The clock strikes midnight. You’ve haven’t gotten up for 3 days working on this mix. Or at least that’s what it feels like. You’re up to your ears in EQs and compressors and come to a startling conclusion:
“I don’t know what this sounds like anymore.”
Your reference for balance is skewed. You can’t tell if what you’re doing is helping or hurting. You’ve gotten so deep into this project that you can’t hear it objectively any more.
First of all, go to bed and rest your ears. But if you still feel this way in the morning, it may be time to change your approach.
In this article, we’ll take a look at using feedback effectively to improve your mixes, as well as some common terminology you may hear from those commenting on your work.
As producers and engineers, we can’t avoid getting deeply involved in what we’re working on. Sometimes we can lose perspective on how an unbiased listener would hear the track.
Listening to other music is a great way to regain this reference. Hearing the differences between your work and a professional, high-quality mix can provide some clarity while mixing.
You should be familiar with your listening setup (headphones, monitors, or a combination of both) so the only differences you hear between tracks are purely mix differences.
However, at a certain point you may hit another wall. Even with other music as a reference point, you’ve still listened your mix to death. It’s time to get another pair of ears on this.
Getting honest, specific feedback on your work is really important. We all have different perspectives and ways of approaching problems, especially in something as subjective and limitless as music. Hearing somebody else’s take on your work can be really eye-opening, and can bring your attention to something you would’ve quickly glossed over.
Now, let’s discuss some general concepts in getting helpful feedback and using it to improve your work. We’ll also touch on terms that you may hear from critics, along with how to address them in the mixing process.
Digesting Feedback Effectively
At the end of the day, you’re the only one who can improve your mix. You could get an ultra-specific critique from a world-class engineer, but if you don’t implement it well, nothing will change. How you digest the feedback that you receive is the most important part.
That being said, there are a few key ideas to mention when it comes to seeking out and receiving feedback:
The more the merrier:
Anybody’s opinion on your mix is worth hearing. Feedback from engineers (amateur to professional) is often the most useful, but don’t ignore what the everyday listener has to say! They do, after all, make up the majority of your audience… Get as much feedback as possible, and use your own judgment to apply what’s necessary.
Feedback from an expert, or at least someone whose mixing skills are better than yours, is ideal. They’ll tend to pick out the most important issues that you need to address, rather than giving you a long laundry list of nit-picky details. Take what they say to heart.
Getting thoughts on your track from someone who’s at a similar level to you is also helpful. If they’re complimentary of your work, you’ve probably done a good job, and should seek out some expert opinions as well. Your peers will likely give you a ton of potential fixes when critiquing your work, so be mindful which are the most important ones and address those first.
(Generally, focus first on comments dealing with important areas like overall balance or not being able to hear an element. Details should be dealt with once major problems are solved.)
A non-engineer’s comments may be as poignant as a professional’s. Don’t dismiss any feedback instantly. Listen to them and pay attention to body language (whether they’re jumping around or not even nodding their head). Try to unpack any comments and find a way to apply them. What the average listener brings up is being said for a reason…
NOTE: It should be a bit of a red flag if you’re hearing the same feedback from multiple sources. If something is a problem to several people, you should prioritize it.
Understand the critic’s perspective:
Along the same lines, it’s important to know where someone’s coming from when they provide feedback. Different people will focus on different things, and the same comment from multiple people could be interpreted differently.
For example, a common comment could be for someone to say that a vocal isn’t cutting through the mix well enough.
If an experienced mix engineer says this, there’s probably an issue with your vocal’s clarity. They might mention that there’s another element in the mix competing for the same frequency space as the vocal, or that some element is too loud and masking it.
If the vocalist on the track says this, keep in mind they’re likely paying more attention to their own part than the surrounding production. They could absolutely be right in their critique (you might have paid more attention to the surrounding production and undermixed the vocal), but it’s worth keeping in mind what their focus is.
If a non-engineer says this, keep in mind that a loud vocal is currently super common in popular music (as the vocal is the most important part of many commercial tracks). Make sure that the vocal cuts through the mix, but know that a non-engineer is also likely to focus on the vocal too.
By keeping context in mind, you’re able to use this feedback in the most beneficial way or to choose not to use it at all.
Also, if the critic is knowledgeable of music and mixing, stay mindful of their musical background. An engineer who mixes mostly dubstep is going to have a different view of your compression choices than one who mixes mostly acoustic music.
Openness and honesty:
As nice as it is to hear compliments on your work, constructive criticism will more likely help you improve your abilities. If somebody is giving you feedback, ask them to be completely honest and bring up anything that comes to mind. The less they sugar-coat, the more you learn and grow.
Don’t get defensive, though. The critic is giving you their opinion on the track and the best ways to improve it. YOU ARE NOT THE TRACK. By addressing the critique objectively, you’re able to simply focus on improving your work.
