and then you’re sitting there trying to control levels within plugins.
I think the number one thing is don’t clip your mix buss. Whether you’re in Logic, or Reaper, or Pro Tools, or whatever, don’t clip your mix buss. Make sure you’re sending a decent level to it that’s controllable, but not square waves, because the last thing you want is a clipped mix buss.
Don’t be afraid to use compression and EQ on your mix buss. I’ve been very fortunate to work with Spike Stent, who is arguably one of the greatest mixers in the world. He’s mixed everybody from Muse, to Rhianna, you name it. His resume is insane, but he mixes essentially on an SSL, and he will put EQ on the mix buss, compression of course on the mix buss, Chris Lord-Alge uses EQ on his mix buss and compression, but they’re not mastering.
Don’t be afraid to mix either from the get-go with compression and EQ, or bring it on relatively soon. I find that most guys will leave it on when mixing on the console, but not everybody. Everybody is going to do it differently. But at some point, make sure you introduce it. Don’t be afraid to do that, because once you start getting into automation and stuff like that, it will drastically effect how your mix buss works, so make sure that you’ve got your mix buss compression and EQ on before you do the next stage.
Okay, so mix buss compression and EQ is fine. However, don’t master when you mix. Now, obviously, use your mix buss compression and EQ as an overall sound, but don’t master. Save that for another process. Whether you’re using a separate mastering or you’re doing it yourself, do it on a different day.
Obviously, if you’ve got a deadline to meet, you’ll master at the end, but do it at the end. Bounce your mix, and then decide how to master it afterwards.
Obviously, in a perfect world, you’re going to take a break, and it would be great to sleep on it, work on it the next morning, and master the mix you did the day before, but don’t master it while you’re mixing.
A lot of people — and I completely understand why they would do it, but a lot of people end up putting so much stuff on their mix buss — not just a little light compression and EQ, maybe a little bit of limiting. They go crazy on it. They put like, seven or eight plugins, and the problem is you’re not leaving any room for mastering, and more importantly, you’re not really able to mix in the way that you should do, and this is where I’m going to come to next.
One of the biggest things I’ve learned from working with all of these different mixing engineers, and I’ve been blessed to work with so many of them, and I still do obviously, is all of them spend a long time doing volume automation.
Automation is the big key, the big secret between, you know, the big guys and the rest of us. Honestly, they will sit there and do a lot of detail stuff. Mark Endert in particular, who has mixed like, Train, Hey, Soul Sister, he did The Fray record for me, he’s done lots of incredible albums. You can look him up. He does an enormous amount of volume automation.
When he used to exclusively mix on an SSL, I would go down there while he was mixing a track, and I would watch the faders moving like this the whole time. So even if you’ve got some buss compression and EQ on there, it doesn’t matter. That’s just lightly tucking in stuff. He’s sitting in there, he’s getting his tones up, he’s getting his drums, his bass, his keys where he wants it, and then he’s pushing stuff around, so it’s featuring different instruments — you know, if he wants the guitar solo to just come out a little bit, or a little bit of a piano line to just sit over the top of the strings or whatever, he’s automating it there.
So what I would highly suggest is that you do a lot of volume automation. Get the mix where you want it to be sonically, but really don’t ignore volume automation.
So once again, volume automation is a big secret with the big guys. They spend a lot of time doing detail stuff. I would highly recommend it. Get the mix and balances where you like it, and then do little volume automations. Step back and listen to the song as a whole. This is really, really important.
So something I just touched on there is mixing is not just about the technical. We spend a long time — and it is important to talk about the technical aspects, but one of the biggest things about mixing is remembering to stand back and listen to the song as a whole. One of those ways, as we talked about before, is taking breaks.
It’s also environmental. Remove yourself from just sitting in front of the speakers, and take your mix and go and sit in your car and listen to it. Go into the house, go into a different room in your house, listen to it on a different environment, just to really get a better idea.
When doing EDM stuff, I notice a lot of stuff can get really carried away in the bass area. The subs can be absolutely massive, because if you’re listening on speakers like I’ve got here, like these Genelecs, or these NS10s, without a sub, you know, that 20, 30, 40Hz can just blow up, and I can barely notice it’s here.
The Genelecs have a really good bottom end, and I can go down to 40 and stuff like that, but the super, super low stuff, I might not even know it, but then I go in a car and my speakers are just blowing up.
