At some point or another every aspiring musician, music producer, and audio engineer asks the question ‘why don’t my mixes sound professional?’. I too recall sitting in front my computer, staring at my DAW in frustration after spending hours on a mix, asking myself, what did I do wrong? No doubt you’re wondering the same thing. Stop right there though and give yourself a break!
Mixing is an art form that takes a long time to cultivate and perfect. So, don’t feel bad if your mixes don’t sound professional yet. Sound engineers spend years studying audio production techniques and theory, whilst developing their craft in recording studios built specifically for recording and mixing. They have access to high-end audio gear and well treated rooms with superb acoustics designed for listening purposes.
But how can YOU achieve better sounding mixes? Ok, you may not have access to a professional recording studio, or an abundance of expensive audio gear, but that doesn’t matter. There are thousands of musicians around the world who produce mixes that contend with the pros. So, don’t worry, I got your back. In this article, I’m going to the most common ways to improve your mixes.
Why Don’t My Mixes Sound Professional?
Bad sounding mixes can be down to a number of factors. Remember that a great mix starts with a great song and performance. From there you need to create excitement, space, width, depth, and clarity in your mixes. You can do this with effective compression, EQ, automation, and effects. Having an acoustically treated room, as well as a pair of studio monitors and headphones are also critical.
Start with a Great Song and Performance
How does the old phrase go again? You can’t polish a turd and boy is it true. It may seem like common sense, but a great mix starts with a great song and a great performance. You can be the best sound engineer in the world, but if you have a terribly arranged song, with musicians playing out of time and singing out of tune, then there is no saving it.
A great song needs a creative arrangement. It needs life, contrast, emotion, energy, a hook, a reason that makes you want to listen to it again and again. Once you have that, you’re onto something. Sometimes it’s important to take a step back and think, is the song at fault, or the mix? If it is the song, it’s time to go back to the drawing board. Of course, you may just be the recording and mixing engineer. So, in that case there’s not much you can do, but you can at least help to encourage a worthy performance.
A great performance requires energy, soul, and passion. If you have been recorded, or ever tried to record yourself, then you know that it can be a frustrating and intimidating experience. It’s nerve racking knowing that red light is on, especially if they’ve never been in a recording studio before, but there are things you can do to help performers. Make them feel at ease and relaxed. Give them a warm, welcoming and open environment to record in. Allow them time to adjust to the space, get comfortable and give them the opportunity to play through the song a few times.
Headphone levels are also critically important and can affect their performance. If their levels are too quiet, they may end up playing louder than usual. If their headphone levels are too loud, they will end up playing quieter than normal. The best advice I can give is that communication is key. Ask them how they feel. Do they feel comfortable? Can they hear themselves? Do they need their headphone mix to be adjusted? Do they feel nervous? Do they have any issues or concerns?
It may all seem like common sense, but common sense isn’t always so common. Communicate with your bands and artists. Make them feel like they’re safe in your hands, can trust and approach you. Start with a great performance and your mixes will follow.
Studio Monitors and Headphones
Consumer speakers and headphones are designed to add shine and life to music. They make music sound good. Studio monitors and headphones are specially designed to sound accurate, neutral, and flat. Their job is to allow you to listen to music with precise detail and accuracy. That way you can hear the imperfections and changes in dynamics, EQ, and volume efficiently.
It’s generally advised that it’s better to mix on monitors than headphones, as headphones have their limitations. However, a combination of both is ideal. Headphones enable you to have a more intimate listening experience to hear subtle changes. Whereas monitors give you a more natural listening experience, for a better overview. Remember to also place yourself in the correct position. In an equilateral triangle, like the image to the below. You can read more about studio monitors on my article ‘What is a Studio Monitor?‘.
So, my question to you is, what are you mixing on? If the answer is consumer or cheap headphones and monitors, then you will certainly struggle to mix accurately. Invest in some quality headphones or monitors, get familiar with their sound and mix on them. Then bounce your audio file, and then listen to your mix in your car, on your laptop speakers, in your earphones, Bluetooth speakers and so on. This will give you a thorough, overall picture of your music, what it’s doing well, and what it’s lacking.
Treat Your Room
Not to a cup of coffee, I’m talking about acoustics of course. You can have the most expensive pair of headphones or studio monitors in the world, but if you have a terrible sounding room, your hard-earned investments are useless. There is a reason that professional studios have acoustical treated rooms. Recording studios are designed to sound dead. Woah, dead? I know, that sounds morbid right.
When I say dead, I mean they’re designed to isolate minimise, or completely stop reflections. Imagine you’re trying to mix in a large room with a big reverb. You would have audio waves and frequencies bouncing all over the place. How could you possibly mix accurately? If the room is naturally bright sounding, you would compensate by making your mixes sound darker. If it was a dark sounding space, you would mix brighter. You get the idea. The room would be dictating how you mix.
What’s the solution? Treat your room. You can do this in a number of ways. On a budget you can make your own sound traps, panels, and diffusers. Place rugs on the floor and thick curtains on the wall. This will help to minimise reflections and sound proof your room, which is a big bonus. Minimising sound leaving and entering a mixing space is also a high priority for professional recording studios. If you have more money to spend, hire a company to professional treat your room and order professionally built sound traps, panels, and diffusers.
