Improving Your Home Recording by Listening Critically

By Jeff Strong

One of the best ways to find out how to mix music is to listen to the way music that you like is mixed. Put on a CD of something similar to your music (or music that has a sound that you like) and ask yourself the following questions:

  • What is the overall tonal quality or texture of the song? Notice how the frequencies of all the instruments cover the hearing spectrum. Does the song sound smooth or harsh, full or thin? Try to determine what you like about the overall production.

  • How does the song’s arrangement contribute to its overall feel? Listen for licks or phrases that add to the arrangement. Notice whether the song seems to get fuller as it goes on.

  • Where are the instruments in the stereo field? Notice where each instrument is, from left to right and front to back, in the mix. Listen to see whether the instruments stay in one place throughout the song or whether they move around.

  • What effects are being used on each instrument? Listen for reverb and delay lengths as well as the effect level compared to the dry (unaffected) signal.

  • What tonal quality does each instrument have? Try to determine the frequencies from each instrument that seem dominant. Pay particular attention to the way the drums sound, especially the snare drum.

  • Do you have any phase cancellation messing with your tracks? Phase cancellation changes the sound of your mix by reducing certain frequencies. These can cause serious problems with your mix Test your mix in mono (turn off the stereo panning on your master bus). You should be switching from mono to stereo often as you mix, especially if you’re adding tracks to a mix or making big EQ adjustments.

Even if you’re not mixing one of your songs, it’s a good idea to occasionally sit down and listen to music on your monitors to get used to listening to music critically. Also, the more good music you hear on your monitors, the easier it is for you to know when your music sounds good on them, too.

A good mix should sound good on a variety of systems, not just through the speakers in your studio. Before you decide that a mix is done, copy it to a CD and play it in your car, your friend’s stereo, and a boom box. In fact, try to listen to your music on as many different kinds of systems as you can.

As you listen, notice whether the bass disappears or becomes too loud or whether the treble becomes thin or harsh. Basically, you’re trying to determine where you need to make adjustments in your mix so that it sounds good everywhere.

Unless you spent a lot of time and money getting your mixing room to sound great, you have to compensate when you mix so that your music sounds good on other people’s systems. If your room or speakers enhance the bass in your song, the song will sound thin on other people’s systems.

On the other hand, if your system lacks bass, your mixes will be boomy when you listen to them somewhere else.