7 Big Mistakes I Made When I First Started Mixing

Free eBook: “35 Mixing Mistakes You Don’t Know You’re Making”
Hey, this is Jason from Behind The Speakers, and in this video I’ll be sharing seven big mistakes that I made when I first started mixing. Avoid these mistakes to sidestep years of frustration and get on track to making mixes that sound like the pros.

My first big mistake was that I was afraid to be bold. Now when I first started mixing I read so much advice online that said you should always be very subtle when you mix. You should never boost more than 3 dB on an EQ, and you should never over-compress things. And I had this idea in my head that mixing always had to be subtle. That all of my moves always had to be very gentle and – you know – I was never really aggressive. And it wasn’t until I got to audio school, and I remember one very specific day.

I was taking a class, an advanced engineering class with one of my professors who was a Grammy-winning jazz engineer. And we were mixing a drum kit, and I remember leaning over the console – it was this big API console – and kind of just tweaking EQ on one of the overheads a little bit, and my professor came over to me and he was like why don’t you just boost that thing like 15 dB? And he grabbed the EQ and just boosted it. And at the time I was like this guy’s crazy, like what is he doing? But later on I realized that there absolutely is a place to be bold in the mixing process. And I think sometimes we’re so afraid of making those big moves that we end up holding back.

And the truth is if you have a reason for making a decision like that, if you’re actually going for a sound in your head and you feel like you need to be aggressive in order to make that sound happen, then there’s absolutely nothing wrong with being bold and aggressive in the mixing process. And there are so many examples of great mixers out there – Chris Lord Alge is one that comes to mind – that are very aggressive and very bold, and his mixes sound incredible. So the truth is – as long as you’re aiming for something, as long as you have an intention behind the decision that you’re making, if you feel like you need to be bold, then go for it. And that was one thing that I wish I would’ve learned earlier.

The second big mistake I made is that I didn’t use automation. I remember early on spending so much time working on mixes because – for example, I would get the sound of a guitar really good in the verse, and everything would be working really well, and then the chorus would hit and suddenly that guitar would sound off, or it would sound like it was too loud or too quiet. And so I moved the fader down or up, or I’d EQ it differently, and then I’d go back to the verse and feel like suddenly the verse didn’t sound good again. And so I would EQ it, and I’d just go back and forth trying to come up with some compromise so that tracks would sound good in all of the different sections with one set of settings.

And later on I realized that I could actually just automate things, right? So maybe I could, I could tweak my EQ so that it was one way in the verse and then another way in the chorus, or I could even split the track – duplicate it – and cut out the verse on one section and cut out the chorus on the other, and so now I have two different tracks of the same guitar performance and I could process them differently and I could set different fader positions. And once I realized that mixing doesn’t have to be static in that all of my moves and decisions could actually change over the course of the song using things like automation, that was when my mixes really took a leap forward. And so I wish I would’ve realized earlier on that automation could be so powerful, and could’ve saved me so many hours trying to make my mixes sound great.

The third big mistake I made is that I thought that more time spent mixing would always lead to better mixes. I remember reading these articles where these top-tier mixers – guys like Chris Lord Alge for example – would talk about doing a mix in four hours. And I’d be like well, I have more time than that. Like if they can do a mix that sounds that good in four hours, just imagine what I could do in sixteen hours. And so I’d spend all this time tweaking and tweaking and tweaking, and inevitably my mixes would end up sounding pretty bad.

Later on, I realized that mixing is actually a race against time. And we’re constantly fighting a loss of objectivity while we’re working, meaning the more time we spend listening to something, the more we become adapted to whatever it actually sounds like and the less we hear it as if we were hearing it for the first time. And as we start becoming more and more used to whatever that mix currently sounds like, it becomes harder and harder to figure out what the right decisions are to make. We become more and more biased. And so if you spend too much time mixing, you can actually take yourself down this rabbit hole where you totally take things in the wrong direction. And if you’ve had that experience where maybe you spend way too much time working on something and just completely destroy it, and then go back to the mix that you did twenty minutes into the first day and it sounds amazing, you know exactly what I’m talking about, right?

