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Mixing: 20 Questions You Should Ask Yourself

September 1, 2009
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1. Can you hear everything? This seems obvious, but sometimes a musical part gets hidden. While the mix is playing, listen just for the sound of each track, and make sure it’s there. No matter the genre of music, the minimum requirement for a good mix is that you can hear all the instruments and vocals—nothing is missing and nothing sticks out. Sometimes you need to mute or turn down some tracks to make a hidden track come out.

2. Can you understand the lyrics? If you can’t tell what the words are in certain spots, raise the vocal level with a volume envelope (automation). Also, you might compress the vocals, make sure they have enough clarity around 5kHz–10kHz, and maybe reduce the level of instruments that compete in the same 3kHz–6kHz range as the vocals. Don’t overdo vocal effects. Some engineers use this guideline: The lead vocal in rock music should be just loud enough so you can understand the lyrics without straining. In ballads, traditional country, or folk music, the lead vocal can be a few dB louder than that.

3. Is there too much reverb or other effects? A little goes a long way. If the mix seems to be distant, rather than present and engaging, try adding about 25ms of predelay. Also try reducing the reverb sends a dB at a time, and see how little you can get away with. Some engineers ask, “Can I notice the reverb only when it’s turned off?”

4. Is there enough stereo spread? If you pan vocals and most instruments to the middle, you have essentially a mono recording. Spread things out a little. Try panning two similar guitar parts hard left and right, or pan guitars left, and keys right.

5. Is each instrument’s sound appropriate for the song? For example, a twangy bass or an edgy kick seldom work in a ballad. Turn down the upper mids if those sounds are too bright and distracting.

6. Is the mix appropriate for the genre? For example, if you’re mixing punk rock, a clean, tight sound probably won’t work. If you’re mixing a folk song done by an acoustic group, you probably don’t want to hype the highs and lows. Instead, leave the tones natural.

7. Is each instrument in its own spectral space? If multiple instruments play in the same range of frequencies, they can cover up each other’s sound. Then, they blur together and sound indistinct. You might roll off the lows in the guitars so they don’t compete for space with the bass guitar. Then, thin out the kick and keep the bass full, or vice versa.

8. Is the mix competitive with commercial CDs? Plug a CD player into your monitoring system. Put in a CD (or several) of the same genre that you are mixing. Switch back-andforth between your mix and the CD playback. You’ll quickly hear if your mix has enough bass, midrange, and treble compared to the commercial CD. This can be very enlightening.

9. Are the vocals too sibilant? Are the “s” and “sh” sounds too piercing and annoying? Some singers are very sibilant, or the mic used on the singer is too bright. Solutions: Use a de-esser, which is a multiband compressor set to compress only the range from about 3kHz–20kHz. A high-frequency cut around 7kHz–10kHz helps. too.

10. Are the vocals too loud or too quiet sometimes? Either apply compression, or adjust the vocal levels with automation. The latter sounds more natural.

11. Do the vocals sound too small or squashed? Usually, that means you are applying too much compression. You might reduce the compression ratio to 3:1 or less, and/or raise the threshold so that the gain reduction is 6dB or less.

12. Is the overall sound harsh, or is it warm and pleasant? If it’s harsh, maybe there is too much 2kHz–4kHz in the mix. Or maybe there’s some distortion caused by excessive track levels or clipping plug-ins. Try reducing the amount or type of compression, too. If the mix sounds edgy, reduce the highs a little, or use a tube or tape plug-in.

13. Is the overall sound muffled? If the mix seems lackluster or weak in the treble, maybe you need to boost the upper mids or highs a little. Try boosting electric guitars around 2kHz–4kHz, vocals around 5kHz–10kHz, toms around 5kHz, kick around 4kHz, and cymbals around 12kHz. Or cut a little around 250Hz–600Hz instead.

14. Is the mix dynamic? Do the choruses get more sonically exciting than the verses? If not, you might need to bring up the overall level a dB or two in the choruses, switch to a different guitar timbre, add a doubled vocal, increase the reverb-send level, add harmonies, increase the panning width, and so on.

15. Is the mix creative and exciting? Are you employing unusual effects or instrument sounds? Or are they like everybody else’s record? Try to do something different, but tasteful.

16. Are solos at the right level? Generally, a guitar solo should be just as loud as the lead vocal. Guitar licks in the holes (vocal pauses) should be quieter than that so they are not too distracting.

17. Does the mix seem to have a focal point? At any part in the song, is there something that grabs your attention, or is everything equally loud? You know the vocal is too quiet when it doesn’t stand out from the background a bit.

18. Are vocal harmonies at the right level? Generally, a harmony vocal’s level should be below the lead vocal just enough so that the melody of the lead vocal is clear. If a harmony line is too loud, the listener isn’t quite sure who’s singing the melody line.

19. Is the arrangement too busy? If too many instruments play at the same time, a mix can turn to mush. Consider having guitar licks just in the holes, not playing continuously. Think call-andresponse. Start the mix with fewer instruments, and gradually bring them in so that the mix builds.

20. Is the mix musical? This one is hard to define in tech terms. Can you feel the emotion expressed in the lyrics? Does the song make you want to move or dance? That depends on the song and its performance, but it also depends on the mix.

When you no longer hear anything you want to change, the mix is almost done. A day later, come back with fresh ears, and see if anything needs tweaking. If not, congratulations on crafting a great mix!

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