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  Ten Common Mixing Mistakes to Avoid!

Category One: Mixing Mistakes!

     "The most common problem is too much level [at mixdown] - [It's unfixable if the engineer] just slammed it. If it's crunched and distorted, there's nothing to be done about it - those crunches are going to be there.

     That kind of saturation takes away the attack. It flattens things out.
A kick drum becomes all mush, so you don't feel the real solid slap to it. Sometimes it will really need to be remixed."

- "Big Bass" Brian Gardner - Bernie Grundman Mastering

1. Sampling rates are low and mixing levels are two high. We recommend making your recordings at the highest sampling rate possible - up to 96k. Most projects still come in at 44.1k. Yikes. Why???  Not for quality purposes.  Even 48k sounds better. We're guessing that folks think that if you're making a CD that's 44.1, there's no point in making a recording that's at a higher sampling rate.  Better: If you're going to a mastering studio with analog gear, you always want to have the highest sampling rate possible when you deliver those files!  If your CPU processor/plug ins/hard drive space/track count will allow it, record at a higher sampling rate - at least 48k and always 24 bit!!!!  Even if your system is 16 bits (gads!) choose to make 24 bit files at mix time.

When it comes to mixing levels (and tracking for that matter) we recommend that you keep your stereo buss set at unity gain (-0-) and keep the levels 3 to 4 dB below the clipping point on a Full Scale digital meter. Artists often worry when their rough mixes aren't as loud as commercial CDs.  So the engineer often feels pushed into using extra compression or limiting, when sometimes that confuses the issue and can change the overall mix. 

Often musical arrangements (how many instruments are playing at any one time) have a lot to do with how loud the mix will be, so it can be mysterious when some songs stand out and others don't. It's also helpful to know that at hotter levels, more sustain is induced into the sound (forming longer kic and bass notes and less subtle reverb). 

Often the skill of the mixing engineer has a lot to do with crafting a loud mix.  Down the road, Separations can facilitate better mastering because the variety of elements throughout the project can be optimized to get the most out of every song.

Do NOT to clip the signal when tracking or mixing in DAWs. Those red lights are not your friend.  While it can be helpful to make mixes with stereo buss limiting or compression (to see how things sound with hotter overall level), it's not ideal to just slam your mixes.  Here's more about Hot CDs, compression, and Mixing

2. Mixing crash cymbals too loud and kic "tick" (beater) too loud. 90% of our indie clients mix their crashes TOO hot. Cymbal crashes or harsh hi-hats are not easy to deal with, particularly if you're requesting traditional 2-track mastering. Since it's fairly common to add some highs or mid-highs for clarity in mastering, cymbals become clearer - right along with the voice - unless you submit Separations.

Crash cymbals effect the perceived level of the drums and the vocal. Want more muscular drums? Keep the crashes down. Want a radio-audible vocal, but not to the point of "teeter-tottering" (offsetting) the instruments? Keep the crashes down.

Solo your drum mix. If you even
remotely think the crashes are slightly louder than your snare, then the crashes are too loud. Crashes should be lower than the snare. Remember the "teeter-totter principle" - if something is UP, then something else is being offset DOWN. If you want big drums, keep the cymbals smaller than the drums. There are always exceptions. A/B with commercial CD's - with an "ear" toward the balance between the snare and the crashes.

That cool "tick" or "plastic" beater portion of the kic drum really helps it cut through. But sometimes less is more. Often sampled kics have too much of it. Along with the crashes, that "tick" or "click" gets louder with added clarity in mastering. It can overtake the snare in some cases. You may want it to overtake the snare. If you need it to cut through layers of big guitars, it can help. But in general, think "less is more."

With Separations, all of the limitations of this issue are either reduced or eliminated. We highly recommend that if you want a loud rock master, make two drum separations. Make a Drum/no-cymbals.wav Separation and make a Cymbals/no-drums.wav Separation. More info: visit the page on tracking drum sounds.

Important: Be SURE to check the POLARITY of your waveforms, particularly drums and bass! If the polarity of the kic drum is incorrect, it is pulling instead of pushing on the leading edge of the waveform. NO SOUND IN NATURE ever pulls (negative excursion) on the leading edge of the sound. If the bass and kic polarity isn't correct you will get mushy bottom end.

Zoom in and look carefully at the leading edge of your waveforms. They should go up before they go down. If they go down first, they are out of polarity. This is different but kinda related to phase. Phase is RELATIVE to something else. Like if one mic is out-of-phase with another mic. Polarity is "absolute" - meaning it's relative to itself. Stereo polarity is the same - both sides of the stereo sound are pulling before pushing.

