The 10 Biggest DAW Mixing Mistakes

Just playing your instrument isn’t enough anymore. Musicians these days have to wear a lot of hats – player, promoter, webmaster, mixing engineer – the list goes on.

If you’re lucky enough to be recording in a big downtown studio, someone else will handle the delicate mixing decisions. But many of us have to do our own mixing on a computer in a garage or basement studio. When the mix goes wrong, a brilliantly performed and flawlessly recorded song can end up a mess. So let’s take a look at a few of the pitfalls you can tumble into while mixing, and explore ways to avoid them.

DAW Mixing

Fig. 1a

DAW Mixing

Fig. 1b

1.Thinking, “I’ll Fix That In The Mix.”

Using modern computer software, you can fix a wide variety of problems that may have marred the tracking session. Fluffed notes can be chopped out and replaced, the singer’s loose intonation can be tightened up, and so on. But the more time and energy you devote to these details, the less you’ll have left over to concentrate on producing a polished mix.

Some problems, such as bad microphone placement, background noise, and digital clipping caused by a too-high recording level, can’t be fixed easily. Even when those issues have been dealt with before you start tracking, you’ll still find it easier to mix when the track has a great composition and arrangement and sparkling performances. If you bring all of the faders up and find yourself thinking, “Uh-oh, this is gonna take some work,” it may already be too late.

2. Using The Wrong Kind Of Monitoring

In the old days, the standard advice was, “Don’t mix using headphones.” Headphones create an artificially clear stereo image, and can also promote ear fatigue. But these days, many of your listeners may be hearing your mix on earbuds, streamed via mp3 at the rather degraded rate of 128kbps. Today, you should check your mix using the same monitoring setup that your listeners will. After crafting the basic mix using a good pair of near-field monitors with a flat frequency response, export the audio to mp3 and check it with earbuds. Did the bass or the detailed highs disappear? If you can’t find a compromise mix that works on speakers and also on mp3, consider doing a separate mix specifically for mp3 streaming.

If you’re mixing for a dance club, you may want a subwoofer in your mixing environment, but the subwoofer can steer you wrong in either of two opposite directions. If it’s too aggressive, you may cut back too far on the bass. In that case, the mix that sounds full in your studio may sound weak in the club. Conversely, if your subwoofer is weak, you may crank the bass up too far and end up with a roaring, booming mess that won’t work in the club.

A solid, practical way to check your mix is to choose a few professionally recorded tracks by other artists that are in a style similar to what you’re aiming for. Put one of these tracks up and listen to it through your monitor system. Listen carefully to the blend and balance of instruments and frequencies. Then compare it to your own mix. Do they sound similar, or does yours need to be dialed in?

DAW Mixing

Fig. 2

When slicing audio, zoom in far enough to see exactly what’s going on in the waveform, and switch off the mouse tool’s “snap to grid” option. With a stereo recording, it may be impossible to find a spot where both the left and right channels are at zero-crossings. In this case, check to see if your software provides a tool for doing a quick fade-out at the end of an audio clip. A fade-out or fade-in that’s only a few milliseconds long (see fig. 2) won’t be audible, but it will prevent clicks.

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DAW Mixing

Fig. 3a

A click caused by a moment of clipping (an overload at the input of the recording) will have a flat-topped look in the waveform display (see fig. 3). You may be able to tame this by selecting that one tiny spot and applying a low-pass filter to it as an audio edit.

DAW Mixing

Fig. 3b

DAW Mixing

Fig. 4

4. Over-Compressing The Master Bus.

Pop music mizes tend to be boosted to as high a level as possible. Adding a compressor to the master output bus (see Fig. 4) is a good way to push up the perceived loudness without adding distortion. But too much compression can sound very artificial. For example, a loud guitar chord might cause the compressor to jump into action, which might cause an important drum hit or vocal syllable to get swallowed.

Over-compressing the master bus by setting the threshold too low or the compression ratio too high will cause sustaining sounds such as a reverb wash or synth pad to duck behind every loud event, such as a kick drum hit. This highly artificial sound is called “pumping.” Though useful once in a great while as a special effect, generally it’s best avoided.

DAW Mixing

Fig. 5

If you spend some time adding automation data to smooth out level changes in individual tracks, you won’t need to use as much compression on the master bus. That one overly loud guitar chord can be pulled down with a few mouse-clicks (see Fig. 5).

If you use a multi-band compressor on the master bus, you can be reasonably sure a loud vocal note won’t cause the kick or bass to duck, or vice-versa, because each frequency range is compressed separately. But that can lead to other problems. There is often less audio energy in the high range of the mix, so that range may be compressed less or not at all by a multi-band compressor. This can change the tone color of your snare drum by causing the highs to pass through without compression while the compressor backs off the main tone. If the snare starts to sound brittle instead of beefy, multi-band compression may be the culprit.

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Fig. 6

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.