I get to hear a lot of mixes from many different genres. Even though each of these musical worlds bring their own tonal palettes to the table, I've noticed that several common themes keep coming up.
Here's a look at these 8 frequent follies of producers and mixers alike. I hope you can keep these in mind and make even better sounding music.
1. Pinched Mids On Vocals
We all want an unforgettable vocal. One that sits right in your face and dares you to forget the chorus melody. What do we when there's not much clarity? Boost the high mids. Although this can work sometimes, using a narrow Q or boosting too much can make the vocal harsh and start to sound unnatural.
Another option? Try using parallel compression and blending a more aggressive vocal, or be more detailed with your automation to make sure every syllable remains intelligible.
2. Awkward Panning
The stereo field gives us a spacious palette to position our tracks. Things can get weird, though, when the arrangement changes suddenly. You may have a nice rhythm guitar panned hard left and a complimentary acoustic part panned hard right during the chorus, but when things drop out for the bridge, just the acoustic stays. Now you have nothing in your left channel to balance it out and you feel like someones pulling on your right ear.
This problem can also be a result of less than stellar arrangement, but here's a tip when you've found yourself lopsided: Take the lone instrument and bus it to a reverb, then pan that reverb to the opposite side and blend to taste. This can give the illusion of a grander space and make things feel more balanced.
3. Reverb Soup
Reverb can add some amazing depth to your mixes when use carefully. I've even used in mastering on occasion (Shhhh...don't tell anybody!) We may be mixing along and after a few reverb plugins later, our mix is reduced to a thick, swampy mush. Yuck.
My first step would be to filter out most of the low end feeding your reverb returns. Experiment placing a high pass filter before and after the reverb to see what sounds most natural. This gives other low end elements like kick and bass room to breathe while your mix benefits from the added depth of the reverb. Don't be afraid to compress your reverb returns as well and bring them to the forefront.
4. Overcompressed Vocals
I don't remember the last time I did not use a compressor on a vocal. Always seems like they glue things together. But, at some point, that glue can turn into cement.
Vocals are meant to expressive, dynamic, but still sit at the right place at every point within a mix. I usually find that overcompression happens when the mixer hasn't put much effort into automation.
Use automation is the obvious fix, but I'd also try stacking different types of compressors and have them share the load. I often use a vocal chain I stole from Marc Mozart which uses a Fairchild, LA-2A, and 1176 all in series. Great stuff.
5. Low Mid Buildup or Scooped Low-Mids
I get it. 300-400Hz is extremely hard to deal with. It often makes things cloudy, cluttered and takes away depth. Given that, some folks have decided to take a hatchet to it and scoop all of the warmth and life it can bring.
To counteract this, I usually force myself to pick one or two other instruments besides the vocal to dominate this range. I almost ALWAYS cut 400Hz on my drum overheads, then use my best judgement to decide if the piano or the acoustic guitar needs it, or rather the accordion. In any case, limit your options on what gets this precious part of the frequency spectrum and sculpt accordingly.
6. Hyped cymbals
There's a fine line between "presence" and "harshness". Same thing goes for other jargon like "air" and "clarity". I'm all about having drums that pop, but be careful where you add in top end. Having one element in the mix that's extra crispy can make other important elements seem dull.
My go-to reference recording for bright, hyped cymbals has been "Relentless" by House of Heroes. That record's amount of "sparkle" is about as far as anyone should go without taking heads off. Use it as a gauge to see where your drums stack up.
7. No Headroom
Back when everyone recorded to tape, things had to be tracked as hot as possible so you could get the best signal to noise ratio. Now that the digital age has come and we're in 24 bit, noise is a thing of the past.
Even though we now have 144dB of dynamic range available to us, some mixers still cook their faders. This creates nasty sounding digital distortion and makes you run in circles with gain staging. It's good practice to leave at least 3dB of headroom on your master bus to guarantee there's no clipping. Your friendly neighborhood mastering engineer will thank you. I place a gain plugin at the top of every processing chain to adjust levels so they average around 18dBFS RMS. This gives me more than enough room for peaks.
8. Uncontrolled Low End
The low end is where I often see the most variance between mixes. Sometimes kick drums are subby beyond belief, other mixes sound like they passed through a telephone speaker.
It's not secret that low frequencies are the hardest part of the spectrum to tame within a room. Less than stellar monitoring situations often leave mixers guessing what the right balance is for their low end. Check your mixes on headphones and against other reference mixes to make sure things are sitting right. I often find myself being more aggressive with compression in the low end since it has so much energy that can run amok. Use slower attack times so you can maintain punch.
What other mix mistakes have plagued your music workflow?