You hear it all over the place. “Help! My mixes don’t translate!”

In other words, “My mix sounds awesome in my studio, but then when I play it anywhere else – in my car, on my stereo, on my iPod – it sounds awful.”

What’s the problem? It could be any number of things – your monitors, your room, your headphones…maybe even your recordings themselves. But let’s step away from talking about gear, and let’s focus on your ears.

It’s no secret that mixing is a learning experience. It simply takes time. Every mix I do, I get a little bit better. I mix a little faster. I’m able to get the sounds I want more quickly. I know how to solve common problems. I pick up little tricks along the way.

What’s one thing you can do right now to start improving your mixes?

The answer? Start listening to professional mixes in your studio.

This may seem like a stupid suggestion, but take a second to think about it. Where do you listen to music the most? When you get a new album, where do you go to listen to it? Your car? Your stereo? Your iPod?

Ask yourself this question: of all the time you spend listening to music, what percentage of that time are you actually in your studio, listening on your studio monitors or studio headphones?

This is really important. You’re spending hours trying to get your mixes to sound good, to translate to other systems, but do you really know what a good mix sounds like through your system?

If you’re not spending a LOT of time listening to good, professional mixes in your studio, you’re mixes are in trouble. How can you expect to get pro mixes if you don’t have an intimate familiarity with how pro mixes sound in your studio?

Counterfeit

Pull out a dollar bill. Take a look at it. Could you tell if it was a fake? Chances are the answer is no.

There are professionals out there who are experts at spotting counterfeit bills. How do they do it? Do they spend a lot of time studying counterfeits? Or do they spend a lot of time studying the real thing?

Answer: They study the real thing.

Once you know what the real thing looks like, you can easily spot a fake.

You’re doing the same thing in your studio. You’re trying to pass your mix off as professional, but how will you know it’s professional if you don’t spend a lot of time getting to know what makes a mix professional?

A few suggestions

  1. Check your email in your studio, and listen while you do it.
  2. Eat breakfast in your studio, and listen while you eat.
  3. When you buy a new album, set aside an hour to listen to it entirely in your studio before you go listening on earbuds or in your car.

These are just a few suggestions. The point is, do what you can to train your ears to hear a pro mix, and to hear it in your studio.

Comment Question

What are you going to do to make sure you spend time listening to pro mixes in your studio?

Also…are you currently a Mix With Us member? If not, are you thinking about joining on Monday?

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  • Gregg Jackman

    Very good point made about listening to the opposition. I would also recommend looking at good mixes to see how they meter. The eye and ear must relate. You can easily make things sound exciting with the meters banging over the end stops but that’s not what the good guys do. I’ve seen many mixes done by the artist or the producer that sound interesting but you simply couldn’t use them. If you get it right, mastering is just adding the isrc codes. Nothing else should be required. I feel I’ve failed if anything else is required.
    Gregg Jackman.

    • From personal experience, I think mastering adds a lot. It won’t make a bad mix great, but it’s immensely helpful for that final polish on the album.

  • Cole Deiner

    These things really take a substantial amount of time to master. I have been recording and mixing for about 4 years now. I spent two years at Berklee College of Music collaborating with aspiring engineers just getting a feel for their processes and approaches in making innovative sounding mixes. The best advice I can give is to set aside an hour of critical listening everyday. Listen to all of your music with flat EQ’s no matter what device is being used. (Ipod, Itunes, car stereo.) open up itunes EQ and start drastically adding and subtracting gain to individual frequencies at a time to understand exactly where instrument frequencies lay. Listen to entire tracks through the right speaker with the left off and vice versa to truly understand their panning techniques. Remember that the use of delays and side-chaining compressors is key. The ear cant process multiple sounds occurring at the same time, so delay all instruments a little off of “0”. Sometimes I will take professional mixes and load them into logic, open up a high pass/low pass EQ and start from either end of the frequency spectrum dragging it little by little to really understand what I am listening to. I mix from studio monitors a lot less then most people. I will mix from studio headphones, then ear buds, then laptop speakers, then monitors. Sometimes I will even plug into my car stereo and mix a little from there. (Pathetic! I know). Remember to think in terms of good samples. Do not expect to just magically render poor samples. Stay basic with plug-ins as much as possible. Understand the difference between the need for an EQ change or a compression use. Remember balance. Maintain good space. Most importantly, try not to rely on the visual aspect of some of these programs. This can be very easy to get sucked into.(Especially Logic) Trust your ears! 

    • “The ear can’t process multiple sounds occurring at the same time…” What do you mean by that? I can listen to a mix with 40 tracks and hear each part in the mix simultaneously. Just curious what you really mean by that sentence.

