One of the toughest tasks in music production is deciding when a mix is finished. There’s no quantifiable way to make that assessment: It’s mainly an artistic judgment.
If you’re working under a deadline, of course, you are forced to finish at a given time—for better or worse. But without that kind of time pressure, it can be hard to know when you’ve gotten a mix as good as you’re going to get it.
In this article, I’ll share 11 ways to evaluate a mix as its nearing completion and get the information you need to move the project over the finish line.
1. Solo All Tracks to Check for Glitches. When all of your tracks are playing, it’s easy to miss sonic artifacts on individual tracks, such as singers breathing loudly between song sections, buzzes and hums, or pops caused by edits without crossfades, just to name a few. Solo and listen to each track all the way through to make sure that no extraneous noise sneaks into the final mix.
2. Make Sure All Tracks Are Ending Together. Especially if your song ends on a note that rings out, check where all the instruments are cutting off. If, say, the bass guitar stops while the guitar is still sustaining, it can sound jarring. In this case, try cutting all the notes at the last possible point where they’re all still sustaining. You’ll have to add fades to each track at the point of the edit, so that they don’t sound like they’re cutting off abruptly. You’ll probably have to experiment a little to get the best results.
3. Filter out Unnecessary Low End. Tracks that live mainly in the mid-and high-frequency range often have unnecessary low-end information. Removing extraneous bass frequencies will help with the overall clarity of the mix. A highpass (low-cut) filter from an EQ plug-in is all you need. Use your ears to decide how high to set the cutoff frequency. With the track playing, keep raising the frequency setting until you start to hear the sound of the track thin out. Then back it off to just before that point.
Fig. 1. After playback, the clip lights are lit on several tracks. In this case, it’s most likely the vocal track (REV LD VOC) that’s causing the VOC SUB and Master tracks to overload.
4. Check for Clipping. Take a careful look at the clipping indicators on all of your tracks, subs, and on the master (see Figure 1). Are the lights on indicating a clip during playback? If so, you need to adjust the offending track (or tracks) to get rid of the clips. You should do this even if you don’t hear any distortion. If a track is frequently clipping, you will have to lower its level entirely. If this is only happening in a couple of places, you can probably use automation to lower the points where it goes over, without disturbing the overall mix balance. Otherwise, you will need to lower everything proportionately.
Fig. 2. In this example, the rhythm guitar (orange), is hitting the beat quite a bit before the piano (green), and is a candidate for tightening.
5. Fix Obvious Rhythmic Inconsistencies. In songs that contain live-played instruments, there are often spots where everyone didn’t land on the beat together. In many cases, you can tighten these through editing (see Figure 2). On the track containing the mistake, isolate the offending note or chord by cutting at its start and end points, and sliding it closer to the beat. You’ll have to add a crossfade on either end, and possibly shorten the end of the note, but you can usually clean up obvious flubs this way. Another option is to use audio quantize features in your DAW. If you do, be very selective: You want to fix mistakes, not squeeze the life out your song.
6. Save Incrementally. To avoid passing the point of diminishing returns with no way back, it’s important to save incremental versions of your mix. Whenever you make a significant change—adding a delay to the vocal—use the Save As command and give your mix both a new, sequential number and a little description of the significant change. This way, you’ll be able to easily backtrack to an earlier version of the mix, if necessary.
7. Make Sure Levels Pass the “No Knob” Test. A big no-no in a mix is a section where an element jumps out so much that the listener wants to turn down the volume. Listen through with this in mind and make sure there are no such occurrences. At the same time, be sure your levels are consistent throughout the song. The relative level of vocals to instruments should stay the same (unless you’re varying it for artistic reasons).
8. Check for Overcompression. As you work your way through the mixing process, be careful not to over compress. Like the frog that doesn’t notice as the water it’s sitting in is slowly brought to a boil, it’s easy to add a little compression here and a little there, and a little on the master bus, and not realize you’ve overdone it. When you’re nearing the point of finishing the mix, step back and listen with compression in mind. Is the mix sounding too crunchy? Are you hearing artifacts? Are the transients too squashed? If so, and after saving the current state of your mix, try bypassing or backing off some of the compression. You might find that it makes everything sound more punchy and natural.
Fig. 3. Sample Magic Magic AB is a great A/B-ing tool. It allows you to listen to your song and the reference at the same volume level.
9. Give Your Mix a Reality Test. Compare your mix against existing recordings that you like that are in the same style (see Figure 3). Make sure to listen at the same level to avoid the “louder is better” syndrome. (Sample Magic’s Magic AB plugin is great for doing A/B comparisons.) How does your bass level compare? How about the high end? Is the vocal sitting in the pocket as well as on the reference? Perspective is critically important when mixing.
10. Listen on Other Systems. Hearing your mix outside of your studio is important to knowing if it will translate to other systems. Listen to it in the car, in the living room, on your friend’s boombox, and so on. If it sounds good everywhere, you’ve aced it.
11. Let It Sit. And speaking of perspective, the best thing you can do once you think you’ve nailed your mix is to let it sit overnight and check it again the next day (assuming you don’t have an immediate deadline). It will allow you to get your perspective back. You’ll notice things that need adjusting that were invisible to you the night before. Take notes as you listen and tweak whatever needs fixing. At that point, you can be confident you’ve nailed it.