Many artists submitting demos to Uninvented Records often ask, “what are common pitfalls to avoid in the mixing stage so music sounds more professional before submitting to labels.” Signed artists at our label know, our studio, The Continuum Music Studio, handles all mixing and mastering for our artists. We welcome non-singed artist to get in touch with the studio for quotes and detailed questions on the audio engineering side of things. For those who are looking to learn more about the craft and go the independent route here are some quick tips to improve the quality of your mixes.
A Lack of Width = A Narrow Mix
One of the most common problems with mixes occurs when too much is happening in any one part of the musical plane (or to look at it another way, not enough). Try to think of music in three dimensions, and first, check the width.
Great mixes spread themselves like a warm audio blanket across the entire stereo spectrum. Poor mixes throw everything down a narrow beam of audio straight into your eardrums.
With this in mind, be sure to make good use of your ‘humble’ panning tools. Pan certain parts to extremes: unusual effects, percussive noises, and pads go hard left and right; backing vocals can come further in; main vocals and bass usually sit best in the middle.
But while there are rules here, don’t feel you can’t break them. Just make sure the finished mix sits across the whole width of the spectrum rather than in one part. Pan everything to one area and your listeners will simply think that one of their speakers or headphones is playing up.
Congestion vs. Open Sounds Less Than Appealing
So, that was width – now think depth. There’s nothing worse than a track that has been mixed so that so that the whole thing takes your head off with all of the parts sounding like they are playing through a tin can.
This is usually a sign of terrible monitors being used at the mixing stage – great monitors let you hear the whole frequency range of your mix. A simple rule of thumb is to keep instruments of the same frequency apart, like naughty children, so you don’t get them clashing and fighting with one another for attention.
A good place to hit first is the bottom end or bass. Most genres of music are driven by some form of bass (with rock it’s bass guitar, for example, and with dance, it’s synth bass) so make sure your mix has some kind of low-end element on which to hang. From there, spread everything upwards and across the frequency range and don’t have too much happening in any one area of the spectrum.
Too Much Density and Frequency Stacking Will Be Bothersome
Computers have put untold musical power at our fingertips, but this doesn’t mean we need to fill 256 tracks every time we compose a new tune. In fact, many great pieces of music use sparse arrangements with a few well-recorded sounds and instruments.
Take the famous Phil Spector ‘wall of sound’ production method of the 60s – the name might imply that everything and the kitchen sink was thrown in there, but actually, it was just well-recorded, distinct, big sounds.
We’ve already pointed out that it’s important to have a good spread across both the frequency range and the stereo image. But decluttering can be done elsewhere in your mix as well, simply by removing parts from the arrangement.
Some of the best pop songs feature a vocal, a guitar and nothing else, while some classic dance tracks primarily feature a drum machine, bassline and vocal. So be ruthless – you can increase your impact by decreasing your sounds.
The Hook Lacking Impact Leads to a Lifeless Track
At the risk of stating the obvious, one of the main problems with your average demo is that it’s just that: average. It lacks that certain something that will grab the listener’s ear and make the track stand out from the crowd.
And as that crowd is getting increasingly, well, crowded, as more and more people discover the joys of at-home music making, nowadays any tune worth its salt needs some kind of hook to make it instantly noticeable and enduringly memorable.
A great hook can potentially be pretty much anything – it can consist of a bass sound or part, a melody, an effect or a vocal trick. Indeed, you’ll find that the best pop songs – think Kylie’s Can’t Get You Out Of My Head, for example – have all of these!
Quite often, though, just one will do – one amazing effect or riff that makes the listener want to listen again as soon as the track is finished, and has them humming it for the rest of the day. Get this right and you’ve won half the battle.
The Wrong Vibe is All Wrong
Getting the right ‘feel’ on a track is probably the single most important consideration when composing and mixing.
Getting the groove wrong will destroy the heart and soul of a dance track, and even an ambient, grooveless piece of music needs to have feel. Part of producing great tracks is capturing the feel and enhancing the groove.
Some of this is really obvious: if you want a club track, a modest 120bpm tempo and a 4/4 kick will be a good starting point. If you want something a bit more laid-back, slow things down and add a bit of swing.
Beyond that, there are myriad subtle techniques you can use to define your beats and make them match the overall feel of your track. Learn them and apply them.
Beats define your groove, but you should be aware that they can also destroy it. Ram a rigid 4/4 beat onto a soul or hip-hop track, for example, and you could end up with a real mess.
Laziness Will Be Your Ultimate Defeat
While time-tested sounds and tricks have their place and can sometimes be exactly what a track needs, many producers unthinkingly borrow the obvious bits of a genre and just throw them in willy-nilly. Clichés can make a track sound very average, so think on your feet.
This advice extends to how you use your DAW. Beware of throwing something into an arrangement simply because it fits, or automatically letting your software stretch apart to the right tempo just because you can.
And then, of course, we have synth presets – yes, they can sound great, but if you’re using a preset because it sounds out of this world, you can bet that it’ll be instantly recognizable to everyone else who owns that synth and that they will shake their heads disapprovingly. This kind of preset snobbery is wrong in many ways – presets are created to be used, after all – but the more ‘out there’ a sound is, the more obvious its source will be, so at least tweak it a little to make it your own.
The Real Obvious Stuff Comes First
There’s really no excuse for dodgy tuning, but out-of-key vocals, clashing melodies, and unintentionally obvious pitch correction are still common demo demons that simply make us angry. To all culprits, we say: there are two flaps of gristle on the sides of your head called ‘ears’ – use ’em!
Coming a close second on our list of obvious bugbears is hiss. This was an all-too-common problem back in the early days when analog met digital, but if you’re working solely inside the box with not coming in, you really shouldn’t experience it, so nor should your listeners.
If you’re recording vocals, guitars or other live instruments, take steps – both of the preventative and corrective type – to eradicate extraneous noise.
And finally, the stereo master mix that clips never fails to astound and enrage us in equal measure, with many an otherwise astonishing track being ruined because the producer thinks that louder equals better. More on this next…
We’ve already mentioned width and depth as two of the three musical dimensions you need to consider, so let’s move on to the third: height, or to use the correct term, dynamic range. This is the ratio between the quietest and loudest sounds in the mix.
The general trend in music production over the past decade or more has been to make master mixes louder and louder by using compressors and limiters to ‘squash’ the dynamic range, both of individual parts and the entire mix. As a result, we’ve all experienced over-compression.
You know what it feels like: you’ll be happily listening to a classic track on your iPod in shuffle mode and then suddenly something comes in from a couple of decades later that blows your ears off.
While these techniques once worked to make tracks stand out, they’ve now become so ubiquitous and extreme that they’re having the opposite effect. Today there’s an ever-growing movement to reverse this trend, and it’s one we support.
Perfection is Not an Option
Many producers feel that computers have made music too perfect, and we think they have a point. We don’t want to sound like our dads here, but the slick production sheen that’s imparted by today’s music technology can often make tracks sound lame and uninspiring.
If pristine production is your thing, that’s fine, but your music might benefit if you make things a bit more organic, a bit earthier and rawer. We know you don’t want to sound amateurish, but sometimes, you want to allow or even flaunt some slight imperfection.