We've all been there. You try to get a mix sitting right and it just isn't working no matter what you do. If you're new to the process and have had recent issues mixing, odds are, one of these tricky little issues might be the root of your problem. Here's how to get over the hump.
Reason #1: You're Mixing a Bad Arrangement
As mixing engineers, it's our job to find space for all of the elements of a song. But there are cases where the instrument choices, track count, and arrangement combat the process heavily from the jump. You can labor on to lukewarm results, but sometimes changing the arrangement itself will prove more productive and quick. This tip mainly applies if you're mixing your own music, but if you're mixing an artist that you have a good relationship with, find out a way to suggest altering an arrangement if it's ruining a mix from the jump. One trick I like to do is to play a section with the troublesome part muted for a bit. Then I'll say, "Oops, had a track muted. Hey, it kind of sounded clearer that way, what do you think?". More often than not, producers agree, and that allows me to lower or delete the part.
I was working with a client recently who wanted his beat mixed to be a trap banger. The problem was, there were tons of busy, low frequency-heavy instruments competing with the 808 sub bass that ran throughout the whole song. Trap requires the sub bass to be huge and in your face, so with all of these elements competing down low, it'd take a lot of work to make the sub appear huge. I had him raise the octave on a few instruments and more closely mimicked a trap arrangement by stripping the beat down to minimal elements and building them up in sections. It made mixing the project 10x easier, and the beat's already sold.
Reason #2: You Ignore Gain Staging
What do you think of when I say "keep it out of the red"?
You thought about the master fader didn't you? Good, that's not wrong. But too often that's the only thing we think about when it comes to clipping. DAWs like Live have faders on every pad, track, and bus. Make sure you check your levels at every stage of the process, not just at the end. If you clip from the beginning, it doesn't matter if your master fader stays out of the red. Keep things out of the red all the way through and your job will be much easier, especially when it's compression time.
Reason #3: You Boost EQ Too Much
There's only but so much room at every frequency, and the more complex the song, the more each instrument competes for the limited space available. Adding peaks all over the place to get "more bass" or "more highs" only makes the issue worse, by taking up more headroom and adding harmonics where you didn't really need them. Deal with your corrective EQing by cutting. Need more mids in the vocal? Cut the mids from the piano that the vocal is competing with instead of just raising the mids in the vocal.
I urge new engineers to also, cut the extreme low end out of instruments that aren't the kick or bass, so they're not competing with your rhythm section. Conversely, cut or low pass the high end out of the bass elements so they don't compete with the highs of vocals and top drums. Really start to make a conscious effort to only boost when you're looking to creatively EQ, not to correct an issue.
Reason #4: You Don't Take Breaks
Ear fatigue is realer than real fam. Over time, you literally hear things differently and there's no way around it. When mixing, I try to take 5-10 minutes per hour to reset my ears via silence. Afterwards, I always end up coming back feeling like I had the speakers too loud. Starters in the NBA sit for a reason. We lose potency in all things we do when endurance becomes factor, so take those few minutes to rest your ears, and your eyes for that matter!
Reason #5: You Leave Too Little Headroom
So many of us struggle with distinguishing the mixing from the mastering process. When you internalize that separation though, a whole new world of dynamics and punch opens up. One of quickest habits to pick up is to leave a lot of headroom. Doing so makes leveling easier, but it also gives your mastering process room to work. Whether you use our Mastering Service, or do it on your own, giving yourself headroom allows room to use mastering distortion, leveling compression, excitement, transient shaping, and all of these other processes that lead to pleasant volume gain. If we only have a half a decibel of volume left to work with, we can't add much finishing polish to the song.
Hopefully you have a few new things to look out for when you hit the mixing stages and run into issues. If you'd rather get back to writing new music, have a look at my Mixing and Mastering services so you can let me handle the nerdy sonic wizardry while you work on more songs.