10 THINGS THAT GO WRONG WITH A MIX (AND HOW TO FIX THEM)
Technical Articles/November 11, 2015
Mixing records involves a process where only one thing is certain: mistakes will happen. The best mix engineers know this all too well, retaining enough humility to imagine their way around them. It’s when mixes are defended right to the bitter end that things go really wrong. Here are 10 examples of this sort of drama, and how to convert them into triumph.
1: ABANDON SHIP!
Many a mix is destined for the icy depths if you’re too proud to admit that it’s sailing straight for an iceberg. Letting your pride and reputation get between your ears and the speakers is the biggest mistake anyone can make. If you find yourself in this situation, face the problem head on, admit you’re off course and set a new one.
The hardest part about making this decision is that it always feels like a setback. Don’t think about it like this. Time has not been wasted! Arriving at this crossroad actually represents progress. Indeed, if you don’t change course here you will only slow progress further in an egotistical attempt to save face, which makes no sense. How can a lame mix possibly allow anyone to save face?
Retain your humility at all times and always act in the mix’s best interests. Defensive engineers are lame engineers.
2: MY MIX IS TOO WET!
The reason for this is pretty simple: most people haven’t a clue why they apply reverb in the first place, let alone how reverb works in nature. The result is commonly a washed out debacle where the background information pulls at the foreground detail in a vain attempt to provide depth.
Put simply: reverb is complex and mastering its application can take years. In the hands of a beginner it’s the equivalent of a drunken teenager with a V8.
If you’re new to the craft of mixing, embark on your first mixes without it. You’ll be surprised how good you can still make things sound.
But if that’s a discipline you’re not prepared to adopt, here’s a second tip. Almost every reverb manufacturer on earth provides a list of presets starting with big reverbs first. Preset 1 – Hall 1 – is by far the most commonly used reverb setting, and yet it’s usually far too big for most songs and instruments. Head straight for the small rooms and ‘ambient’ spaces if you insist on applying reverb to things. Don’t just open up a reverb plug-in (Large Hall) and immediately think, “cool, that sounds pretty good.” Half the time it doesn’t. You’re just attracted to the impression of something small (and invariably soloed), suddenly becoming enormous.
3: IT SOUNDS COOL, BUT…
Sometimes sound engineers are too clever by half. They create sounds that are too complex: so rich and deep that they’re almost mixes in themselves.
While these may sound amazing on their own, they can often be inappropriate when placed in the larger musical context, taking up too much tonal space and preventing everything else from finding a comfortable position between the speakers.
They’re also often placed too loud in the mix – even though sometime they shouldn’t be there at all. When a sound is cool, It’s hard to admit that it just doesn’t work in context. Unfortunately, all too often, we lean the other way. We try to highlight them, even though deep down we may have already admitted to ourselves that it’s probably the wrong thing to do.
4: I WANT IT DYNAMIC… BUT LOUD
Hmm… really? Sounds like a fundamental misunderstanding of the production process to me.
Most truly dynamic songs come out sounding hopelessly quiet when placed alongside the vast bulk of modern masters. On their own they may sound amazing, and I myself still long for a time when modern music decides to use more than the last 3dB of the 100+ that 24-bit recording offers. But until there’s consensus, super loose dynamic mixes will always sound quiet relative to their heavily limited brethren.
It’s a common mistake to forget the end game: we’re trying to produce mixes that translate out into the world, remember? In the end, leaving a mix with too much dynamic is something mastering will simply have to address later.
Provided you’re careful, the trick to good, solid, clear mixes is to put some gentle limiters across some of the loudest elements – drums and vocals perhaps – rather than expecting the master bus limiters to do all the heavy lifting.
5: FLATTENED LIKE ROADKILL
Too many mixes are truly hammered by compression. Engineers sometimes unthinkingly apply it to anything and everything, whether it’s loud or soft, detailed or background. Ironically, many of these mixes are also too wet, as an engineer tries to create depth after he or she has just taken to it with a sledgehammer.
Sometimes all you have to do to create depth is leave some of the elements alone to drift in and out of the soundscape naturally. If you’re both compressing the hell out of something, then putting a mountain of dynamic automation back into it, why not just leave it alone from the get-go?
If something is coming up out of the depths of a mix to wave a brief hello before drifting back again, why compress it at all? If it’s not pressing against the mix bus compressors and limiters you might as well give that sound what I call ‘dynamic immunity’. Not everything needs compression so if you’re going to apply it, always ask yourself: “why?”
