One of the most common questions I get from young engineers, producers, and mixers is “How do I know when my mix is finished?” Many beginning mixers will spend days on a mix, struggling to figure out when the mix sounds complete. There is a well-known maxim that your work will expand to fill whatever amount of time you have allotted to the task, so if you have no deadline, a job can become an indefinite process. I want to present a strategy for confidently completing a mix and not simply working until you are out of time.
Hopefully, you’ve already read Brad Pack’s article on the steps to creating a pro mix. After you’ve completed those steps and exhausted your mixing ideas it’s time to take a break and have a meal or a good night’s sleep. Then listen back to your mix and make sure your mix is actually complete. Since we often work by ourselves, it is especially important to step away from a mix for some time so that we can come back with fresh ears and give ourselves a sort of “second opinion.”
Most of the time we have a client, or at least an audience, in mind so we want to create what we feel is an artistic and appropriate mix, but also one that will please our client and audience. For me, understanding the audience helps me shape a mix and make decisions that lead me to a successfully completed song. If you are your own client and you don’t know who the audience is, you need a solid goal. Choose a song you wish to compete with or one that you can model elements of your mix after.
So, finish your mix, take a break, and then consider the concepts outlined here to make sure you’ve given the mix your best effort, without simply working until the clock runs out. During this process, listen to your mix all the way through and take notes on a pad of paper as the song plays. Don’t stop the song or you’ll lose your focus. Imagine you are hearing this song for the first time and simply react to what you hear and feel. Repeat this process a few times until you haven’t taken any new notes for a few playbacks.
The Big Picture
Does your mix present the mood and meaning of your song? If it’s a dance song, does it make you move? If it’s a sad song, does it feel sad, and is the message clearly felt? Focus on the feeling of the song at this point.
The big picture also includes the dynamic contour of the song. Does the verse build into the chorus? Does the song drop during the breakdowns and build back up in the right spots? Don’t be afraid to add some automation to your master fader to help the macro-dynamics of the song. When your mix is nearly done, try lowering the master fade 1dB during the verses and put it back up in the choruses.
Ask yourself, what is the message of the song and would someone get the message on their first listen? This means that you should be able to hear all the lyrics clearly or, if it’s an instrumental, that all the melodies are easy to hear. Compare the level of the vocal(s) from verse 1 to verse 2 and keep them consistent. Do the same for the chorus vocals. Each style has an appropriate vocal volume, so mix the vocal appropriately for your song.
The message of a song is of primary importance, so much so that we can all name a song that we love, but that has a mix or production that really is not that great. The message is what the audience responds to, so make sure that nothing is hindering that message. If the low-end is too loud, the vocals or melodies may become overpowered and the listener will lose interest in the song. If an element like the snare drum or vocal is too loud or harsh, the listener may become fatigued and lose focus. This can all happen from too much compression, too much brightness, or even too little energy in the mix.
Be sure to listen through at a very soft level to make sure the important elements can be heard clearly and that small elements, like percussion parts or sound effects, don’t stand out too much. After listening softly, listen at a comfortably loud level to make sure that nothing stands out too much or hurts your ears. Make sure the groove is solid and the bass is full and tight, but also listen for the appropriate dynamics and power from the music. The snare shouldn’t make your eyes blink and the vocal shouldn’t hurt your ears with sibilance. After listening at a high level for a few minutes, take a break to reset your ears.
Pleasing clients, fans, and ourselves requires attention to details and even creating some details that make certain moments stand out as special. Listen for a spot or two where you can create a special moment. This can be a well-placed echo, a moment of breaking down the beat or bassline, or a special effect like a flanger on a background part. Often just one special moment can become the most memorable part of a song.
Listen to each section of the song and make sure you notice which elements are added or change every few bars. If you can’t really tell, maybe you can create small changes, like lowering or raising a pad or percussion element or changing the amount of ambience or saturation on the lead vocal or instrument. I often increase the amount of slap delay or saturation on lines that I want to emphasize. Reducing the volume of a pad during a verse can help lower the overall energy without changing the punch of the groove.
Can you hear the crash cymbals, sweeps, or lifters that create transitions between sections? If not, look for places to gently boost these elements. Do the same for every drum fill, bass fill, or any other musical element that takes place between lead vocal phrases. Whenever there is space listen for interesting elements that can be featured.
Checking off the previous points has become routine for me after working on hundreds of mixes for discerning clients, artists, and record companies. There will almost always be changes requested by your client, So don’t take requests as an affront to your ego—this is about serving the song. I have confidence that I can change almost any element in a way that pleases my client and also serves the song in a musical way. Build an arsenal of possible vocal effects, drum mixing techniques and mix bus techniques so that you can easily make changes to audition alternate sonic options.
Don’t be afraid to send off a mix even if you are unsure of a certain element. Without feedback from the producer or artist, you might not ever find the solution to a musical puzzle. Sometimes a producer will suggest that a certain part is a little too loud and that suggestion perfectly finalizes the mix. The sooner you get feedback, the sooner you can finish the mix!
Below is a handy checklist that you should print out and refer to as you decide if your mix is finished. Not finishing is never an option, so be confident and get it done!
Mix Final Quick Checklist
Listen back to the mix and ask yourself the following questions. I like to write down notes during my last passes so I don’t get distracted trying to fix one issue and miss another issue. When I can listen down twice in a row without taking any new notes, I know I’m done.
- Does the song’s mood fit the meaning of the song? Does the groove make your head bob or do you rock back and forth?
- Does the chorus/hook come in bigger than the verse?
- What new elements happen in each section?
- Does the lead vocal/instrument feel special?
- What happens when the singer is not singing? Between vocal phrases, you can feature another element.
- Do your effects feel appropriate for the style/genre?
- Can you understand the lyrics when listening at a very low volume?
- Does the snare or vocal sound harsh at a very loud volume?
- Is the low-end clear and deep enough to support the mix?
- Is the high end harsh or too rolled off?
- Make sure the details like crash cymbals or other similar elements are heard but do not stick out too much.