If you’re looking for feedback on specific aspects of the track, say so. If all you want is advice on structure and flow, it’s fine to tell the listener this is a “rough mix”, or something along those lines.
But if you’re trying to improve your mix, don’t avoid hearing criticism by preemptively downplaying your work as “just a rough mix”, that you “haven’t spent much time on it”, etc. The more you discredit the track before hitting play, the less helpful feedback you’ll be able to get, and the longer it’ll take to actually improve as a producer or engineer.
Keeping track of it all:
As simple as it seems, taking note of the comments you receive is crucial. When receiving feedback, it’s often not the place nor time to implement it. If this is the case, jot down some important points to address later. Better this than waiting until it’s time to work, forgetting, and finding yourself still at square one.
Using it to improve your work:
Now that someone has given you honest and substantial feedback, it’s time to address their points in your project. This can become difficult. The nature of audio makes it tough to describe without using general descriptive words.
Experienced producers and engineers can mention specific issues, such as saying that your mix has too much high-frequency content. However, someone is much more likely to say the mix is “bright”, “harsh”, etc. in this scenario (including experienced professionals).
Unfortunately, descriptors like these are thrown around so much that they can start to lose their meaning and sound vague. One engineer may describe something as sounding “nasal”, while another may disagree and call it “honky”.
Sifting through these terms can be a pain. But never fear! Especially for you, our fellow producers and mix engineers, we’ve put together our cheat sheet for dealing with vague-sounding feedback! Just a few notes first:
- Keep in mind, this is how we define these terms. As mentioned before, others may use different words in different scenarios, or may have slightly different opinions of their meanings. Regardless, each of these terms generally refers to a certain, specific quality of the sound.
- Many of these words describe issues in the level of certain frequency ranges. Remember that these problems can be solved with several tools. EQs naturally work well in these circumstances, but you have other options as well.For boosting frequencies (mid and high frequencies especially), distortion and saturation can be used. For more information on distortion, check out our previous article on the topic here.For attenuating frequencies, multiband compressors and dynamic EQs are available as well. While technically different from each other, these can both attenuate frequency bands dynamically (as opposed to the static attenuation of an EQ).
- For visual purposes, we’ll address any fixes with EQs. If you want to use multiband compression or a dynamic EQ, position the frequency bands in the same places as our EQ bands.
And now…ladies and gentlemen…children of all ages…without further ado…the moment you’ve all been waiting for…etc…our audio terms cheat sheet:
Let’s go through some step-by-step solutions for the most common ones that you’re likely to hear:
“The ______ sounds too bright to me.”
This critic thinks an element in your track has too much high frequency content, specifically above around 5 kHz. Since the problem frequencies are somewhere between 5 kHz and 20 kHz, we need to locate where in the frequency spectrum we should treat.
Add an EQ to the channel. Using a bell filter with a high Q value, boost the gain by about 10 dB or so. With this narrow bell filter, sweep the area from 5-20 kHz. Do this slowly and listen carefully. The frequencies that are bothering your critic should jump out when drastically boosted.
If the problem frequencies are specific resonant peaks, a bell filter can be used to attenuate them. If the problem simply lies in all audio above a certain frequency, a high shelf filter should be used. The same concept applies to low frequencies and a low shelf filter.
(Keep in mind that too much distortion or saturation could also be causing this issue. If so, decrease drive parameters on your distortion/saturation plugins.)
In the example below, an overly bright synth has generally too much high frequency content above about 6 kHz. A high shelf filter is positioned around 6 kHz, and set to -3.13 dB. This should get those high frequencies under control.
Someone may also say that the track in general sounds too “bright”. If so, try to find if one element in particular is causing this issue. If none specifically is the problem, all the elements summing together could be causing some overloading of the high frequencies.
To solve this, be sure that you don’t have too many elements occupying the same high frequency space and try to cut down on distortion in your project. Also, filter out some high frequencies in your reverbs and make sure that the cutoff frequencies of any high pass filters are not set too high (which will eliminate lower frequencies that balance the high ones out).
“The ______ sounds muffled to me.”
This critic thinks an element in your track is missing some high frequency content, specifically above around 7 kHz. An element that lacks level in the highs can sound less present in the overall mix.
To solve this issue with an EQ, use a high shelf filter and boost frequencies in this area of the spectrum. Keep in mind that each EQ has its own subtle sound, and may color things differently. Analog EQs or their digital emulations tend to boost frequencies niceley.
(In these examples, I’m using FabFilter’s Pro-Q 2 for the sake of visual clarity. It’s also a great EQ, but feel free to use any EQ you like.)
Another way to add some high frequency content (some upper harmonics) is with distortion or saturation. As distortion introduces higher frequencies in a more organic way than the surgical boosting of an EQ, it can be a more natural-sounding way to fix a “muffled” sound.
