What Makes A Great Mix?

A couple of weeks ago I had the opportunity to complete my first mix evaluations for the incredible team of engineers over at MixCoach Member.

For those of you unfamiliar with what this is every month MixCoach Member subscribers are given a new song to mix, along with tutorials on how to approach and mix it.

At the end of the month everyone is encouraged to submit their mix for evaluation by the Mixcoach.com community leaders.

Firstly, I have to say that I thoroughly enjoyed the experience. Not only was it really cool listening to and learning from quality mixes of the same song, but the process of evaluating these mixes got me thinking about mixes in a whole new way.

For example, when evaluating a mix what exactly should you listen for? What makes one mix sound great and another sound mediocre? What is the difference between the mixes of experienced engineers and those of guys just starting out?

So before beginning my evaluations I grabbed a sheet of paper and made a list of words that described what each stage of the mixing process (i.e. setting levels, panning, phase coherence, compression, EQ, etc) contributed to the final mix.

Faders Are For More Than ‘Balance’

For instance take the process of setting initial fader levels. This step doesn’t seem that important when stacked up against more interesting tasks like creative compression and adding dimension with delays and reverbs, but it is crucial to achieving a great mix.

You see, setting and adjusting fader levels is not just about ‘balance’, it is also about deciding the focus of a mix and which elements will play a more supporting role. The relatively simple task of setting fader levels therefore contributes to three crucial elements of a great mix – Balance, Focus and Contrast.

The Qualities of a Great Mix After my ‘brainstorming’ session was over I had the following list of qualities that are common to most great sounding mixes.

  • Contrast (Sameness & Difference) – Density – Clarity – Focus – Solidity – Localized Imaging
  • Depth – Distance – Dimension – Width – Height – Movement – Tone
  • Momentum – Energy – Emotion – Contour (Emotional journey) – Punch
  • Dynamics – Balance (and imbalance!)
  • Warmth – Presence

The Wisdom of Charlie Brown

Once completed it occurred to me that this list could actually be useful as a list of goals or objectives when crafting a mix. It kind of reminds me of a story about Charlie Brown.

Charlie Brown was practicing archery in his backyard and instead of aiming at a target, he shot an arrow at his fence, walked over and drew a target around it. When Lucy asked why he was doing it, Charlie remarked: ‘This way I never miss!’

Sometimes mixing can be a lot like this….turning knobs until we stumble on something we think sounds good and then saying ‘That’s what I was aiming for!’

The truth is it is better to have some idea of what we are trying to achieve before reaching for any plugin, otherwise we may not produce a mix that best serves the emotion and intent of the song.

A Little Challenge

So I have a little challenge for you. The next time you reach for a fader or compressor or EQ ask yourself this, ‘What am I trying to achieve with this compressor, EQ, reverb, etc.?Density? Presence? Warmth? Depth? Balance? Something else?

By keep these attributes in mind you’ll stop yourself twisting knobs just because they are there for twisting. Instead you’ll be crafting a great mix on purpose.

What other attributes do you think best describe a great mix? How do you go about building these attributes into your mix?

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