Preparing Your Mixes? Avoid These 8 Common Mistakes.
Learn eight common mistakes made in preparing mixes for mastering with insight from esteemed engineer Pete Doell.
Most home recordists understand the importance of mastering, and the vital role it plays in the final stages of music production.
But even an expert mastering engineer is at the mercy of the material they are given to work with. Let’s take a look at some typical mistakes made in preparing mixes for mastering, with insight from Platinum mastering engineer Pete Doell.
1. Too Much Bottom
Excessive low‑end is a common problem in home studio mixes. The average bedroom studio or rehearsal space, lacking basic acoustic treatment, is rife with reflective surfaces, resulting in an uneven response across the bass spectrum. This can exaggerate certain notes and leave others practically inaudible, translating to a muddy, poorly balanced low‑end in your mix.
"The most egregious mistake is that people’s monitors aren’t placed properly," says Doell. "Speakers need to be as far apart from each other as you are from them. So if your mix position is, say, three feet from either speaker, the speakers should be exactly three feet apart. And if the speakers are too close or too far from a wall, the apparent bass response will be off."
Learn more: Studio Monitor Placement
2. Terrible Treble
High frequencies are accentuated during mastering. But this frequency content can be difficult to discern in a typical project studio.
Doell offers this advice: "Most mixes will want a bit of ‘polish’ or ‘shine’ in mastering. When this processing is applied, sibilance can really creep up. Do yourself a big favor and de‑ess your vocals, maybe even your hi‑hat just a bit. Your mastering engineer will thank you."
Doell also points out the importance of using EQ wisely and sparingly. We cover the use and abuse of EQ here, and give you some pointers for best practices with this all‑important studio tool.
3. No Dynamic Range
For many years, the "loudness war" was one of the most discussed topics in mixing and mastering circles. A product of television and radio advertising, ultimately this phenomenon involved creating radio‑specific mixes by using exorbitant amounts of compression to maximize the song’s volume and attract the listener's attention. As a mixing technique, it is generally considered bad practice and has obvious consequences when it comes time to send your tracks out for mastering.
Dynamic range is defined as the difference between the loudest and softest elements in your track. Ideally, the files you deliver to a mastering engineer should have peaks of around –3dB for the loudest sources — a snare drum, for example — and an average of –6dB to –8dB for the remaining material. This should leave you with somewhere around 3dB to 5dB of dynamic range.
"Sometimes clients desire a ‘loud’ mix, but they have done little or nothing to control the dynamics of their mixes," says Doell. "I like the analogy of getting a super sexy paint job for your car — asking the mastering engineer to do the entire job with one ‘coat of paint’ is not the smartest move. Layering the limiting (by compressing the vocal, bass, snare, for example) will allow a MUCH more gorgeous, detailed, deep shine on the final product."
Here, Doell is referring to the use of multiband compression, which mastering engineers use to target and compress specific frequency bands in a track.
In order for these nuanced compressors to shine, your source material needs enough left‑over dynamic range to accommodate the processing. The end result of over‑compressing your material during mixdown is a reduction in total dynamic range of your song. This effectively robs your mastering engineer of the resources they need to do their job, and can rob your mix of its final detail and polish.
4. Lack of Panning
Generally, key elements such as kick, snare, lead vocals, and bass should be panned center in your mix — but panning too many tracks at or near the center creates cluttered‑sounding mixes that lack definition. Here’s what Doell has to say about best‑practices for panning: "It’s always good to pan some elements of the mix just a bit off to one side. If you have a blend of guitars, horns, backing vocals, etc. — keeping the middle less cluttered allows your ear to hear more distinctly all of that cool production you’ve worked on. You’ll also need less EQ and effects to pick these things out in the mix."
5. Phase Problems
Most DAWs have effectively unlimited track counts, and it can be tempting to record everything in stereo. But always reference your mixes in mono to check for phase cancellation from poorly‑placed mics. For example, an acoustic guitar recorded in stereo can add depth and character to your song, but you may be unaware of subtle phase inconsistencies during tracking.
Learn more: What is Audio Phase?
6. Poor Vocal Placement
It’s hard to be objective about the placement of vocals in a mix, particularly if it’s your song. A track can sound equally "right" with the vocal sitting a bit in front of or behind the rest of the tracks — and sometimes your perception of the lead vocal level shifts slightly after the mastering phase. Often, the pros will offer two or three alternate mixes with the lead vocal at different levels, and send each version to the mastering engineer.
7. Misaligned Tracks
This one is a no-brainer. Your stems (separated groups of tracks, like drums and bass, guitars, backing vocals) should all start at the same place. "This is another pet peeve of mine," says Doell. "If the lead vocal doesn’t come in until 0:30, that stem should have 30 seconds of silence at the top."
8. Not Knowing Your Room
"I always like to start my mixing day by listening to records I know and love — ideally in the musical style I will be working in, and in the seat I will be sitting in to mix, over the same D/A converter," says Doell. "Then I know I’m comparing apples to apples. It’s important to know how the room I am working in is participating in what I am hearing before I start making any decisions."
Final Thoughts on Prepping Your Mixes
There are countless stumbling blocks that can trip up your mixes and make life challenging for your mastering engineer. As always, the bottom line is to use your ears, listen carefully, and learn the rules before you break them. Keep the potential mistakes mentioned above top-of-mind, and you'll be on your way to better results.
— Daniel Keller & Pete Doell
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