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There is no denying that mixing is a difficult skill to learn and make progress in because many of the realizations and a-has have to be made by the individual. Even after reading in a book or seen it in a video, a hundred times, a lot of your progresses are going to be very incremental, much like learning an instrument. Would you think it is reasonable to buy a guitar today, having never played it before in your life, and expect to be performing at virtuoso level tomorrow? Probably not. Mixing is very similar but here is some common pitfalls that many of my students and even myself have experienced over the years.
So, the first one I'd like to consider is mixing your own music. There is a lot of different thoughts on this subject. It's definitely a different skill than mixing other's music. I find myself mixing my own music to be particularly challenging while extremely rewarding at the same time. But definitely, if you are going to mix your own music, you want to try to have a fresh perspective by taking a break. Don't immediately mix the song after finishing the arrangement, and a lot of times, a lot of my mix is done, 75 to 80% done, during the production stage.
So, I definitely want to take a break and kind of seat back and come out at it with a fresh pair of ears. And it's really hard sometimes to be honest with yourself about arrangement decisions. You know, what is too much. So it is nice to at least bring in a friend who is familiar with the process to kind of say hey, maybe you can try this idea or that idea, even if you are going to do it from start to finish yourself. One thing that I find is particularly challenging for new mixers is Bass management.
So Kick Drum, EQ, and Bass EQ, things like that, usually due to monitoring conditions or personal taste for low- end, we tend to screw up the bass, right our Room's lined to us, so we have the speakers that really exaggerate the bass, and so we get a bass light mix or maybe a bass heavy mix. So, what you want to do is reference tracks that you really admire and follow them even if you seem like it sounds wrong in your mix environment, and check on as many speakers as possible.
Again, it's the bass that's kind of what ruins a lot of amateur mixes. It's either too full or not full enough, or very muddy, or very weak sounding. Another thing that plagues most amateur mixes is Dynamics Controller. What I call the karaoke syndrome, especially on things like the vocal and other acoustic instruments like acoustic guitar, things like that. So you want to make sure to use and understand compression. Don't overuse, but use it and understand it.
Remember that generally a vocal without at least a little compression can sound a bit karaoke as if it didn't really belong in the context of the track. And so pay attention to your dynamics and really learn and understand how to use dynamics processors. One thing that really isn't part of the mix process but definitely comes to light during the mix process is the source material. I find that a lot of people recording at home have trouble getting good sounding mixes because the recording was bad in the first place.
So, it's a kind of a Catch-22 when you are first starting out. You have bad tracks, which equal bad mixes, and so you never really get that sense of I was a successful mixer because you never have those good tracks to start out with. What I suggest is look at other sessions. Look at this session. Try to find as many sessions as you can from friends, maybe even go to a professional studio and see if you can find some source material, just so that you can listen to it and understand sort of what it takes at the recording level to get a good sounding mix out of the box.
And then you want to manage your expectations based on that. Again, garbage in, garbage out. Another thing I find a lot of people doing when they first start mixing is soloing everything. They will solo up the track, their set of tracks, and EQ it. They might solo up the bass guitar and get it sounding really, really good. Now there are certain elements you can kind of get away with this. You always want to listen to things in context but there are certain elements specifically, like bass and kick drum, that you really need to do the heavy EQing in context.
I find that they often sound kind of bad in isolation but they'll actually work in the mix. So, this bass here, if I listen in isolation. (Music playing.) It actually has a lot of high-end EQ here and it might sound like too much. It might sound like too much pick in isolation, but in the mix, a lot of that picking sound is going to get obscured by the higher end elements, and so I'm not afraid to boost my bass 12db when I'm listening to it in the mix.
I just want to make sure I'm not clipping the EQ. But that's just one example where listening in context is really going to help you, sit something in the mix, much better than listening in isolation. This also brings up the topic of using Presets. Presets are great for things like compressors as long as you understand the function of each parameter, but for things like EQ, generally, I'm not working from presets. And a lot of professional mixers that I know are not working from EQ presets, unless it's like a specific thing like telephone effect or radio effect.
Generally, we are doing a custom EQ curve for everything. We are listening. We are listening in context, and we are building an EQ curve for that specific instrument. All instruments are different. The recording process varies from studio to studio, mike to mike, person to person. Watch out for those presets, use them as a guide, but ultimately don't rely on them for your mix. Also Tips. Tips are tips but you want to use your gut, right. Just because you read something on magazine doesn't mean it's working for you and your mix.
So, give yourself some credit and trust yourself. If you are doing something that your favorite mixer, your favorite magazine says, "I always do this in my mix", and you do it, and kind of listen, and you are like, "Man, I think this kind of doesn't sound right, but I'm not so sure I'm comfortable with my own skills. So, I'm just going to go ahead and trust that other guy." You know what, give yourself some credit. If it doesn't sound right, it probably isn't right. Lastly, you definitely want to avoid clipping the mixer and that's one thing I see a lot of new mixers do especially in the box, especially in Pro Tools.
Remember use that Master Fader. Make sure you are not clipping your outputs. Make sure you are not distorting plug-ins or distorting buses. Ultimately, this sounds really bad, especially if you are not intentionally trying to clip the mixer for a certain aesthetic. Ultimately, if you take anything away from this series, it is to trust yourself and experiment. You want to learn all you can, understand it, and then throw it out of the window and go with your gut. Understand that mixing is one part of a larger workflow. So you can't put all your money into a mix.
A bad song is a bad song, a great mix or otherwise. And you know a truly great song, well, it's pretty hard to screw it up. Think of how many songs you loved as a kid, and how poorly they were mixed, or just the conditions of the recording environment, and how they are still just amazing songs that capture you.
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