A muddy mix sounds bad. If there’s mud then frequencies are fighting, nothing is popping, and it’s difficult to hear each part.
It used to happen to me all the time. My mixes would blur together into a giant ball of meh. Everything sounded fine soloed, but my mixes lacked clarity and punch.
It’s time to start leaving the mud out of your mix for good. Don’t waste time going back to clean it later.
Use these tips to get better at mixing music. Here’s everything you need to know to keep the mud where it belongs.
It’s an EQ thing
Fixing a muddy mix comes down to EQing.
EQing is adjustments you make to highs, mid-range, and lows of your sound.
Typically, a snare or a cymbal will register in the mid to high range. A kick drum or bass pad will show up in the lower mids or all the way in the lows.
The tricky part is that all sounds can register in the high, mid, and low frequencies.
For example, a snare or a vocal will tend to have some low frequencies that get cluttered up with all the other lows.
If you’re not sure what frequency is all about Google’s amazing new Spectrogram tool is a great way to visualize sounds. I recommend comparing the flute to the trombone.
Can’t the lows all just get along?
Low end instruments also end up fighting to stand out on the same frequencies. This causes some major mudding.
The cluttering of frequencies is what causes a muddy mix.
Fixing these elements will make your mix clearer, crisper and punchier.
Follow these simple steps to de-mud all your mixes.
1. Cut the mud from the start
The easiest way to avoid a muddy mix is to ensure that you’re working with the cleanest possible samples and recordings.
If your tracks are crisp and polished from the beginning there will be less unwanted noise floating around.
Plus, the cleaner your tracks are, the more responsive they are to certain processes. It will make the cleaning process much easier later on.
If you start with Grade-A sound, it’s easier to get a Grade-A mix.
2. Panning against the Mud
When you’re getting a first rough mix together panning is crucial to set you up for success later. Plus it’s a good way to get a bit of the mud out of the mix early on.
Good panning will give each instrument its own space in the stereo image so it’s not fighting other instruments.
If you have lead vocals start by leaving them in the centre. Same thing goes for bass. Once you have those centred you can pan everything else around them.
Panning is a creative process, so your pans are up to you and your ear.
But try to keep instruments that sound similar on opposite sides from one another. Don’t hard pan all the way to the left or right unless it fits, just find a good medium.
You should also make sure that your mix isn’t left or right heavy. Poor panning can make your mix lopsided. So check for balance often.
Hot Tip: use headphones and monitors to get a full sense of what your pans are doing. Using only headphones gives you an overly exaggerated sense of your stereo image.
3. Listen to every track soloed
You’ve probably already listened to your overall mix. That’s how you know if it’s muddy or not.
Now it’s time to solo each track and pinpoint where the biggest bad boominess problems are.
Start by soloing your lowest tracks. These will typically be a bass drum, or bass guitar. It’s best to start with your drums and go from there.
Listen for any unwanted boominess (don’t try and fix it yet, just listen so you know what needs work).
Slowly unsolo each track and listen for which frequencies are fighting each other in that all-important mid-low frequency area.
To get a better sense of what’s clashing, I like to use a multi-channel frequency analyzer like Voxnego’s SPAN.
It’s one of many helpful free VST plugins. It will help you visually see where frequencies are clashing.
This will give you a good idea of what needs to be fixed during corrective EQing.
4. Pardon me, but could you please pass the highs and the lows?
Your best friend for corrective EQing is the high and low pass filter. You’ll notice a difference immediately.
When applied, a high pass filter allows only frequencies above a certain frequency to pass.
They’re perfect for getting rid of unwanted low end on tracks that register mainly in the higher frequencies—like vocals or a lead synth. Which means less mud.
Most DAW software has a simple EQ for all your high and low pass needs. I used EQ Eight in Ableton.
A low pass is filter is the opposite of the high pass. It only let’s through the lows below the frequency you set.
Use it to roll off some of the highs that might be sneaking through into areas where you don’t need them.
Feel free to use the high and low pass filters to free up your best possible sound. They’re a perfect starting point for correcting EQ across your entire mix.
5. Carving EQ
The most common part of a mix that gets muddy is the 200-500Hz area.
Fixing it is as easy as carving out a bit of space in these frequencies.
Go back to your EQ insert on the tracks that are still sounding a bit muffled. Select the frequency range that you’d like to target and tweak it until it’s sounding better.
Each audio track needs specific frequency settings and unique gain cuts.
So go through each track and carve out whatever sounds best for that track. But be careful. Removing too much can lead to a mix that’s too thin.
In this step you may have to sacrifice some good frequencies on a track in order to benefit your whole mix.
Dig Deeper to Cut your mud
Like all audio production, It’s important to start with the basics.
These tips will get you started with corrective EQ. But dig deeper into your mix and make changes on a micro level.
There are no overall best practices for EQing of this type.
Your music is unique. The only way to find your best sound is to tweak these concepts to your tracks.
That means listening to your mix on a deep level and applying corrective EQ that suits your track’s specific needs.
Free your sound from that nasty mud. Your mix will sound punchier, clearer and overall better.
Which is what everyone wants at the end of the day: better sound.