How To Clean Up A Muddy Mix In 4 Simple Steps

Click here to download your FREE Muddy Mix Cheatsheet.
Does you mix sound muddy? Keep watching to learn how to clean it up.

Hey, this is Jason from Behind The Speakers, and today you’re gonna learn how to clean up a muddy mix in four simple steps.

But before we dive in, I also put together a free cheatsheet that summarizes everything we’ll be covering today, and if you download this and keep this on hand while you’re mixing, you’ll always have a step-by-step guide that you can follow to clean up any muddy mix. Now, if you wanna download this, again, it’s completely free, click the link in the description below, or up there in the video.

Step number one to clean up a muddy mix is to check for tonal balance.

Now, this is really about collecting information. So we hear that there’s some kind of muddiness in our mix, but we’re not quite sure where the problem is, or what it is, and so this is a great first step, because it’s gonna give us the right information we need to move forward and fix the problem quickly. Let’s jump into my DAW and take a look.

Okay, so I have a film score cue here from one of my clients Megan Cavallari, and I wanna show you how to pull off step one of this four-step process, which is to check for tonal balance.

Really what we’re doing here is collecting information. We know that there’s some kind of muddiness in our mix, but we’re not quite sure where the problem is, or what it is, and so if we can get the right information by following this step, it’s just gonna make it much easier in terms of addressing the problem moving forward.

I’m gonna add a spectrum analyzer to this track. Now, this is Voxengo SPAN, which is a free plugin. You can download it right now—it’s one of my favorites. And I’m gonna add this preset here that I’ve saved called “JM Master.” And if we pull up the settings panel, you’ll see I’ve basically set the spectrum analyzer up to give us an average, broad overview of the frequency content in this mix. I don’t want it to respond to short-term peaks or spikes in the signal. I just want it to average everything out and give us a broad overview of the tonal balance of this mix.

The key control here is this average time. I’ve slowed it down to 6,000. And again, that’s gonna tell the spectrum analyzer to ignore those short-term peaks and spikes and just give us this broad, kind of smoother overview. If you copy these settings, if you’re using these plugins, or this plugin, excuse me, that’ll be a great start for you.

Now I’m gonna play this track, and let’s just take a look at what the spectrum analyzer is showing us.

If you take a look here, this is basically showing us the frequency content of our mix, right? We have the frequency spectrum down here, and then we have a line that basically shows us how much energy there is in each area of the frequency spectrum. Ideally what we’re looking for is a smooth line. We don’t wanna see big bumps or valleys. We want there to be a fairly even representation of all the different frequencies. We don’t want more energy or less energy in any one specific area.

Right off the bat I’m seeing that there’s this bump right around two to 300, and that’s telling me that there’s a buildup of energy in that specific area of the frequency spectrum. Now, if your mix sounds muddy, this is a very common place that you’ll see this—right around the lower midrange. There’s just an excess amount of energy there. Now, another area you might see something if your mix sounds muddy is in the low end, so maybe around 60 Hz or 80 Hz. But trying to figure out exactly where this is can be really helpful in terms of using a spectrum analyzer, because you’re getting that information.

Now that we know that there’s a little bit of a buildup here in this two to 300 Hz range, that’s gonna be really helpful moving into the next steps of this process, because we know exactly where to focus our energy in terms of EQ cuts or balance decisions, because we’re kind of looking around that specific area for problems.

Step number two is to use the Mute Button Method. Now, this is a technique that’s super simple, and you can use it to quickly identify which one of the tracks in your mix is causing the muddiness that you’re hearing. And once you figure out where that is, it’s really easy to fix the problem. Let’s jump into my DAW again and take a look.

We’re here in Pro Tools. I have a track called “Out Now” by Leah Capelle pulled up, and in this last chorus there’s a lot of stuff competing for space. We have background vocals, stacked guitars. I’m just hearing some muddiness somewhere, but I’m not quite sure where it is. It just sounds like there’s a lack of clarity. Let me play you the track so you can get a sense for what I’m talking about.

♪ Out now ♪

♪ I will love him better ♪

♪ But they’re goin’ out now ♪

See, it’s just unclear. I’m not quite sure what’s contributing to that problem, but it sounds like there’s maybe something in the lower midrange somewhere that’s too thick, that’s kind of taking up too much space.

To find the track that’s causing the problem, I’m gonna flip over to the mixer view here, and what I’m gonna do is I’m gonna go through the mix and start muting tracks one by one, and I’m gonna listen to see if that problem disappears, or if it stays. Now, if it stays, I know that the problem isn’t that track, so I’m gonna unmute it and then move on. And I’m basically gonna move through the tracks in my mix, one by one, kind of muting and un-muting them until that problem disappears. And when it does, I know I’ve found the track that’s causing that problem.

Let go ahead and start with the guitars here. I’m just gonna go from right to left here and kind of work backwards.

♪ Out now ♪

♪ I will love him better ♪

♪ But they’re going out now ♪

♪ Thanks to my stupid mind ♪

♪ They’re going out now ♪

♪ I wish he– ♪

Ahh, that’s interesting. Right when I muted that track, I kind of felt like the whole mix opened up. It felt like that kind of cloudiness disappeared. We could hear things more clearly. So this is telling me that this track is the track that’s causing the problem, and now I can add an EQ to this track and solve that problem.

