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Have you ever found yourself in a situation where the final mix of your track or album sounded perfect to you before, but now, something’s just off?
Perhaps the mix lacks clarity and balance all of a sudden, or perhaps it sounds just totally off on your home speakers, but great on headphones or in your monitors. As you sit here, doubting your own opinion about your own music, even though you’re the one who’s supposed to make the final call, it can be frustrating not knowing how to proceed.
How do you decide if and when a mix sounds “right”?
If you’re set up to produce your own music, but not necessarily mix engineer it, the road to that “final mix” can be a rocky one. People you work with can influence the way you hear any mix, and if you’re listening through expensive monitors in an acoustically treated room, your track may sound misleadingly grand and flawless. A mix engineer will pay attention to the frequency spectrum, dynamics, and overall sonic quality, above all else. But, the mixing process is part of the creative process, too, and therefore, it’s bound to be subjective.
That’s one of the reasons we included lesson sections on mixing your own work in our brand new Soundfly course, Intro to Making Music in Logic Pro X, because it’s important to develop your own expectations of mix quality and clarity, how your music sounds best to you, and to get as comfortable working in your own space as possible.
I’ve worked in recording studios and production studios. I also have my own setup at home, and I’ve worked with other producers who have their own setups, too. So I’ve been around some pretty expensive equipment throughout my career. After gaining some experience and thus more self-confidence, I realized that, like other industries, the music industry is drawn to equating luxury with quality. But let’s face it — your audience will not be hearing your songs through some giant Genelec or Focal studio monitors.
Considering all this, how do you come up with a methodical checklist that works every time?
1. Listen through the speakers and headphones you use every day.
I always prefer hearing the first draft I receive from my mix engineer through the monitors in my production room (Yamaha HS). I often produce my music, and this method allows me to have a clear, objective perspective when it comes to comparing my rough mix to his. Then, I listen with the headphones I usually use for editing work (AKG K99s and Sony MDR-7506).
Your first draft is all about figuring out the details and making sure that all the elements of your arrangement — instruments, vocals, electronic processing, transitions, sound design, etc. — are in the right place and living harmoniously. Listening with the headphones I use for my meticulous editing process on a daily basis helps me type my notes for my engineer way faster.
With every single pair of headphones and monitors — no matter the price, no matter the quality — it will take you some time to get used to their individual frequency responses. So, take that into account, but know that the more time you spend listening with them, the more you’re developing your ear, both for the tech and for your music.
2. Listen through the speakers and headphones your audience uses every day.
A couple of years ago, when I was on the verge of driving myself crazy because I couldn’t decide if my EP sounded good enough, I saw a tweet from Lorde that really resonated with me. She broadcasted that she was listening to the mixes of her new songs on earbuds, so that she could hear them like her fans would. Makes so much sense, doesn’t it?
If you’re hoping for your music to resonate with your audience almost as much as it does with you, listening to it with Apple earbuds or even your laptop speakers is the easiest way to make sure that the mix translates the way you intended it. Those earbuds are actually a great source to rely on when it comes to determining whether your mix sounds too harsh or bass heavy. Believe it or not, to this day, I can’t bring myself to approve a mix or master before I take a final listen on my earbuds!
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3. Keep an eye out for over-emotional responses and listener fatigue.
You might have noticed that your reaction to your mix changes as you listen to it over and over again. In my experience, the first listen usually evokes an emotional response, whether that’s positive or negative. If you have an engineer on board who really gets your sound, chances are your initial reaction won’t be a bad one, but it is very common to have a negative reaction to a rough mix.
There may have even been a few times when I cried because I thought the engineer completely butchered my song (drama!). So it’s important to keep in mind that your opinion, and your reaction, will always shift after a few listens. You may find that you’re getting used to the mix and finally hearing some details you missed the first time. On the other hand, if you listen too many times, you will inevitably experience listener fatigue and begin doubting your judgment.
So, how can you make sure that your evaluation is a healthy one?
Listen a few times, but sleep on it and give yourself time to digest what has changed. Do you usually listen to your mixes at home? Try listening when you’re on your way to work for a change, and pay attention to how the mix sounds in your car, on the bus, on the subway, or out on the streets as you get lost in your thoughts while you’re walking, just like your fans probably will.
These methods will help you realize that the way we listen to music changes depending on variables like mood, location, time of day, time of year, and, of course, the characteristics of the listening space.
4. Compare your final mix to your favorite songs by putting them into a playlist.
It is always useful to compare your music stylistically and sonically to other songs they’ll eventually co-exist with. As you get closer to your final mix, make a playlist and listen to your track in between all the other songs you love, and observe your reaction as they come on and flow together. You may find that there’s something missing about your mix that you can’t quite put your finger on — which is okay!
Send the playlist to your engineer, or fellow musicians, to see what they think the issues are and what could be done to rectify them. I also recommend creating a separate playlist with all of your songs in it to observe your own progress and the consistency of your vision and sound.
5. Don’t hear other people’s opinions until you form your own, if you can help it.
Lastly, give yourself the opportunity to genuinely respond to your own creations. When you’re about to wrap up a project, it’s natural to feel vulnerable. It may be tempting to rely on others’ opinions for validation, but you have to keep in mind that at the end of the day, you’re the artist, the creator, the boss of your own project, and the one to make all the final decisions — and that, my friends, is the most beautiful part of this job!
Never stop pushing yourself to learn from your own creative experiences — and, yes, even the mistakes — along the way. Some tracks are going to turn out better than others, and some mixing decisions you’ll just have to live with. But at the end of the day, don’t get hung up on trying to sound like your favorite radio-friendly pop artists. Just focus on sounding like you. You’re an artist — you make up the rules.
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