*Photo by Morel Musiek Studios
Mixing is the KEY stage where you get to separate your track from amateur-sounding to professional, radio-ready quality.
It’s a detailed and technical process and there are several things you may not be aware of that can make your break your mix.
Here are 25 DEADLY mistakes you can’t afford to make if you want to achieve a crystal clear, balanced, non-harsh and full sounding mix.
Isolating certain key-elements throughout your mix in order to hear how they sound, is something you should be doing on a regular basis.
You can’t forget, however, when elements are isolated and processed (e.g., EQ and compression), it leaves you totally blind and unaware of what’s happening around you.
In other words, you won’t be sure of how it affects the conflicting elements, surrounding frequencies, and your session as a whole.
For example, if you make a somewhat large cut in your string session, you may be shocked by the way it could possibly cause another element, or even the strings themselves to get much louder, or even disappear altogether.
This is why changes should ONLY be made based on the context of your mix, never in isolation.
When it comes to EQing a signal, there are 2 options: Additive EQ (boosts) or Subtractive EQ (cuts).
When people tell you that EQ will indeed be the most impactful processor within our mix, they’re usually referring to the subtractive nature of EQ.
Additive EQ, which includes applying boosts, should ALWAYS be used with care, and applied strategically.
In other words: proceed with caution.
‘Cutting’ frequencies should be your main reason for using EQ. Due to this fact, you should always do your EQing in two, separate stages.
1. Subtractive Cuts
These cuts are traditionally one of the first processors in the chain.
They are used to either remove, or completely eliminate unwanted and/or unneeded frequencies BEFORE they reach the ‘compression’ stage.
This makes it so any frequencies you remove from your signal will NOT trigger further processing.
2. Additive Boosts
These boosts are traditionally added post-compression.
You include these in order to guarantee no extra compression will be triggered when you apply boosts.
Also, since you’ll now be able to properly listen to and analyze the signal post-compression, it will prevent you from adding too much ‘gain’ to any one area of the spectrum.
Leading us into our next common mistake…
Unless it’s for corrective, or subtractive purposes – cuts and/or boosts ABOVE 5dB should be applied with extreme caution.
Also, if you travel above 6-7dB, then a supplemental boost, or cut should be made.
This is not necessarily to make up for the large adjustment, but rather to balance it out.
As always, this may not be true in the case of ALL source-material, but it is a general rule of thumb for most situations.
If you are, however, making large EQ adjustments, always try maximizing it’s overall potential by playing with the Q (band)-width. This will allow you to ‘zone in’ and focus more on a certain area.
A tight or ‘narrow’ boost is more efficient when attempting to target a specific zone, rather than using a wide ‘Q’ setting.
DO NOT be afraid to experiment with a variety of combinations, period.
Regardless of how ‘wrong’ or ‘improper’ you’ve always been told it is, this is music after all.. breaking the rules is a natural part of the process.
Just because it’s considered bad or wrong, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have experimented with it for yourself.
Think about it: issues and errors are bound to happen when mixing, right?
But how are you supposed to know exactly how to deal with them, or even use them to your advantage, if you haven’t dealt with them firsthand?
Sometimes these errors will be your fault, other times it will be due to the source-material itself.
Either way, you must be able to pinpoint them when they first occur, as to quickly get rid of them and prevent future problems.
With that said, you also must be aware of what is considered ‘perfect’ or industry standard as well, which leads me to my next commonly-made mistake to avoid…
Using a reference track within your session can absolutely skyrocket your mixing game, I cannot stress this enough.
As humans, our brains have a difficult time getting and keeping an accurate perception, or exact memory of the way something like the ‘harmonic-content’ of a song sounds.
It doesn’t matter if you’ve been making music for a week or twenty years, this still applies to you.
However, we’ve recently reached a higher level of frequency-matching.
Plugins such as FabFilter Pro-Q, Voxengo SPAN Plus, and iZotope Ozone now offer extremely useful, simple, and accurate frequency-matching features, which makes this process much easier.
Nothing in the entire world is as reliable, or can do quite the same type of analysis as our ears can.
But, if you take advantage of frequency-masking as well as using your ears, it will ALWAYS be better than using either one by itself.
NOTE: If you don’t have access to a plugin that includes frequency-matching/masking functionality, try using different analyzers with your eyes, which is truly just as effective. Simply match the harmonic-content of each, individual track and the sum of all it’s parts.
