Updated: Apr 18
Face The Music
If I, as your mix coach - told you listening was one of the most if not the most important parts of mixing, you really wouldn’t be surprised... it’s completely obvious, right? We’ve all heard of the car test in which a person excitedly heads out to play the latest mix in their car after a mixing session and see whether they have nailed it - the bass is sitting right, there is just enough punch and so on - but in reality that makes no sense at all until the very end. When you sit in your car, you have no clue at all about the stereo balance of your mix due to the seating arrangement and to be honest, even the best car systems are pretty much unbalanced garbage. Maybe you can figure out how the low end sits, and if the car is your primary listening environment - you’re spending too much time in the car! There's even a trend for mix referencing as people work but even that isn't the real key.
What you should be doing is spending time listening to music on the very system that you make it. You’d really be surprised how many people I start with as a mixing coach never really have spent significant time in front of their monitors or on the headphones they use for mixing just listening to commercially released music for pleasure. Remember that? Sure, they’ll agonize about the mix, worry about the car test, and listen on five different systems around the house but have never really invested the time in listening to well-mixed commercial music in the place it matters most - right where THEY make music.
Learn Your Monitors
Learning your monitor setup and room or worst-case your headphones is perhaps one of the most important things you will ever learn to do when it comes to mixing. Unlike using specific tracks as a reference, if you spend enough time doing this, later when you sit in front of your monitor speakers to mix over time you’ll instantly have an idea of how much bass is too much, if the vocal as loud enough if the guitar tone is smooth and huge, or any of the other things which make up a typical mix. Every set of speakers and room sounds different but the human brain is amazing in that it allows us to adapt to almost any environment if we put in the time and effort in to pay attention to what we are listening to on whatever it is we mix on.
This ability to adapt is why the devotees of the loved/hated NS10 for example are able to make great mixes on a speaker which on paper has very little bass, aggressive mid-range and requires you to make the vocal snare and guitars objectively too loud in order to make a good mix or others to be able to mix in essentially untreated rooms. Now I am not saying this is the ideal situation and in fact the more variables you remove from your listening environment - the easier your job will be, and that's our goal. Setting up the ideal listening environment is a game of small moves towards some imaginary ideal which gets more and more expensive as you head down the road. So if you want to immediately begin improving your mixes start spending time listening to commercial music on whatever monitoring arrangement you have right now - your setup can always evolve and improve, and I can even help you with that - but your habits begin now.
As always, I hope you find this useful, please give it a try - put some time and effort into listening to other music on whatever you mix on and please let me know if it makes a difference to your mixing. If you want to find out more about mix coaching yourself, by all means, reach out and say hello.
Want more? Read: how to get the vocal level right in a mix
Or: the power of a mix mentor