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I have been producing music for 7 years: And I have yet to understand how artists are able to tell what a proper mix sounds like. They often tell me that my mix sounds weird and "muddy", but I myself really can't tell what is wrong with it. I understand that to make a proper mix: You need to "reserve" frequencies on the band to make that instrument sound clean. But what If I have two instruments that lay on the same frequencies (And that happens a lot in my mixes since I produce Hardstyle)? How do I go about that?

Can anybody recommend any good source to really learn this? I have several books on this, and I've read them throughout. But I still can't differentiate between a bad mix and a professional mix with my ears.

  • Are you A/B listening to your mixes and others? One of the important things is to get a reference point, which might be knowing your equipment really well, or to listen to reference recordings which you are aware of how they sound, through the equipment you are using. If your mixes are considered muddy compared to other material, they probably have less treble than what they are compared too. This should be easy to hear. Ask for specific recordings, and compare them to your mixes. – Meaningful Username Mar 26 '15 at 13:44
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It's all about practice and experience. You have to train your ears, you have to know your tools. Producing is not the same as mixing or mastering, some skills overlap but they need mostly different skill sets.

There are tools and techniques that will help you judge the frequency balance of a mix. You might eventually not need them at all, though some of the best mixing engineers keep them in their daily arsenal.

  • Listen to reference songs. Pick a set of professionally produced songs that are similar to whatever you are mixing. Look for songs that have a mix that you really like. Play your mix and the reference song separately and compare. If you are too high on lows, mids, highs, some instrument is too loud or too soft or whatever, do adjustments.
  • Use visual aids. This is specially useful if you don't trust your listening environment (ears, speakers, room, etc). This is most likely the case if you are not an experienced mixer with expensive monitors and acoustically treated room. You can use an spectrum analyzer to see what's going on in your mix. If you don't know what shapes and proportions to look for, use the spectrum analyzer in reference tracks to check roughly which forms you should aim for. Logic and Live have built-in spectrum analyzers in their native equalizers, if your DAW doesn't have one you can get FabFilter Pro-Q 2. There are many other visualizing plugins out there, so you might want to try many before making a choice.

  • Listen your mix through many different systems. Every part of your listening environment (room, speakers, equipment, etc) will color the sound (accentuate the mids, attenuate the highs, or whatever), so you want to listen your mix in different rooms, with different speakers. Try stereo, car, earbuds, etc. Find a good middle ground where your mix sounds good everywhere (at the same time understand the limitations of each system, lows will be lacking in small speakers and that's perfectly normal and fine). Reference tracks are again useful here, to give you an idea how each system should sound like.

These can be of great help, even to experienced mixing engineers, but are specially useful if you are just starting.

They often tell me that my mix sounds weird and "muddy", but I myself really can't tell what is wrong with it.

If you can't tell what's wrong with it, maybe it's because different tastes, or maybe you are not very sensible to the low frequencies (ear damage of some kind), or maybe you don't have a subwoofer and the other person does so you can't even hear muddiness he is referring to, maybe his room accentuates the lows. Who knows?

Again, your problem here is lack of experience. The solution is getting experience, so you are on the right track.

Mixing is both a science and an art. If you want to get philosophical about it, there's no such thing as a weird, bad, or good mix. The ideal balance is subjective. But if you are mixing for the masses, you want to take their tastes into consideration too.

I understand that to make a proper mix: You need to "reserve" frequencies on the band to make that instrument sound clean. But what If I have two instruments that lay on the same frequencies (And that happens a lot in my mixes since I produce Hardstyle)? How do I go about that?

There's nothing inherently wrong with having two elements in the same place and time (violin ensembles can sound beautiful), but if they are not working as a unity you usually want to separate them, otherwise it can turn into something similar to many people talking at the same time.

This has little to do with mixing and more to do with production, composition, and instrumentation. The art of when, where, what, and how to put stuff doesn't have a blanket answer for "how do I get about that?". Maybe you want to consider separating elements in time (so they don't sound at the same time) or in frequency (they use different octaves) or tonally (use another instrument, or tweak the timbre of the current one).

