As the author of a best selling mixing book (The Mixing Engineer’s Handbook), I’m frequently asked to review mixes.
And while many are remarkable and are a display of great talent, there does exist a category of mixes that, for want of a better term, you could call “amateur.”
An amateur mix usually means that you’ve not spent enough time listening and learning, but when you can’t determine why a mix sounds great, the next best thing is to determine when you have something that’s, shall we say, less than great. So here are the seven characteristics of an amateur mix.
Does your mix have any of these characteristics?
1) No Contrast—The same musical textures are used throughout the entire song. This is generally an arrangement issue, which the mixer can affect somewhat since mixing is so much more than balancing. It’s influencing the arrangement by what you mute, emphasize or lower in the mix.
2) A Frequent Lack Of A Focal Point—There are holes between lyrics where nothing is brought forward in the mix to hold the listener’s attention. Granted, this is an arrangement issue too, but it’s your job as a mixer to find some point of interest and emphasize it.
3) Mixes That Are Noisy – Clicks, hums, extraneous noises, count-offs, and sometimes lip-smacks and breaths are all things that the listener finds distracting. It may be a pain to eliminate these distractions but you’ve got to do it to take the mix to where it has to be.
4) Mixes That Lack Clarity And Punch – Instruments aren’t distinct, and low-end frequencies are either too weak or too big. This is really the number one indication of an amateur mix, especially in the low end. It’s either way too heavy or way too light.
The way around this is to listen to other records that you think sound great and try to emulate the sound. Sure it takes time, but it will get you in the ballpark.
5) Mixes That Sound Distant And Are Devoid Of Any Feeling Of Intimacy—The mix sounds distant because too much reverb or overuse of other effects. This is another common trait since a newbie mixer thinks the plug-in effects are so cool (because they are!) that they want to use them all on everything all the way through the song.
You’d be surprised just how many effects are used in a great mix sometimes, but the results are so subtle that you can’t really tell unless you had the original non-effected sound to compare with. In an amateur mix, you hear them all screaming at you all the time. If you can make it sound great without effects first, you’ll automatically moderate their use.
6) Inconsistent Levels – Instrument levels that vary from balanced to too soft or too loud or lyrics that can’t be distinguished. Once again, a newbie mixer usually sets the faders and forgets them, but mixing is just as dynamic as the music. Every note of every solo and every word of the vocal must be heard.
Even with automation as sophisticated as it is these days, it still takes some time and a critical ear to be sure that everything is heard.
7) Dull And Uninteresting Sounds — Generic, dated or frequently-heard sounds are used. There’s a difference between using something because it’s hip and new and using it because everyone else is using it. The latest example is the Auto-tune keying trick initially used by Cher, then copied by the Backstreet Boys and most recently Kanye West and others. They’ve already used it, so give it a rest. It doesn’t mean you’re cool if you use it, just a copycat.
The same with generic synth patches from a Roland Motif (this problem goes all the way back to the 80s with the electric piano sound of the DX-7). We’ve heard them all. Time for something new. Most great artists strive for something that no one has ever heard before.
Although some artists and mixers get lucky by flying through a mix, making and mixing records usually takes a lot of time and attention. We’d all like it to go faster, but there are some things that you just can’t let get by.
Eliminate the seven characteristics of an amateur mix and you’ll be surprised just how good your song can sound.
Now, discuss the six elements of a great mix.