We have seen so many of our students making these simple mistakes while mixing music. This is the reason I ask students to mix their tracks right in front of me. So, I can guide them through the process and help them if they stumble upon any problem. How is it possible that some of the students do it correctly while others don’t? We are writing this blog post for those who face common problems while mixing. Alright, let’s start.
i) Mixing Music Without a Reference
As a beginner, your ears may not be well trained. Now, imagine a person doing the same thing for almost 7 years. It is not purposely done but a habitual bargain where your ears are bound to get trained if you do it continuously for that long. Here is the difference between your working for 7 years at stretch, and my working for 7 years at stretch. I have been mixing music in a studio which is acoustically treated by a professional acoustician. If you match that with any fairly but not precisely acoustically treated studio, that matters a lot. There are tons of things that we need to take care of when we are planning to treat any room.
Also, it depends upon the kind of gears we have been working on, by working in a good room, with speakers like MSP5s, Genelecs, and Dynaudios, it makes a lot of difference to your ears.
But these are all expensive sets of mods, and do you really need all of these if you are working on your music and wanting to get the industry-standard quality mixes? The answer is no. It would be difficult for me to make our students realize that gears don’t really help. A good laptop, a good audio interface, and a good pair of headphones, is all you’ll need to make good quality production and mixes.
Okay, so the second question would be, which headphones to go for?, and about this, we have already discussed in our previous blog, “Things to know before buying any studio gears”, if you haven’t already, do check it out. It is probably one of the most comprehensive guides to buying pro audio gear and acoustic treatment.
Now that you have gotten your headphones and Sonarworks reference calibration software, what’s next? You’ll have to invest an insane amount of time, and listen to all professionally mixed songs while keeping the sonar work reference headphones calibration turned on. And when I say a lot of mixes, I mean “A LOT”. Some might say that this is again a very time-intensive process, consumes a big chunk of your work time as well. Well, yes, you’re absolutely right, but this crucial to save your time and effort in the future. Start adding reference tracks in your projects, so that you can compare your track with the reference. Okay, now that we have added a reference track, we need to know a couple more things before we proceed forward with mixing the track.
1. Reference Tracks are Heavily Compressed:
So, to speak, there are three to four stages of compression going on in your reference track. Then how are you going to compare your track with the reference if there are three stages of compression and you’re just about to start compression from the bottom? This is where another trick could save you. There is a mixing approach called as Top-Down mixing. We start by adding a compressor on the Master track and Group buses so that we can get the same amount of compression, which we should get after the final product is ready after mastering. This helps us to get a more accurate comparison between the mix of the reference track and our mix.
2. If you can find any reference:
A lot of our students complain they can’t find a reference that matches their track. It doesn’t matter if the entire song structure of your track and reference track is different. Even the rhythm or chords’ structure could be completely different, we are just using a reference to check the relative balance of the volume and panning of different elements with each other. Now that we have a reference track from an identical genre, the next thing to do is to compare the level of each element of your track with the reference. For instance, the kick drum in your track is louder when compared with the reference track, so you may want to reduce the gain of the kick so that it matches with reference. This is like having a roadmap. You’re not set on an endless quest of tweaking the balance, instead you have clear goal in front of you.
Comparing your track with the reference track in terms of frequencies will give you an idea of which frequencies your track is missing out on. This way, you can avoid making counter-productive decisions, whether to add or subtract elements, or boosting or attenueting the wrong frequencies. You can use plenty of free spectrum analyzers to compare two tracks. Almost all of the DAWs have a stock spectrum analyzer tool. This method will make sure that we are maintaining the balance in terms of frequencies, irrespective of whether we a have good pair of monitoring speakers or headphones.
As long as you keep these things in mind, things will automatically guide you to get better mixes and train your ears at the same time. Now, how cool is that?
ii) Not leaving some Headroom:
It is very important to have about -6dB to -8dB of headroom in your music mixing session. If there is no headroom at all, your track is going to clip which will cause even more problems, like distortion and at times, damage the audio speakers if kept relatively at a higher level. Make sure that you’re not hitting 0dB because in our DAW, anything above 0dbFS is going to clip. Leaving headroom in your mixes will help the mastering engineer get the best out of your track.
