“I’m not happy with my mixes.”

That should become the anthem of home studio owners everywhere. (I’m thinking it would sound a lot like AC/DC’s “TNT”. Something like, “My MIX – ES SUCK … They really do.”)

Anyway…it’s a real struggle. As with anything creative (and anything worth doing), mixing takes a mountain of effort to get really good at it. And it’s not like you work hard for four years and get to graduate with a bachelor’s in mixing. You will always be capable of churning out a bad mix. The difference is those bad mixes will be fewer and fewer, and when you do crank out a steamy pile of audio poo, you’ll more than likely be able to recognize it and fix it.

All that said, take heart. Mixing is a game where you can absolutely improve your mixes over time, but you have to avoid some roadblocks. I’ve compiled them into a list of 10 Reasons You’re Not Happy With Your Mixes. I’ll share the first 5 today, and I’ll share the last 5 next week. Let’s dive in:

10. You’ve forgotten what a good mix sounds like.

A funny thing happens when you set up a home studio. You put some equipment in a room and do your best to makes sure it sounds as good as possible. Then you get to work recording and mixing.

You mix and mix and mix, but there’s a problem. You’ve got these nice-sounding speakers that are supposed to be accurate and good for mixing, but the only thing you ever listen to is your own mixes.

See the problem?

You’re trying to make your mixes sound like professional mixes, but you rarely actually listen to professional mixes on your system. That means you don’t know what a good mix is supposed to sound like in your room. You’re playing a constant guessing game.

This is one of the most common questions people ask me. “My mixes sound great in my studio, but they sound like garbage everywhere else.”

I always encourage them to go listen…really listen…to their favorite album in their studio. Chances are it will sound VERY different from their mixes. That should be a red flag. If you find yourself in a position where you think your mixes are the only ones that sound good in your studio, and that all these professional, Grammy-award-winning mixes don’t sound nearly as good as yours, you’ve been duped.

The solution isn’t to go buy more acoustic treatment or get better monitors. You simply need to familiarize yourself with what a good mix sounds like in your system. Once you do, you’ll be able to recognize when your mix doesn’t sound good, and you can start working to get it there.

I’ve used this analogy before: I heard once that in the world of counterfeit money, the people who are experts at spotting a counterfeit bill spend all their time studying the real thing. They know every square inch of the 100-dollar-bill, so much so that they can spot a fake almost instantly.

Whether that’s true or not I don’t know, but it proves my point. If you become intimately familiar with what a good mix sounds like, both out in the real world and in your studio, you’ll be in a better position to make your own mixes sound good.

9. You put plugins on every single track.

This seems inevitable for people starting out. They see some pretty videos of people using lots of fancy plugins, and they assume they need to do the same thing. They slap a plugin (or six) on every single track in the session. You know it’s bad when you’ve spent 20 minutes trying to get the attack time right on the compressor on your shaker track.

This is problematic for so many reasons, but the biggest one is it’s a huge waste of time. Imagine you put just two plugins on every track, and you have to spend time tweaking settings on all of them. If you’ve got a fairly big session (I did one the other day that had around 72 tracks), that’s 144 plugins you’ve got to tweak. Let’s say you’re new to mixing, and it takes you two minutes per plugin to get the settings right. That’s almost FIVE HOURS of time spent tweaking.

I don’t care how long it takes you to mix a song, but tacking on a mandatory five hours to the front of your mix is a surefire way to burn yourself out and waste a TON of time.

Yes, sometimes I use 5 or 6 plugins on a track, but that’s only because each of those plugins is doing a specific task. Hear me clearly on this: Every track doesn’t need a plugin. If you’re unsure of whether a track needs a plugin, err on the side of simplicity. I promise you it’ll pay off. You’ll have better mixes in less time.

8. You spend a lot of time in solo.

The solo button is a useful tool…on occasion. It allows you to listen to one track by itself, muting everything else in the session. Lovely, right?

The problem is that some people use the solo button as their favorite mixing tool.

Their mixing process looks something like this:

  1. Solo kick drum.
  2. EQ and compress kick drum.
  3. Solo snare drum.
  4. EQ and compress snare drum.
  5. Solo high hat.
  6. EQ and compress high hat.

They do this until ALL the tracks have been solo’d and made to sound perfect. The first problem with this is that it pushes you in the direction of #9 above, using plugins on every track. But it also gives you a VERY wrong idea of what makes a good mix.

Perhaps you’ve done this very thing yourself. I know I have. I’ll go through this solo-EQ-compress frenzy only to find that when I finally finish (hours later), and I hit play and listen to the entire mix, it sounds awful.

But why oh why would it sound awful after I made each track sound like utter perfection?!?!?!??!

