As a mix engineer, it’s your job to give clients what they want — but what they say and what they mean aren’t always quite the same...
If you have even a small amount of experience mixing music for other people, there’s a good chance you’ve found yourself on the receiving end of vague, contradictory or slightly abstract mix feedback. Exactly what does a ‘glassy’ guitar sound like? How do you add ‘more excitement’ to a mix that you’ve already tried to make sound as exciting as you possibly can? In this article, I’m going to dive into the top five ‘client speak’ comments that I encounter as a mixing engineer, and explore not only what they might mean, but also how we can respond to them and tweak our mixes to get everyone on side.
“Can the vocal be a bit louder/quieter?”
Feedback around the theme of vocal levels can often be an easy fix. Frequently, all that’s needed is a small adjustment in overall volume, or a little riding of levels at different points in the track. Sometimes it can simply be about reassuring an inexperienced artist that it’s perfectly normal for a vocal to sit ‘loud and proud’ in many styles of music.
If you’re struggling beyond simple level changes, one likely problem is that other elements in the mix, such as guitars or keyboards, are fighting for space with the vocal. Although this is likely to be an arrangement issue, sometimes it just needs to be dealt with in the mix. The choice of vocal effects is a big factor, but we’ll look at this point later in the article. Initially, I would recommend keeping things simple, and it’s worth having a quick review of your mix to make sure you haven’t overlooked basic mix options such as panning things out of the centre of the stereo field, or using enough level automation to bring other instruments up and down in level around the vocal.
If none of the above is enough, we can look at exploring a few more ‘advanced’ mixing techniques. One technique that you might often hear mentioned but which can be quite hard to master is using a plain old EQ to remove competing frequency ranges from other instruments that are sitting around the lead vocal. A common mistake I often see is excessive boosting of the top end ‘air’ frequencies of a vocal in search of a quick fix. I would encourage you instead to focus more on the midrange of your mix, and a useful technique to experiment with is to identify a frequency range where it feels like the intelligibility and ‘excitement’ of the vocal are located. Depending on the voice, this is usually somewhere between 1.5 and 5 kHz. Try to then ‘carve out’ a little space in that region on a few other instruments and see if the vocal seems to sit more naturally. If it feels like the other instruments are being compromised too much, you can then explore more ‘dynamic’ techniques such as side‑chaining an EQ or multiband compressor, so that the key frequencies you identified are ducked out of competing instruments only when the vocal is present. This is relatively easy to do now in a DAW and there are a couple of plug‑ins, like Trackspacer by Wavesfactory, that make this very easy indeed. A little should go a long way, however, and I’d definitely recommend trying to develop your hearing around some of the more old‑school ‘static’ EQ techniques — it’s a way of working that can lead to leaner and more focused‑sounding mixes.
“More bass please!”
One mix session that always sticks in my mind involved a brief stand‑off with a band who had got completely lost in a ‘committee‑style’ mixing process. It reached the point where I had to politely draw a line as we started going through the bass player’s partner’s mix notes — which primarily involved turning everyone else down and the bass guitar up.
Anecdotes aside, mixing bass can be tricky, and on top of the well‑documented problems of mixing bass in small, bedroom‑style studios, we also have to contend with modern playback systems, which often sell themselves on their ability to produce exaggerated bass frequencies from modest‑sized devices. The first thing we need to figure out when we get client feedback around the low end is to decipher whether the artist (and often, especially, the bass player) wants to be able to hear the bass guitar or synth more clearly, or whether they want the overall mix to have more or less bottom‑end ‘weight’. If it’s an intelligibility issue, we can follow a similar process to the one I suggested for vocals, creating space for a bass part by removing clashing frequencies from other instruments. This can be more straightforward than it is with vocals, as there’s often plenty of superfluous low end that can be filtered out on guitars and synth parts. It’s also less risky to add frequencies on a bass part, and the area around 800Hz up to 2kHz on a bass guitar can often be quite dramatically boosted before it starts to sound unpleasant or interfere too much with other parts.
