The Perils of Over-Mixing – And Some Tips for Avoiding Them
These days, it’s rare that I get delivered Pro Tools sessions for mixing. Most artist/producers being in Logic or Ableton, I tend to get multitrack stems. But whenever I do get Pro Tools sessions, I ask the client to keep all their processing intact. It’s always nice to pick up where they left off.
Recently, I was delivered a session with tons of plugins inserted on almost every track. Some of it was cool, but a lot of it seemed excessive. Sure enough, as I went through and bypassed the various processing, the mix began to open up and breathe. It wasn’t the first time I’ve had this happen.
In 2021, producers, artists, and engineers are so inundated with information, misinformation, gear, and software, that it can be difficult to cut a straight path through a mix. Why learn the ins and outs of just one compressor when there are 472 options in your plugin menu, right? And so, we slap on a compressor because we saw a positive YouTube review about it and we move on. But wait, for some reason, it doesn’t sound quite right. Maybe an EQ will fix it! Yes, that’s better…but now things sound sort of hollow…maybe some saturation for added density…and on and on and on until the entire mix sounds dull and overworked.
I know because I’ve done it myself.
Over the past few years, I’ve tried hard to use as little processing on my mixes as possible and have found that I’ve gotten significantly better results.
SO I’m writing this post as a sort of guide in the hope that it might help you avoid some of the perils and pitfalls over-mixing.
As is the case with all these posts, everything here is just my OPINION. There are no rules or regulations when it comes to mixing music. I hope these tips are useful, but they are only suggestions. Don’t just blindly follow whatever some guy on the internet tells you (see Problem #3).
Problem #1: “I’m two months into this mix and I really think the automated 0.3dB boost at 10kHz on the hi-hat in the second half of the bridge is going to blow everyone away...”
Anyone who has ever mixed music has likely experienced analysis paralysis at some point. You might think having unlimited time on your hands to sculpt and finesse mix would be a luxury. In my experience, it’s not. Spending too much time on a mix is a recipe for indecisiveness, tail chasing, and often times, a total loss of perspective, all of which can result in overprocessed work.
If you’re an artist or producer mixing your own music, consider setting concrete deadlines for yourself that you can’t push. Maybe you book dates for mastering and only give yourself three days to mix your EP. Maybe you put down a $100 deposit with a friend and tell them they can keep the money if you don’t finish a mix by a certain date.
If you’re mixing other people’s music, send your client a timeline and tell them exactly when they can expect a mix from you. They’ll appreciate your commitment and organization, and you’ll now be held accountable to someone else.
How long should it take to mix a song? It depends, but I think 8 hours is generally good target.
Last tip: If you’re mixing your own productions, do a “save-copy-in” when it comes time to mix and commit all your software instruments and production effects to audio. Your CPU will thank you and you won’t get caught up making production tweaks when you should really be mixing.
Problem #2: “It sounds great on my headphones, but it sounds kinda weird on AirPods, but it sounds awesome in my grandma’s car, but the bass makes my friend’s Subaru shake…”
You might listen to a mix in the car and think it sounds too bassy, but when you bring it back to the studio and cut low-end, it sounds thin and papery. Maybe the vocal that sounded great on your cousin’s HiFi system is buried and muffled on your laptop. As a mixer, how can you reconcile the discrepancies between playback systems and trust your work?
When you’re first starting out or getting used to a new monitoring situation, you need to listen critically on as many playback systems as possible. If you notice the upper-mids of a mix seem harsh on a Bose Bluetooth speaker, but you can’t replicate the issue in the car, or on the Sonos system in the kitchen, or on your studio monitors, then you’re probably okay; is it really worth compromising a mix that sounds great everywhere else to accommodate one Bluetooth speaker? Then again, if you’re listening to a mix and the kick drum sounds loud on the Bose, Car, Sonos, etc., but you can’t hear a problem on your monitors, then you have to make a tougher decision – either you need new monitors that will faithfully represent common playback scenarios, or you have to adjust your approach to mixing kick drums on them.
At the time of writing, I spend a lot of time working in headphones. I find I’m able to operate quickly and I appreciate all the detail and clarity they offer. I toggle between two pairs I know inside and out before moving to my main monitors—with which I’m also quite familiar—where I do final checks.
HERE’S THE IMPORTANT PART: if I notice issues on the speakers, I DON’T FIX THEM. Instead, I take note of any problems and go back to my headphones. Usually, the issues I noticed on the monitors will be immediately obvious and I’ll correct them without much thought.* But sometimes, a problem is only noticeable on the monitors. In those cases, I’ll go back to the speakers and correct the issue there. Then I listen on headphones one more time. If the correction had no negative impact on headphone playback, that’s great! But if I feel like the change made things worse on the headphones, I’ll undo it since I’m more confident in my headphones and their translation on typical consumer playback systems than I am in my speakers.
I’m not necessarily saying this is how you should work. Everyone has a different system, and they should. The important part is figuring out a workflow that you know and trust so that you don’t chase your tail, making a zillion EQ tweaks based off conflicting information that end up cancelling each other out.
*This is the main reason I still rely on monitors in my workflow – I find the perspective they offer to be quite valuable in revealing issues I otherwise might have ignored had I just stayed on headphones.
Problem #3: “But I heard in a YouTube tutorial this is THE way to EQ distorted guitars…” These days, most aspiring engineers learn about mixing online. There’s a lot of great material out there, but there’s also a lot of bad information. How do you know what to pay attention to and what to write off as nonsense?
