Why Do My Mixes Sound Bad?

Mixes always have the potential to go wrong, it may be lack of experience, bad monitoring, or just an extremely difficult mix. Regardless, I've found a few things that really can help. This is my step by step process that has helped a lot. Bear in mind though, the only thing that will finish your mix up is you.

First Steps

  • Save a copy of your work. Any changes you make from here will change the mix. if you realise it was better before, you can always go back. 
  • Turn down the volume of every channel the same amount (shift+clicking selects them all in reaper and so it can be controlled with one fader). I usually do ~6dB but it depends on many factors. Make sure no channel is clipping at any point. If it does, turn all the channels down some more.
  • This stage is a check stage. Turn off every effect in all the channels and see if it sounds better. If it does, you know that your processing is wrong and you need to have better effects and processing. Repeat this by disabling for each channel only and you may find that the processing is only bad on a couple of tracks. This will save you redoing each track.
  • Solo each track at a time and see if it's absence improves the mix.
  • Listen on a different system. It may sound better, it may sound worse. take note and try on another system. You want to see which systems it sounds better on and figure out why.
The reason for doing this is to identify what is wrong. By lowering the volume, you ensure nothing is clipping and gives you a different point of reference to mix. Sometimes by mixing too loud you get a bad sense of levels. All these stages are readily reversible and a good starting point, especially if you have  no clue what is wrong.

These are the common issues and their "fixes"

  1. First of all listen to the bass of the song. is it muddy? Does it feel like there is too much going on? This may be the issue, as often is the case. Check what instruments you have and if they are introducing noise to the mix. A quick fix is to high pass everything, e.g cut out the bass frequencies, just below the lowest note. The chart below shows that the cymbal's range (green) goes down to 200Hz. by cutting every frequency below 195Hz, you have the potential to give a lot more room to the bass instruments. Reverb is a bad effect for allowing mud to reign supreme in the mix. Remember to high pass the bass on the instruments' reverbs as well as the mud there will be worse. If that doesn't work, try dipping the EQ around 250Hz with a narrow Q notch. If the bass is still too much, especially in combination with the kick, try side-chain compressing it.
  2. Does the mix have a piercing sound? This is where physics of the human ear comes into play. The 2-5kHz range is the range of particular resonance in the human ear. It is an essential range for the clarity of speech but often if it is too high in the mix it can be fatiguing to the ears. 4.5kHz in particular is a nasty frequency and rarely benefits from being boosted due to our sensitivity to it. 
  3. Do the combination of instruments clash at certain frequencies? Instruments have extended frequency ranges beyond their notes, they have harmonics. You will never get an instrument to completely occupy it's own space but trying does help. What I mean can be described using an acoustic guitar and vocalist. Often the chords in a guitar will contain the notes and frequencies that the singer is occupying, this is not a problem since the guitar also plays the lows and highs which the singer cannot reach. Due to this, you can look at the main frequencies the singer uses and dip them in the guitar's EQ. The singer will be much more prominent without the guitar's range being compromised.
  4. If your mix sounds a bit flat, it may be because there are no dynamics left after you have compressed it. Try halving the ratios of each compressor and playing the track. If it has more movement and life you know what the issue is. (by halving the ratio you can easily go back to how it was by doubling it - a matter of convenience more one that will fix it).
  5. Does it still sound bad? Perhaps you haven't used enough spacing. By panning and pushing instruments back in the mix. This gives the main vocals and instruments more "forward" space. This can be done by using Reverbs and rolling the bass off to make thins sound further away, you can make them less focused with a chorus effect. Have instruments panned from side to side. Consider how they would be on stage and how a drum kit is layed out to keep it natural. Remember that no instrument would only be in one ear so avoid the 100% pan unless it is deliberately needed.
If by now you still don't know what is wrong with the mix go and watch some youtube tutorials on people mixing. Watch their process and hear what they are doing. Without hearing what needs to be done, you won't know what needs to be done. Of course not all of the above will have been wrong with your mix so it is by no means a list you have to complete. Just pick and choose what you like and SAVE YOUR WORK CONSTANTLY.