There's little you can do in the mix with instruments that clash in time and frequency. You can try some separation with panning or eq and filters, but the results are limited. If you think two elements clash too hard, you want to take your mixing hat off and put your composer hat on. Maybe that idea doesn't work as well as it did in your head, and needs a change in the composition level, not at the mixing level.

Can anybody recommend any good source to really learn this? I have several books on this, and I've read them throughout. But I still can't differentiate between a bad mix and a professional mix with my ears.

Reading is invaluable, but will do nothing for you if you don't practice using your ears.

  1. First of all, pick an ear training program. I recommend you the Golden Ears program. Train daily.
  2. Mix, mix, and mix. Mix at the very least one song daily.
  3. Don't stop studying! There are great resources out there.

In short

There are many subtleness in sound dynamics, and training your ears to recognize them takes time and practice. Accurately judging the scenario takes knowledge. Practice, practice, and practice.

If you want to get serious about mixing, you want to get an audiometry. Test your ears and see if everything is ok so you can be sure any misinterpretation is because of lack of practice and not because something like ear damage.

  • No worries, looks like other people are picking up the slack. I really appreciate this response, I goof off with production occasionally and this sort of info really helps. I'll just add that you don't need to limit yourself too much with reference work- anything with comparable instrumentation, volume, even something that just sounds good can be of great use. With hardstyle, for example, you might like the way some jazz tracks handle the bass (clearly audible but not too domineering). – player3 Mar 27 '15 at 14:31
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After listening to the example mix, I have a few specific comments:

  1. there's a very strong likelihood that the monitoring is deficient. It is likely very hyped in the high end, and probably has a big hole in the low mids.
  2. It's likely that you mix very loud.
  3. Your mixes have a preponderance of very broad-band "large" synths, stacked on top of each other.

The result of mixing on monitors with a hyped high-end is that you'll roll off the highs to make them sound correct at your listening position, but they'll be "muddy" everywhere else. The mix example you provided is significantly missing high end.

The result of mixing very loud, particularly in a small room, (or worse: on headphones) is that you'll tend to miss the stacking up of low mids, which contributes to muddiness.

The result of lots of full-range synths is that everything is competing for the same space. I've heard it said over and over again by all the mixing greats that "the mute button is the most useful and least often used" tool in the mixer's kit. You create impact by giving instruments a bit of room, you eliminate impact (i.e. make it "muddy") by over-layering them...especially when they're all broad-range "large" synths.

Your drums are absolutely buried in the mix and highly over-compressed. This eliminates any possibility that they'll add impact, they instead add clutter.

The mix itself is highly compressed. I know that this is the style these days, especially using a compressor hit hard to create pumping/breathing, but try dialing that back a bit, or at least increase the attack time, and see if you don't get more impact.

Doing "frequency carving" on instruments to make them sit together better is not nearly as useful as it seems it would be on paper.

Reverb is a contributor to muddyness. Try pulling back the decay time.

A "good" mix isn't just a function of making everything equal, at the same level. A "good" mix allows the listener to "reach deep" into the mix and hear detail. A common attribute of a "good" mix is that some particular instrument or sound is presented to the listener as the "primary" focus, and the instrument that gets primary focus is not necessarily the same one for the duration of the mix...focus gets tossed around between the instruments, adding to listener engagement.

