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I just finished recording an album, and when I started mixing, I realized one of the songs was super muddy. I couldn’t figure out why and it was super frustrating. I knew what the problem was, but I had no idea how to solve it. I’m guessing you’ve been there too.
Fortunately, one of my audio engineer friends who has a lot more experience than me came to the rescue. He gave me some tips for bringing clarity to my mix, and those tips worked. So, pulling from what he told me and from doing a bit of research on my own, here are a few things you can do to avoid muddiness in your mix.
What Is Muddiness?
Muddy mixes are common. They’re also extremely frustrating, especially when you don’t know how to fix them. A “muddy” mix just means the instruments get jumbled up together, usually in the middle frequencies or in the middle of the stereo mix. The instruments, sounds, vocals, and effects are not clearly defined. Things get piled up and start masking each other so it sounds like one solid piece of garbled noise.
As if mud were sound, or sound were mud.
Here’s the thing. Just saying “better EQing is the answer” is not actually the answer. Yes, it can involve EQ, but it’s more nuanced than that. So here are some specific ways you can clean up your mix.
1. Give yourself a good foundation.
Have you ever heard the term “you can’t polish a turd?” That’s true with muddy mixes.
The best way to combat a muddy mix is to make sure your tracks sound good from the start. This is where your recording and engineering skills become crucial. If you start with a beautiful and crisp sound, you won’t have to polish it up much with mixing.
So to avoid muddiness, try controlling the lower frequencies before the mixing stage. You can do this by treating your recording space with bass traps, diffusers, and absorption tiles, or using the “roll-off” switch on your microphone (if it has one), which helps cut back on the low frequencies. Turn on that switch when you’re recording very bassy instruments or if you need to be close to the mic.
2. Don’t be afraid to pan.
Another piece of advice my engineer friend gave me was not to be afraid to pan stuff wider than you think. So I did. I panned the tracks 70%, 80%, even 100% (gasp!) to the left and right. As I watched the knob turn drastically, it felt like I would screw up the whole mix.
But it did just the opposite. I heard it start to clear things up immediately. The muddiness decreased and my song felt fuller. Sometimes the answer is that simple.
Using high-pass filters is an effective way to cut out low-end tracks. The steep drop off of a high-pass filter is the perfect EQing method for removing lower frequencies and, in turn, unmuddying your mix.
First, figure out what’s causing the overload in the low end. Then, slap a high-pass filter on it and see how many of the trouble frequencies you can remove before it starts to negatively affect the timbre of your signal. Usually stuff below 50Hz is almost never needed.
4. Go one-by-one.
If filtering doesn’t do the trick, try these:
Solo the drums.
- Add in each track one at a time from the lower to higher frequencies.
- Listen for when the mix gets muddy and what instruments are causing it.
This is a great way to narrow down which instruments are competing for the same frequencies.
Once you’ve figured out where the problem lies, you can now untangle those overlapping frequencies with EQ. If you have a visual EQ, use it. Even though you should always trust your ears over your eyes, a visual display of the frequencies can help you see what tracks are adding to the pile of low frequencies.
The first place to check for the culprit is in the low-mid range. If they are the problem, you’ll typically see too much energy and activity in the 200-500Hz range. And if you have low-end boominess, you may want to look at the 120Hz range because that’s where that issue usually sits.
Once you find the spot, decide what should be using that space then carve out that area from the other instruments. Just do this slowly so as not to overdo it.
If none of this is working (panning, cutting the low end out, EQing), then you can try a spectrum analyzer on the master bus track. This is similar to a visual EQ in that it shows you where the frequency buildup is. Once your track is analyzed and you can see the problem frequencies, you can take steps to adjust the mix.
Give yourself headroom.
Finally, headroom. Not only is it important to have headroom in general, but it can also reduce muddiness greatly. If your master bus has hot levels, it can blur any clarity the song had. Look at the gain staging (the levels in each step of the signal flow) and try to keep the average levels between -18 dBFS and 9 dBFS.
These are the steps the pros use to de-muddy a mix, and none of them require extra gear or an expensive studio. So I’m fairly confident they’ll work for you.
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