      • Cole Deiner

        Well suppose you make 40 duplicates of a guitar lick what happens? It simply sounds like one loud guitar. Offsetting with delay makes it sound bigger rather than just louder. It is like a flam effect except the delay is so subtle, it wont actually sound like a flam to the human ear. This is needed in creating a better stereo image. The bass guitar and kick drum share similar frequencies. No two frequencies can occupy the same space. So if being front and center, you may want to experiment with offsetting to get the full audition of the two instruments. This is key if you are working with quantizing or sequencing. By doing this, you can afford to bring the kick a little lower in the mix and still get the full effect you want. I know a lot of people who just compress the hell out of things thinking it will solve the problem. Too much compression will never sound good universally. It is all about creating space and depth. So in delaying certain leads, you can bring it out in the mix without actually having to crank the gain. A lot of gain sounds relatively good through studio monitors, but when you put those mixes through other devices it will sound terrible. I mainly came to this conclusion through trial and error. I hope that sort of clears things up a little. 

        • I agree that if you duplicate a track 40 times it sounds like one loud guitar. That’s because it IS the same exact guitar part. I just think it’s unnecessary and potentially harmful to the mix to start trying to delay things all over the place. I’ve heard plenty of music that was recorded to tape that sounds fine…and they didn’t have to delay each individual instrument.

          I definitely use delays to create space in mono signals, etc.

  • Gerry Tebbe

    In my days as a side-man, the engineers Always listened to the work in as many systems as possible, from ghetto blasters to the car stereo. It also helps to have a friend or two who can be brutually honest when they listen to it through their systems. One other thing to do is to listen to your mixes in mono to make sure everything still sits where you want it to in the spectrum. One reason that immediately comes to mind is, and especially, if the music will be played by DJs who don’t always use stereo systems. 

    Just an aside, I recall the days of AM radio when the mixes where geared to focus on how they would sound through transistor radios and the car speakers of the day. Or even going from monaural to stereo. As I recollect, McCartney had a few choice words about that, “Stereo? Why?”

  • Buzz Smith

    I agree, but you have to keep in mind that the pro mixes on CD have already been mastered, so it’s not 100% fair if your mix has not been.

    The mastered ones (depending on the genre) will always have more apparent volume and some EQ and probably some multi band processing.

    But, yes, comparative listening is a must.

    • That’s true, but there’s PLENTY to learn from listening to mastered mixes.

  • Lastdaystudios@gmail.com

    Just listen to pro mixes in your studio and let your gut and instinct guide you….dont think and force the mix…the song will always mix itself…..go  by your gut. 

  • Sarang

    This is the very important technique to trains your EARS.Just listen the pro tracks in your studio n on your position for a lots of time and study them,its makes your ears trained n update with market trend…….because its all up to your EARS and experience.That is true it takes a lot time,but the first step to good mixing engineer.

  • YES!!! the only place i listen to CD’s is in my studio for at least the first 10 times listening to it. always always have music on in the studio no matter what! I didn’t even realize how much it helps at first, but you just start to do things automatically without thinking about it and it is because you know what it should sound like before you start!

  • alan stewart

    I have read a few books on the art of mixing, and each and everyone says basically the same thing. One of the books actually describes something and then tells you to listen to certain songs to hear that done.
    One can have the best equipment in the world, but if you don’t know how to translate your equipment to your songs, you are just muddling thru.
    I have at times put in a cd, or gone to sites where you can hear pro mixed songs, just to hear what they sound like on my system.
    Although this helps a lot, another thing to do is to listen to your song on as many different systems as you can. What sounds good in your studio, may be to bassy in your car, or to much treble in your home stereo system.

  • Bob Sorace

    I do this all the time. I have a large couch in my studio, and it’s my favorite place to take naps! But anyway, I’ll lay on the couch and just liten to whatever I’m into at the moment, it really does make a big difference. I’ll also let one of my songs repeat and just lay there listening, I’ve also heard that if you let your song play, and just walk around the house doing the dishes or whatever chores you have you’ll be listening as you would a regular song, and that can make a difference as well, like if I’m in the kitchen I hear a lot of kick drum, or whatever.

  • Kevin_hilman

    I hear this kind of advice all the time but have no idea how to do it. What are the steps to playing a CD through Pro Tools? How do you do this and ensure that you are not coloring the sound of the professionally mixed CD?
    Love the site by the way.

    • You don’t need to play it through Pro Tools. Just play it through your studio monitors/headphones.

    • You can easily import an audio track from a CD into ProTools via Import Audio -> Audio -> then just locate the CD and choose the reference track. The first thing you should do once you’ve imported the track is pull down the fader, since it’ll be mastered and probably louder than your mix. Anything you have in your Master channel will affect the imported track, so I’d suggest using a Mix bus (just route all the tracks to a free bus, instead of out1-2), to keep the Master clear of any plugins. You should try to match volume when comparing your mix to the mastered track you pulled off the CD, so your judgment won’t be affected by the different volumes.

  • My studio is also my office, my bedroom, and my hangout place to just chill, watch movies, read, etc. I do EVERYTHING in here (I’m a 22 year old bachelor, so I’m too poor to have my own living room or separate bedroom). My studio monitors are the same speakers I listen to music or watch movies on. I’m ALWAYS listening to music when I’m not working on my own, so I’m pretty familiar with my studio monitors and how pro mixes sound on them. You’re right, it’s definitely a HUGE advantage.