Because, my dear friend, it’s called MIXING for a reason. If you’re baking a cake, nobody cares that you used the freshest eggs and the purest flour and sugar straight from the organic cane fields in your backyard if you got the proportions wrong. Yes, it’s important to use quality, fresh ingredients, but only if you’re also using them in the right quantities. (I don’t care how good your flour is, if you only used a pinch of sugar in your cake recipe, I’m gonna spit it out.)

It’s the same with mixing music. The sum is greater than the parts. To put it more bluntly, the sum is ALL that matters. To go as blunt as I possibly can: It doesn’t matter what a track sounds like in solo. All that matters it how it sounds in the mix.

Now, you may be sitting there nodding your head in agreement, but are you guilty of this? You spend three hours working on your drum mix in solo, getting the perfect kick and snare tone, only to find that the drums completely disappear when you bring in the rest of the tracks? If so, you’re falling into the solo trap.

Yes, solo is useful. Yes, I use the solo button to hone in on a particular track (especially when I’m hunting for a specific frequency to cut), but I make sure to QUICKLY go back to listening to the track in context, because that’s all that matters.

When you release your song to the world, people will certainly say things like, “I love the way the vocal sounds.” Or “Those drums sound fabulous.”

Here’s what they’re really saying: “I love the way the vocal sounds with everything else in the mix.” And “Those drums sound fabulous with everything else in the mix.”

They don’t actually say that, of course, but the truth remains. No one will ever hear your solo’d lead vocal. And they don’t need to. They need to hear an amazing-sounding vocal sitting on top of an amazing-sounding mix. If you solo the vocal and it sounds shrill and harsh, but it sounds amazing in the mix, then leave it alone; you’re done.

7. You’re new to mixing.

This one isn’t as fun as the others, but it’s true. Some people send me long emails complaining that they have put hours upon hours into a mix and they simply can’t get it to sound good. I ask them how many mixes they’ve done in their lives, and their reply is usually something like, “Oh this is my first one.”

Come on, people.

I understand the frustration, I really do. I’m as guilty of any of these 10 mistakes as the next guy. But you can’t expect to pick up a guitar for the first time, practice for 20 hours, and become Eric Clapton or Angus Young. It’s the same way with mixing. You’ve gotta spend time with it. You’ve got to get a lot of mixes under your belt. Don’t focus too much on making them sound amazing. You’re not capable of amazing mixes just yet. You need more time to train your ears.

That’s not to say you couldn’t knock the ball out of the park on your first mix, but it’s unlikely. Strive for excellence, sure. But don’t obsess over being unhappy with your first few mixes. That’s par for the course.

6. You don’t ask for feedback on your mixes.

“No man is an island,” they say.

This is a hard thing to do, but it can yield tremendous benefits to you and your mixes. You’ve got to ask for feedback on your mixes. And I don’t mean playing it for your spouse and waiting for the inevitable, “That’s nice.” I mean having someone who knows music and audio really listen to your mix and give real, honest feedback.

This is the great (and scary) thing about working with clients. Getting feedback is an automatic part of the process. You send them “Mix 1,” and they send back a list of changes.

Does getting negative feedback hurt? You betcha. Is it good for you? Absolutely.

You spend a lot of time in your studio, pouring your heart and time into these songs. Do you really want to stay in a bubble? (Did you have those “bubble” friends growing up? The ones whose parents wanted to protect them from anything negative or painful or potentially harmful? Yeah, how did they turn out? A lot of ‘em went straight up crazy, right? )

Nobody likes to see and admit their own flaws, but that’s part of being a grownup, and it’s one of the only ways to see real improvements in your mixes. Find a mixing buddy, or even hire an engineer you respect to give you an honest critique of your mix. It’s worth it.

That’s why years ago I started doing free mix critiques for my VIP members. Once a month I sit down for an hour and listen to as many of their mixes as I can, giving them real, honest feedback. Occasionally people will hire me to critique one or more of their mixes. (I’m doing one of those later today, actually.)

Whether you use me or somebody else, I urge you to find someone who can give you real, actionable feedback on your mixes. It is absolutely worth it.

And if you DO want to see what this VIP Membership thing is all about, you can check it out by clicking here. I’ll be completely biased, it’s the single best resource online for home studio folks. And it’s cheeeeeap. See if it’s right for you.

That’s it for this article. In the comments below, tell us which of these 5 you’re the most guilty of doing. Don’t worry, I’ve done them all. 🙂

Next week, I’ll post the remaining Top 10 Reasons You’re Not Happy With Your Mixes. In the meantime, happy mixing!

Joe Gilder
Home Studio Corner