5 Reasons Why Your Mixes Aren't Sounding The Way You Want
Reading Time: 8-10 Minutes
Hey guys! It's Brad Simons here, and today's post is going to be about 5 reasons why your mixes aren't sounding as good as you want them to. There is an infinite number of reasons that your mixes aren't quite there, but the following are some of the common ones that I encounter. Check 'em out!
1) Bad Sounds At The Source
You've heard it before, and I'm gonna say it again. From a mountaintop. You can't make a great mix out of garbage sounds. It's just not possible. You may be able to make it sound better than it did before you started mixing, but it's never going to be world class. So, make sure you get great tones and performances in tracking! If you didn't track the music, then maybe have a chat with the tracking engineer and suggest some revisions.
So let's say you've done everything you can but just aren't able to get better source sounds. What do you do? One common practice is to supplement your drum tones with drum samples. In fact, I would argue that most "real" drum recordings that you hear on the radio are sampled up. Yeah, I can already hear the groans coming from the peanut gallery. But listen if done correctly, This can help provide consistency, control and punch to your drum tones. I suggest making your own sample library from your recordings, but you can also use packs like Superior Drummer, Slate Drums, Native Instruments Abbey Road, or Get Good Drums to name a few. Second, grab as many DI tracks as you can, especially on instruments like electric guitar and bass. You can then use that DI signal to re-amp if you need to get a new tone.
2) Muddy Bottom End
I struggle with this one, as I think a lot of engineers do. Getting the bottom end just right (and the lower mids) is really tough. But if you don't get it right, your mix will either sound thin and weak, or it will be woofy and unfocused.
A good place to start is to put a hi-pass filter on every single instrument with exception of the kick drum and the bass. I like to start at about 100 Hz, and then work from there. What this will do is provide the room needed to let the kick and bass come through cleanly. These are generally the two instruments that will make that low end just right.
You also need to make a decision how the bass and kick are sitting together. I typically like to keep the kick in the sub frequency range and cut some of the bass off with a hi-pass filter. Some mixers like to go the opposite way, cutting some of the kick off to give the bass more room. My opinion is to let the genre and the song dictate that. For instance, if you're mixing a trap song, you'll want the bass to have TONS of sub frequency (although it may be a pitched 808), so maybe let the kick give the thump up a little higher. If you're mixing a rock track, typically you'll want to trim up the bass a bit and let the kick drive the song. Not hard fast rules at all, but some guidelines.
Think about the lower midrange in the same way. I look at the lower mids as the 200 Hz to 500 Hz area. If your mix is sounding muddy, try muting various instruments until you find what's doing so. Then try cutting some of that mid-range until you find the clarity you're looking for. Some common ones for me are pads, synths, keys, and guitars. Again, I struggle with this one a lot, it's tough to really make it work.
Another thing you can do is trim a bit of midrange on the mix bus. I like to use a UAD MEQ 5 at the end of my mix bus chain to trim a bit of mids out if needed. As I've said in a previous post, if I need to cut more than 1 dB, I'm probably going to head back into the tracks causing the problem first.
3) Too Much FX
Maybe it's just me, but I LOVE using reverbs and delays. I love a roomy, ambient mix, with some tracks that sound close up to the speakers, and other tracks that sound as though they are a hundred feet away. Gives the mix a lot of depth. However, this can easily lead to an accumulation of mids and general cloudiness in your mix. So this somewhat ties into what we mentioned in the previous point.
So one place to start is to hi-pass filter all of your reverb and delay channels. This will prevent delay repeats and reverb decay create an accumulation of bottom end and muddy mid-range. I typically like to do around 250 Hz, but that's a matter of taste. There are instances where I want to hear some more rumble from the verb, but this is a general starting point.
Second and more importantly, be selective in which instruments you put reverb and delay on. And also, be selective of what style of reverb you're using on each track. Try to give each instrument needing reverb a different depth and algorithm. Same with delay, avoid overuse of the same delay, as it can create a mess. Some things I like to do are find lead elements and make them pretty wet, and push them back. By contrast, I like using slap delays on vocals, which typically sound a little more forward.
Experiment with different elements and be selective! Don't overdo it!
4) Overuse of Compression
I think overusing compression is a pretty dang easy trap to fall into. Sometimes as engineers, we get in the mindset that we "have" to do certain things. For instance, if we want a punchy mix, we think we need compression. And then furthermore, if we want everything to be punchy, we need compression on everything! This is certainly not the case.
Remember, the initial point of compression is volume control. And yes, you can certainly use it to get more punch and as an effect. Not disputing that. But maybe a hi-gain guitar tone just doesn't need any compression. Why is that? Because it is already naturally compressed! Ask questions on each track. Does this instrument need compression? If so, why is that? How am I expecting it to sound? Is this the right way of accomplishing this?
A lot of plugin compressors come with a factory default setting that has some makeup gain already engaged. So the moment you add the plugin, the volume may increase by 2 dB. That's an easy way to be fooled into thinking it sounds better. An easy way to remain objective is to adjust the volume of the plugin to match the bypassed level. That way you can bypass and un-bypass the plugin, going back and forth to truly hear what the plugin is doing to the sound.
Also, don't overcompress your mix bus! This can easily make your mix painful to listen to, pumpy and awkward. Let me be the first to say that mix bus compression is a vital part of my mix process, but it has to be done with taste and caution. It can easily ruin your mix!
Just like reverb and delay, be selective with compression and don't overdo it!
5) Bad Frequencies
Bad frequencies can make your life a nightmare. Yikes. This one can be tough to hear and tough to iron out. Sometimes it takes a lot of searching to find where your problems are.
Let's say you hear a certain frequency ringing out in the mix. Try muting instruments until you find the one that contains the bad frequency. Now if only it were always that simple. Sometimes there are multiple instruments contributing to a bad frequency, and you need to cut that from all of them!
So once you do find the track(s) that are causing the problem, pull out an EQ. We like to use the FabFilter Pro Q 2 and use the bandpass mode to isolate that frequency. Then cut it out! Use your own judgment on how much you want to cut out, and how wide the Q is on that frequency band. If the cut is starting to affect the general tone of the instrument, then consider tightening the Q or cutting just slightly less.
You can also apply this technique on busses, from instrument busses to the mix bus in general. I like to be a little more cautious when applying corrective EQ to busses, as you're starting to make changes to many instruments at once.
And that's it for this post. Hope that helps you find a few faults in your mix, and therefore improves the quality of future mixes. Please comment below if you have any problems you've encountered and how you overcame them.
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