If you aren’t redlining, you aren’t headlining is a wrong notion, please do not follow such erroneous standards. Leave enough headroom so that the elements could breathe properly. If your headphones are not giving you that kind of volume output and you’re getting an urge for increasing the levels, I would advice you to go for an headphones amp instead. It doesn’t cost too much and it can amplify the levels at which you’re mixing. Remember, the levels on the meter of your master track could bounce around -10dB while mixing. You can increase the headphones volume to increase the monitoring levels according to your preference. Headphones with high input impedance rating such as the 250 ohms Beyerdynamics DT 770 need high input signal so cheaper audio interfaces may not be powerful enough to boost the volume. In this case either use a headphone with headphone that requires less input impedace such as the 32 ohms Beyerdynamic DT 770 or buy a decent headphone amp.
When I was teaching once, I soloed a guitar track, turned around, and ask one of our students, “what should I do?”, “How should I go about processing this one?”. He replied, “Sir, the very first thing you should do is saturate it a lot because it is barely audible.”, he replied. I certainly was quite shocked by the response, because without even looking at the fader level, he decided to saturate it. And I believe this might be the case for a lot of people out there mixing their own tracks. The fader position was around -18dB. When I told him about this, he was shocked himself, that he never used to look at the fader position when mixing the track, he used to just saturate it, till the point it reaches that level in the metering of DAW.
This is exactly why we should know the difference between saturation and over-saturation. Saturation is used to increase the harmonic content and to increase the perceived loudness as well. But this doesn’t mean that you’ll keep on saturating things to make them sound extremely louder, even if you have added an ample amount of saturation that is not sounding cracked, it may sound like it posts mastering. So, till what extent is saturation considered to be good? The answer is quite simple, the maximum saturation levels could be around 5db at the most. For me, 2db to 3db of additional saturation works brilliantly. Adding saturation on every track makes a noticeable difference in the perceived loudness. It will not add a lot of cracked or distorted sound to the elements post mastering as long as you don’t exceed these limits, which is great.
iv) Mastering the Mixed Music Session:
The main pro here is that you get to make changes instantly as soon as you find a defect, the main flaw on the other hand is the real-time effects. Time-based processors like reverberation and delay add on to the sound, and when you immediately pause and play the mix session which you’re mastering, the reverberation from the last playback is also adding up in the current playback which may give you a false perception of level boost. This is solely the reason why it is better to master the printed mixed track since all of the time-based effects are also printed in it.
v) Not Using Emulations:
A lot of students have this prejudice that using analog modeled plugins is going to add a lot of colour and solely, for this reason, they only use digital plugins with absolutely no color. This is a fair enough reason, but you are not only competing with yourself here, in the music mixing world, you also have to compete with the rest of the people who are working in the industry and have been using conventional plugins or gears to get the same kind of quality output.
It’s not whether the colour is going to get added, but it’s about how you’re going to use that color to make your track sound up to the industry standard. If you’re not going to use an 1176 FET compressor on your rhythm and percussion elements, it is not that it won’t sound good, but it would not sound like the majority of the tracks out there. If you’re not using an Optical compressor for the vocals, it’s not that it won’t sound good, it’s just that it won’t sound as good as the standard vocals out there that well-renowned mixing engineers have mixed. The thing about mixing is, these pro mixing engineers have set the standards, and if you’re not going to follow the norms, you’re just going to lag behind. Either you’ll learn this the hard way, or an easy way.
Instead of criticizing the colour, try and learn what different hardware does and how it makes certain elements sound even better. Make the most use of knowledge, try learning about different circuits and their working principles. This will only help you understand what particular hardware is going to do with your audio signal. Use the power of hardware emulations, don’t overdo it, just make sure that you are moderately using it so that your track doesn’t sound all warm unless it is intentional.
vi) Following a Mixing Chain:
Following a mixing chain is good, but it is not always great to follow the same chain for all the elements. At some point, you should be able to break the rules and exploit them to the fullest to get the most out of them. And this will only happen when you’ll know the reasons in its exactitude, why the chain is meant to be in the way it is. You don’t necessarily need to add a compressor if the audio doesn’t need compression. Just because it is present in the mixing chain, it makes no sense to compress the audio which otherwise, subjectively you’d choose not to. The same goes for saturation as well.
Do follow rules, but know where to break them. Knowing things will only give you leverage rather than making it disadvantageous for you.
vii) Don’t be afraid:
I have seen a lot of people when they are compressing or EQ-ing their elements. They are scared to over-compress or increase certain frequencies too much. It is as if, this dilemma was given to them by some of our self-taught, self-proclaimed mixing engineers out there. Don’t be afraid to overdo anything. If it is not sounding right, you can always fix it later, but if over-compression is the need of the hour, do it, don’t hesitate. One of our students was mixing sub-bass, and I asked him to add dbx160 mono on it. I explained the different parameters in the dbx160 plugin, and asked him to compress. He took the threshold knob to just -4db and said it’s done. It’s compressing till -7dbs and I am quite happy with that.
