As musicians, producers, and engineers, we all want to create the best sound possible. Yet, with the best intentions, mistakes hinder our music from reaching its potential.
Let’s explore 5 common mixing and mastering mistakes and learn to recognize them. Whether you’re starting out or experienced, we hope you’ll find something that will help make better-sounding music.
Why mixing and mastering is important?
Mixing and mastering are two of the most important stages in music production. It’s where your raw tracks turn into polished, professional-sounding music. Mixing includes adjusting levels, panning, EQ, to create a balanced, cohesive mix. Mastering is the final step, preparing the final audio file for distribution.
Mistake #1. Not using reference tracks
A reference track is existing audio that you use as a point of comparison when mixing or mastering. They are a great way to help you target a desirable sound, by comparing it with your current audio. There are a few key benefits to using reference tracks:
- Help you set levels and balance:
By using reference tracks as a guide, you get a sense of the ideal sound so you can adjust your own mix accordingly.
- Helps you identify problems:
If your mix doesn’t sound right, you can use a reference track to help you identify what may be going wrong.
- Helps you learn new techniques:
If you have a keen ear, you can pick up new techniques and ideas that you can apply to your own mix.
Choose reference tracks that are similar in style and production to your own music. This ensures you are comparing apples to apples and gives you a more accurate sense of how your mix is shaping up. It’s also a good idea to choose reference tracks that have a sound that you like and are familiar with. This keeps you motivated and focused.
It’s important to listen critically to identify what makes them sound good. Pay attention to the balance, clarity, and timbre of the sound that’s unique to the mix. It’s better to use reference tracks as a guide, rather than trying to copy them exactly. The goal is for your own music to have a unique character, using reference tracks as a starting point can help.
Mistake #2: Not using EQ correctly
EQ, or equalization, is a tool that is used to adjust the frequency balance of a sound. It allows you to boost or cut specific detailed frequencies in a sound or instrument.
In mixing, EQ’s used to balance frequencies across the mix cohesively. E.g. you might use EQ to boost bass frequencies in a kick drum or to cut the mids in an electric guitar. This starts to create clean space and separation between the instrument’s frequency ranges.
In mastering, EQ is used to adjust the frequency balance across the entire mix. This could correct high-level issues or imbalances made whilst mixing. E.G. you might use EQ to boost the highs to a mix that sounds too boomy, or the lows in a mix that sounds too thin. Mastering EQ should be more of a fine-tuning exercise rather than a dramatic one.
Here are a few common EQ mistakes to avoid:
- Boosting too much:
It can be tempting to boost frequencies to try to make a sound stand out, but boosting too much can cause problems. It can make a sound harsh or unnatural, and even cause listening fatigue.
- Cutting too much:
Like boosting, cutting too much can be a source of problems. It can result in a sound or instrument being too thin or weak which will lack impact.
- Boosting or cutting the wrong frequencies:
Pay attention to the frequencies you are boosting or cutting based on the instrument. Each instrument or sound has different frequency characteristics as part of the sound. This can also be a creative decision within the mixing process.
Mistake #3: Overcompressing
Compression is a tool that controls the dynamic range of a sound. It allows you to reduce the volume of the loudest parts of a sound, whilst increasing the quietest parts. It’s essential and powerful for shaping the character and impact of a sound.
In mixing, compression can even out the dynamic range of an individual instrument to be more consistent. It is a powerful tool for shaping the character and impact of an individual sound or entire mix. It’s also used creatively to add punch or clarity and enhance the attack properties of a sound.
Mastering compression is more subtle than in mixing, and it’s used to fine-tune the mix in its entirety.
Here are a few common compression mistakes to avoid:
Overcompressing can cause instruments to sound squashed or lifeless. Pay attention to threshold levels to not over-reduce the dynamic range.
- Not using enough compression:
If a sound is too dynamic, it will stick out in the mix in a way that is disruptive to the listening experience.
Mistake #4: Not paying attention to the stereo field
Optimizing the stereo field creates a sense of space between different sounds in the mix. By panning different sounds to different positions, you can create depth and cohesion.
In mastering, the stereo field is used to optimize the overall balance and clarity of a mix. Mastering uses stereo field optimizations more subtly than mixing. and is more of a fine-tuning rather than too extreme.
Here are a few common stereo-field mistakes to avoid:
- Not panning elements correctly:
Pay attention to panning different instruments to give them their correct space in a mix. E.G. Vocals probably shouldn’t pan far left as in most occasions, as this will confuse the listener.
- Not paying attention to phase:
The phase of a sound can have a big impact on how it sounds in the stereo field. If sounds are out of phase, they can cancel each other out in the mix.
- Not using stereo-widening effects effectively:
Stereo-widening effects can be a great tool for creating a sense of depth and space in a mix. If you make a mix or master too wide, it can make a track sound thin or unbalanced.
Mistake #5: Not paying attention to balance
Balance is the essential part of creating a cohesive and impactful track. It describes the relative levels of all elements in a mix, which shapes the track’s sound.
By balancing mix levels, you creatively make decisions based on genre and direction. Variations in genre and direction will dictate decisions made along the way.
Here are a few common level balance mistakes to avoid:
- Not using a volume meter:
Paying attention to your volume meter is crucial for noticing if your levels are correct. If you don’t frequently glance at your meters, you may end up clipping or unbalanced it can be hard to get the levels of your sounds right, and you may end up with a mix that is unbalanced or that lacks impact.
- Not using automation effectively:
Automation is a powerful tool for adding detail and depth in an unlimited amount of contexts. Too much detail in a big project can be a problem with automations stacking up and being challenging to remember.
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