Why your mix sounds amateur - and how to make it sound pro

Mixing desk
(Image credit: Future/REX/Shutterstock)

You've spent hours sweating over the mix of your latest tune, but no matter how much you tweak things, it still doesn't bear comparison with your favourite releases.

You've tried everything you can think of - boosted the bass, covered the whole thing in your favourite effects, added more parts (and taken them out again), and even made the whole thing louder - but it still just doesn't sound right.

What's going on, and how can you fix it? 

Somewhere along the way there's a good chance you've committed one of a handful of the common production sins that all budding producers fall prey to.

Making music is often a quite lonely and personal experience - you're composing in your bedroom, quietly (or noisily) having fun and getting on with your dream. But this also means you're too close to the project.

Monitoring is key

Part of coming up with a great finished track is being able to step back and listen with objective ears - and it's worth ensuring you have a decent set of studio monitors. You can only assess the full dynamic and frequency ranges of your mixes and the interaction of all the musical parts if you can hear them properly.

Part of coming up with a great finished track is being able to step back and listen with objective ears.

A good set of monitors should have the flattest possible frequency response so the music is uncoloured. As an example, if your speakers are too bassy you will under-compensate for the bass as you mix, and your efforts will sound tinny on any other system.

Generally, you shouldn't use headphones for monitoring while mixing unless you really know what you're doing or your room is incredibly bad-sounding. You should also listen to your nearly finished mix on as many other setups as possible; you'll pick up more discrepancies the more systems you try.

Try to think about what you'd like to sound like, too. You can learn a lot from A/B'ing your music next to an artist or genre you have in mind when composing.

Consider pace, overall production and EQ. Have you over-compressed? Is your track too long? Only by assessing next to a commercial offering can you judge if you're truly up there with the best.

Listen and learn

Of course, it's also important to get feedback from others, but getting valuable feedback can be difficult. Just as making music is very personal, so are individual listeners' particular likes and dislikes.

The solution is to listen to a bunch of people who know what they're talking about! Drawing upon many years' experience of mixing and producing music, and importantly, listening to reader demos, newly signed artists and commercial releases, our experts have identified the top 10 most common mistakes made by budding producers.

Our list contains everything from the obvious to the not-so-glaring, from throwing too much into an arrangement to making things too loud, and even - yes, we really do mean this - making it too perfect!

So, keep these points in mind the next time you're working on a mix, and your production nightmares could soon be over.

1. It sounds too narrow

One of the most common problems with mixes occurs when too much is happening in any one part of the musical plane (or to look at it another way, not enough). Try to think of music in three dimensions, and first, check the width.

Great mixes spread themselves like a warm audio blanket across the entire stereo spectrum. Poor mixes throw everything down a narrow beam of audio straight into your eardrums.

With this in mind, be sure to make good use of your 'humble' panning tools. Pan certain parts to extremes: unusual effects, percussive noises and pads go hard left and right; backing vocals can come further in; main vocals and bass usually sit best in the middle.

But while there are rules here, don't feel you can't break them. Just make sure the finished mix sits across the whole width of the spectrum rather than in one part. Pan everything to one area and your listeners will simply think that one of their speakers or headphones is playing up.

2. Frequency problems

So, that was width - now think depth. There's nothing worse than a track that has been mixed so that so that the whole thing takes your head off with all of the parts sounding like they are playing through a tin can.

This is usually a sign of terrible monitors being used at the mixing stage - great monitors let you hear the whole frequency range of your mix. A simple rule of thumb is to keep instruments of the same frequency apart, like naughty children, so you don't get them clashing and fighting with one another for attention.

A good place to hit first is the bottom end, or bass. Most genres of music are driven by some form of bass (with rock it's bass guitar, for example, and with electronic music it's synth bass) so make sure your mix has some kind of low end element on which to hang. From there, spread everything upwards and across the frequency range and don't have too much happening in any one area of the spectrum.

(Image credit: Future)

3. Too much clutter

Computers have put untold musical power at our fingertips, but this doesn't mean we need to fill 256 tracks every time we compose a new tune. In fact, many great pieces of music use sparse arrangements with a few well-recorded sounds and instruments.

Take the famous Phil Spector 'wall of sound' production method of the '60s - the name might imply that everything and the kitchen sink was thrown in there, but actually it was just well-recorded, distinct, big sounds.

We've already pointed out that it's important to have a good spread across both the frequency range and the stereo image. But decluttering can be done elsewhere in your mix as well, simply by removing parts from the arrangement.

Some of the best pop songs feature a vocal, a guitar and nothing else, while some classic dance tracks primarily feature a drum machine, bassline and vocal. So be ruthless - you can increase your impact by decreasing your sounds.

4. The wrong sounds

Sometimes tracks don't sound right because the constituent parts don't make a whole. This can be caused by using sounds that simply don't fit - synth brass being used in place of a real part, or a sample with slightly incorrect timing or pitch, for example.

