“Mixing your own music comes with its own challenges because you’ve written, performed, recorded and edited it and now when it’s time to mix you’ve lost all perspective.
I don’t know anymore, I’ve listened to it so many times I’ve lost my objectivity. What do you think?”
Have you ever encountered this problem? Yes? So, how can you keep your objectivity when mixing your own music?
I have some quick tips to help you keep fresh and focused when mixing your music. Keep reading to find out more.
I get it, it’s hard.
You’ve written, played, recorded and arranged the song and it’s taken weeks, if not months, of iteration to get to this point but it’s just not quite right somehow.
You might feel a bit overwhelmed.
You can’t stop tweaking it and you suspect the mix sounded better about four days ago, just after you added the tambourine solo.
You can’t help yourself, you want it to sound amazing, you want it perfect.
But finished is always better than perfect and that goes for many creative professions such as writing, graphic design, web design, photography as well as songwriting.
As creatives, decision making is hard. We can’t help it, we seek perfection. But perfection, my friend, is the killer of progress. It’s only by releasing music regularly can you learn, grow and get better. Releasing yourself to move on to the next idea and the next song.
The 10 tips
Here are my ten tips for success when it comes to mixing your own music:
- have a plan for the mix
- schedule plenty of time to mix but commit to a deadline
- compile a playlist of 1-2 commercial references
- take plenty of breaks
- get the arrangement right
- mix on a different day to editing or tracking
- listen to your gut
- make notes in the early stages of the mix
- keep the track count reasonable, less is more
- commit to sounds during tracking
1. Have a plan
Even just a simple plan will keep you on track here. Put in place a few goals for the mixing day to keep you focused.
Think about your mix preparation goals:
- are there any tracks surplus to requirements?
- when will I get all the editing done by?
- can I add any sound FX to add impact?
- mono up any stereo tracks that don’t need to be stereo
- batch tune all the vocals
- organise your DAW session logically
- name the tracks and audio files
Think about your mixing goals:
- are all the choruses going to be the same structure and instrumentation?
- how long am I going to give myself to complete the 1st mix?
- do I need that tambourine solo in the bridge? Really??
2. Don’t rush
By having a thought out plan that builds in some downtime for reflection you take the pressure off, enabling you to keep your creative juices flowing.
Have a rough idea of when you’d like to release this record and add the date to your calendar but resist the urge to work days back to back.
To maintain objectivity, it’s crucial to allow time for creative thoughts to take place and to get back your gut feeling about the whole mix.
The first listen is the most important. I can’t stress this enough. It’s where you make your best decisions. Once it’s gone, it’s gone for the rest of the session. You can get it back again but only after taking a break. The longer the better.
Find a work time block that works for you. It could be an hour, it could be two hours. Play around and be aware of how you’re feeling and decide on a work time block that suits your style of working. Then, take short breaks after each time block.
The break time is again up to you but I would say no less than 15 mins. Give your ears a rest, go make coffee or have a snack. Better still, go for a walk (my preferred option). Read up about the Pomodoro Technique if you want to know why and how this works.
You aren’t helping yourself by working longer hours. To avoid this, give yourself plenty of time for each task but not without a deadline. By giving yourself a deadline, you’ll actually finish your project.
Leaving project timelines open ended is a mistake that can lead to you never actually releasing any music and bags of frustration because you’re not sharing your music, gaining new followers or getting any nearer to your career dreams.
Compile a playlist of songs in a similar genre that you’d love your mix to come somewhat close to.
You only need one or two songs, maybe you had these in mind when you were initially writing or tracking the song.
Another approach is to have examples of certain elements you’d like to aim for in the mix. A particular snare sound or guitar sound that you’ve heard in different songs. Perhaps you like the way a particular transition works or a reverse reverb or stutter effect you’d like to try.
Having the references close to hand will speed up your workflow and help you to make quicker decisions.
Build up a library of references in multiple playlists. For example, I have playlists for each element of the drum kit, female vocals, rock guitars, bass guitar, indie music, alternative, riot girl, punk vocals… etc.
There are plugins that can help here too. Whilst there are other options out there, the best one I’ve found is:
- ADAPTR Metric AB
I use ADAPTR METRIC AB from Plugin Alliance because it gives me the ability to quickly switch between a reference track and my mix or master track. I find a few seconds lost between switching means I lose my ability to analyse as effectively.
4. Take breaks!
This is so important for maintaining objectivity and perspective.
I mentioned it earlier, but the more you listen to something, the more you lose perspective. Things start to sound the same.
Keeping the playhead moving whilst mixing can also help because you are being hit with new things as the song progresses through the timeline.
Keeping the song playing through instead of stopping, working on an element in solo for 10 mins, then moving on is a real time and objectivity suck.
I have a post it note on my monitor that says “KEEP MOVING” to remind me to do just that!
You’ll also see in this photo that I have a timer.
The timer is set to go off after 45 mins where I then, stand up go downstairs and grab a drink or comfort break for 15 mins. I can sometimes fit in a brisk walk around the block!
I’m experimenting with the work time block because I’m also aware of falling out of my flow state by doing this so, it depends where my head is at when the timer goes off. I’m edging more towards 1 hour 15 mins lately.