A nice advantage to mastering with Separations is that we can discover issues "under the hood" of the mix that are difficult (and often not possible) to address with traditional mastering.

Probably 60% of self-produced projects have polarity problems. This drastically affects punch. Also, it just sounds weird when a kic drum pulls away from you at the first moment of the impact. Use a polarity (or phase) inverting plugin or waveform modifier to correct the issue.

Tom-tom samples can often pull before pushing - and you'll get better punch if they push first. Waveforms that start in the same direction give a fatter speaker excursion.

3. Not de-essing vocals in mixdown is a very common problem. Gads this one is important! A de-esser keeps vocals from becoming spitty or harsh when you want to add EQ to get the sound bright and clear. But don't over-do de-essing - the vocals can sound like they are lisping. The SS's should sound even and natural no matter how much top end you put on a vocal. Since many software de-essers aren't that great, a very good way to de-ess is to actually go into your volume automation window, ya know that line-with-the-dots editing thing, and zoom in on the ss's and manually lower the volume of each one. Fun, huh! Takes time, but it's the most natural sounding (think manual compression). With Separations.... this becomes hardly an issue at all.

     "[Mastering] a mix with heavy vocal 'esses' means de-essing the entire mix, which doesn't sound good. I'd rather [lower the 'esses' in Pro Tools with manual editing] to bring the volume of each of the 'esses' down individually."

     "I leave the waveform alone and just grab and drop the volume curve down at the exact spot where the [high] frequency is peaking," he continues. "After a while you get a good feeling for how much each one needs to come down because you don't want to get rid of it completely."

- Erik Zobler, 2-time Grammy winner - credits include Stanley Clarke, Miles Davis, Anita Baker, Philip Bailey, Celine Dion, etc.

4. The vocals are mixed too soft, or inconsistently from song to song. ...or there's too many instruments or frequencies crowding the vocal. Create a "pocket" in the frequencies in your mix where the vocal naturally sits even around loud guitars and drums. "Feather" all the frequencies (and panning locations) in your mix so that you don't build up any one particular area. Also remember rule #1, "There are no rules." This problem is totally solved by HD Separation Mastering.

Here's my old answer to this old problem. Don't read it. I published it from 1999 to March 2005 because it was correct. Separation Mastering now makes this information obsolete. Move on to #9....

Solution: Make alternate mixes. For example, if you wonder about how much kic to have in the mix, start out with what you think is correct. Then make a 2nd pass with the kic up 1 dB - then make a mix with the kic up 2 dB. Since a hotter kic can "teeter-totter" other things softer (like the vocal), you may then want to make a pass with the kic and the vocal up 1 dB (or alter whatever tracks you're concerned about.)

Then make a mix with the kic back to normal and the vocal up 1 dB, and so forth. [Ok, so you're reading this obsolete paragraph anyway... check it out... even in 1999 when this article first appeared, alternate mixes were just a partial solution, so we encouraged people to make Separated tracks] ...Then make a TV mix (a mix with everything minus the lead vocal) and a lead-vocal only mix. 

Leave in all the effects, delays, etc. that you used on the voice in the mix. We can layer the voice mix with the TV mix in mastering and make it exactly the way you want it. It takes more time, but then so does remixing. It's also a good idea to make an instrumental mix (no vocals at all) and an all-vocals mix. We'll sync it all up and give you the balance you want!

5. Songs mixed on small speakers (without subwoofers) generally have incorrect bottom end. Don't overcompensate just because you're using small speakers. Too much woof only makes home speakers work harder and not necessarily produce more sound. This is one of the arts of mastering. Knowing how to produce useful bottom end that translates well to a home system, radio, a boom box, and a night club. When in doubt, get a subwoofer and compare your mix to commercial CDs through your monitor system.

Common mistake: too much bottom on the kic from 30 Hz and below. The best way to check on any system is to A-B your mix with commercial CD productions - so long as you have instant level-matching and high resolution. (More A-B tips on the Nautilus web site.)

TIP: Remember the teeter-totter principle - when you add more of something, something else will be lessened.  This applies to frequencies, instruments, panning and more. 

6. Over-use of stereo buss mastering processors. Sometimes less is more.  Before Separation Mastering, clients would sometimes over-process their stereo buss which was practically impossible to undo.  Throwing more technology at music isn't always the answer, particularly if the monitor system or room acoustics disguise the cool sound that's just there to begin with. Many classic recordings had very little technology in the signal chain.... and amazing stuff happened!

