Here are 9 mixing mistakes I’ve noticed many beginners do while starting to produce music (and I must admit – I did all of them myself!). I will also include ways to rectify these problems so that you can start becoming a better music producer, and also some audio and visual examples.
Let’s take a look at them. Are you doing any of these mistakes today?
Disclaimer: I come from a soundtrack background, so these tips primarily stem from that music production knowledge. However, they can be applied across all genres of music.
Mistake #1. Forgetting About Orchestration
This is the number 1 mistake in all the history of music creation mistakes, and it relates a lot to mixing. Orchestration is what you use when you build up your sound. It is all the instruments and synths you choose, all the extra layers, the colors of sound – it is what makes up your music. You consciously choose these sounds for your music, so why not choose sounds that sound good without much mixing needed? You should react to your sound and mix accordingly, not choose randomly what you think works and then fix mistakes in the mixing stage.
In order to be a great producer, one must realize the importance of orchestration and how it affects every single aspect of music creation.
Do you really need that extra low synth bass together with the bass guitar there? It sounds a little bit muddy, doesn’t it? Let’s remove the synth bass and keep the bass guitar. Whoa! The mix suddenly cleared up and the bass region is now much more clean and audible!
While this is more linked to a music writing tip, orchestration affects your entire mix, because the mix comprises consciously orchestrated sounds.
Mistake #2. Mixing Proactively, Not Reactively
A common misconception is that mixing is something you must do because it is just a part of music production. This makes less experienced producers slam on effects they don’t understand why they are using, and things just end up messy and not carefully thought out and listened to.
Here’s what mixing actually is: you mix because you want to fix things, and continuously improve the sound based on the feedback you get from hearing it. Mixing should not be done proactively, but reactively. Listen to your mix, your sound, and react to it by tweaking it to sound as you want it to sound.
Audio example: Here, I wanted to have a solo trumpet as a feature. After I wrote the trumpet in and placed it, I figured that it was too diffuse and too far out to the right to be somewhat of a feature (even if it sounds good, it was not what I wanted in terms of focus). Listen to this:
Then I basically dialed back the reverb, added on a bit more spot mic and centered it a bit more, and the result is a much more focused and featured solo trumpet for this motif:
Mistake #3. Not Mixing With Low Audio Levels
Clipping is a very common beginner mistake. Clipping is what happens when there is too much input, or gain, for the output to handle, so it clips and distorts – it sounds horrible. Try it yourself, increase the input and volume sliders up in your DAW to the max, see the red flashes everywhere and hear the gloriously nasty clipping distortion – that’s clipping. And it is what many beginners have going on in their mixes by having too high volume fader levels and too much gain.
The solution? The first thing should be to turn down the audio levels! Mix with low volumes pretty much all the time, and your mix will be much cleaner. With more headroom, all the processing you do will have enough space to be carried out with minimal loss of audio signal quality.
However, when you don’t want your audio levels to reach over a certain threshold, use limiters. A limiter is a type of compressor, but it only compresses, or limits, sound that go above the set output ceiling. It compresses all the peaks with an “infinite” compression ratio. So that means if you have a limiter on your master output (which you should to avoid clipping), no sound will go above the limit you set in the limiter.
Audio example: Listen to the first track here. It’s quite low in volume:
Then listen what happens when we increase the volume just by increasing gain with no limiter:
Tons of clipping – especially in the low end!
Now let’s take that low volume track and increase gain but inside of a limiter so that it does not clip:
The result is a non-distorted, louder output with decent dynamics.
Mistake #4. Too Many Low End Sounds
Frequencies in the low end and low mids have long and big wavelengths, so they are naturally more thick, big and more demanding – both to listen to, and to reproduce from sound systems. When you start combining low sounds in a mix, they are kind of hard to maintain and control so they sit nicely in the mix – it’s very easy to quickly get a muddy mix with too much low bass and low mids sounds.
Two good solutions: be more simplistic in your low end, especially from when composing the track. Take one or two bass elements and use them to define the tonality of the chords and the depth of your music, don’t overdo it.
Second tip would be to high pass away more of the low rumbly stuff that goes on in instrument tracks where there is no real need for it – away with it. As an example, violins are quite high-pitched instruments, so if there is any low rumbly sounds in the low end sound spectrum that doesn’t help the overall sound, just remove it. Listen and check if it sounds better.
Visual example: Look at the first image here. I boosted up the low mud so that you can see it more clearly. It sounds good and you can’t hear the mud that loudly, but when you have 40+ tracks all having this low, unnecessary sonic dirt that doesn’t do anything good, it all adds up into bad mud in the mix and you will never be able to clean it up. Check it out:
Then look at this one where I have added on a high-pass (low cut) EQ filter:
All the mud is gone, and the violin sounds exactly the same (the lowest note on the violin strings is about 200 Hz). Get in to the habit of removing unwanted sounds!