When you’re watching videos, reading articles, listening to interviews, etc., it’s important that you grasp the concept behind whatever technique or product is being peddled. Maybe you heard about a cool trick where you boost and attenuate the same low frequency on a Pultec EQP-1A. “This will make your low-end sound big and open!” But do you know why? Do you know what frequencies actually get boosted and cut when you simultaneously add and attenuate at 60Hz? Maybe you heard an SSL G-Bus compressor will bring your track to life. But why? Do you know when it makes sense to reach for VCA compression versus valve compression?
Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think every mixer needs to be versed in the sonic signatures of various capacitors or has to spend their days comparing different brands of solder. I do think understanding the concepts behind your work is important, but there is also virtue in the idea that you should just turn knobs until it sounds good. But that’s the key – until it sounds good. If you’re making mix moves simply because you heard about some techniques online and aren’t scrutinizing their effects on the sound, you’re likely doing yourself, and your mix, a disservice by adding unneeded and/or inappropriate processing.
Problem #4: “The cymbals are a little bright, so I’m gonna EQ out some highs on the mix bus, but now the vocals feel dull so I’m gonna add some air to them, but now the esses are a little harsh so I’m gonna add a de-esser…”
Perhaps the biggest sign of an overprocessed mix is things sounding too “EQ’d.” Every time EQ is applied to a signal, there’s some degree of phase shift that occurs. This can sometimes have quite musical effects, but too much EQ can make things sound brittle and hollow.*
One simple solution is not to use so much EQ. Often times a volume adjustment can do the same thing as an EQ move. If you hear too much bass, why cut low-end on the mix bus when you could just attenuate the bass guitar a few dB?
Another common source of over-EQing can be multiple EQ instantiations in a processing chain making conflicting moves. For example, you might have a vocal that feels a little dull, so you add an EQ on insert 1 boosting everything above 6kHz. Then you decide you want some compression, so you add a FET compressor on insert 2. But now you notice the vocal sounds too bright, so you add another EQ on insert 3 and attenuate everything above 5k.
Seems a little circular, right?** Why not simply take off both EQs and let the compressor’s natural character brighten the sound? There are, of course, techniques and approaches that do require multiple instantiations of EQ at various points in the signal chain, but if you’re new to mixing, I recommend limiting yourself to one usage of EQ per instrument (that is if you even need EQ in the first place).
Finally, if you’re in the late stages of your mix and you notice problems in certain frequency ranges, try to identify specific offending sources instead of applying corrective EQ to the entire mix or batches of instruments. I have no problem with EQ on the mix bus, but I prefer to view it as the icing on top. If you rely on mix bus EQ to do the heavy lifting, you might want to re-evaluate your approach.
*This is not to say you should always be conservative with EQ. If a kick drum needs a 10dB boost at 60Hz, go for it! I’m all for making bold choices. However, if you notice down the line that the mix feels a little low-end heavy, maybe go back and pull down the EQ boost on the kick instead of cutting the same range with another EQ.
**Sometimes it is cool to boost a frequency pre-compression to get the compressor to grab a certain way, but this kind of thing should be intentional, so you don’t spin yourself in circles with competing EQ moves.
Problem #5: “This plugin is so cool! I just popped it on and the track sounds so much louder.”
As humans, we’re wired to hear things that are louder as better. Plugin companies know this, and many will add gain as soon as you insert their products. So, how can you trust if something sounds better, or if it just sounds louder?
Level match. It’s important you level match the unprocessed signal with the processed signal when A/Bing between the two. Of course, the effect of some plugins will be immediately obvious, and, in those cases, level matching is less of a consideration. Similarly, you will likely reach a point of familiarity with much of your gear that negates the need to level match. But I find more subtle processing like bus compression or light saturation often requires more scrutiny.
Two more things to consider with this one:
Be intentional with your work. Avoid adding processing just for the hell of it, hoping it’ll make things sound better.
Any time you add processing, it should make things sound better. Obviously if it makes things worse, you should take it off. But if you can’t tell the difference between the processed and unprocessed signals, leave it unprocessed.
Problem #6: “I’ve been sitting in this chair for 12 hours. My bladder is about to explode, and I had to turn up the left channel to mask the ringing in that ear, but just 30 more minutes and I can NAIL the pennywhistle sound in the first bar of the pre chorus…”
Not only is ear fatigue real (and potentially dangerous), but after extended periods of listening, the frequency response of your auditory system changes, making it difficult to get an objective bearing on what you’re actually doing.
This one’s easy: take breaks! I don’t set a timer or anything, but I generally take 5-10 minutes at least once an hour to rest my ears and get a fresh perspective on the music. This also hearkens to Problem #1 on this list; if you find that you’re spending oodles of time on each mix you do, you might want to re-evaluate your workflow. ‘Tips for Working Quickly’ is a topic worthy of its own blog post, but here are a handful of suggestions:
Limit yourself to only using 1 EQ, 1, compressor, 1 reverb, and 1 delay, and see how quickly you can put together a mix.
Mixing is not the time to try new gear. Mixing is all about getting into a groove and working quickly. If you pull up a brand-new plugin and need to spend five minutes familiarizing yourself with the GUI or workflow, you’ll slow yourself down and likely derail your focus. Save that stuff for designated demo times.
Trust your monitoring (see Problem #2).
Use a template.