Mixing and Mastering Mistakes You CANNOT Afford To Make

Original Source: Hyperbitsmusic.com, Edited by Ash Matthews

1. You think your mix is just ‘missing that one little thing’

At one point or another, every engineer or producer is guilty of this. You’ve spent a lot of time on your craft, you’ve even made some decent music. But, when you compare it to the producers you look up to, it falls a bit short. You start to think “man, if my mix just had that one thing, it would sound great.” 

The truth is, your mix isn’t missing one thing. It’s missing a lot of things. This is our brain trying to solve & simplify a very complex problem that involves a lot of moving parts (EQ, saturation, compression, sidechain, reverb, gain staging, automation, sound design, layering, etc.) and can’t be solved by any one tip, technique, strategy or concept. 

Your mix or composition could be missing layers to fill out the sound or stereo field. It could simply be missing vocals that really bring the track together. It could be missing a counter melody to really set it to the next level. It could be missing a balance across the frequency spectrum that makes it feel even. Listening carefully to understand all the possible things that could be added or adjusted is how you could overcome the 'missing one little thing' mindset.

2. You don’t need third-party plugins

I get it. Your DAW’s plugins are super powerful. And yes, you can get 70-80% of the way there using only your DAW’s plugins. But, this notion that you don’t need to invest in third-party plugins is like a painter who won’t invest in some high-quality paints, brushes, and canvas. Eventually, if you want to compete with the best in the world, you’ll want to be using at least some of the same tools. Fortunately, you don’t need all of them —  all you need is a very select group of plugin bundles that will drastically improve your mixes and masters (assuming, of course, you actually know how to use them).

There are tons of amazing plugins out there...especially outside of standard processing you may use (EQs, compressors, de-essers, limiters). There are third party transient designers, meters, reverbs, delays, distortion, and more that I use on a daily basis. You shouldn't limit yourself. It's fun to challenge yourself to see if you can get the mix you want with only stock plug ins...but sometimes the best tool for the job is that one $30 plug in you bought from that tiny company you saw in a TapeOp magazine. (Which, by the way, if you don't subscribe to TapeOp...it's free, and you definitely should!)

3. You only check your mix on your monitors

If all goes according to plan, the music you make will be heard on every system imaginable: laptop speakers, car stereos, festival systems, club speakers, iPhones, and even some random gaming speakers that have somehow survived since the early 90s. How can you possibly make sure that your music sounds great on all of these different systems? There is actually a correct answer to this. 

When you bounce your mix down, take it to your car, play it on your phone, play it on 2-3 different pair of headphones, play it on reference monitors, play it from your TV, play it on a bluetooth device...in each of these places, take notes and figure out what needs changed. When you go back to your main monitors...the things you heard on other devices should stand out to you now. Fix them. Repeat.

4. You fully outsource your mastering

The problem with entirely outsourcing your mastering isn’t the cost. It’s the fact that by avoiding mastering, you’ll never know how your music sounds as a finished product until you get it back from the engineer. This means, every time you have edits, you are theoretically mixing blind (because you don’t know how your track will sound once it hits your engineer’s mastering chain). Trust me, there is a MUCH better way to solve for this.

Now...that doesn't mean you should master your own music for release. It means that you should learn a little bit about mastering (if you're a producer or an artist that engineers your own music). That way when you have a solid mix, you can do some pseudo-mastering to understand how it may change your mix. This way, you can make little mix adjustments and provide your mastering engineer with a more "master-ready" mix, which results in an even BETTER final product.

5. You spend a lot of time mixing in mono

Somewhere, somehow, someone spread the myth that all clubs are in mono. Maybe this was true in the 70s, 80s, or even the 90s, but it’s 2018. Club systems are in stereo. Clubs are not in mono. The reality is, 99% of your music will be heard on stereo systems, on headphones, in car stereos, on laptop and iMac speakers, etc. 

Positioning your mix to sound beautiful in stereo should be the absolute focus, mono should be the after-thought. This doesn't mean ignore mono! You definitely need to at least CHECK your mix in mono so that you can ensure there's no weird phasing issues. How to actually execute this can be fairly difficult to grasp at first, but a healthy understanding of the stereo spectrum, stereo imaging and panning is an outright necessity. I often hear mixes where people really, really overdo it on the digital stereo widening/spreading.

6. You think loudness is just about limiting

Oh, the loudness war. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that loudness is achieved solely through limiting. Loudness can be achieved in plenty of stages, like mastering, mixing and even in the composition stage. Certain sounds are inherently tougher to ‘get loud’ when compared to others. Knowing the difference can save you a lot of wasted energy and effort in the pursuit of making commercially-loud music. 

7. You are lazy with automation

If you want your mix to move, bounce, groove, vibe, etc —  you are going to have to utilize automation. And lot’s of it. Not just in drawing automation nodes, but in auto-filters, auto-panners, tremoloes, and responsive effects like sidechain, LFO routing and so much more. Without automation, our music would be dull, static, and dead. If you want your music to have 'special moments' as I call them, automation isn't just recommended, it's a necessity. 

This is something that can be very tedious. It takes a detail-oriented focus and precise adjustments...as well as a bit of creativity and a decent production mind for knowing when/where/how to execute this "ear candy". Working as a mix engineer for an hourly rate, it's always disheartening when I don't have the time to go through and automate vocals, delays, and effects. It would really bring the mix up a few steps to a new level.

8. You don’t use a reference track

Our ears need to get re-calibrated every once in a while. Mixing without a reference track is a sure-fire way to get truly lost in your own project. From ear fatigue to terrible mixing decisions, avoiding a reference track is asking for trouble. Better yet, make sure to never forget to take a break —  this puts your ears through a clinical form of torture and is often the #1 reason why mixes lack proper gain structure and generally lack a sense of professionalism and commercial viability.