Weeks have been spent frustrating over the mix-down of your track, but when you compare it to your favourite releases it sounds terrible.
You have tried everything, Added parts in, stripping the mix right back and removing them again and used a plethora of effects to no avail. Stop what your doing, have a break and read on.
COMPARING TO THE BEST
A few factors you need to consider is that there is a big difference between mixing and mastering. It will be extremely hard for you to replicate or produce a better master than a professional mastering engineer. So that’s point number one to bear in mind.
CONNECTION TO YOUR CREATION
Secondly, your too close to the project. You’ve just spent a week creating the track and your ears will be fatigued and accustomed to the sound. Try giving your ears a rest and coming back to the project after a few days of working on something else. Instantly your ears will pick up on something wrong. Another technique is to listen to your mix with someone else present in the room. Everyone is their own worst critic and often with someone else in the room you will realise obvious mistakes or try and listen to the track from another persons non-biased point of view.
Ensure to A-B your tracks to artists that have a similar style to you. You can learn a lot in terms of EQ, compression, frequency ranges, arrangement, groove, pace and loudness.
Another important factor is the monitoring of your audio. You should be listening back to your audio on as many different sound sources as possible and not just your near-field monitors. this includes iPod headphones, home hifi’s and car speakers. At the end of the day this is how the end user will most likely be listening to your track to it needs to translate on many different playback devices.
You will also want to make sure your room is set up correctly for monitoring. Your speakers should be the same distance apart from you in an equilateral triangle. Not too wide else you will lose your judgement of the stereo field and away from any corners that may increase the bass response. You will also want speakers that have a flat frequency curve. Finally you will want to treat your room with foam that suppresses audio frequencies and stops them bouncing and reverberating around your room. Pay particular attention to the corners of your room and the ceiling. A cube shaped room is the worst type of room for having an unnatural frequency curve or standing waves from your basses causing frequency cancellation. Rectangular rooms are much preferred.
Get feedback from friends and family that can listen to the track with an objective ear. Be sure to make them aware that you need as much constructive criticism as possible. Being told a track sounds ‘bangin’ or ‘good’ isn’t going to help you improve it.
WIDTH DEPTH AND FREQUENCIES
A common problem in mixes is when there is too many, or not enough things going on at once. This could be in the stereo image panning, the depth using reverb and dynamics or the actual frequency ranges.
Ideally your mixes want to be clear and concise in the low end and gently spread out as the frequency increases so that the high frequencies are nicely spread throughout the spectrum. Poor mixes are often spread too far and lack energy and punch or they are thrown down a narrow beam of audio and lack width and depth. This will cause the mix to sound very muddy if everything is happening on top of one another in one specific area of the stereo field.
With this in mind. Some elements do sit best right in the centre of your mix. It’s advised to keep your drums, bass line and vocals in the centre of the mix. Other elements such as percussion (bongos, shakers and hats) pads, synths, backing vocals pianos and sound effects often sound good when panned across the stereo field or widened. Make sure you spread them out in an even and balanced manor by matching certain instruments with similar frequency content and panning them in opposite directions. This will keep your mix balanced and stop people from thinking that your mix is lopsided or that one of the speakers has broken.
Another issue is having big gaps in the frequency spectrum. For example using a pure sine wave for a bass will give you a nice powerful sound at 60Hz but if your listening back to this mix on a Set of headphones or a docking station there’s a high chance that your speakers won’t be able to reproduce those bass frequencies. To counter this we can use more harmonically rich waveforms that still have a lot of low end energy such as filtered triangle, square and saw waves.
To ensure your listening to your track correctly make sure your monitors are set up to best suit your listening environment.
KEEPING THE FREQUENCIES IN CHECK
There’s nothing worse than a lovely track that’s been ruined because the the high end of the mix takes your head off with all the parts clashing or sounding really tinny.
To prevent this make sure you reference your tracks on lots of different speakers and make sure any instruments that occupy the same frequency range are kept apart and panned away from each other as otherwise they will cause a lot of mud in the mix. It also helps to reference your tracks frequency analysis with a similar track so you can make sure your frequency curve is right and that you have peaks in the right places with no obvious gaps or extreme peaks.
CHOICE OF SOUNDS
Sometimes you will choose a sound and try and force or edit it to make it fit. Unfortunately some sounds just aren’t made to go together. This may be due to the frequency range, timber, pitch fluctuation or timing of the sample or synth. But eventually you’ve got to cut your losses and go in search of another sound that will work in harmony with the rest of your track.
MONO-IZE THE BOTTOM END
Make sure your low end is in mono. Some say your track should be in mono as high as 250Hz- 300Hz. This will help to keep your mix clear and punchy. Panning setting are very hard to distinguish below this frequency range anyway.
DAWs and the digital age now mean limitless processing power. Just because your capable of having 200 channels and 500 different effects doesn’t mean you need to use them all. Often sparse tracks with only four main elements will sound much more pronounced and punchy than littering a track with lots of small elements. An alternative to this is to have lots of elements but only bring them into focus one at a time with careful use of the arrangement. Remember reducing sounds will increase the impact and energy of the few sounds you have.