So I realized after struggling with this for so long that I really needed to covet every second of listening time and recognize that I could actually make a really good-sounding mix in a short amount of time if I was really methodical about how I worked and how I used that time. And I didn’t have to spend two days or four days or eight days to make a mix that sounded really good. I could do it in a day, or a day and a half as long as I was really making use of all that time and really making sure that every second I listened to the mix I was focused on what I needed to do to actually make it sound better.

Now before I go on, I just wanted to mention that I actually put together an e-book with 35 mixing mistakes that most people don’t know they’re making – certainly I didn’t when I first started. So if you’re enjoying this video and you want to dive deeper, you can go ahead and click the link in the description below or up there in the video to download this free e-book right now.

My fourth big mistake was that I avoided referencing. Now referencing is the process of comparing your mix in progress to other commercial tracks – stuff that you find on Spotify or iTunes or the radio – and actually flipping back and forth and comparing your mix to them while you’re working. And this is something that early on I just completely avoided because whenever I compare my mixes to the stuff, my favorite music, I just feel completely demoralized. My stuff, my music was not even close. And so I just was like this doesn’t feel good to me, and I’m going to stop doing this.

Now later on I realized that I was totally shooting myself in the foot by doing that. Because even though it made me feel better not to have to listen to mixes and records that sounded a whole lot better than mine, I didn’t have that goal to aim for anymore. And so inevitably my mixes suffered because I wasn’t challenged. I wasn’t trying as hard to make my mixes live up to this standard. And so even though at this point in my mixing journey I’m a pretty capable mixer, I still use references all the time. They’re an incredibly important part in my mixing process. Because even if I don’t quite hit that mark, it still challenges me to push a little bit more, to work a little bit harder. And at the end of the day my mixes sound better as a result.

So if you’re in that place where you listen to your mixes and then you flip over to references and feel like there’s just this huge gap and it bums you out, I want to encourage you to continue to do that. Even though it doesn’t feel good, in the long run it’s actually going to help you make better-sounding music. And so if you can just stomach the discomfort and the disappointment, it’s going to help you grow and progress as a mixer. And in the long run, that’s what you really want.

My fifth big mistake was I over-processed everything. I’m not really sure why I did this, but early on I think I had this idea that the more plug-ins you added to a track the better. And so if you looked at my sessions and my mixes early on, you’d see that almost every track had, you know, four, five, six different plug-ins on them, and I was maxing out my CPU. And I remember I was like I need to get a UAD card and a better computer just so I can add more plug-ins. But as I progressed more as a mixer, I’ve noticed that I’ve started using less and less. And this was something that I realized.

I actually took a mixing class in college with an incredible Grammy-winning mixer by the name of Kevin Killen. And I remember the first day we showed up in class, and I was so excited to take this class with him because I loved his mixes. And he pulled up one of his sessions, and I remember it showed on the big projector screen, the big ProTools mixer window, and there were like four plug-ins on the whole session. And it was like a hundred-track session. And he played it, and it sounded incredible. And I was like how does this guy do that with four plug-ins?

And later on I realized when I started looking at these sessions from some of these top-tier mixers that a lot of them weren’t actually doing all that much. And it started to click for me that mixing is not so much always about what you do, but it’s as much about what you don’t do. And knowing when to leave something alone and when not to process something is actually as important as knowing when to reach for an EQ or a compressor. And so once I started realizing this, inevitably I started using less and less. And now today I use probably a third of the processing I used to, and my mixes sound so much better.

So I’m not saying there aren’t times when you need to be heavy-handed and use lots of plug-ins. And some mixers, that’s their approach and they’re very heavy-handed. But for me I’ve found that using less is often, it just results for me in better-sounding mixes. So if you’re in that stage where you have a dozen plug-ins on every track, challenge yourself to really ask every time you add a plug-in or an EQ or a compressor, any processing, ask yourself why am I doing this? Is there a problem I’m trying to solve? What’s the reason I’m adding this plug-in? And if you don’t have a clear answer for that, if it’s just, you know, hey I thought I’d throw this on because I felt like it, then you probably shouldn’t be using the plug-in. So if you can challenge yourself to ask that question every time you add a plug-in to a track, I think it’s going to result in you using a lot less. And at the end of the day your mixes are also going to sound a whole lot better.

