You’re Doing Too Much: Common Mix Mistakes
We are currently in the middle of two weeks of advanced mixing techniques in our most advanced class here at Beat Lab, and it’s amazing how the more we learn about the process the more we keep coming back to the basics. The simplicity of the concepts of proper EQ, compression, and balance can make these tasks appear to be easy and we often feel we have grasped their importance before we really have. We have all been there and every part of this process of creating records from songwriting, to production, to mixing, and mastering is all it’s own endless rabbit hole so don’t be discouraged. If you feel your mixes still aren’t where you want them to be it’s possible all that is missing is the strongest possible foundation. From there there is often little work left to do. More advanced concepts will definitely add finishing touches but sometimes may not even be necessary if you nail the production and foundation of the mix.
The capabilities of modern plugins and mixing tools are incredible and incredibly exciting. We so often find that when we first learn these tools so many of us do too much with them. Why wouldn’t you . . . You never knew how a compressor worked and then you throw it on a track, adjust the threshold, adjust the attack and release and wow you can really hear that compressor working! Or you put an EQ on a track and bandpass it and you are now the master of sound. We get so excited by hearing things work we get lost in that fact and don’t stay focused on the ultimate goal of a well balanced and clear mix as a whole.
If you’re carving out or adding more than few dB of a frequency range with your EQ or compressing something incredibly hard, you’re changing the sound and it might be more important at the point to ask if this is the best sound for this mix. The sound may have provided inspiration in your songwriting or production, or on it’s own it’s amazing, or it’s just really close to what you want, but in the context of your sound palette as a whole it’s just not sitting exactly right. If you find yourself stuck with this problem, go back into your production and finesse with some sound design or look into a new sound completely. It’s like you’re building a house, an incredible roof will fall in on a sub-par foundation.
On that point, if you find yourself relying on heavy-handed specialty processing to finish your mixes (and you still don’t think they’re the best they can be) you probably still have some work to do with the basic balance, EQ, and compression. Go back to the balance of your instruments and be sure there is a clear hierarchy between lead sounds, support sounds, and atmospheric touches. What sounds fall into those categories will differ depending on what style and vibe you’re trying to achieve. Be clear with yourself about what you’re trying to achieve and don’t overthink it. Next, triple check you have properly made room for instruments that cross-over in frequency range. Be sure each sound has it’s own frequency space, and if sounds are meant to layer each other be clear about what is the low-end, mid, and high-end of that layered sound. If both of these aspects are on point, heavy compression shouldn’t be necessary for clarity, light compression should get you there.
Of course, all of these points have some wiggle room and every mix will ultimately be different from the last, but these are some good guidelines to follow if you find yourself stoked on a production and then frustrated with the mix. You want to do everything you need to and nothing more.