  • You indeed hit perfectly in all your conclution steps. 1. I do have cheap 5' monitors from Tannoy. But I only use them when im arranging the track, so I use headphones for mixing (Though that was better for "cleaner" sound) 2. I do mix with quite loud volume (Again, thought it was better to hear smaller details). 3. I do indeed run very wide synths, and try to make them as fat as possible, especially the main parts such as Leads, Plucks, etc... You thought me a lot today, and I thank you for it :) – Alexander Johansen Aug 11 '15 at 5:54
  • @AlexanderJohansen Interesting ! I mix rock and want it to sound as powerful and smacky as possible. (Don't google "smacky". . I just made it up lol). I've found the best way is to mix very quietly and make it so that I can hear the parts I want to poke through, then a bit louder for general tweaking - but not 'loud'. Ears get tired quickly and "studio tan" sets in more quickly (I start listening too hard and can't -er- hear the woods for the trees, as it were) – user2808054 Aug 11 '15 at 8:54
  • My experience of mixing though earphones is that it sounds awful through speakers afterwards - in my phones mixes, drums are generally very low and mushy, bass up too high. Some kind of phycho-acousting thing going on as it's not about frequency, more the closeness to the ear makinf punchy things like drums sound more punchy through phones than they are through a speaker. I don't know the physics behind that, just the effect. – user2808054 Aug 11 '15 at 8:56
  • some mixers do work loud. I know a couple A-list guys that do, and it works for them. They tend to work in nice rooms though...and I'm sure they would modify their habits if they were in the typical home studio. Mixing in headphones is extremely problematic: you have no way of knowing how the mix will work out in the open, the information just isn't there. – dwoz Aug 11 '15 at 11:11
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Just a bit bout "Muddiness": Listening to your mixes (through good earphones), I can hear a bit of muddiness.. kind of..

"muddiness" .. obviously it's not a technical term but if I take it to mean indistinct and lacking in sharpness, almost like slightly blurred image ..

Things that contribute to muddiness :

  • Lack of very high end frequencies. Sometimes this area brings out the detail and makes the mix come to life, especially on things like acoustic guitars. There aren't any in your mix but the same applies to vocals and other natural things, or percussion.

  • Too much lower middle range. If you consider that your ears hear as though they have comperssors built in, then too much lower middle will be where the mumbling non-detailed sounds are and too much can make the mix sound like it's being played in the next room. Not sure I'd say that's the case in your mixes though.

  • Lack of separation of frequencies for instruments : You're already aware of this.

  • Something "big" (long/dominant notes) too loud in the mix: My opinion is that the synth in your mix is bleeding over everything else. It seems like if you took it down just a little, other thigns would be able to poke through a bit more. This could be anythign in theory thouhg - a favourite mistake of mine is to have the bass guitar up too much, bleeding all over the bottom end of the guitar and making vocals sound thin and weedy. We live and learn.

  • Lack of dynamic range: Often caused by too much compression. Everything's squashed to fit into the same volume range - often a good thing - but sometimes the sound can suffer and lose definition. Eg at the point where a bass drum might strike, if someone starts singing at the same time, the vocal note drops to let the bass through and the overall effect is that the vocals sound indistinct. This can happen with percussion too.

  • Compressor has attack turned down: If this is the case then things like ride cymbals, shakers, P S and T sounds on vocals, anything with a sharp attack, will lose its defined "start" so will sound a bit mushy. It's hard to pinpoint this because such sounds are still there, just with less punch.

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In my experience, when the artist complains that the mix sounds "muddy" it usually means that either it lacks brightness (for example: alot of mixing producers are afraid to add more treble to hihats and cymbals on drum track for fear that the mix will get all hissy, but in fact when you don't add treble to hihats and cymbals they can get "lost" in the mix due to electric guitars distortion, for example).

In other words, when all the instruments are "aligned", heard, and sound overall good, then the artist won't complain about the mix.

One good way to achieve this is to use sidechain ducking, and if you can and have the gear to it, even preffered is sidechain EQing. For example: If you have electric guitars in your mix, they usually "catch" the frequency range of 400-4000 hz. In this range you also have the singer, the drum's snare and toms, and sometimes even keyboard. So what you do, is you use a sidechain EQ on the 500-1000hz range to "duck" the guitars when the singer joins the mix, and you add sidechain "ducking" on the 1000-1200hz range whenever the "snare" drum hits.

This way, you get to maintain a good sounding mix in which all the instruments are heard and nothing gets lost in the mix.

Of course, setting this up properly requires some planning, and learning what each instrument's dominant frequency range is.

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