Trust me, treating your room, will make a huge difference to your mixes. Oh, and er, don’t start taping egg boxes to your walls, they simply don’t cut it…
Create Space, Width, and Depth
There’s nothing worse than a narrow mix with no space, width, or depth. What’s the best way to do this? Panning of course. Panning refers to the placement of sounds across the stereo field, meaning placing sounds in the left speaker, the right speaker, the middle, or somewhere in-between. As a genuine rule, bass and the main vocals are panned to the middle, with everything else being placed in-between.
You can get creative with panning too. Mix it up and keep the listener surprised. You can automate panning to move from left to right. You could have a sound moving across the stereo field, or alternating between the left and right speaker. The first chorus could have different panning to the second chorus of a song. The options are endless. There are also a lot of plugins with effects that play with panning in a similar away, with reverbs or delays that dance and move throughout across the stereo field.
Panning doesn’t have to be static. It can create movement, excitement, space, width, and depth. Be creative, explore, and experiment.
Build Layers That Complement Each Other
Ok, you got me… This is more about the actual composing and song writing process. But if you’re mixing your own music, you need to think about what kind of layers you’re adding. Are they complimenting each other? Or do they conflict and create dissonance, harshness, and distraction from the music?
You see it’s just as important to know how to add many layers well, as is it to know when to stop or keep it minimalistic. If you want to create a big piece of music with a lot of texture, then you should add and build layers that cover the full frequency spectrum. Meaning bass, the mids, and treble. If you’re a singer-songwriter, you may just want to keep things raw and stripped back with no layers at all, or just add a few subtle ones for a bit of extra sparkle and flavour.
There are no rules of course, each to their own. If you’re the mixing engineer, you should be asking the same questions. If the band or artist are familiar with you and appreciate your advice. You may be able to provide some input or tips. Much like what a music producer would do. Just be careful not to hurt any big rocker egos. Yikes. When mixing, think about the layers in the song and how you can facilitate them, pan them, EQ them, compress them, and apply effects, allowing them to complement each other and breathe with the mix.
EQ that Clutter and Muddiness
Layers are great, but having too many layers and instruments can cause a muddy mess. This is where the artform of mixing really comes into play, more specifically EQing. Using EQ effectively allows you to boost frequencies to enhance them and cut frequencies to reduce unpleasant ones that sound harsh, or contribute to muddiness.
When you first start out mixing it’s very tempting -and lots of people fall into this trap- to just start boosting frequencies everywhere. Don’t do it! This is one of the worst mistakes you can make. I must confess though, I also did this when I started. You might think you’re enhancing everything and making it sound better, but you’re actually just adding too much clutter. Instead, learn to cut frequencies efficiently and boost subtly, no more than 5dB at a time.
Cutting frequencies clears up space, clutter, and muddiness. It helps to stop layers getting in the way of each other. For example, maybe have two instruments that are both very trebly, playing similar melodies. You try panning them apart to create separation, which works somewhat but they’re still clashing. Try cutting frequencies in one of them, you’ll notice that they start to become more defined from each other.
Learning to EQ well takes practice and time. Boost subtly with caution to enhance and cut frequencies to create space, reduce clutter and muddiness. You can read more about my tips about EQing in my full guide.
Allow Your Dynamics to Breathe
A great song and mix should breathe. A lot of this depends firstly on the song structure and arrangement, but in terms of mixing, not only can you emphasise and compliment the dynamics of an existing song, you can also stifle or over exaggerate them. What do you mean? To control dynamics, we often use compression, and compression -like most things within music production- takes time to master.
If you over compress something, you squeeze the dynamics out of it. You can actually change the overall feel of that performance. If you use no compression, or use it too little, you miss the opportunity to tighten up the dynamics. Think of a loud heavy rock band. You have a screaming vocalist, thundering bass player, thrashing drums, and two guitarists using distortion trying to be louder than the other. I know, typical right?
That’s a lot of dynamic content there, all competing for space and volume. It’s like having to tame a wild stampede of animals. Compression is the answer. Spend time learning how to compress efficiently and effectively. Work in each layer, or instrument one by one, subtly adjusting your compressor. Really pay attention to the changes that occur and how it affects the whole mix.
Learning to Mix Takes Time
Learning to mix well is a process. It’s a skill that you never stop developing and improving. The sooner you realise that the better. Rather than the journey initiating you, it should excite you. There are a tonne of books, YouTube tutorials, courses, forums, and social media groups that you can learn from. Just remember there are no concrete rules, only guidelines. What sounds good to you, may not be to someone else’s taste.
The most important thing is to just get stuck in. Experiment, make mistakes, learn, improve, take risks, and above all, enjoy the process and have fun. The more you do this, the better your mixes will become. Who knows where this journey will end up? Whether you just want to mix your own music, or record and mix in professional recording studios, that’s the best advice I can give to you. So, what are you waiting for? Stop judging yourself and feeling bad. Get stuck in.
I hope you found this article helpful. If you have any questions or comments, please feel free to write them down below.