In the example below, a muffled vocal is treated with an EQ to boost high frequency content, specifically above 9 kHz. A high shelf filter is positioned around 9 kHz, and set to +4.87 dB. The vocal will now cut through the mix better than before.
You may get the comment that the whole mix sounds muffled as well. This could be due to a lack of high-frequency elements, or high-frequency elements being “muffled” themselves.
Try adding distortion or saturation where needed, and make sure that the cutoff frequencies of low-pass filters are not set too low. This is especially important on elements that should maintain some air (vocals, lead instruments, percussion, etc.)
Be careful when addressing this issue by boosting the highs on your master channel. While this can be done, it’s better to fix individual elements in their channels as it provides you more flexibility. Any EQing done on the master channel should generally be VERY SUBTLE and reserved for when the mix is done, or in mastering.
“The ______ sounds too nasal to me.”
This critic thinks an element in your track has some overly strong frequencies in the mids, specifically between around 500 Hz – 3 kHz. Certain frequency ranges may be too strong, or there may be resonant peaks emphasized here in the element’s frequency spectrum.
This is unavoidable, as the timbres of all sounds are caused by such resonances. However, careful EQing can control these peaks while maintaining the overall character of the sound.
To find the problematic frequencies, scan the spectrum with a boosted narrow bell filter as before. You may find very specific frequencies that need attenuating, or a relatively narrow range of frequencies that could be brought down.
NOTE: Keep in mind that, as an element plays different notes, these resonant frequencies move. Either automate the movement of any filters you use or set the Q values of filters low enough to cover the range you need.
“Nasal” is a comment most attributed to vocals, and in the example below an overly nasal vocal is treated with an EQ. After scanning with a bell filter, it’s determined that around 600-700 Hz is causing some issues. A bell filter is used to attenuate that area, controlling the resonant frequencies. The vocal will now be less abrasive and sound more balanced.
If you receive feedback that the overall mix is sounding “nasal”, there may simply be too many elements with strong mid-range frequencies summing. Cutting down on these elements, using EQs to eliminate conflicting frequencies on different channels, decreasing distortion and saturation, and avoiding very mid-heavy reverbs can all help.
“The ______ sounds too muddy to me.”
This critic thinks an element in your track has some overly strong frequencies in the lows and low-mids, specifically under around 500 Hz. Overloaded signal in this frequency range can sound overbearing and dominate a mix.
As before, find the specific range that needs treatment with a bell filter, and attenuate as is necessary. For frequencies down here, feel free to use a bell, low shelf, or high pass filter, depending on what you want to achieve. If you need a refresher on these and other filters, check out our previous article on the topic here:
In the example below, a muddy bass is treated with an EQ to attenuate some rumbling frequencies around 190 Hz. A bell filter is positioned here and set to -4.88 dB. The bass should now be more balanced and sit better in the mix.
More often than not, “muddy” is used to describe the character of an entire mix. There may be too many elements in this frequency range that are conflicting, or elements down here may be undefined.
Having only 1-2 elements in this area of the spectrum, high-passing anything that doesn’t need much lows/low-mid signal (i.e. guitars, snares, etc.), and avoiding low and low-mid-heavy reverbs are all ways of cleaning up some of the mud.
“The ______ sounds crushed to me.”
This critic thinks an element in your track has is getting compressed too hard. High compression, though it can bring an element out in a mix, can suck the life out of it too. With low dynamics, things can start to sound flat and emotionless. This is especially an issue with any preformed parts that you want to be dynamic.
The fix for this is pretty simple. Just decrease the compression on this element by decreasing the compression ratio and/or raising the threshold. Also, if you’re told that the transients of an element are getting crushed, increase the attack time on the compressor to allow more of the transient through before compression begins.
In the example below, an overly crushed bass is getting compressed too hard. See how the ratio is set to almost 8:1? This is is a bit too high, as the feel of the performance is being compromised for loudness.
With the ratio decreased to around 3:1, the performance feels more dynamic and has more life. The attack time is also increased to preserve more of the transient created by the bassist.
If you get feedback that the overall mix is sounding “crushed”, there may be too much compression happening on individual elements or, more likely, on the master channel. Limiting on the master channel is useful to bring the track up to level, and to bring out subtle elements in the mix.
However, over-limiting on the master channel can totally destroy the timbre and dynamics of a mix. Generally, don’t add so much compression that this happens.
With the ability to effectively digest the comments you receive (and the vocabulary to apply them), all that’s left is to go out and get people to listen to your tracks! Professionals, peers, your mom, anybody’s comments can help.
There are also plenty of resources (such as some subreddits and forums) to get objective critiques of your work. Make use of these, as you can reach more people than in person.
We hope you enjoyed the article and have some luck getting useful comments on your tracks. See you next time for a look at the ins and outs of reverb. Later!