Due to the Digital realm making production so accessible for new and budding producers a new problem is the electronic music industry is now over saturated with producers and DJs. Because of this your track needs to be that much better and more unique to stand out from the rest of the see of electronic music enthusiasts. To make your track stand out and stop it being categorised as average or hard to remember make sure you incorporate a hook. This could be in the form of a catchy vocal or a memorable melody or bass riff. The hook is the part of the track that is easy to remember and what sets it out from the others as memorable. If you get the hook right then your well on your way to a successful release.
Your mix will sound very boring if you use the same presets as someone else. Experiment with your own or at least tweak the existing presets. Many techno producers will sample their own field recordings to use in their tracks. A massive advantage of this is that they are the only person that will have that unique sound.
BALANCE AND RETURN LEVELS
Ensure your tracks are well balanced with each other and in the context of the mix. Which sounds and elements to you want to be most prominent and which ones are there to add subtle atmosphere and groove? Don’t let effects or random percussive hits dominate a mix and detract from the main vibe. Another important aspect to think of here is to ensure you return tracks are set to post fader. This means that the reverb return level will be set relative to the fader position. If they are set pre-fader you could have a very quiet clap sample which is getting completely drenched in reverb. this can also be useful if you want to be able to set these levels completely independent of each other or if you still want the reverb to sound even when the source audio is muted.
TOO MUCH BASS
Some people will argue that there’s no such thing as too much bass. However what they probably don’t know is that bass frequencies eat up a lot of headroom. This is why it’s important to low cut the sub 30Hz frequencies that cannot be reproduced by sound systems as well as low cutting as much out of all your constituent parts as possible. Try to add more harmonic content to your basses if you want them to be more prominent or effectively use compression EQ and limiting to improve their presence in the mix. Another important set of tools for this is side-chain compression and dynamic EQing.
this can be used similar to multi and compression. You can either do it by using automation or an envelope follower set up so that a low shelf on a bass for example will duck every time the kick drum hits. This is more effective than compression this
GETTING THE GROOVE RIGHT
Make sure that your setting the right groove for your track. Rules are made to be broken but try to follow basic guidelines for your specific genre such as tempo, time signature and standard patterns for the kicks, claps snares and hats. This will help find your track a home and categorise it within a genre. Further to this it’s important to make sure our swing and groove settings are cohesive and that one elements groove doesn’t fight another parts groove. A good way of eradicating this is by extracting the groove of your chosen part to be the main groove for the track and apply this groove to the rest of the clips in the track. You can also apply timing and velocity changes yourself to dial in your own unique groove.
This is a problem that many new producers are having these days. Because all the tracks production and mixing is done within the software, there are no artifacts such as hiss or warmth being added to the signal. Back in the analogue days old hardwares analog circuitry would warm signals up, saturate and colourise them. Many producers now chase this dream of analogue warmth in a track. The best way to get it without having to spend lots of money on pricey equipment is to buy the analog replica plugins that have been specifically built to emulate that warm vintage feel.
There’s no excuse for poor timing within your track. This is commonly in played in parts, pads with changing attack times and vocals. All DAWs have powerful audio flexing capabilities to ensure your vocals can be spot on. We recommend Ableton for audio-warping and manipulation.
Make sure your instrumentation is all tuned correctly either using a tuner or a frequency analyser. Specifically the kick drum and the bass. They should be in the key of the track or if this isn’t possible then the fifth note of the scale to keep in harmony with the root. All the rest of the tracks and percussion should be tuned to a key in the scale of the track. Octaves fifths and sevenths are good notes to transpose to. Second to this you can use thirds and sixth which are partly harmonious and finally you can use 2nd and 4th notes for a more in harmonic and edgy feel whilst still staying in key. This also applies for vocals. There’s plenty of programs to ensure your vocals are in key such as auto tune, Melodyne and even logic pro’s built in flex-pitch.
EXCESSIVE INSTRUMENT PITCHING
The problem with sampling drums such as kicks is that if you transpose them more than a few semi-tones they can begin to sound very flabby and the timbre changes completely. This is due to the fact that you are can gun the pitch of the sound which will change the harmonic ratios as you transpose. To keep your drums and percussion punch and timbre when transposing use a frequency shifter and tune in hertz instead. This will require a tuner or frequency analyser to ensure its tuned correctly.
CLIPPING THE MASTER
The master channel should never be clipped. We repeat, the master channel should never be clipped. This will distort the signal and cause digital clipping. Do not confuse this with other forms of clipping which are sometimes used to achieve a certain level of loudness.
The loudness war has been going on for many decades now, where each producer wants they’re track to be as loud as possible so it stands out and competes with the other tracks out there. This has caused a situation where producers are brick-wall compressing and limiting they’re tracks to get them as loud as the .wav file will allow them. Whilst it is important to achieve a loud mix it is also important to preserve the dynamics of a track. A track with no dynamic range would be very boring and fatiguing on the ears. You have to think of dynamic range or the difference between the lowest and highest transients as another tool in your toolbox to add interest to a track. Removing it will only make your track less interesting.