How to Avoid the Seven Characteristics of an Amateur Mix

Bobby Owsinski, author of the The Mixing Engineer's Handbook, Second Edition, identified the seven characteristics of an Amateur mix in this article. Now that those seven have been identified, let's look at what we can do to avoid them.

1. Inconsistent Levels

"Instrument levels that vary from balanced to too soft or too loud or lyrics that can’t be distinguished. Once again, a newbie mixer usually sets the faders and forgets them, but mixing is just as dynamic as the music. Every note of every solo and every word of the vocal must be heard. Even with automation as sophisticated as it is these days, it still takes some time and a critical ear to be sure that everything is heard."

Of all the mixes I've ever heard, this is the one that drives me crazy.

The FGM-148 Javelin is a shoulder-mounted fire-and-forget missile system with "lock-on before launch" and automatic self-guidance. Pick your target, pull the trigger, and the missile does all the work. This is not how church audio mixing is to be done. There is no setting and forgetting. How do you avoid this? Easy - see points two through seven.

2. No Contrast

"The same musical textures are used throughout the entire song. This is generally an arrangement issue, which the mixer can affect somewhat since mixing is so much more than balancing. It’s influencing the arrangement by what you mute, emphasize or lower in the mix."

Adding contrast means you need to be an active mixer. For example, during the bridge of a song, add some high EQ boost to the cymbals to make them pop out in the mix. Another example is bringing the backup singers closer to the front of the mix in the chorus. This could be done with volume and effects changes.

3. Frequent Lack of a Focal Point

"There are holes between lyrics where nothing is brought forward in the mix to hold the listener’s attention. Granted, this is an arrangement issue too, but it’s your job as a mixer to find some point of interest and emphasize it."

Bring up the volume of the lead guitarist between verses or definitely in any instrumental passage. Think of a song as a continuous story. You don't want the story to stop at any time, so keep it going by bringing in instruments to take over when the singing stops for a significant period of time.

4. Mixes That Are Noisy

"Clicks, hums, extraneous noises, count-offs, and sometimes lip-smacks and breaths are all things that the listener finds distracting. It may be a pain to eliminate these distractions but you’ve got to do it to take the mix to where it has to be."

This is where you really have to know how the band performs a song. The audience doesn't need to hear a singer count off the beginning of the song to the rest of the band. Ride the fader at the beginning of the song so after the count, you can bring up the singers volume.
As far as hums and some of the other points mentioned, it's a matter of proper equipment usage and setup. Track down the hums during practice. Set the proper gain structure, and use close-mic'ing techniques. Your goal is a crisp clear sound.

5. Mixes That Lack Clarity And Punch

"Instruments aren’t distinct, and low-end frequencies are either too weak or too big. This is really the number one indication of an amateur mix, especially in the low end. It’s either way too heavy or way too light. The way around this is to listen to other records that you think sound great and try to emulate the sound. Sure it takes time, but it will get you in the ballpark."

Bleech, yuck, this is terrible...oh sorry, I just took a drink of unexpectedly cold coffee.

Bobby said it quite well, "listen to other records that you think sound great and try to emulate the sound." Separate out instruments/vocals in your mix by bringing out their natural frequencies. Blend them together so they complement each other but remain distinct in the mix. It's like the classic movie line from Jerry Maguire, "you complete me." Each instrument is its own but when they are brought together, the overall sound benefits.

6. Mixes That Sound Distant and Are Devoid Of Any Feeling of Intimacy

"The mix sounds distant because too much reverb or overuse of other effects. This is another common trait since a newbie mixer thinks the plug-in effects are so cool (because they are!) that they want to use them all on everything all the way through the song. You’d be surprised just how many effects are used in a great mix sometimes, but the results are so subtle that you can’t really tell unless you had the original non-effected sound to compare with. In an amateur mix, you hear them all screaming at you all the time. If you can make it sound great without effects first, you’ll automatically moderate their use."

I recall a sound engineer talking about his early days in the biz. He said he mixed with all the fancy effects during a rehearsal and then the lead FOH guy stepped in, turned off 99% of the effects and set a mix with just the EQ. The mix was so much better than what he had done.
Antoine de Saint-Exupery said, "Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away." When it comes to mixing, this is a great quote to keep in mind.

7. Dull and Uninteresting Sounds

"Generic, dated or frequently-heard sounds are used. There’s a difference between using something because it’s hip and new and using it because everyone else is using it."

There are a few ways you can get dull and uninteresting sounds; don't touch the eq/effects, use what you've always used, and use what everyone else is using. You can avoid this by following a few simple rules;

  • Use the EQ and effects, they are there for a reason. Odds are if you are reading this then you're already using these.
  • Change up your sound. A modified mix can be like a new color of paint in the same room. Listen to your music collections, go to live concerts, listen to how other people are mixing and the sound they are getting. Then during practice, see what you can do. I suggest picking one instrument to focus on at a time (per service).
  • Rather in contrast to "b," don't use what everyone else is using. This deals more with effects. If the latest popular effect is a distorted acoustic guitar sound, don't think you have to copy it. Likely, the first person to use it found it perfect for a particular song. Then others copy it because it sounds cool. Now, it's no longer a cutting-edge sound and everyone is doing it.

By Chris Huff, Behind the Mixer, used by permission.

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