If the issue is more about the overall ‘weight’ of a mix, one skill relating to bass that is harder to develop is learning to appreciate the difference between the real low frequencies — anything below around 70Hz — and the more audible range just above this but below the lower midrange. I had a brief period mixing on Yamaha NS10s a few years ago, and was shocked at just how much of a ‘bump’ those classic studio speakers have around 110‑120 Hz. As a result, the mixes I was doing at that time were quite lean around that area. I quickly noticed, however, that those mixes seemed to ‘travel well’ outside of the studio — especially on AirPods and the like. I find that If you’re careful with not overloading that 100‑150 Hz frequency range, you can then have a more generous lower end, with more sub‑type frequencies that will be appreciated when listening on better speakers or headphones. This can keep your bass‑hungry clients happy but also ensure that the mix isn’t swamped when heard on modern playback systems.
Compression is the other big factor in achieving a tight, professional, client‑pleasing low end, and it’s easy to underestimate just how much compression is sometimes used on bass in modern mixing. Without going too deep here, it’s worth trying to separate bass compression into a couple of different jobs. The first priority is often to ‘pin down’ the really low end, so that individual notes don’t dramatically go up or down in volume. This might typically involve quite heavy‑handed use of high‑ratio compression, or even limiting, to create a solid low end that can be nice and prominent in the mix. I like to focus just on the sub‑200Hz range, with a multiband compressor or by multing the bass track. Once that range is more controlled, you can start to think more about the presence and character of the bass, and shape it with another compressor that won’t just be triggered by the low end. It can be hard to get to the point where you feel like you have real control over the bottom end, but once you develop this, it can make a huge difference in giving clients what they want, whilst preserving the integrity of the mix that you’ve worked so hard on.
“I’m not sure about that reverb...”
Another common topic of mix feedback is the choice of effects. And with effects being one of the most subjective aspects of mixing, that’s perhaps not surprising. I have some clients who egg me on to add more and more reverb, and others I have to negotiate with to allow me to add even a hint of ambience around their voice. There’s no right and wrong, of course, but artists can easily overthink and get insecure about this common and often liberally used element of music production. Often they just need a little reassurance that the listener won’t think it’s weird or unusual! If I’m recording a band, and I know I’m going to be mixing the material we’re working on, I make a point of trying to get to know what they like effects‑wise during the tracking stage, but if you’re just mixing for someone, it’s well worth trying to feel out what they might like — see the box on mix communication.
Aside from taste, it’s important that effects feel like they’re part of the music and not just ‘stuck on’. There are a few easy ways of making effects feel more natural and cohesive, with the most obvious being the use of EQ on the effect return channels. Removing high frequencies — from reverb and delay returns especially — can help make an effect ‘sit well’ and can also help with other mix issues such as sibilance. Cutting low frequencies from the effects returns can help avoid low‑mid build‑up.
Automation is also your friend here, and riding the levels of effects throughout a mix is an easy way of keeping them under control while also adding interest. Dynamics processing can also be great for getting that balance between presence and depth, and a common technique is using a side‑chained compressor on the effects return to duck the level of the effect when a vocal is present. Every time the vocal stops, the compressor is released and the effects swell up and catch the ear. One more little tip that I’ve found helps, with stereo spatial effects especially, is using a good pair of headphones to fine‑tune and set my final effect levels — I normally always end up turning them down a touch! Not only can you hear the finer details to make these judgments, but there’s also a very good chance nowadays that your client will be judging your work whilst listening on a pair of AirPods or similar. Lastly, effects, more than anything else in this article, are something to not be precious about as an engineer — it’s a simple matter of taste. Be bold, but if the client doesn’t like it, save that awesome effect you’ve created as a template for a future project and move on!
“Make it brighter/sparklier/glassier/shinier!”