Computers and Finalizers (or other digital processors) change the sound by recalculating the numbers. The word length of the digital "samples" change, and the resolution changes. Even panning or changing the fader level in a DAW recalculates the numbers.  What we find is that more artists and recordists are creating amazing stuff - a 10th grader today with a laptop DAW has more technology available to him (or her) than the Beatles did 40 years ago today! 

Key: Finalizers and mastering plug ins don't come with 20+ years of experience.  An expert mastering engineer won't be caught up in "gizmo-itus" and can hear deep into the mix to bring out the best in your music. Creative beginnings and endings, or other ideas add to the final "icing" on the cake.  Do your homework by A/B referencing your mixes with commercial CD's, and always experiment - try different things to find what works best for you.

Old school: Less is more. Today we often read articles where big-name mixers "turn all the knobs past 11." Yikes. Ok, that's a cool sound, but I've seen it over done in many cases. Balance is the key.

Category Two: Technical/Logistics

7. Not listening critically to your mixes for clicks, pops, ticks etc. Digital is unforgiving. Folks today are auto-tuning, bouncing and trouncing in computers, using plug-in mania with computer operating systems and word clock personalities... Mastering brings out the best in your music, but it also brings a lot forward that you might not have heard unless you sit down with headphones, an undisturbed environment, and your favorite beverage... Some common noises: mouth clicks, auto-tune glitches, processor-strained drop-outs and more.

"A lot of people think once you're going D to D, it doesn't matter because it's all numbers. But you can hear it. Every step makes a difference, and when you add all the subtleties up, the result is dramatic."

- "Big Bass" Brian Gardner - Bernie Grundman Mastering

: With that said, we still recommend backing up your masters, just in case. Especially if you are sending your masters out-of-state for mastering. We recommend using Fed Ex or a company that reliably tracks your package!

8. Being too rushed by the pressing deadline.
Schedule your mastering session so that you have enough time to take home a reference CD and listen to it on several different systems before sending it to the pressing plant!

YOUR PART of mastering is to take your master into the consumer world (not just right back to the studio) and "put on the hat" of your audience to gauge their experience of your music.  Put on the "hat" of the program director who will decide if he or she will play your music!  Examine the experience of your whole album in the car, from the next room, out at a local retail store, night club, etc. If needed, we can recall your session and make
creative changes. Allow for this in your budget, too.

9. Not having your album artwork, promotional posters, T-shirts, video's ready for release at the same time as your music!

10. Editing the front and back of your stems/spearation files right up to the exact start of the audio can be a mistake. Leave a couple seconds of "pre-roll" before your audio file begins.  Just as in the days of analog tape, or DATS, a little breathing room before the song starts is a good idea.  We can always trim things down in mastering. 

Bonus mistake: Burning reference audio CDRs at high speed (8x, 12x, 95x etc.)  Burn your audio CDRs at the slowest speed your burner will go.  Your CDR will sound better and be more reliable. 
Akwid - Grammy Nominated
Akwid - Grammy Nominated
Jeff Peterson - Hawaiian Grammy-Winning Performer
Jeff Peterson
Grammy Performer

Chaka Khan - Fly Miracle Project
Chaka Khan
Fly Miracle Project

Stephen Stills
Stephen Stills
Fly Miracle Project

Spiritual Chillout
Spiritual Chillout
Brazil's A cappella BR6
Brazil's BR6
Arthur Adams
Arthur Adams
Blues Legend

Marc Seal
Marc Seal
Guitar hero!
Alright This Time Just the Girls
Sympathy for the Record Industry

Lorna Lee on Intentcity Records

Lorna Lee

Cutting a Hot CD

Mastering Procedures

How to prepare for mastering

Creative changes

Even More Secrets of Mixing

Even more about studio monitors


How to create Separations

Illustrated History of Separations

Great reference CD's

Getting a bigger sound recording

Eq Settings that make a mix come alive!

How much compression?

Should I have the pressing plant make the glass master at 1X?

Stereo widening techniques

Different opinions in the studio

Backup your masters

How to align an analog 2-track machine

Contact us

"We are very happy to tell you that everybody, from the label to  the musicians around us love your [refinements] & your mastering." - Dieter Schulthess - Core 22 - Switzerland


Online Sales Chart - where the money is made?
What is remastered, MFiT, and Sound Check?

Date created: 10/25/99 • Last modified: 08/13/06

Read JV's interview with mastering
legend, Stephen Marcussen in the
May 2003 issue of EQ Magazine!

Also published in the October
AES issue of
Pro Sound News

Here's the unedited interview!

John Vestman interviews Stephen Marcussen