One of the most common emails I get from people, generally goes along the lines of “hey man, can you listen to my song and let me know what you think it needs?”. I always freely offer mixdown advice to my clients before they come to me for a mastering job, but it’s just not something I can do for everyone. I certainly enjoy helping people out with advice when I can, but the fact remains that I’ll get 10-20 of these a day some weeks, and I just can’t take the time to listen and comment on them all while still trying to run a business. Or while trying to find the time to make my own music, something that has definitely gotten harder and harder to do lately!
Still, I want to help in whatever way I can, so I thought it might be a good idea to compile a list of some of the more common issues I hear in people’s tracks over and over again. Often it’s not that a producer doesn’t have the skill or ability to hear these problems, but they’re just too close to the song and too used to it’s sonics to have that objectivity to do so (a good case for why people use mastering engineers still in the first place I might add). So, here’s some of the more frequent problems I run into when listening to other people’s work. Not saying all tracks have this problem, but it’s some of the common areas where you can focus on when listening and critiquing your own music.
1. High hats too loud. They add a lot of feel and groove to your drum parts, so a lot of people focus on these and as a result have them turned up a little bit too much while working on them. Usually it’s just a case of people getting used to them at that volume inadvertently, and once you compare the song with something else they really stand out then. Especially problematic as once the song is mastered, they can be almost annoyingly loud if it’s a club tune, and the only fix for this in mastering is largely just to EQ them down. This of course affects a lot else on the top end, so it’s not ideal. Just A/B with another song now and then to see how loud your high hats are compared to other material in the same sort of genre, often this is a pretty obvious issue once you do that.
2. Bass and Kick relationship off, too loud or too quiet. The low end is without a doubt the one area more people struggle with than anything else, as it’s the most susceptible to acoustic issues, or monitors that just don’t go low enough in a producers studio. A lot of people think adding a subwoofer will help, but 9 times out of 10 in my experience it just makes things even worse as they are not set up properly. The easiest way to check for issues here is to try other playback systems when you think the mixdown is done, especially car stereos as that seems to make the issue stand out more.
The other common problem on the low end is what I call the single tone deepness. It sounds cool to say that you tuned your drums to match the key of the song, but be careful that you’re not making the kick and bassline so close together that they just run together and create a mush of one single frequency. If you have a higher bassline with some bite to it, use a deeper kick. If you have a super deep dubby bassline, use a kick that’s got some high frequency content to help it stand out more.
3. Too much stereo, where’d the middle go? These days it seems that everyone is getting more and more fond of spatializers, stereo enhancers, and really wide ping pong delays/reverbs. Nothing wrong with spreading things out some, but be careful that you’re not pulling everything away from the center of the stereo field at the same time. I get some songs where it sounds like every single sound is coming discretely from one speaker or the other, and no instruments are holding down the center. Use your stereo tools sparingly, maybe on only a few tracks and not the whole song. Super important for anything meant for a club as well.
4. The reverb is going, going, go. Long fade outs seem to be making a come back, and as long as they’re not overused on every track on your album, can be an effective tool to slowly bring a listener down. If you do have a long fade out, say with a reverb or delay tail, make sure that the tail has really ended before you lop off the end of the song. You don’t want to have someone really into your song and enjoying the ending as it blissfully fades away, only to have it suddenly stop before the sound has really stopped decaying. Using headphones and turning the volume up is the best way to check for this.
5. Too many synths in the midrange. Remember that everything in your song has to have a place, both spatially and in terms of frequency spread. I get a lot of tracks sent to me where the producer has 3-4 different synth lines all fighting to be heard at the same time. Pick the most important one or two, and ditch the rest. Complexity in a song can be good, but not if it’s really masking your underlying message and the core of the song. Panning can help to some extent, but having wildly different synth lines in each speaker can be disconcerting and throw the whole balance of a mix off. Useful as a special effect perhaps, but do so sparingly if you must.
6. One-dimensional sounding, flat due too much individual track compression. Often in an attempt to beef things up and make them sound fuller, producers will start putting compressors on all tracks and reducing dynamic range of the individual sounds. Be careful if this is the style of music you like, it’s very easy to remove so much dynamic range that the song not only lacks punch, but there’s no sense of depth either. Everything sounds sort of flat and 1-dimensional. One of the main side-effects of this is that there’s very little you can do in the mastering stage either. We can make it louder, but it’s not going to be punchier as we have nothing to work with when shaping the transients and release stage of all the dynamics. Use compression on the core sounds if you must, but try and leave at least a few things really dynamic to offset that one dimensional feel. Percussion and cymbals, as well as backing synths are prime candidates for this.
7. Low-pass filtering the whole song. I have no idea who started the myth that low-passing your song around 16kHz or so can help make it louder, but it’s not true 99.99% of the time. If anything, you’ve just taken out all the frequencies that give a song a sense of space and depth, that lovely air on the top end that almost puts the track in a physical location you can really feel.
The same is largely true about high-pass filtering the song too, many times it doesn’t solve anything and can introduce weird phase-shifts where you don’t want them. If you do hear a problem with something less than 40Hz (congrats on having great monitors!), then sometimes a little bit of high-pass filtering can help, but don’t do it as a matter of course. Make sure there’s a real need for it. If you’re sending your track out to be mastered, then don’t even do it at all, let the mastering engineer handle it. They have more accurate monitoring and a properly treated acoustic space, and will be able to remove only that which is truly problematic.
Anyway, I hope that gives some people an idea of some of the more common issues I see when working on other people’s tracks. I want to reiterate one final time, that before you go and implement any of these solutions, make sure there’s a problem in the first place that needs to be addressed.
In many cases people are just so excited to finish a song, that they often don’t live with the mixdown for a couple days and play it back on multiple systems before mastering it themselves or sending it out to be mastered. Giving your ears a break and getting some fresh perspective on the overall sonics of the track can solve so many issues. Have some patience, and your track will sound the better for it in the end.