The problem with the sub-bass is, some of the notes sound very loud and some sound really soft. To make it consistent you need to make sure that all of the notes are being compressed. I asked him to take the threshold knob down to -18db. He gave me a grave look as if I am asking him to sign his own death warrant with that threshold knob. When he did, he heard that the bass was completely gone. And then, I asked him to increase the makeup gain exponential, around -10db. There was approximately -15b of the gain reduction occurring on the sub-bass, but the output was quite stable now, and the mesmerizing look on his face after aggressively compressing the sub-bass made him change his perspective on how he used to look at compressors. Don’t worry. If you need to over-compress, just overdo it. You can anyway undo it later if you don’t like it.
viii) Make Mistakes:
This actually comes after the last point I had made, which is, ‘don’t be afraid. If you’re overdoing the processing of any of the elements, at some point you’ll realize that you’ve made a mistake, you’ll go back to the mixing session and fix it and come back in the mastering session to check if the problem was solved. If you’re never going to make a mistake, how are you expecting to learn? There was this one time, where I was fiddling with compressor knobs. I made this random setting, where the attack time was as fast as it possibly could, the same goes with the release time as well, as fast as it possibly could go. I made the ratio to infinity:1 and made knee to 0. The moment I started pulling down the threshold knob, I heard saturation instead of compression.
I was quite shocked when I started seeing harmonics in a pure sine wave, in the spectrum analyzer. When I went on to the internet to search for what it meant, turns out that there is a special compression mode which is called “Pumping Effect”, in which the compressor acts as a saturator. If I were to not have had fiddled with the knobs, I would never have come to know about this model of a compressor. So, the next time I put a compressor on any of the element, I know which setting I don’t have to use.
ix) Fix-It in The Next Stage:
This is quite common, especially among those students who are quite lethargic. The moment they come to know about some of the mistakes they have made, be in the production stage or mixing stage or even as primary as recording stage, they’d make such remarks like, “I’ll fix it in the mix, or I’ll fix it in the master”. This is not a healthy way to go about it, you can’t fix things magically at any stage. To a certain extent, yes you can fix some of the things in the mix, but not all.
One of my students came to me and asked, “Sir, this is the music production project, here are the stems of the same, I am super excited to hear how it would sound after the mixing is done.” I was taking the mixing class when I heard the production, I had to break it down to him and tell him that this is not going to sound great, even if I mixing and master it according to the standard norms. The problem is, I can’t make a band of frequencies appear out of nowhere when there aren’t any elements containing those frequencies.
So, I showed him how he could improve his production skills and sound designing skills, which helped him a lot. The next time he showed up, he thanked me for pointing out his mistake. He used to think however bad the production is, the mixing and mastering will fix everything. He is not doing too good when it comes to music production, mixing, and mastering either.
x) Taking No Breaks:
Your ears are the most valuable assets of yours, if you’re not going to take care of them, you will never be able to make it in the music industry as a performing artist or even as a music producer or an audio engineer.
Working vigorously for a prolonged duration may cause ear fatigue. Which may change your perception of what you are monitoring in terms of frequencies. One night, I was working on a mix, I sat for 4 hours at stretch, giving my 100% at it. I was really happy with the way, the mix was sounding perfect at the night. Woke up the next morning to check if the mix sounds the same, and it was worse than the premix. It was sounding terrible. I wondered, what went wrong, and the first chapter of audio engineering gave me the answer.
Ear fatigue changes your perception. How? How many reps of dumbbell barbels you can pull off while doing biceps curl? Maybe 20, at the most 50. But definitely not more than 1000. This is exactly the same with ears, which has three muscles called Malleus, Incus, and Stapes.
These three muscles get fatigued if you listen to anything loud for a prolonged duration. Take Long Breaks if you are working for a long duration. If I have been working for an hour on mixing music, I would take around half an hour of break. And the next time I sit for another hour; I would increase the break time and make it a 45 minutes break. The more I mix, longer the break interval. This way my ears don’t get fatigued and it works like a charm. Also, point to note that when you’re on a break, make sure that you rest your ears completely. No listening to music, or checking out YouTube videos. Just sit idle, either reading a blog or a book.
xi) Bonus Tip:
Make sure that your monitoring levels are as high as 90dbSPL. According to the Fletcher-Munson’s curve, the frequencies become flat at around 85dbSPL. So, 90dbSPL would ideally be a good ballpark for us to mix and master our tracks at.