My sixth mistake was I ignored room acoustics completely. Early on my first studio was actually built in the garage of my home where I was growing up. And no acoustic treatment, you know, it was like you were recording a vocal take and the UPS truck would drive by outside and you’d be like man, I gotta record a whole new take. I mean it was like, it was a really modest setup. But I really didn’t pay a lot of attention early on to room acoustics, and how important that was in my mixing process. And I remember really struggling with translation, trying to make my mixes sound good in the car. You know, I’d take my stuff out to my car and it would sound great in my studio but it would totally sound like a mess in the car. I spent so much time trying to figure out how to make things translate better.

But what I realized was that without paying attention to room acoustics, without really focusing on that, you’re making the mixing process a lot harder than it has to be. If you get the acoustics in your room right, and you really pay attention to that stuff, mixing process becomes so much easier. Everything becomes so much easier. Not only, you know, does it become easier to make better-sounding mixes, but your mixes translate better to other speakers. It’s just so much easier when you get the acoustics right.

And the good news is that you don’t have to spend a whole bunch of money or build a fancy custom studio in your house. It can be done relatively affordably, and if you’re looking for more information on that, I actually put together a video with some basic principles and tips and advice that will help you. And I’ve linked to that in the description below, or you can check it out up there in the video. And that’s a great place to get started. But, you know, you don’t have to spend a ton of money, but it is important to focus on room acoustics. And I wish I would’ve learned that early on. Something I like to share with all of my students, and a lot of them choose to ignore it anyways. But if you really focus on this stuff and make it a part of your process to get the room acoustics in your studio right, I promise you mixing is going to become so much easier, and it’s going to become much easier to create mixes that translate, that sound great wherever they’re listened to.

And my seventh mistake was I skimped on prep. Early on, I was so excited to start a mix that I wouldn’t take the time to do all the boring stuff, the stuff that nobody likes to do – cleaning up the session, color-coding, labeling tracks, getting rid of all the tracks that don’t need to be there, bussing things together, comping them – all the stuff that we don’t like to talk about, the stuff that seems boring and obvious. I didn’t really focus on that stuff because I was so excited to get into the mixing process.

But my sessions were such a mess that I’d get so bogged down by just trying to find things and trying to figure out where things were in my session, and it would just take me out of the creative flow. And I’d spend so much time on the workflow that it would really distract me from doing what’s right for the mix. And later on I realized more and more as I started becoming more serious as a mixer, as I started taking on clients, how important prep is. And now, I spend maybe two hours sometimes prepping a session. And that’s time well spent because I know not only am I going to make it back in the mixing process because I’m going to be able to move through the mixing process much more efficiently, but it’s actually going to result in a better-sounding mix. Because when I am mixing, I can just be in a flow, and be creative, and not have to get bogged down by trying to find things or figure out where they are in the session. And the more that you can remove those barriers within your mixing process, the better your mixes are actually going to sound at the end of the day. It seems like it’s not really that important, but it’s so essential.

And today it’s one of the big things that I see in my students that really separates amateurs from pros. Pros have a very clearly defined system for prepping their mixes. Amateurs leave it all up in the air. They do it sometimes, maybe they don’t other times, or maybe they have no system at all. So if you haven’t seriously considered prep, and the impact that it can actually have on your music and on your mixes, I encourage you to step into this world. It will make a huge difference, and it certainly did for me.

Now if you’re ready to dive deeper, I recommend that you download that free e-book I put together called “35 Mixing Mistakes You Don’t Know You’re Making.” Certainly I didn’t know I was making these mistakes when I first started mixing. And by avoiding these mistakes, you’re going to improve the sound of your mixes, and just gain more clarity and confidence as a music maker. So if you’re ready to download this free e-book, click the link in the description below or up there in the video to get started right now.

Now before you go, leave a comment below this video and let me know – what was the biggest mistake you made when you first started mixing? I’d love to hear from you, so leave your answer in the comments section below and I’ll try to reply to as many as I can.

Thanks so much for watching, and you can check out more mixing tips like these right here on my YouTube channel or at BehindTheSpeakers.com.

About Jason Moss

Jason is an LA-based mixer and the founder of Behind The Speakers. He's a graduate of New York University's Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music. His how-to articles have been featured in leading industry publications by Berklee, TuneCore, SonicScoop, The Pro Audio Files, and Disc Makers.