6: THE ODD MAN OUT
Sometimes when you’re establishing a panning regime, you’re left with an odd one out… the balance is already perfect but for this one ingredient you’ve yet to place. It might be the 5th element, it might be the 50th; either way something now has to give to accommodate it.
Particularly when a mix is sparse, this problem can be quickly and easily turned into an asset.
Too often every corner of a production is taken up with raw ingredients: tiny bells and tambourines, backing vocals, extra guitars and strings… you name it. This usually leaves no room for distinct extra mix features like an eccentrically weighted reverbs or delay for instance.
But when there’s very little in the way of instrumentation, standard panning conventions can create very large holes in the left/right balance, and this can be a good thing!
If, for instance, you’ve got three simple musical elements: a guitar, a main vocal and one backing vocal, do you put the main vocal in the middle, the guitar on the left and the BV on the right? To my ear this rarely sounds very good. But if the main vocal and guitar go in the middle, and the backing vocal is panned left, what then fills the void on the right? Try putting a delay out there… something that would otherwise have been spread underneath everything else. It might work a treat.
7: PHASE ALIGNMENT, WHAT?
My pet hate – and this is the thing I preach more than just about anything else – is phase mismanagement.
There are, in fact, two different problems potentially in play here, typically lumped together under the banner of ‘phase problems’ – phase and polarity.
Phase problems are the result of two or more waveforms of similar (or identical) type being misaligned in time. When these are played in the mix, their timing mismatch makes the waveforms fight one another, producing an emaciated tone and perspective that none of the elements individually possess.
The other is polarity inversion, where two identical waveforms are flipped upside down relative to one another. Time plays no part here. The problem is usually caused by a poorly wired cable or microphone. When these two sounds are panned hard left and right and played together, they sound hyper wide, yet in mono they theoretically don’t exist at all, disappearing entirely! If two sounds are inverted relative to one another, flip one with the ‘phase button’ (incorrectly described) and the problem is solved.
The simplest way to combat actual phase problems in a mix is to ditch one of the elements altogether. If there are two mics on a guitar cabinet and no matter what you do, the two channels in combination just sound peaky and thin, mute one. Not only does this action simplify the mix, it makes the sound in question stronger and translate better across different speakers.
Alternatively, pick one of the two channels and make it different somehow. Compress it, put delay on it, filter the hell out of it and stick it in a corner as a wall echo if you will. The less these two waveforms resemble one another the better.
8: WEEDING OUT THE DROSS
One issue a lot of mix engineers fail to address time and time again is whether a sound should be in the mix in the first place. More so now than ever before, overdubs are applied to songs in less than methodical fashion, sometimes in the mere hope that something good might come from them.
That’s cool; sometimes the results of this approach are fantastic. But occasionally a poorly played, less than relevant instrument is left in a mix session file because no-one was prepared to ditch it at the time. Indeed, sometimes the decision is intentionally left ’til mixdown. But by then it’s less than critical role is often forgotten.
As a mix engineer it’s important to question – diplomatically of course – any sound that seems poorly played or inappropriate, rather than trying to jam everything in, whether it’s good, bad or indifferent.
9: IS THAT SUPPOSED TO BE DISTORTING?
Distortion is a sonic ingredient common to a wide variety of mixes, but like every other element, getting the dosage right is critical. A common mistake is to administer a dose that sounds great up loud on big speakers before the mix has enough bus compression or limiting across it. Later, when the digital reality of final mastering kicks in and the speakers are more modest, that dose can often be too high and the mix can start sounding like white noise: grainy, thin and nasty, rather than big and tough.
Keep the end game squarely in mind, rather than trying to impress the three people in the control room. Distortion increases rapidly as things get compressed and limited. If it’s a key ingredient of your mix, try applying some test mix bus limiters and compressors to the stereo output, and A/B your distortion-rich mix against a popular rival. You might get a rude shock at this point, but it’s much better to suffer that now while the mix is still in progress.
10: TIMING & PITCH
This article is way too long already so I’d better keep this last point short.
If elements of a mix are pitchy or out of time, it’s worth discussing these problems with all concerned before your song hits the airwaves. I’m not talking about making something perfect necessarily – that’s a meaningless term anyway. I’m merely suggesting that everyone make his or her own decisions about what constitutes bad pitch or off timing.
Trust your instincts. If a particular word or beat constantly catches your ear, address it until the problem dissolves away. Turning a performance into something a robot might have played isn’t what I’m advocating… just don’t wake up one day feeling embarrassed about your new release. That doesn’t feel good.