The two main types of bad mixdowns I hear are muddy mixes and thin mixes.
Muddy mixes sound quiet, and kinda like they are foggy, or distant. The sounds and instruments are hard to hear. They have good low end but they not present or as loud as professional mixes. You might also say they have a lack of clarity.
Thin mixes are the opposite. They sound too loud/harsh, and kinda like they lack impact, power, and size. This is usually due to overuse of high pass filters.
Now...The best way to fix these problems is with the individual tracks in your mixdown. Not with your mix bus plugins, but sometimes you have no choice.
So, to clear things up here's a video I recorded with my top mix engineer tips for how to fix your mix and make it clean and bright.
Recently I received a question From Chris W, on my site asking about mastering and how to fix his mixdown.
"hi I'm a new producer, and I'm fantastic at creating chords and leads but I suck at mastering. I can't afford your studio help but are there any quick tips on what I should be doing if my mixdown sounds muddy? There are too many sounds that I can't hear. Is there anything new I could add?"
I hear this same question a lot, so let us answer it here.
The main things that are going to make your mix clean and bright are volume balance and EQ.
When you're mastering, you're making sure of 3 things. The EQ (or the color) of your song...
Since you are reading this on my site, you are most likely mastering an electronic song. So you want to make sure it sounds like other good electronic songs in the same genre. That's where referencing comes in.
Referencing is the process of sonically comparing your song to other songs. This will help you know what you are aiming for.
Mixing can be ambiguous. You want your song to sound better, but what is better? Referencing will take the mystery out of mixing.
I'm sure you have heard of referencing and tried it, but most people are doing it the wrong way. If done incorrectly, it is useless.
If you're not sure how to reference the right way, then check out my course Simple Sonic Secrets. It explains everything about referencing.
So, once you've set up your referencing and you're doing it the right way, it will show you your song EQ/color.
It's going to let you know what is happening in your frequency range. Whether things are too dark, too bright. Whether they need more bass, or less bass, etc. It will also help you make your mix loud, clean, bright, and present.
If you feel like you have a muddy sounding mix, then you've got a little bit too much stuff in your frequency spectrum around 400hz to 200Hz and below.
People often mix their song with their bass up loud, and their mid-range, and treble parts low. This can often happen if you're working in headphones at a high volume.
It can sometimes seem pleasing to have the bass louder. It makes it feel like the track is bigger and more powerful. This is false. You will notice when you reference it to other records.
The problem is that you haven't pulled up the volume of your midrange/treble parts. Raising them will make your whole song feel louder too.
There's a limit to the amount of bass you can have in a song without blowing out your limiter. You may have your bass this loud already, but all you need to do is raise the volume your midrange parts. e.g., vocals, leads, claps, etc.
If your mix feels out of balance and off color, always fix it by adjusting your individual sound volumes/EQs before you reach for your master EQ. Keep your master EQ as a final enhancement only.
With this in mind, here are some master bus EQ tips.
Start simple with your EQ. Think of it as only three bands. Treble mids and bass.
Then ask yourself...
Do this in comparison to your reference tracks.
When you start EQing, use wide bandwidths (or Q). These wide curves are more subtle and gentle than narrow ones.
This next tip is essential. Try not to boost or cut more than 3dB.
If you have to boost/cut more than that, then you should fix the problem in the mix.
If this happens, go back to your mixdown and see what parts you need to turn up or down to get closer to a balanced color.
Remember, mastering is a subtle thing. It is the icing on the cake. You still need a good cake.
If your mix still feels muddy, then it could be due to a particular sound/s. It could be in your bass line, your vocal, or your chords, or more.
Look for a sound that has too much 200 to 500 Hertz. Or sometimes below that. Try EQ cutting a bit around there and see if that helps.
I rarley ever use mid side EQ on my master bus if it is my own song. This is because I have access to all the individual channels in the mixdown. Whatever stereo enhancements or repairs I wish to make are better made on the individual channels.
Mid side EQ is very handy if I am mastering a song for a client and only have a stereo audio file. But remember, the majority of you have your whole mix in front of you. So fix it on the individual channels.
Next up, try some mix bus compression (otherwise known as master bus compression) to glue your mix together.
A good starter setting would be a medium attack, fast release time (or auto), and a ratio of 2:1 or lower. Sometimes 1.5:1 can be more appropriate, and gentle.
Now lower your threshold, so you get about 1 to 3 DB of gain reduction.
Then make sure to balance the make up gain so that the volume is the same in bypassed or active. This is unity gain. What goes in, comes out at the same volume.
Us humans are easily fooled by volume. We like things that are louder. So this technique helps you decide if your setting made the song better or not.
If you want your mix to sound a little more punchy and a little less compressed, go with a slow attack instead. Fast attack times will control the dynamics more, but at the risk of softening and over compression the mix.
This will get you going, and later you can always learn more about compression for music producers.
Now make the same setting with 3 or more other buss compressors. One at a time.
Try them all out because each master bus compressor will sound different. Try and find which compressor is going to work best for your song and your genre. After a while, you will start to figure out what's right for what and you can go straight to it.
The same goes for EQ. If you do some EQ on the master bus as we spoke about before, try to use a linear phase EQ or something very high quality. Like the Fabfilter Pro Q 3 or a DMG Equilibrium (my personal favorite) would be good.
The last stage is getting the volume up. We use a limiter for this.
Your limiter should be the last plugin in your master chain. The last one that affects audio anyway. You might have some analyzers, meters, and reference plugins after it, but they don't sonically change your song.
The order of your plugins should be like this.
EQ, Compressor, Limiter, Reference Plugin, Analyzer
Compressor, EQ, Limiter, Reference Plugin, Analyzer
The only thing that changes in those two options is the order of the EQ and compressor. This is depending on whether you want the compressor to react to your EQ settings or not. A subtle difference.
Now when I say loud mixdown, I don't mean go crazy. There is definitely a point when your mixdown is too loud and it suffers because of it.
Check the volume of your reference tracks with an LUFS meter to get an idea of what volume to master your song to.
I am unfortunately not impressed by the Waves limiters. Like the L1, L2, L3, etc. I purchased the full Mercury bundle many years ago and they were ok for the time.
But now, they are old and just can't compete with the newer ones I mentioned. They all sound mushy and take the punch away from my music.
If I could only have one of these tools or techniques, it would be referencing.
This by far has the most significant impact on my final mixdown and master.
So before you get worried about what type of EQ, Compressor, Limiter or master bus processing you should use.... I recommend you put much more time and effort into referencing.
p.s. My favorite referencing plugin is Reference by Mastering The Mix.
p.p.s If you want to learn more about referencing, limiters, loud mixes, and master bus settings check out my course Simple Sonic Secrets.