5 Things to Help You Decide If Your Mix is Done
Knowing when your mix is done is difficult.
Your mix may sound perfect in your studio and just decent in your living room.
You may have achieved more or less the exact same frequency response in your mix as in your reference track, but something still sounds off.
You may have equalized and compressed all your tracks «by the book», but it’s still just not there yet.
Then you ask fellow engineers for help and feedback, and they all give different advice…
With all these uncertainties and possibilities, how can a mix really ever be done? How can you possibly know exactly when it’s done? There are no right answers, but there are some things you can look out for when deciding if your mix is finished.
So in this post, I will go through 5 things to help you decide if your mix is done, and that will also help you identify what needs to be done if your mix still needs some work.
Clarity is crucial for any mix. By clarity, I don’t necessarily mean bright and crisp and ultra-sharp. By clarity, I mean what you want to push through the mix and be audible is pushing through.
A mix that has the appropriate amount of clarity that pushes through on almost any listening device is, I would argue, a finished mix.
Are the vocals clear enough? Maybe you want them super crisp and bright, or maybe you just want some of the words to be possible to understand, and the rest should feel drowned out in the mix.
Are the drums pushing through in a way that fits your mix, without too much harshness or too little punch? Are they just crisp enough for the synths and vocals to sit on top of them, and are they just bassy enough for the other bass elements to fit in as well?
Achieving the right amount and appropriate type of clarity comes down to many things, like volume balance, dynamics, and tonal balances, which I will go through in the following sections.
Getting the right volume balance is perhaps the most important thing for any mix. As volume is a big factor when it comes to deciding what we hear in a song, an even balance can make or break your mix.
Besides deciding what elements we hear and how well we hear them, having an appropriate volume that’s not peaking (unless it’s intentional) is vital for your mix to sound good on all listening devices.
Try listening to your mix on various volumes and hear if the relative volume balance between your elements sound fitting for your mix. Keep in mind the equal loudness contour when listening at very loud and very low volumes, so you don’t get fooled by your own ears.
If it sounds almost perfect but a little bit off, remember that just small adjustments of 0.5-3db can make a huge difference for the overall mix.
Dynamics in music refer to the difference between the loudest and the quietest parts of a song or elements within a song. Therefore, having adequate dynamics in your mix is vital for the mix to translate well in any listening environment and on any listening device.
If you have to turn up the volume on the chorus for it to be loud enough and turn the volume down in the verses for it to be quiet enough when you’re listening to your mix, it might be an idea to work on the dynamics so the song can float smoothly on any set volume.
If some parts of your tracks are really popping out at you or really drowning away, dynamic processing like compression or volume automation might be good ways to fix whatever issues you’re having.
While examining the dynamics of your mix, try to figure out if it’s only some elements in your mix that might need dynamic processing or if it’s the entire mix. Processing the entire mix bus can many times solve dynamic issues, and there’s also the power of multiband compression!
Tonal balance with regards to mixing means the frequency balance of the overall mix. How much high-end does your mix have, and how much low-end and mid-range?
If you listen to (and visually analyze) a modern pop song and then an older folk song, you’ll hear (and see) how vastly different their tonal balance is. Songs today typically have a lot more high-end and low-end than older recordings.
Considering the example above, it really shows that there is no «correct» tonal balance but that there are certain characteristics for different musical styles. So, what tonal balance is typical for the kind of mix you’re working on, and is your mix living up to that? If not, what needs to be done differently?
Loudness is usually considered something that the mastering engineer will take care of. But having the appropriate loudness for the mastering engineer to work with is crucial for the final result. Loudness can be achieved in many ways. Using the volume knob, compression, limiting, saturation, distortion, maximizing, and so on.
Getting the proper amount of loudness in the mixing stage will also help your mix translate better on various playback systems and on various playback volumes because the amount of energy that is going into these playback systems will be sufficient enough to properly reproduce the audio.
A rule of thumb is to have your mix sit at around -6dbFS, but again there are no right answers. Sometimes a mix sounds better at -3dbFS and sometimes around -10dbFS is the sweet spot. The goal should be to have your mix sound as good as possible as it is, without feeling that whatever is missing of loudness (or tonal balance, etc.) will be fixed in the mastering process. Just try to make sure the mix isn’t going over 0dbFS, then you’ll introduce some (probably) unwanted artifacts such as distortion and “pumping.”
About Gerhard Tinius
Gerhard Tinius is a groovy musician, producer, mixer, and audio engineer from Norway. He’s working as a mixer and engineer while releasing his own music under Tinius. Listen to his latest release here.