The 10 Biggest DAW Mixing Mistakes
5. Not Fine-Tuning The Synthesizers.
Synthesizers are tuned at the factory, right? As long as each instrument is set to A-440, they’ll all be in tune with one another. Nice theory. The facts are otherwise. I use a lot of VST synth plug-ins, and I’ve observed that sound designers don’t always pay enough attention to tuning. In some presets, an oscillator that is detuned slightly sharp or flat dominates the tone (see Fig. 6). Some presets use weird patching ideas (such as an oscillating comb filter) that introduce a slight pitch bias.
Or suppose your bass synth uses a sample of a Minimoog or TB-303 rather than a raw wave-form. The sample itself might be flat or sharp. Tuned percussion samples, such as mallet percussion, may sound slightly higher in pitch at the beginning of the note than at the end, so you may need to find a compromise for the master tuning knob that helps that synth blend in with the other instruments.
The human ear is less sensitive to pitch differences in the bass register. I’ve heard more than one mix with an out-of-tune bass synth that the engineer and producer didn’t notice. You may want to mute the drum and vocal tracks and just listen to the instruments by themselves to make sure you like the intonation.
6. Adjusting EQ On Soloed Tracks.
A track such as hand percussion, guitar, or electric piano that sits well in the mix may sound thin, hollow, or muffled when soloed. Make it a rule never to touch the equalizer knobs on a track while it’s soloed.
Apply EQ while listening to the whole mix. The reason to solo a track is to listen for details (such as fluffed notes) that may be obscured by other elements of the mix.
Some engineers advise that EQ should generally be used to cut frequencies rather than to boost them. If you’re trying to make both the guitar and the piano clearly audible, cutting back each of them in a different frequency range will give both a chance to shine (in the range where the other has been cut back). Panning the two instruments to different points in the stereo field will also help keep them separate.
Boosting is not necessarily bad, though. You might want to boost a cowbell part in a narrow frequency band in order to make it cut through the mix, rather than boosting the level of the entire cowbell track.
7. Mixing The Vocal Too Low.
There are several ways to go wrong with vocals. If you’re the lead singer and also the mixing engineer, you may be tempted to turn your vocal down too low. Many of us are a bit uncomfortable with the sound of our own voice, because the recording never sounds the way it does when our voice is resonating in our head.
When comping a vocal track, you may find that it sounds more natural if the breathing noise between phrases is left in, though perhaps at a reduced volume. If the singer isn’t heard breathing, the vocal can sound artificial.
Once in a while you may need to crossfade between two vocal takes in the middle of a sustaining syllable. Solo the track and listen for phase cancellation during the crossfade. If you don’t like the sound, consider doing the crossfade at a different spot.
Vocal takes may sound different from one another if the singer was closer to or further from the microphone. (This is especially likely if you’re using a directional mike, due to the proximity effect.) During tracking, make sure the singer keeps a constant distance from the mike.
8. Losing The Focus.
Where is the audio spotlight shining in this verse or break? Even – or especially – in busy musical textures, not everything can be spotlighted at once. Some instruments should play a secondary role. They should be barely audible, and should stay out of the way.
I’ve heard Nashville mixes where a quick two-bar instrumental break had four different spotlights, one after another – first a steel guitar lick, then a piano lick, then a fiddle lick, and then a drum fill. I don’t know whether this happens because the players at the session all have amazing taste, or whether the details are picked out by the engineer and producer after the players have gone home. The point is, in that kind of break there’s one focus at a time. The players are not stepping on one another.
Another way to lose the focus is to let an intro go on for too long. This can happen with an instrumental break too, but for some reason intros seem to be the big offenders. Consider tightening up the intro by slicing out four or eight bars, so as to keep your listeners from getting bored.
In computer-based recording, there isn’t always a clear dividing line between composing, arranging, and mixing. If a section lacks a clear focus because too many elements are competing for attention, you may not have a mixing problem. You may need to rethink the arrangement. Maybe a bass line or rhythm guitar track that’s less busy is what’s needed. Unless you’re working on a tight deadline, you can always call the guitar or bass player back in and try again. Or have them record three different ideas to begin with, and then mute and unmute their tracks one at a time to pick the parts that work best together. Cutting and pasting a few measures of sparse playing, so as to keep an excessively busy player from cluttering up the mix, may be just what the doctor ordered.
9. Too Much Reverb.
Up to a point, adding reverb can make the mix sound bigger and more exciting, but it will also blur the details. When there’s too much reverb, the result can actually sound smaller rather than bigger. A vocal will often sound better with just a taste of room slapback, because (at least in a studio recording) a vocal with a close, personal, intimate sound can engage the listener’s emotions more fully.
Adding a bit of subtle room ambience to the final stereo mix can pull it together and make the band sound more cohesive. But if some tracks (such as a synthesizer) already have their own built-in reverb, you may need to dial that reverb back a bit before adding ambience to the master bus.
10. Finalizing The Mix Today.
After doing the best mix you can, export it from your DAW as a stereo file (and/or an mp3), put it on a portable device, and listen to it again tomorrow. You may discover new problems that need attention when you’re rested and fresh. On the other hand, you may find that you’ve gotten too fussy about details, and need to go back to a more natural sound.
Listen to a test mix on several different playback systems – a boombox or car stereo, your home entertainment system, the multimedia speakers in your laptop, and so on. Invite a few friends to listen with you. If you find yourself wanting to apologize or make excuses for anything in the track while your friends are listening, that’s an important clue that you need to rethink some aspect of the mix.