Are you using your ears and eyes properly when you’re mixing?
Working with music, especially working with digital music and DAWs, is at least as much about visual stuff as it is about audible stuff. Slick design, cool interfaces, endless amounts of knobs, dark modes, dB meters, audio analyzers, layout, workflow. The list goes on.
It’s easy to get too caught up in what’s going on on your screen and shift the focus from what you hear to what you see, to get everything to look right. While your eyes are very important tools when mixing and working with music, you are still working with sound.
Once a song is out there, nobody can tell, and frankly, nobody cares, what the frequency response of your song looks like or how smooth your compressor’s gain reduction meter moves. What ultimately matters is how it sounds.
So in this post, I will go through the importance of knowing when to use your ears and when to use your eyes to achieve the best sounding result possible.
Using your ears
Naturally, your ears are your most important tool when mixing. The classic rule “if it sounds good, it sounds good” always applies and beats every other rule out there. Many great mixes and songs break a handful of “rules.” But they sound amazing, and in music, that’s what matters.
When starting a mix, it’s always a good idea to just close your eyes and fully listen to the entire song. What does it sound like as it is, and what needs to be done to make it sound better?
How loud should the different elements feel like, and where in the stereo image should the elements sound like they come from?
Where does it sound like there are some problematic frequencies, and where does it sound like there are some frequencies lacking?
All these (and more) are good questions to answer before you even look at a frequency analyzer or a dB meter.
Observing the sonic landscape and forming a mental picture of the sound you wish to achieve is a great way to focus in on the actual sound of the song straight from the start.
From there, every time you apply some sort of processing, it might be a good idea to A/B test it with your eyes closed.
Place your mouse on the ‘bypass’ knob on your plug-in, close your eyes, press the ‘bypass’ knob many times so you don’t know whether the plug-in is activated or not. Listen, press your mouse, listen again. Repeat a few times until you feel you can hear the difference, and figure out what serves the song best.
Did the processing actually improve the song, or did it simply improve how fancy your project looks like?
As important as your ears are, they might need a little help. Mixing is very detailed work, and many times the details are so small that your ears can’t fully perceive them without the help of meters and visual tools.
Setting levels is particularly a difficult job to do solely by the help of your ears. One dB of gain is barely audible but can make a huge impact on your overall mix, and would be impossible to do precisely without the help of a dB meter.
DB meters are also great in compression situations. If you, for example, have an idea of how much gain reduction you want, you can look at the gain reduction meter to dial in the desired amount of compression. From there, use your ears to figure out if it actually serves the song…
Besides, when working in an untreated or poorly treated room, a dB meter can help you get a better understanding of the loudness of tracks in relation to each other.
DB meters are great to make sure the elements you want to have in front of your mix are actually louder than other elements, they can help you determine whether a track is clipping (going into red), and they are also really useful in recording situations.
It’s recommended to record at around -18dbFS to get a clean a signal as possible, but some argue that recording levels doesn’t matter when working with extremely high resolutions and modern recording gear and software. Nonetheless, dB meters are helpful to make sure you’re, in fact, recording at your desired level.
DBs can be measured in various ways and are useful for different purposes, so make sure you use a meter that suits your needs.
Another meter that is highly useful and that can help your ears when in doubt are phase and correlation meters.
Phase and correlation meters are great to visually see if your audio is in or out of phase, which can more often than not be fairly difficult to figure out solely by listening.
Having audio out of phase means that parts of your audio (or sometimes all of your audio) gets canceled out due to the laws of physics.
If something in your mix sounds weak or unintentionally weird, it might be a good idea to pull out a phase/correlation meter and check if everything is in order.
Frequency and stereo analyzers
While there are dB and loudness analyzers out there, I find analyzers to be most useful when it comes to frequency response and stereo imaging.
Many eq’s have their own frequency analyzer, but there are also dedicated frequency analyzers out there. A great free plug-in that I use all the time myself, is SPAN by voxengo.
Frequency analyzers are especially great when working in a poorly treated room, on small speakers, or lousy headphones. Our ears only hear what comes out, and a bad listening environment or playback system can give an imprecise impression. A frequency spectrum analyzer can tell you exactly what goes in and out).
Since what you hear is so strongly colored by your listening environment and equipment, checking the frequency response of your audio with a frequency analyzer can help you get a better understanding of your audio and help you identify problems.
Maybe there are some low frequency spikes in your audio files that you cant’ hear on your speakers that clutter up your low end and trigger your compressor more than necessary.
Maybe your mix is completely lacking frequency content in a certain frequency range, but you can’t identify where exactly it’s lacking solely by listening. A frequency analyzer will help you identify such issues.
A stereo image analyzer will help you better understand the stereo image of your mix, how much is in mono and how much is in stereo, and where exactly in the stereo image sounds are coming from.
It will also help you determine the balance between the left and right channel, which can many times be hard to do solely by listening. Stereo analyzers usually tell you how much your audio is in or out of phase as well.
Your ears will always be your most important tool, but your eyes can many times help your ears when in doubt. Fine detailed work and issues beyond our hearing (or listening equipment) are the main reasons to use your eyes instead of your ears. But naturally, your ears will always have the last say. Trust them and go with it if it sounds good.
About Gerhard Tinius
Gerhard Tinius is a groovy producer, mixer, and audio engineer from Norway. Working as a mixer and audio/mastering engineer while releasing his own music under Tinius.