If you introduce a similar reference track into your session with a clear goal in mind, you will surely get much closer to matching a particular mix than ever before.
When you experience constant issues or feel like your mix is too far gone, you’ll naturally debate scratching the entire thing and starting from square one.
Meaning, you would’ve wasted all that valuable time and hard work you just put it – do NOT do this.
Just remember when beginning a session, that there are many different ways in which to reach the end-result or goal, not just one… or even two.
When in doubt, confused, or hesitant, simply try the following approach. It will definitely help you to realize the extent of your creativity, and the amount of options you truly have:
1. Go into your DAW (either before you start mixing or at about the halfway point) and create a few duplicate copies of your entire project, pre-mix, in a somewhat organized manor.
2. Spend about a half-hour tweaking each one.
Make sure with each individual version, that you’re taking a unique approach and applying different plugins.
3. Then, simply see which strategy took you the farthest, and which technique you favored the most.
Once you’ve determined what works best for you, try using that particular method the next time you’re mixing. You won’t believe how much you’ll learn from trying this out, it’s incredibly valuable.
If you’re not exactly satisfied at the halfway point – try opening up the original session, which contains absolutely no processing or edits, and applying a different method.
Also, try subtracting processors in the original mix, to see if over-processing is the culprit.
Before you start the actual mixing or processing process, you absolutely cannot forget about gain staging.
Not only does it help to reach a target system-volume that minimizes noise and distortion, but it allows your sound system to achieve the best signal-to-noise ratio as well.
I too, have fallen victim to the ‘eh, I can skip gain staging’ state of mind, as I figured I already knew there was enough headroom because it was indicated by a clip-free session (according to my DAW).
Let me reassure you, however, this is the WORST thing you could possibly do.
Not only is ‘clipping’ a big reason to apply proper gain staging, but you must not forget about the importance of knowing the relative-levels of our signals as well.
Without knowing them, you won’t be able to set up any threshold-dependent processors in the correct way, as you must realize the total sum of all of their parts in order to do so.
Otherwise, you will be setting the threshold blindly, which typically causes way more compression than originally intended.
Some of the most important processors are indeed ‘threshold dependent,’ so this is truly key. The most common example would have to be a Compressor.
This is why a ‘VU’ Meter is mandatory, regardless of it’s overall content or purpose.
You must have at least a general idea of what our incoming levels are, both independently and as a whole… here is how to simply, yet successfully accomplish this:
1. Pick a level that compliments the track, leaving ample headroom.
2. Assign each individual track to come in at roughly the same amount.
20dB is traditionally my target level, but this can easily change at the drop of a dime based upon the specific session we’re dealing with. You must match it’s unique characteristics and attributes.
Forget for a moment about the levels being too high, and focus rather on the issues that will definitely arise if the levels are too low… which are too many to count.
Bottom line, DO NOT forget gain staging; it can seriously hurt the overall quality of your music and/or track.
When you’re mixing, the main goal is to achieve the correct balance within our ‘stereo image’ during both MONO and STEREO playback.
In order for everything to translate properly, you must use a combination of both MONO and STEREO signals.
This way, you’ll technically produce a ‘stereo mix,’ that’s able to be played-back on MONO devices as well.
A vectorscope can also help to give you a visual cue of your overall image. It can be easily found in almost every Stereo Imager available.
If you place any low-frequency elements in the ‘stereo’ field, your low end will end up being extremely messy and blurry.
So, make sure all of your bass-elements are in, and stay in MONO.
Also, stay away from either making a stereo-source wider, or a mono-signal STEREO. If you did this, you would certainly run into all types of imaging and ‘phase’ issues.
Instead, you should be making stereo-sources more narrow, as it will give you a much cleaner mix.
If you do, however, feel the absolute need to make an individual signal wider, make sure to use a Multiband Imager. Even then, try to widen the very top frequencies only.
This will help you avoid any ‘blurring,’ and can add some extra depth to your mix.
Most cars, regardless of how reliable or praised, is bound to have a blind spot, right?
Well, the same exact applies here – you MUST make up for the ‘blind spots’ that all headphones or speakers have the potential of having and producing.
This includes, but is not limited to: overcompensation, manufacture-made boosts, and peaks.
The way to do this, is simply by testing out multiple versions/models of different headphones and speakers to guarantee what you’re hearing is actually authentic, and not just a fluke.
It’s extremely important that you intimately know both your playback system’s strengths, and weaknesses. Being aware of each is just as critical as being familiar with the playback unit itself.