It would be easy to think that when an artist uses these adjectives, they always want the mix to be rebalanced tone‑wise to sound ‘brighter’. Often that is the case, and if you feel confident with your monitoring, it could just be a case of you not quite judging a genre‑specific norm right (some styles are really bright!), in which case you simply need to dial in a bit more high‑frequency EQ. But when people use terms like ‘sparkly’ or ‘shiny’ (I still have no idea what ‘glassy’ means!) it’s often worth taking a moment to try to figure out exactly what they mean. By just boosting the very high frequencies across a whole mix with a shelving EQ, we can end up chasing our tails as things like cymbals or vocals become too shrill or harsh sounding. Often, brightening up just one or two elements, such as a guitar or snare drum, will mean you can get the thumbs up without trashing the rest of the mix.
Another cause of a mix appearing too dull out in the real world is that it has too much low end or low‑mid information, which our ears can perceive as a lack of brightness. Mastering engineers, for example, often get that nice ‘shiny’ sound not by just adding loads of high frequencies, but by first carefully removing low mids (somewhere around 250Hz is a great place to start) and controlling the very bottom end with compression and a little EQ. Hopefully, some of my tips in my ‘More Bass Please’ section can help with this.
“Can it be more exciting?”
Being asked to make a mix more exciting can be deflating, because it’s not like you haven’t already tried your best to create a big, impactful‑sounding mix! However, you can’t take this stuff personally: it’s about figuring out what you have under your control and what the client actually means. It could be a simple(ish) issue of you not pushing things enough with saturation and parallel compression, say, or you may have misjudged certain genre‑specific stylistic things like distorted vocals or the use of drum samples.
You can’t take this stuff personally: it’s about figuring out what you have under your control and what the client actually means.
It could also, frustratingly, be a case of your mix not being loud enough. Thanks to the loudness normalisation features on streaming services, the argument for slamming mixes has, thankfully, become much less compelling. What hasn’t changed, however, is that many artists still associate that ‘crispy’ and clipped sound you get from heavy limiting with a feeling of excitement. What I tend to do if I realise a client likes that ‘noughties’ kind of sound is to try to build it into the mix itself, rather than just slap it on the end with a limiter. If you use saturation and limiting on individual tracks, or groups of instruments, you then have the freedom to automate some dynamics back into the mix. Hopefully, you can get that ‘exciting’ sound but also ensure that the mix doesn’t become boring after the first 20 seconds.
A great bit of advice I was given on the topic of excitement by a well‑known producer was about not being timid when mixing music. A neat and tidy mix, with everything politely coming in at just the right level, might please us technically, but can often sound boring. If a new part, chorus or effect is coming in during a track then don’t be afraid for it to really come in! A great exercise if you don’t do so already is to listen to music you like on your studio monitors or headphones. I’m regularly shocked at just how ‘bold’ certain production choices — especially around effects or the low end — are when heard in the more detailed clinical environment of the studio. We don’t want gimmicky mix choices getting in the way of a great song, of course, but the mixes that catch my interest out in the real world sound bold, exciting and creative. Achieving this is easier said than done, but it’s often necessary to remind ourselves that this is, ultimately, what we’re trying to achieve.
The way music is mixed has changed a great deal in recent decades, and it’s noticeable just how comfortable bands and artists now are with remote mixing. The artist not being present for the mixing stage has many advantages, but it also creates problems if not managed correctly. I’m old enough to remember all‑analogue mixing sessions where everyone in the band might be riding a fader during the later stages of a mix. The thought of this makes me shudder now as an engineer, but I can clearly remember feeling, as an artist, that we were all responsible for the mix and that the engineer was the skilled person helping everyone get what they wanted.
You don’t have to go completely old‑school, but I do think it’s important to try to give artists a sense of ‘ownership’ of their mix. This can be as simple as having a proper chat before you start, and identifying some reference tracks. As a mix develops, you might then find using screen‑sharing tools such as Audiomovers (or even real humans in the same room!) helps get a mix finished quicker. It might seem like extra work, or an annoyance, but when you come across issues like I’ve discussed in this article, it becomes an easier and more collaborative process to unpick any problems, or even to avoid them in the first place.