With the mix playing, I’m gonna go ahead and play this back and dial in a cut around the lower midrange to see if I can clear up some of that muddiness.

♪ Out now ♪

♪ I will love him better ♪

♪ But they’re goin’ out now ♪

Ahh, so much better. It feels like the whole mix just totally opened up.

Let me play you this again, first without my processing, and then I’m gonna kick the EQ in so you can hear the difference.

♪ Out now ♪

♪ I will love him better ♪

This is with it in.

♪ But they’re goin’ out now ♪

With it out.

♪ Thanks to my stupid mind ♪

With it in.

♪ They’re goin’ out now ♪

The mix sounds cleaner and clearer. We can hear things more clearly, because this track is not competing and taking over that area of the mix.

Again, the trick is to go through each track one by one in your mix, mute the track, see if the problem is solved. If it isn’t solved, un-mute it, and then move on to the next track and stop when the mix opens up, and then you know you’ve found the source of the problem. And so you can apply EQ confidently to that one track, knowing that that is the track that you need to EQ to fix the problem.

Step number three is to rebalance.

Now, oftentimes when we hear that there’s some muddiness in our mix, we feel like the first thing we need to do is go EQ it out. But oftentimes, an easier way to fix the problem is to change the fundamental balances, the levels of the faders in our mix. Rather than EQing out some excess low-end information, we can turn turn down the low-end tracks in our mix. We could turn down the kick and turn down the bass, for example, or if there’s a buildup in the lower midrange, we can turn down the tracks that have their frequency content primarily located in that specific area of the spectrum.

Don’t just go directly to EQ to fix the problem. Recognize that one of the easiest fixes for a muddy mix, and often one of the quickest ways to solve the problem, is to actually just move the faders and try to find a better balance so that things sound a little bit clearer.

Step number four is to EQ the mix bus.

Now, this is a last resort, and only should be used if you’ve gone through the other three steps in this process and still don’t have a clear sounding mix. Let’s jump into my DAW and I’ll show you exactly how to pull off this technique.

Okay, so we’re back in Pro Tools, and we have the same film score cue that we took a look at in step one here. And if you remember, we determined that there was a little bit of a buildup around two to 300 Hz on this track.

So, again, you wanna EQ the mix bus as a last resort, right? It’s better to go through the ground floor process of trying to fix problems on individual tracks, versus throwing EQ on the mix bus and try to fix it there. But if we’ve gone through those steps, and we’re still hearing that there’s some muddiness in our mix, this would be a last resort.

I’m gonna add an EQ across this whole mix, and I’m not gonna let the spectrum analyzer guide every decision I make. I’m not gonna keep going back to the spectrum analyzer and seeing if I’ve flattened things out. I’m gonna let my ears guide the decision-making process here, but because I know that there’s that buildup of energy on the spectrum analyzer around two to 300 Hz, that’s probably where I’m gonna focus my attention on this EQ.

I’m gonna add a cut here, and use my ears to determine what the right amount is, and paying very close attention to the mix as a whole, because whenever you’re EQing the mix bus, it’s very easy to make some things sound better, and other things sound worse. We might make the snare sound a little bit better, but the vocals suddenly sound too thin. We’re constantly making this kind of judgment call and balance, and we’re trying to figure out how to not mess things up as kind of a first priority.

I’m gonna play the track and cut out some of this area with our EQ, and see if we can fix this problem, or at least improve it. Let’s play again.

What I’m trying to pay attention to here is, I like what this cut is doing on the snare, to me the snare sounds a little bit more balanced, it doesn’t sound as boxy, but the horns are starting to sound a little bit thin to me, so I’m riding this line between trying to cut this out enough where I’m cleaning up the snare, but not making the horns sound too thin. This is why trying to fix problems like this on the mix bus isn’t usually the best call, because usually you’re making some form of compromise, because you’re EQing every track in the mix. So I’m gonna back this off a little bit. Let’s say 1.6 dB or so, and let’s take a listen to this before and after.

This is in bypass, without the EQ engaged.

And with the EQ in.

Take a closer listen here and zero in on the bottom end of the snare. Take a listen to the kind of boxiness or fullness on the snare, both with and without this EQ cut.

This is with it in bypass, no cut.

And with it engaged.

I might even back this off a little bit. Maybe it’s a little bit too aggressive. But to me, the snare sounds a little bit cleaner with that cut engaged. We’re not hearing as much of that kind of boxiness or muddiness on the low end. We’ve cleaned up a little bit of the muddiness in this mix by cutting out a little bit of this area of the frequency spectrum.

Now, it’s important that we go through the song and make sure that this cut is making the mix sound better throughout the course of the song, and not just in this one spot. But again, I just want to caution you here that this should really be a last resort. Always trying to fix problems on the individual tracks in your mix is usually gonna be, it’s gonna lead to much better results.

Now, I also put together a free cheatsheet that summarizes everything we’ve covered today, and if you download this and keep this on hand while you’re mixing, you’ll always have a step-by-step guide that you can follow to clean up any muddy mix.

Now, if you wanna download this, it’s completely free. Again, click the link in the description below, or up there on the video.

Now, before you go, leave a comment below this video and let me know—what’s your favorite way to clean up a muddy mix? I’d love to hear from you. I read every comment and reply to as many as I can.

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

Video features music by Megan Cavallari and Leah Capelle.

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.