When it boils down to it, it very well might be something that you do NOT hear (which you’re realistically supposed to) that causes your mix go down hill, as opposed to the obvious indications.
Even tiny absences, or details such as a lack of desired or required frequencies, can be just as important to your mix as a buildup of certain other frequencies.
Having 1 pair of ‘bad’ or ‘unprofessional’ speakers and/or a boombox (something commonly listened to by the masses, ideally) is hands-down more valuable than any high-end speaker, when it comes to the translation process.
Why? Simply because 98% of people will never hear your music on such speakers, and having a realistic perception of what your audience is hearing is truly key.
The real ‘secret’ in getting things to translate properly across all systems equally, lies completely in making the song sound supreme, even on the worst of speakers and/or mono-setups.
Having an accurate read on what, exactly, your signal looks like is key.
There will always be a certain part of the signal we’re incapable of hearing, and using a visual-aid is the only real way around it.
This is precisely why having a Spectrum Analyzer on your Master BUS is completely necessary in any, and every session.
Normally, you’d want to assign this last in the chain, as to gauge the signal post-processing.
In certain situations, however, you may want to place one first and last. This will allow you to see the signal before and after processing simultaneously.
When you do this, it enables you to ‘SOLO’ specific tracks.
This, in turn, allows you to easily get a solid grasp of how your signal looks WITHOUT having to open up an analyzer on every single track.
Certain Spectrum Analyzers offer additional functionality, but the basic principle remains the same regardless of which specific type your using, so any free analyzer should work just fine.
Another thing that you can try in order to make things less stressful, is to throw a spectrum analyzer last in the chain on ALL your instrument-group BUSES.
This will give you a clear, realistic view of every single sub-section without the exhausting need to SOLO any individual element.
If you can make something sound good in MONO, it will most likely sound great in STEREO.
This is why mixing in MONO is extremely beneficial, greatly increases the chance of success, and should be done multiple times throughout all stages of your mix.
Sure, some things will need to be adjusted or tweaked but, for the most part, a deceptively bad mix will end up revealing itself in MONO.
So, as long as you initially mix in MONO, you probably won’t need to worry too much about how it sounds in STEREO, as it pretty much guarantees a smooth translation.
I cannot even begin to explain in words, just how important giving your ears a break truly is.
At the very least, it will end up causing you to produce an unbalanced mix.
Why? Well, because once your ears are exposed to a full-range of frequencies for long periods of time (even at very modest levels), they begin to lose their natural sensitivity.
This causes them to actually become desensitized to the mid-high frequency ranges, which is why you’ve probably experienced false perceptions.
In other words, what you originally thought was a flawless final product, can prove to sound strikingly different in the morning or later on that night, once your ears have ‘readjusted’.
Once you give your ears a chance to go back down to bass line, it is then much easier to detect problems or errors… aside from the many other benefits giving your ears a rest has, of course.
Bottom line, your ears are going to lie to you when they’re exposed to persistent sound, regardless of how long you’ve been doing music or how trained they are.
This is why taking frequent breaks is one of the main factors in achieving a clean, balanced, professional mix.
Make it a part of your every day routine, to the point that it becomes a habit; because the importance of this specific step is not to be taken lightly at all.
During the mixing process, you’re going to run into mistakes, or errors of some kind, that’s a give in… it’s how, and when you choose to identify and fix these issues that separate the amateur from the professional.
The proper time to deal with problems within your mix is VERY early-on, and certainly before you send out the final mix to be mastered.
Oftentimes, issues within a mix are difficult to pinpoint. This is why you should allow the mixing process to extend a couple of day, or even a week.
During this process, make sure to test any major alterations on multiple playback systems.
Also, take note of any problem or shortcoming you hear. Yes, I mean physically write any problem, change, or issue you wish to remember down on paper (or on your phone/computer).
Do not make the common mistake of thinking you could, or should correct any issue simultaneously at a later time… that’s horribly incorrect.
Having the notes available whenever you may need them is the perfect way to easily remember, and then fix whatever problems you’ve encountered BEFORE the song is finalized or sent out
If you don’t know the difference between a low-pass, high-pass, shelf, notch, and bell curve (or aren’t exactly sure the appropriate time to apply them)… do yourself, and your listeners a huge favor: either learn it, or don’t use it.
Sure, EQ is certainly important during the mixing process, but having no EQ at all is much better than having poorly-executed, or improper EQ, trust me.