It can also be down to the use of boring-sounding presets, too many or incorrectly applied effects, or roughly recorded samples. Don't misunderstand this last point, because rough, lo-fi audio can sound fantastic in the right context. It's all about getting the right sounds for the track.

The mix is also extremely important here. Of course, you want some sounds to stand out - the hooks, lead vocals and so on - but it can be jarring when other sounds that make up the arrangement are so poorly mixed that they end up taking over (we've heard tinny percussion loops that take your head off, and sub-basses that blow your speaker cones… we could go on and on!).

5. Where's the hook?

At the risk of stating the obvious, one of the main problems with your average demo is that it's just that: average. It lacks that certain something that will grab the listener's ear and make the track stand out from the crowd.

And as that crowd is getting increasingly, well, crowded, as more and more people discover the joys of at-home music making, nowadays any tune worth its salt needs some kind of hook to make it instantly noticeable and enduringly memorable.

A great hook can potentially be pretty much anything - it can consist of a bass sound or part, a melody, an effect or a vocal trick. Indeed, you'll find that the best pop songs - think Kylie's Can't Get You Out Of My Head, for example - have all of these!

Quite often, though, just one will do - one amazing effect or riff that makes the listener want to listen again as soon as the track is finished, and has them humming it for the rest of the day. Get this right and you've won half the battle.

6. The wrong feel

Getting the right 'feel' on a track is probably the single most important consideration when composing and mixing.

Getting the groove wrong will destroy the heart and soul of a dance track, and even an ambient, grooveless piece of music needs to have feel. Part of producing great tracks is capturing the feel and enhancing the groove.

Some of this is really obvious: if you want a club track, a modest 120bpm tempo and a 4/4 kick will be a good starting point. If you want something a bit more laidback, slow things down and add a bit of swing.

Beyond that, there are myriad subtle techniques you can use to define your beats and make them match the overall feel of your track. Learn them and apply them.

Beats define your groove, but you should be aware that they can also destroy it. Ram a rigid 4/4 beat onto a soul or hip-hop track, for example, and you could end up with a real mess.

7. Laziness

While time-tested sounds and tricks have their place and can sometimes be exactly what a track needs, many producers unthinkingly borrow the obvious bits of a genre and just throw them in willy-nilly. Clichés can make a track sound very average, so think on your feet.

This advice extends to how you use your DAW. Beware of throwing something into an arrangement simply because it fits, or automatically letting your software stretch a part to the right tempo just because you can.

And then, of course, we have synth presets - yes, they can sound great, but if you're using a preset because it sounds out of this world, you can bet that it'll be instantly recognisable to everyone else who owns that synth, and that they will shake their heads disapprovingly. This kind of preset snobbery is wrong in many ways - presets are created to be used, after all - but the more 'out there' a sound is, the more obvious its source will be, so at least tweak it a little to make it your own.

8. The real obvious stuff

There's really no excuse for dodgy tuning, but out-of-key vocals, clashing melodies and unintentionally obvious pitch correction are still common demo demons that simply make us angry. To all culprits, we say: there are two flaps of gristle on the sides of your head called 'ears' - use 'em!

Coming a close second on our list of obvious bugbears is hiss. This was an all-too-common problem back in the early days when analogue met digital, but if you're working solely inside the box with nowt coming in, you really shouldn't experience it, so nor should your listeners.

If you're recording vocals, guitars or other live instruments, take steps - both of the preventative and corrective type - to eradicate extraneous noise.

And finally, the stereo master mix that clips never fails to astound and enrage us in equal measure, with many an otherwise astonishing track being ruined because the producer thinks that louder equals better. More on this next…

9. Too loud

We've already mentioned width and depth as two of the three musical dimensions you need to consider, so let's move on to the third: height, or to use the correct term, dynamic range. This is the ratio between the quietest and loudest sounds in the mix.

The general trend in music production over the past couple of decades been to make master mixes louder and louder by using compressors and limiters to 'squash' the dynamic range, both of individual parts and the entire mix. As a result, we've all experienced over-compression.

You know what it feels like: you'll be happily listening to a classic track on your phone in shuffle mode and then suddenly something comes in from a couple of decades later that blows your ears off.

While these techniques once worked to make tracks stand out, they've now become so ubiquitous and extreme that they're having the opposite effect. Today, there's an ever-growing movement to reverse this trend, and it's one we support.

10. It's too perfect

Many producers feel that computers have made music too perfect, and we think they have a point. We don't want to sound like our parents here, but the slick production sheen that's imparted by today's music technology can often make tracks sound samey and uninspiring.

If pristine production is your thing, that's fine, but your music might benefit if you make things a bit more organic, a bit earthier and rawer. We know you don't want to sound amateurish, but sometimes, you want to allow or even flaunt some slight imperfection.


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