This happens to me all the time. I tend to throw emotional fits and change every parameter all the time, but that's clearly not a sensible way to go about making recordings. My question is, how do you go about making your ears objective while you're mixing?
SOS Forum Post
SOS contributor Mike Senior replies: This is a common problem, because the human ear is very good at adapting and adjusting to what it hears. However, there are several things you can do to try to compensate for this.
Firstly, remember to take breaks. Go take the chihuahua for a walk, or water the triffids, or something; by the time you get back to your mixing chair your ears will have recalibrated themselves to familiar everyday triffid-watering sounds, and will give you a clearer view of your mix.
Your ears easily get tired, so do the majority of your mixing at a sensible volume level and be careful with things like psychoacoustic enhancement, which can be particularly fatiguing for the ears. Even if you're careful, though, a day's mixing will still tire out your ears. After a particularly gruelling (and not particularly successful) mixing session I came up with a basic rule of thumb which has served me very well ever since: never finalise a mix after eight o'clock in the evening. I find that by that time I'm never objective enough to do the job properly. Usually, in fact, I try to sleep on a mix before finishing it. When I get up in the morning there are almost always half a dozen little things still to do that I didn't notice after the previous day's work.
If possible, try to listen to your mix on as many systems as possible. I always listen to all my mixes on at least five: my main monitors, a little mono 'grot box', headphones, the kitchen boombox, and the car stereo. Each listening system you have gives you another angle on your mix, and the combination of several helps you work around the deficiencies of any particular one. Also, using a few domestic playback systems helps give you a better idea of how things will sound in your audience's offices, cars, and living rooms.
Another important thing is to try to listen to your mix at different volume levels, and in particular at the kinds of volume levels you imagine your target audience will be most likely to play it at. This is because your ear hears loud mixes differently than quiet ones — at high volumes the high and low frequencies tend to pop out more, and you often appear to need less compression and reverb, for example.
The most valuable tactic though, in my opinion, is having suitable reference material on hand, to which you can compare your mix. Swiftly A/B'ing against commercial tracks is the best mixing tutor in the world. To quote producer George Massenburg: "I wish guys would pick up several of the top 100 CDs — the ones they're trying to emulate — and listen to them, compared with their work. And then tell themselves that their ears are not deceiving them."
Few of us have perfect room acoustics and monitoring systems, but you can often still get a respectable mix in difficult circumstances if you reference thoroughly. Check out Hugh Robjohns' article on the subject back in SOS September 2003 for some ideas on creating a decent reference CD (www.soundonsound.com/sos/sep03/articles/testcd.htm).
Finally, try to make use of other people's ears as well, by getting over any shyness you might have and playing them your mix. I have done this a lot, and it's really helpful. In my experience, the people you need to listen to most are those who really like the song and the mix as a whole, but just don't like one section of it; nine times out of 10 they're on to something important.
Of course, you can get Sound On Sound's views as well, just by sending in a mix via email to firstname.lastname@example.org, or in the post, to the address given in the front of the magazine. You might even find yourself featured!