This goes for pretty much any type of processor in the production and engineering field, but especially EQ.
Get educated about it, and constantly experiment with it. This way, you’ll be well-aware of the unique differences and how to correctly use them for the future.
Experimentation can trigger many ‘happy accidents’ when JUST creating. But, when it comes to mixing, it’s ideal to have a set goal in mind when first going into it.
At the very least, you should always have an end-goal in mind.
You certainly have the option of experimenting all you want in order to reach that goal, as long as you have an initial vision.
Also, this enables quicker, more precise decision-making, and less time wasted chasing false or deceiving leads.
No rules in mixing are set it stone, or apply the same in all situations. If anything, they are more of loose guidelines, as opposed to concrete requirements.
Knowing this, you shouldn’t be cutting or boosting anything just because you feel like you’re ‘supposed to’.
You should only be applying cuts and boosts when it’s beneficial, or enhances your mix – no more, no less, and certainly not because it’s considered ‘protocol’.
For example… don’t incorporate a high-shelf, simply because it’s a string section. Rather, listen to that particular part very carefully, with and without the boost. Then you can decide what sounds the best in that specific situation.
Keep doing that wherever you wish to apply one.
You’ll shortly find, that the rules you make, and conclusions you come to are much better suited when determined by you and your unique mix, rather than obligation.
‘Mastering’ is the final step of audio, post-production.
It’s traditionally used to finish things off, balance sonic-elements of a stereo mix, and optimize playback across all systems and platforms.
It should NOT, however, use it to make up for a mixes’ shortcomings; always remember that.
A true ‘master’ is not to be done using the Master BUS (within your mixes’ session-file) at all.
Instead, you should apply it to the successfully mixed track itself, in a separate section.
Modern producers tend to think that mixing and mastering is so closely related that, they too, can flawlessly execute it… this is, utter and complete nonsense, and can also prove to be detrimental to your overall track.
So, unless you’re a mastering expert, either tread lightly, or do everyone (especially your listeners) a favor: leave it to the professionals.
If you still feel the undying need to apply processing on your Master BUS, just make sure to keep it light.
Your Master should only house a MAXIMUM of 3-4 processors, with extremely subtle settings, and include the following devices:
1. A Compressor – to glue things together appropriately. This should have a ratio no higher than 1.5:1.
2. EQ – to cut everything below, and above the realm of human hearing.
No boosts should be made on this EQ, and all enhancements should be applied during the mixing process.
3. A Limiter – to bring up the level of your track as a whole.
4. A Processor (typically Saturation) – to complete your mix and make the finishing touches
Remember, only attempt this if you’re really confident in your mixing skills.
Thinking to yourself, ‘I’ll just fix whatever needs fixing during the mixing process’ is a HUGE mistake. Seriously, it’s fatal.
This includes making not-so-smart decisions, such as low quality sample-selections or using subpar presets.
As producers, the recording or ‘tracking’ stage is usually a secondary thought… but you must not forget to use high-quality, respectable samples and/or presets from the jump – NOT just worry about it later.
Even if you’re in the habit designing your own sounds, try grabbing some new, premium sample packs from someone who is extremely relevant right now, or who you always hear about.
That way, you can get a good idea of the recent trends.
If you’re looking for samples and/or presets that you pretty much never have to fix, and that will stand out BEFORE processing, check out our currently available selection here.
You wouldn’t believe just how badly NOT setting your BPM before importing all your session-data, can screw up your entire mix.
Editing audio files with a set, or fixed BPM makes cutting, trimming, and even rearranging your format much easier.
When using time-based processors such as reverb and delay, however, it can actually devalue your mixes’ overall integrity.
This is because, when setting parameters such as the ‘delay’ time, if you’re using a rhythm-based value (e.g., 1/2 beats, 1/4, and/or 1/8th notes), your processor will almost always apply the current, or set host-tempo value by default.
In other words, if your set-tempo is incorrect, or left on ‘default’ none of these effects will be in sync with the rest of your track.
This is why you must always set your ‘host’ tempo BEFORE importing session-data.
If you don’t have that information available, you’ll need to figure it out right away. Oftentimes, it’s as simple as using a ‘tap tempo’ function.
Then, simply adjust the tempo slightly until your tracks appropriately align with the grid.
Not backing up your work frequently is one of biggest mistake you could ever make.
There’s nothing more frustrating than losing all your work, simply because you forgot to save it… as you’ve probably experienced firsthand already.
