"Help! My mix sounds like crap."


A singer/songwriter friend emailed me that message and attached an mp3 of his mix. I gave it a listen.


Sure enough, the vocals were harsh and thin, squashed, noisy, and swamped in reverb. The overall mix was mostly mono and distant, rather than present. I asked the singer to bring his laptop over to my studio where we could work on the mix.


You might consider doing the same thing: find a good local studio and ask them to help with your mixes. Or send the tracks on CD-Rs to an experienced engineer who is willing to work on them.


One benefit of bringing your tracks to a commercial recording studio is that the studio engineers are likely to have better monitors and acoustics, making it easier to hear flaws in a mix. Plus, seasoned engineers usually can figure out what’s going on when there’s a sonic problem, and suggest some improvements. It always helps to run your mixes past another set of ears to take advantage of a new perspective.


What we heard…

My friend brought in a Mac laptop that was bundled with Apple’s GarageBand recording software. I had not used it before, but was impressed with how it made operations easy for novices. For example, it lets you adjust equalization by choosing presets like "Bass boost", "Clear vocals", or "Reduce S". A good website on using EQ in Garageband is at www.thegaragedoor.com/edit/equal.html.


Using a mini-phone to RCA-plug cable, I plugged into the sound card’s line output, and connected it to my monitor inputs. I hit Play and listened closely.


Most obvious was the unnatural sound of the vocal and guitar. I asked the singer how he recorded them. He said that he played an acoustic guitar and sang at the same time, at about 1 foot from the laptop’s built-in omnidirectional microphone. He complained of hearing noise in the recording, which was mostly from appliances in his apartment.


The mix included two identical tracks of vocal/guitar. Why? My friend thought that by copying the track, he could make it stereo and make it louder. Well, since both tracks were panned to center, they sounded mono. Even if you pan two identical tracks hard left and right, you still hear a mono signal in the center of your monitor speakers. That’s because an identical signal in both monitors creates a phantom center image, not stereo. The two channels need to contain different information to produce a stereo effect.


How about making the vocal/guitar louder by copying the track? That does increase the signal level 6 dB (almost twice as loud). But you get the same result by turning up the track’s fader by 6 dB (assuming that you’re not clipping the audio). With two identical tracks, you have to set up twice as many effects and set them the same. It’s more work and also more of a load on your computer’s CPU. I deleted the redundant track.


Next time: How we fixed the sonic problems.


Originally posted 2009-01-15 02:37:26.