What Makes a Great Mix? - 9 Things to Listen For
by Koby Nelson – Mix Engineer
As an artist, you know what makes a good song. That’s your thing. You’re the expert. When you stumble across a new song that you love, you can articulate why it’s great (or not so great…). But when it comes to mixes… things get a little tougher. Is this a great mix? A good mix? Or is it just a great song that shines through a lackluster mix? Was it mixed by an experienced mixer or an amateur mixer? Can you tell?
When it comes to your own music it gets even tougher. Maybe you’ve had this experience: you get a mix back of one of your recordings. You take a listen and something seems… off. But what exactly is it? You have a hard time putting your finger on it. The song doesn’t sound the way you heard in your head, but you can’t find the words to describe why to your mix engineer.
In this article I’m going to break down the three levels of mixing, and nine things that make a mix great.
These are the things that make a mix bearable to listen to - The essentials.
Balance is what everybody thinks of when they think of mixing. Are the vocals too quiet? Are the guitars too loud? Is the bass powerful enough? When listening to a mix, nothing should stick out like a sore thumb. On the flip side, nothing important should be buried. There should be reasonable balance across all of the instruments.
In addition to the level balance across different elements in the mix, there should also be tonal balance across the mix as a whole. You don’t want to feel like the mix is all sizzly high frequencies, or honky mid frequencies, or boomy bass frequencies. It should be relatively even across the spectrum.
In a clear mix, there is separation between all of the instruments. Everything has its own place and nothing is getting in the way of anything else. If two instruments live in the same area, they should be mixed in a way that differentiates them.
The classic example is kick drum and bass guitar. Both have lots of energy in the low frequencies that can get in the way of one another. An experienced mixer will carve out space in one to make room for the other. Maybe some super low frequencies are filtered out of the bass to allow the kick to punch through, or vice versa. This concept can be true for any instruments in any part of the frequency spectrum.
Lack of clarity can also contribute to lack of balance. If two instruments (or worse, many instruments) are fighting for space, it will be impossible to achieve balance. Everything should fit together like pieces of a puzzle.
A mix that’s not exciting is a mix that’s… boring. Nobody wants to listen to that. There are many things that can contribute to excitement, and they fully depend on the song itself. The overall feel of a mix should match the emotion of the song and emphasize it. A ballad won’t be as loud or punchy as an upbeat power-anthem, but it should still be exciting in that it makes the listener feel the intended emotion.
This is the quality that can make or break a song. It’s easy to tell when it’s not there, but it’s not always so easy to tell when it’s overdone. Not enough, and the mix feels dull. Too much and it sounds cheesy or try-hard. It should be appropriate for the song.
These are the things that make a mix good - The juicy details.
Too often, “excitement” gets equated with “loudness.” In an effort to make a mix jump out of the speakers, an inexperienced mixer will make everything loud all the time. While that may sound exciting for the first 30 seconds of listening, it quickly becomes fatiguing, and ultimately… boring again.
Music is dynamic. It pushes at some points, and it pulls at others. This should be reflected in a mix as well. There need to be both highs and lows because without low points, the high points have no impact and don’t feel as high. Such is life. The Yin and Yang… and now we’ve officially gone off the rails into hippy-dippy land. Just go with me. We’re talking about art after all.
You have two ears. Two holes in the sides of your head for sound to go in and tickle your brain! A good mix will make full use of both of them to give you the feeling of width. Some elements should feel front and center. Some should feel like they are spread out in front of you. Others should feel like they are completely surrounding you and expanding off in every direction.
Just like with anything else, the width of the mix should be appropriate for the song. A singer songwriter with just an acoustic guitar probably shouldn’t sound like they are the size of the known universe. On the other hand, maybe a soaring synth pad should.
If width is the spread from side to side, depth is the distance from you. A good mix should feel three dimensional. Width on its own is like two-dimensional photo. Add the depth and everything comes to life. It becomes a hologram.
Just like how not everything should be loud in a mix, not everything should sound close to you either. If everything is in your face, nothing really feels like it’s in your face. There should be both closeness and distance, and again, it should fit the song. An experienced mixer will be able to place each element of the mix in space to create the illusion of depth.
These are the things that make a mix great - The X-factors.
If a mix has all of the things described above, it will be good. More than likely, it will be competitive and sound professional. But does it sound unique? Does it have character? Or does it sound cookie cutter, like every other mix out there in the same genre?
Character is “the sound” of a mix. An experienced mixer will be able to find the things that make a song different or interesting and bring them out into the light. This is where mixing comes into its own as an artform in and of itself. When you think of a mix that sounds “distinctive” or “cool” or “vibey,” that’s character.
Music has a purpose: to make the listener feel something specific. In a great song, every part of the composition will contribute to that feeling. If it doesn’t contribute, it shouldn’t be there. The same is true in a mix.
Every mix decision should have a purpose or intention behind it. A great mix will guide the listener’s focus and tell them what to pay attention to. This may seem contradictory to the points I made about clarity earlier. Shouldn’t you be able to hear everything all the time? Sure, but not everything can draw the listener’s attention all the time. That’s just confusing.
As much as we like to think we can multitask, we suck at it. At least I do (ask my wife). We need to focus on just one or two things at any given moment. Three max. An experienced mixer will direct your attention and make it easy for your brain to decide which elements are the most important, so you don’t even have to think about it.
Wait… Isn’t it the lyrics in the song that tell the story? Yes, but a great mix contributes to the story as well. Just like a play has multiple acts, a mix should have an overall story-arc. An experienced mixer won’t give up the punchline right at the beginning. They will allow the mix and the song to develop over time so that the payoff arrives at just the right moment.
This is intimately connected to both the songwriting, and the production. When all three things line up just right, it’s a magical combination. You’ll know it when you hear it because it will give you chills.
Mixing is about more than just making all the individual parts audible. It’s even about more than making things exciting. Ultimately, a great mix will deliver a song to the listener’s ears in its most potent form. It maximizes the emotional potential of the music.
All of these things may seem like a lot to listen for, but at the end of the day, a simple gut-check will get you most of the way there when listening for a great mix. Does the mix make you feel what the song is telling you that you should feel? If so, you’re on the right track.
I hope that this information helps you listen to mixes in a different way. If you have any questions about mixing, or if you’d like to have me mix your music, please don’t hesitate to reach out and ask. To find out more about the mixing services that I offer, you can check out my past work on my home page or get a free quote!