So especially when you’re sort of first learning your room and learning how to EQ stuff and really understand how it fits in the mix, make sure you listen in many different environments. Don’t just listen in one place, send it off to somebody, and have them go, “Oh no, I just played it in my car, and my speakers are blowing up and it’s distorting because there’s so much bottom end.”
So along with taking breaks, it’s listen in many different environments.
So my last fundamental mistake, as I just touched on, is not seeing the song as a whole. We can get really caught up in the technical, and I completely understand, because this is — you know, one of the great things about YouTube is we can look up vocal mixing, and we can go and find how different people mix vocals. I’ve done one that a lot of you have watched and commented on, and lots of people have those great videos out there, and we can pick up tips from each other, and I love it, and I love the discussion we have here, and the way we can share information between us.
But, it’s not all about the technical. You know, sometimes it’s an emotional thing, but that’s difficult to describe, to talk about an emotional response to music, but it is important. You know, I’ve talked many times with people about, you know, hearing the Black Sabbath record for the first time as a little kid and being terrified.
That’s obviously a very emotional thing, and that was achieved in the song writing, and the production, and everything, and that’s a big important part of it. It is an emotional response, but I think one of the fundamental things that we do, is we forget. We start thinking about it in purely a technical term.
I saw a video recently, and it said “Number One Mixing Mistake,” and it said make sure you can hear everything equally. Ah, wrong. It’s not about hearing everything equally, it’s about — you know, you might have sounds that want to support each other. So the piano, for instance, can be driving a song.
I just mixed a song with Dave Pensado, for instance, he mixed one of my artists, and it’s a piano driven artist, and one of the things that I like that Dave did on the mix that was different from my mix when I gave it, is he had the piano in the verse to establish that this was a singer/songwriter piano player, but when the acoustic guitar came in in the chorus, he pushed the acoustics above the piano, and suddenly the song moves really well in the chorus, and from that part out in the song, the piano was actually featured less than the acoustic.
So what you essentially had was the acoustics took over, and the piano became supportive, and was not that easily heard. It just was adding low mids and thickness to the acoustic guitar. So he’d established the piano at the front of the song, so you had an idea and a feeling that this was a piano singer/songwriter.
So it’s not just about hearing things equally, it’s about making those kind of choices. I tried to explain that in a lot of the songs we do when we do the How to Arrange where we will maybe do something like that. We’ll go like, “Here it is, here’s the singer with a piano,” and then the piano plays a supporting role from then on.
You can do that with guitar parts. You can feature guitar parts at certain points, and then they become supportive underneath. You know, it’s really about making those choices. Get the elements mixed so you can hear them and feature them where you want, but don’t be afraid to use volume automation. Look at the song as a whole.
Sometimes, the best way to do that honestly, like we’re saying earlier, is take breaks. Seriously, take some breaks so that you’re not so wrapped up in it that all you’re really concentrating on is maybe the vocal only. You know, if you’ve got the time, don’t do twelve hour stretches, but do twelve hours over two or three days if you can.
Work on multiple projects. If you’re mixing an album or an EP of your own or somebody else’s, maybe work on a song and start establishing a sound, and then take a break from it and go to a different song, or a different artist. Get away from it a little bit, and then come back to it. I personally love doing that.
I like working on multiple things in multiple days. I think that it gives you better perspective. So one of the fundamental mistakes I think that we all make, and I’m guilty of this, is getting too caught up in the detail, and the minutia, soloing things too much, not seeing it as a whole.
So I know we talk about the emotional response and stuff like that, but believe you me, you can get that back and you can start understanding the emotional response to the song if you stand back a lot, and then you’ll hear it more as a whole.
Great, so thank you ever so much for watching. I know there’s a lot to take in there, so please leave loads of comments and questions below. I know I’m just scratching the surface as usual of all of the different things, but I love having discussions about this, so please leave me some questions, tell me what you do when you mix, and your experiences, you know, whether using headphones, combined with speakers, the car test, I know we’ve talked about this stuff before, but let’s really put it into practice and have a great discussion.
We’ve talked about mix buss compression and EQ there. What do you use? Mastering, you know, do you always master on a separate day, you know, when you don’t have a deadline. Just have a discussion about all of that stuff. I really appreciate your time, and I think you ever so much for your comments, and I learn a lot of stuff from you guys as well.
So please subscribe, go to producelikeapro.com and sign up for the email list, and thank you ever so much for watching.