20 Questions to Ask Yourself While Mixing…
By Bruce Bartlett

   By Guest Contributor   Categories: Mixing Techniques


When mixing a song, I‘ve found it helpful to ask some questions about what I‘m hearing. The questions keep me focused, and they make sure that I‘m not overlooking anything. Here are a few things to ask about your own mixes.

1. Can I hear everything? This is the most important question. Seems obvious, but sometimes a musical part becomes hidden. While the mix is playing, listen just for the sound of each track and make sure it‘s there. No matter the genre of music, the minimum requirement for a good mix is that you can hear all the instruments and vocals. Nothing is missing and nothing sticks out. Sometimes you need to mute or turn down some tracks to make a hidden track come out.

2. Can I understand the lyrics? Another important query. If you can‘t tell what the words are in certain spots, raise the vocal level there with a volume envelope (automation). Also, you might compress the vocals, make sure they have enough clarity around 5 to 10 kHz, and maybe reduce 3–6 kHz in instruments that compete in the same range as the vocals. Don‘t overdo the vocal effects. Some engineers use this guideline: the lead vocal in rock music should be just loud enough so you can understand the lyrics without straining. In ballads, traditional country, or folk music, the lead vocal can be a few dB louder than that.                                           

3. Is there too much reverb or other effects? A little goes a long way. If the mix seems to be distant rather than present and engaging, try adding about 25 msec of predelay. Also try reducing the reverb sends a dB at a time, and see how little you can get away with. Some engineers ask, “Can I notice the reverb only when it‘s turned off?”

4. Is there enough stereo spread? If you pan vocals and most instruments to the middle, you have essentially a mono recording! Try panning two similar guitar parts hard left and right, or pan guitars left and keys right. If too many parts are panned to center, that center area can sound congested. Spread things out a little.

5. Is each instrument‘s sound appropriate for the song? For example, a twangy bass or an edgy kick seldom work in a ballad. Turn down the upper mids if those sounds are too bright and distracting.

6. Similarly, is the mix appropriate for the genre? For example, if you‘re mixing punk rock, a clean, tight sound probably won‘t work. If you‘re mixing a folk song done by an acoustic group, you probably don‘t want to hype the highs and lows—leave it natural.

7. Is each instrument in its own spectral space? If multiple instruments play in the same range of frequencies, they can mask or cover up each other‘s sound. Then they blur together and sound indistinct. You might roll off the lows in the guitars so they don‘t compete for space with the bass guitar. Thin out the kick and keep the bass full, or vice versa.

8. Is the mix competitive with commercial CDs? Plug a CD player into your monitoring system. Put in a CD (or several) of the same genre that you are mixing. Switch back-and-forth between your mix and the CD playback. You‘ll quickly
hear if your mix has enough bass, midrange, and treble compared to the commercial CD. Compare your mix balances to those on the CD. This can be very enlightening.

9. Are the vocals too sibilant? Are the “s” and “sh” sounds too piercing and annoying? Some singers are very sibilant, or the mic used on the singer is too bright. Solutions: Use a de-esser, which is a multiband compressor set to compress only the range from about 3 to 20 kHz. Or use a fl atter sounding mic like a ribbon microphone, or options like a Neumann U87, ElectroVoice RE20, Shure SM7, or Kel Audio HM-2D. A high-frequency cut around 7–10 kHz helps too.

10. Are the vocals too loud or too quiet sometimes? Either apply compression or adjust the vocal levels with a volume envelope (automation). The latter sounds more natural.

11. Do the vocals sound too “small” or “squashed”? Usually that means you are applying too much compression. You might reduce the compression ratio to 3:1 or less, and/or raise the threshold so that the gain reduction is 6 dB or less.

12. Is the overall sound harsh or is it warm and pleasant? If it‘s harsh, maybe there is too much 2–4 kHz in the mix. Or maybe there‘s some distortion caused by excessive track levels or clipping plug-ins. Try reducing the amount or type of compression, too. If the mix sounds “digital” and edgy, reduce the highs a little, or use a tube or tape plug-in.

13. Is the overall sound muffled? If the mix seems lackluster or weak in the treble, maybe you need to boost the upper mids or highs a little. Try boosting electric guitars around 2–4 kHz, vocals around 5–10 kHz, toms around 5 kHz, kick around 4 kHz, cymbals around 12 kHz. Or cut a little around 250–600 Hz instead.

14. Is the mix dynamic? Do the choruses get more sonically exciting than the verses? If not, you might need to bring up the overall level a dB or two in the choruses, switch to a different guitar timbre, add a doubled vocal, add harmonies, increase the panning width, and so on.

15. Is the mix creative and exciting? Are you employing unusual effects or instrument sounds? Or are they like everybody else‘s record? Try to do something different but tasteful.

16. Are solos at the right level? Generally, a guitar solo should be just as loud as the lead vocal. Guitar licks in the “holes” (vocal pauses) should be quieter than that so they are not too distracting.

17. Does the mix seem to have a focal point? At any part in the song, is there something that grabs your attention, or is everything equally loud? You know the vocal is too quiet when it doesn‘t stand out from the background a bit.

18. Are vocal harmonies at the right level? Generally, a harmony vocal‘s level should be below the lead vocal just enough so that the melody of the lead vocal is clear. If a harmony line is too loud, the listener isn‘t quite sure who‘s singing the melody line.

19. Is the arrangement too busy? If too many instruments play at the same time, a mix can turn to mush. Consider having guitar licks just in the holes, not playing continuously. Think call-and-response. Start the mix with fewer instruments and gradually bring them in so that the mix builds.

20. Is the mix “musical”? This one is hard to defi ne in tech terms. Can you feel the emotion expressed in the lyrics? Does the song make you want to move or dance? That depends on the song and its performance, but it also depends on the mix.

When you no longer hear anything you want to change, the mix is almost done. A day later come back with fresh ears, and see if anything needs tweaking. If not, congratulations on crafting a great mix!


The above is an excerpt from Bruce’s book, Practical Recording Techniques, 6e.

Bruce Bartlett is a microphone engineer, audio journalist, and recording engineer. A member of the Audio Engineering Society and Syn Aud Con, he holds a degree in physics and several patents on microphone design. He is also a musician and runs a 16-track digital studio specializing in live recording.He has written over 600 articles on audio topics for such magazines as Modern Recording, db, Recording, EQ, Mix, Recording Engineer/Producer, Radio World, Pro Audio Review, Audio, and the Journal of the Audio Engineering Society. He has also written a number of books including Stereo Microphone Techniques, Recording Music on Location, and the best-selling Practial Recording Techniques, all published by Focal Press.  The new sixth edition of Practical Recording Techniques has just published!  The above post is an excerpt from Chapter 4 – Equipping Your Studio


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