The most effective break is by calling it a day and coming back in the morning or even the day after. This is more effective the further into the mixing process you get, particularly if the mix is extending into days when you only intended to spend 5 hours, which happens.
When you get back from your break, can you listen on a different set of monitors or headphones? Make notes of anything that jumps out on that fresh listen. This is a golden opportunity to either hear something pop out or to call it finished.
5. Get the arrangement right
Don’t fall into the trap of having hundreds of tracks just because you can, or playing the same instrument through every section of the song without changing something or adding extra interest somehow.
Add interest by bringing in different instruments and sounds as the song progresses so it builds and keeps the listener engaged.
Think about this carefully, listen to your favourite tracks and analyse how they flow, listening for when new parts come in or drop out. Are there any commonalities? What can you do differently?
I find myself appreciating the little things that lift a section like a subtle tambourine or a change in hi-hat pattern. It doesn’t have to be dramatic to be noticed.
A word of caution though. It’s all too easy to fill your DAW timeline with stuff that will get lost in the mix. Think about the other instruments playing at the same time, what will help the snare cut through in those busy choruses? Yes! A tambourine! (Gotta love a bit of tambourine…or is that just me?)
A well-structured arrangement will make mixing oh so much easier and listening, a pleasure I promise you!
6. Separate mixing from tracking
Schedule a clear day just for mixing.
This is really important from a creativity standpoint as well as for maintaining objectivity.
Start the mixing phase on a new day, once the arrangement, editing, tuning and session preparation is complete.
Keeping your left brain and right brain activities separated will help you to mix quickly and make better creative decisions.
Try to make all those production choices before mixing day, so you can react to that elusive gut feeling in the moment because once you’ve lost it, it’s gone until the next mixing session.
7. Listen to your gut
I know, I must have mentioned your gut a million times so far but I cannot stress how important it is for objectivity.
For you, it might not be your gut. It might be a fleeting thought or goosebumps. The point is to be aware of your instincts however they happen to make themselves known to you.
Use the technique I mentioned earlier; keeping a song playing over and over. Set up a loop and try not to press stop until something really jumps out at you. Stop, fix it asap, then move on. You don’t have to get it right the first time! Keep moving until the next thing hits you, fix that by spending 5 mins on it then move on to the next.
Keep cycling through the song on loop and if one of the things you tried to fix earlier still bugs you, stop and have another go for 5 or 10 mins then move on again.
This keeps your objectivity engaged for longer and stops you from spending too long on one element that didn’t need it.
8. Have a notebook handy
Have a simple notebook or pad handy to jot down ideas in the early stages of each fresh listen.
You want to avoid stopping the playback if you can, so you can feel the transitions from section to section and get an overview across the mix as a whole.
- what’s bugging you?
- what’s not working in the bridge?
- do the guitars need to be wider in the choruses
- Woah! Those backing vocals are flipping LOUD!
- does the tambourine need some love in the last chorus? (Haha! Just kidding)
Taking notes like this is perfect for quickly capturing those fleeting thoughts without interrupting your flow. Become a ninja at it by only using single words and a timeline reference.
9. Keep the track count manageable
Like I said earlier, it’s oh so easy to keep recording another track and another track but remember, this has all got to fit together somehow.
You see, many instruments occupy similar frequency ranges and can clash, creating an unfocused and messy sound. Work on the mix to carve out space for each of them to fit together and complement one another.
Carve out space using panning and EQ. Create depth using reverb and delay.
Don’t record everything in stereo during tracking. If everything is stereo then the mix ends up sounding like “big mono”. Boring and flat.
Make decisions and cut tracks that aren’t serving the song as you’d hoped. Hide them from your timeline and forget them.
Bounce to stereo
Sum groups of instruments down to something more manageable. Do you really need 18 tracks of guitars? Can they be sub-mixed down to a stereo track? Be bold. Save versions so you can go back and unpick a bounce if you have to.
Keeping the track count short means you can find things quicker and it will give you a wider sounding mix, where there’s more separation and interesting left-right movement that adds to the groove and excitement.
This moves me onto the final point…
10. Commit to sounds during tracking!
Do it! Make a decision! Mixing will flow so much quicker if you do.
This has kind of been covered earlier but it can’t be overstated. DAW’s today are so flexible and allow us as audio engineers to use 100’s of tracks in a session meaning we give ourselves the opportunity to put off making decisions until later.
But that can lead to paralysis and overwhelm. How do you decide which track to use? But they both sound similar. Why did I record the second track again? I forgot!
Bang goes your objectivity and flow.
If you absolutely must record a gazillion guitar tracks on tracking day, then do so but make a decision on which ones to keep BEFORE mixing day.
Don’t be tempted to go back hunting through the old tracks and second guess yourself. Stick with it, unless you have a very good reason to go back and fix something.
Trust your first instinct.
Can I help you mix your own music?
If you have any questions or would like some advice about mixing your own music then get in touch and I try to help.
I really want to help you mix better music at home and I’m happy to give you a free mix consultation to try and point you in the right direction.
If you are interested in having me mix your music and are wondering how to prepare your mix then check out my blog post https://www.musicmixpro.co.uk/how-to-prepare-your-track-for-professional-mixing/
Is there anything you find particularly challenging about mixing? Drop them in the comments below.
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