Disclaimer: Don’t blindly remove sounds. Even violins can have some great sonic content lower than their lowest string note. Always listen to your mix and react to it!
Mistake #5. Too Much Reverb
Reverb is something we all go nuts for when we first find out we can use it on our music to make it sound huge. Unfortunately, it can also be what ruins our music as beginners, simply because we use too much of it. Too little reverb is OK, then you have to be even better at orchestration and MIDI programming to make it sound good and glued together. Too much reverb is bad, because it sounds very washed out and unfocused.
Solution: dial back the reverb when composing, don’t rely on it to sound big and lush – rely on orchestration. Be careful with reverb!
Audio example: The first one I have way too much reverb on. It’s like someone took the Atlantic ocean and threw it on the mix. Take a listen:
Someone throw me a life vest – drowning in the wetness!
This second one has more stable levels of reverb. I would actually want even less reverb on this! But as you can hear, things are clearer now and phrases aren’t as washed out:
Mistake #6. Too Many Master Effects
What we hear when we listen to tracks is the final output, so we tend to want to focus on the master stereo output when we are beginners. We add on reverb to entire tracks by slapping on a heavy reverb on the master bus, we add on compressors, EQ’s, saturators and God knows what else. Doing this carelessly will totally ruin the mix you’ve worked on.
Solution: Don’t add on anything on the master bus other than very few things like a limiter to avoid clipping. Wait with the end mastering to the mastering stage – don’t ruin your mix by adding on too many plugins on the master bus. And don’t use presets that totally change the entire sound of your mix!
Mistake #7. Lack of Width
One of the most important things to think about when mixing is space. Not just stars, galaxies and black holes but frequency space (frequency spectrum), and also LR space, meaning stereo field. There are many mixes where you either have no central focus and everything is panned to odd places, or you have most of the music smack in the middle of the stereo field.
What you do: remember to utilize the space you have at hand. You can pan all the way from the very center of the stereo field, to the very extreme ends of Left or Right – use that space! Pan out some percussive elements, maybe don’t have the piano right in the middle, but more on the right. Listen to professional songs and analyze how they have panned the tracks in the mix.
Audio example: Listen to this first one:
And then this one:
You hear how much wider, open and pleasant it is to listen to the second one? It’s way less crowded in the center, it fills out the stereo field giving you a much better sound image and it’s just a better mix overall. Panning is very important to utilize properly!
Mistake #8. Mixing on “Colored” Headphones/Monitors
Here’s another common mistake: beginners often mix on headphones or monitors that are so-called “colored”. Colored sound means a sound that has been altered to sound more pleasing – at least in music production terms. Headphones meant for listening and enjoying music are very different from the ones made for creating it. The enjoyment headphones have boosts in bass, more clear and sparkly highs, and other boosts, or “colors”. This means that when you mix on them, you will be fooled by how your mix actually sounds, and end up with a mix that only sounds good on your headphones and no one else’s.
What you want is a flat sound reproduction. The solution is to buy headphones or monitors with a flat frequency response. If a pair of headphones or monitors is labeled “studio monitors” or “studio headphones”, they will have a close to flat frequency response and be ideal for mixing on because what you hear from them will be what your mix actually sounds like.
Mistake #9. Not Cutting Away Unnecessary Sound
Similar to mistake #4, where there is too much low stuff going on in the mix, this one refers to all sounds that is unwanted. Not caring about removing sounds that aren’t helping your mix sound better, is not good. A natural reaction to this is to add on more sounds, or raise the volume of the others that get drowned in the mix so they can be heard clearly. What will happen is you will get a muddy and very busy mix with a lot of unnecessary sound.
Solution: instead of thinking that you need to add more sound and raising the volume faders of important tracks to hear them, start thinking about what to remove instead. As in the example of mistake #3, violins recordings might have sounds that aren’t really needed under 50 Hz, so just do a high pass EQ on all violins around there. Some percussion elements sound way better with less high end transient sounds, so try to EQ away those as well and see if it doesn’t sound better. Cut away sounds that you think actually might not be helping the mix. Even removing entire tracks that aren’t helping – like that extra layer of percussion.
Most important thing of all: Always listen to your mix. If something needs improving, then try to improve it consciously, and not haphazardly.
Hope you got something out of this article! Maybe you were doing one or more of these mistakes, but now you know what to do to rectify those mistakes and achieve a more solid mix.
Until next time, folks!