Luckily, almost every DAW in existence offers an ‘autosave’ function, which is traditionally found, and can be adjusted within your DAW’s ‘advanced system settings’.
Keep in mind, however, this function does have a tendency to malfunction quite often; dependent upon your specific DAW and backup folder or drive, of course.
This is why, even when autosave is enabled, you should make a habit of using your ‘save’ shortcut at all times – especially right after any major changes or alterations, and especially when doing things you know causes your computer to freeze.
Traditionally, the save shortcut is either Control, or Command + S.
It’s always when you least expect it that a random crash or major problem happens. So make sure, when it does, you won’t be losing everything you spent hours perfecting.
Such an easy thing can save you so much aggravation later.
When you’re first beginning a session, it’s common to have upwards of 100 tracks that require mixing… and this number seems to multiply quickly as you get further into the mixing process.
This reason alone, is cause enough to name and categorize all of your tracks. Plus, it will help you to get more organized as well.
Now, once you have everything labeled properly, you should always ‘color code’ your tracks, based on the section of the song in which they occupy.
Assign a color, and even a group/folder for:
B. Percussion-based elements (this color should be somewhat similar to your drum’s assigned color).
C. Vocal elements.
D. Lead instruments.
E. Minor instrument-parts.
F. Effect-sends (if your current session contains any).
By doing this, you’re not only saving yourself from natural human-error, but it also seriously helps during the mixing process, as you’ll be able to find the desired track much quicker than if you hadn’t color-coded.
Make sure to keep the same color legend from here on out, so it’s uniformed and simple to remember.
This will help you save an enormous amount of time, plus it makes the engineers job much easier when refining or mastering your mix.
As a rule of thumb, always disable your dither when bouncing files, midi, or any other ‘processed’ audio before your final mix-down.
When you bounce with ‘dither’ enabled, you’re essentially adding a very small amount of low-level noise.
So, when you reduce the ‘bit depth’ of an element within your mix, it doesn’t cause any digital distortion.
Now, the reason I say leave the dither off is because, if you happen to dither twice, it will always cause extra digital distortion, regardless of any changes in bit-depth.
If you’re sending your tracks out for mastering, you should always leave the dither off, period.
If you’re doing your own mastering, dither should always be disabled as well, until it’s time for the FINAL master-bounce.
Low-end frequencies should be reserved for one type of element ONLY: low-end elements.
When you have an instrument such as a piano (for example) that’s occupying much of the same low-end space as your kick and bass, it’s generally best to cut the extra, unneeded, unwanted frequencies.
This is because, in terms of the frequency-spectrum as a whole, the low-end is the hardest for basically any system in existence to reproduce.
So, when the low-end is all congested with extra frequencies, it not only spawns a cloudy, or ‘muddy’ mix, but it also causes your actual low-end elements to lose most of their main focus.
If the low-end doesn’t absolutely need to be there, simply cut most of it out.
When we’re talking about time-based effect processors, we’re usually referring to reverb and delay.
Now, it may not seem like a bad idea to place one of these within your main signal’s chain… but, rest assured, if you add more than 1 or make the signal too ‘wet,’ a delay in time is sure to rear it’s ugly head.
This causes an extremely irritating, undesirable delay in the track you just spent all this time processing.
This is just one of the many, many reasons why delay and reverb does best on it’s own SEND/AUX, almost 100% of the time.
The key to achieving a professional mix, and one of the surefire markings of either an amateur or veteran mixologist, is: processing your processors.
Keep in mind that not every, individual effect requires processing.
But, when it comes to effects such as delay and reverb, which replicate the frequencies of the entire signal you feed it, you should (almost always) apply EQ post-processor.
Consider dynamic-processing as well.
If you’re feeling a little extra creative or adventurous, you can even place the EQ before the effect-processor, and filter-out the designated frequencies that are being sent into the effect-processor.
This way, the frequencies that are coming out are tamed, and are only reproducing the frequencies you wish to be reproduced.
Use both a low-pass and high-pass filter, in order to exclude the very high and low frequencies.
It may blow your mind when you discover just how much cleaner it could make your overall mix as a whole.
There we have it.
Avoid these 25 DEADLY mixing mistakes and you’ll be sure to up the quality of your mixes big time.
Make sure to reference this post while you’re mixing to make sure you don’t miss anything.
Have any questions? Ask us below and we’ll answer them for you.
Also, which tip did you find the most helpful? Let us know by commenting below.