Oops. Sorry. Tough love, there. But here’s the deal: Your musical fate is totally decided by what a listener hears “in the grooves”—whether that person is a label rep, a potential fan, or your mom. Unfortunately, you don’t come along with your mix. You’re not there to explain all your angst, or make excuses for the crap gear you cobbled together to record your sonic opus, or inform everyone they should really dig the songs because they’re based on the life of burlesque comic Pinky Lee, and you used a DADGAD tuning to perform all the guitar tracks. Trust me—no one cares.
When you’re already famous, Barbara Walters might marvel at your obsession with Pinky, but when you’re a nobody all that so-called “interesting background material” is just meaningless pap that doesn’t make up for a less-than-inspired audio production.
Of course, if people love you no matter what you do—even if what you do sucks—then you will be a famous and beloved musician whether you produce appallingly awful mixes or not. The rest of us should probably try to avoid the five deadly sins that follow. . . .
You’ve Drowned the Sucker in Reverb
Reverb is like super crack for unsophisticated audio nerds who can’t help themselves from drenching everything in cathedral-type ambience with epic decays. Pretty soon, every element of the mix sounds like it’s underwater, and clarity, impact, and dimension are lost. And remember, every element in a stereo mix can affect its neighbor, so don’t try the excuse that “I only put a big reverb on the vocal,” because that vocal reverb can still mess with the perception of the backing tracks, or worse yet, seem totally out of place against a much drier rhythm section.
Sonic Life Preserver: Try mixing everything completely dry, and when you like how everything sounds, try adding in just a bit of reverb until a three-dimensional quality becomes evident.
Man, This is a Messy Room . . .
The Beatles recorded Sgt. Pepper on two synced 4-tracks, but now DAWs offer up something like 10,000 individual tracks. But that doesn’t mean you have to actually use all of those tracks. I’m sure that your multiple percussion tracks, and quadrupled guitar-harmony lines are fabulous, but do they move the song forward, or add to the vibe, or are they just one of too many things for the listener to focus on? Cluttered mixes with tons of textures and layers can be frustrating to hear, because the heart of the song is often lost in the crowded sonic spectrum.
Sonic Life Preserver: Choose just a few mix elements to highlight. One element will likely be the lead vocal— which is the thing most people listen to, anyway. Or are you certain that everyone would go nuts over your soft, bell-like harmonics that happen just once in verse three for six seconds? Discipline yourself to spotlight one main element per song section in order to keep interest pumping along as the work chugs along. If you mix a ton of things the same volume because you love them all, you’re not really allowing the listener to hear a compelling story unfold in your music.
Vocal Ping Pong
Some people like vocals loud, and some like them soft, but nobody likes them too loud or too soft. Sounds confusing, huh? Well, if someone has to strain to comfortably hear the vocal, you’ve lost them. If the vocal is mixed so low that the snare, guitars, cymbals, or anything else interfere with the voice, its words, or its tone, you’re done. Bad things also happen if the vocal is mixed so loud that it seems as if the singer is screaming over a boom box.
Sonic Life Preserver: There are a number of good “tests” for vocal levels. One of my favorites is to turn down the mix until it’s barely audible. If I can still hear every word of the vocal, but I can also hear the drums and main harmonic instrument (guitar, keyboard, etc.), then all is well.
Gnarly Sonic Spectrum
Muddy mixes are the aural equivalent of wolfing down too much turkey, stuffing, and potatoes on Thanksgiving. The indistinct bass and dull mids make for a sluggish listening experience that will likely thrill no one. On the other hand, trying to be all modern and punchy with a mix that shoots out searing mids and sizzling highs like ninja shuriken blades might just behead your audience.
Sonic Life Preserver: To ensure that your sonic spectrum isn’t out of whack, reference your mix to a selected “professional” mix from one of your favorite CDs. This is the best way I’ve found to assess whether I’m pumping too much bass (as compared to the reference mix), or being too heavy handed on the mids or highs. When you switch back and forth between your mix and the pro mix, it will be very clear where yours stands sonically. Correct accordingly.
Crushed to Death
Compression can make your mixes appear to sound louder, and explode right out of a playback system. Too much compression can destroy every shred of dynamic interest, and incorporate bizarre pumping and breathing artifacts into the mix. Learn from the sad tale of Metallica’s Death Magnetic CD that was so compressed fans started listening to the less-compressed tracks on the Guitar Hero game.
Sonic Life Preserver: Leave the compression to a good mastering engineer.