Mixing & Mastering

Hard Truths: You’re Listening to Your Mix Wrong

Hard Truths: You’re Listening to Your Mix Wrong

Welcome to Hard Truths, the series on the LANDR Blog where we cut through the noise and take on a harsh reality from the world of music production. This is the advice you might not want to hear—but will make you a better producer.

Mixing is about listening.

To get a truly great mix you have to hear every single detail of the tracks you’re working on.

But it’s not as simple as it seems. There are a handful of common mistakes that many new engineers make when it comes to listening.

My hard truth for today? You’re probably not listening critically enough to make good decisions in your mix.

But that’s not meant to be discouraging. You can easily develop the right listening habits by training yourself to focus on the most important issues in your monitoring flow.

Here are my top 5 ways you’re listening to your mixes the ‘wrong’ way.

1. You EQ your tracks by soloing them

This is the number one listening mistake that most new mix engineers make.

It’s very tempting to solo individual tracks as you apply EQ to hear the effect more clearly.

When you’re just starting out it’s not easy to tell exactly how the frequency balance of a sound changes as you sculpt with EQ

But you have to remember that you’re not trying to make your tracks sound good on their own. They need to work well together.

The key to a good mix is to always listen in context and make decisions that have a positive result for the mix as a whole.

The key to a good mix is to always listen in context and make decisions that have a positive result for the mix as a whole.

Make it a habit to only EQ while listening to groups of tracks at a time—or the entire mix where you can.

2. You’re listening on consumer audio gear

Many new producers aren’t clear on the difference between studio equipment and consumer audio gear.

If you mix on headphones you might be tempted to use whatever pair you have on hand.

A set of consumer audio headphones might cost the same as a pair that’s designed for studio use—especially in the lower budget range.

There’s nothing wrong with doing the bulk of your mixing using headphones, but the type you use is important.

Studio headphones will always outperform regular ones for mixing.

Preview of youtube video

The biggest difference is that consumer gear is meant to make music sound as good as it possibly can. That may sound like a good thing, but this type of headphones can hide critical problems in your tracks.

In other words, regular headphones tend to sound flattering to the source material.

When you’re mixing you need to hear the…hard truth about the sounds you’re working with.

If there’s something that sticks out or sounds wrong, your headphones or speakers should be flat enough for you to know immediately.

3. Your room has no acoustic treatment

This is possibly the toughest problem to tackle when it comes to your studio listening chain.

Almost all new producers underestimate the effects of their mixing environment.

Almost all new producers underestimate the effects of their mixing environment.

An ordinary room with parallel walls and nothing to absorb acoustic reflections will add all kinds of confusion to the sound coming out of your monitors.

Some frequencies will be cancelled out by destructive interference by the time the sound reaches your ears in the listening position. Others will be unnaturally boosted up by room modes.

You could get your entire mix to sound perfect in a space like this—only to find that it’s completely wrong when you listen somewhere else.

Acoustic treatment is how you make the sonic influence of your room less problematic.

Expensive studios pay thousands for pro acoustic treatment, but you can make a surprisingly big difference just with DIY methods.

4. You don’t mix reference

The more time you spend mixing, the more you’ll realize how easy it is to get lost in your own little world as you go.

If you don’t stop and get perspective you can end up mixing yourself into a corner.

Preview of youtube video

The solution is to stop periodically during your mix to make informed comparisons against other tracks in your library.

Hearing the difference between your track and a pro mix you know and love can tell you what you need to change or fix.

For example, you might be surprised to hear how light the low end is in some mixes that sound huge and powerful.

Do your best to make mix referencing a part of your workflow, especially if you’re struggling to get the sound you want.

5. You rely too much on visual feedback

Modern digital EQs are a miracle.

The idea that such advanced tone shaping tools could be available so cheaply is a major payoff of the modern digital mixing era.

But there’s an unexpected consequence to the detailed visual frequency displays that many digital EQs offer.

They can trick you into EQing visually instead of using your ears to make critical decisions.

As anyone who mixes in the box can tell you, it’s incredibly easy to fool yourself if you make decisions based on visual feedback alone.

If you’ve ever found yourself tweaking an EQ that’s bypassed or inserted on a completely different channel, you know what I mean…

Consider turning off the visual display of your EQ, or any other plugin with distracting visual feedback.

6. You’re not gain staging properly

We’ll never get tired of writing about headroom and good gain staging at LANDR. It’s the number one issue we see in most mixes that get uploaded for instant mastering.

But poor gain structure has a negative effect during your mix as well.

If your levels pile up at the master bus, the digital-to-analog converter in your audio interface gets closer to its clipping point.

If your levels pile up at the master bus, the digital-to-analog converter in your audio interface gets closer to its clipping point.

The best and clearest sound in any listening chain occurs when all the levels are in the “sweet spot” of the dynamic range.

Preview of youtube video

If you follow the best practices for gain staging you’ll be confident that the signal you’re sending to your monitors or headphones isn’t being affected by a lack of headroom at the output stage.

Learn to listen

Proper listening is something all successful mix engineers have to learn.

At the very least, it will be much easier to get the sound you want if you’re not fighting every single link in your monitoring chain as you go.

Now that you know the most common listening mistakes to avoid, get back to your DAW and keep mixing.

Michael Hahn

Michael Hahn is an engineer and producer at Autoland and member of the swirling indie rock trio Slight.

@Michael Hahn

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