Over-processing a mix is one of the easiest ways to kill a song’s chance of finding commercial success. Don’t be the mixer that ruins an otherwise amazing project.
Instead, all engineers and mixers should seek out ways to improve their work by asking questions like “Is this too much?” throughout the process. There are simple checks you can do while you mix a song that will make it immediately clear if you’re overproducing a song or over-processing a track. Things will stop sounding better and start sounding harsh or muddy.
There’s absolutely such a thing as doing too much when it comes to mixing music.
1. Not Using A Reference Mix
The first way you can protect your mixes from becoming over-processed is through the use of a reference mix. Find a song or two that are similar in style to the one you’re working with and constantly flip back and forth between them and your mix as you go. This is one of the quickest ways for new mixers to develop their skills.
Some mixers even take reference tracks a step further by using them to base various elements of their mix on. For example, if you really love the way an acoustic guitar sounds in one song but you’ve never been a fan of the rest of the mix, this is your chance to pull inspiration from that song while improving on what the original mixer could not.
Mixing is subjective, so all you’re doing with this practice is ensuring you’re not doing any more processing than the songs you’ve chosen to compare your mix to.
2. Mixing While Soloed
Another major oversight that can result in too much processing is mixing in solo.
When an instrument is soloed, it’s easy to pick out the nuances that can be masked in the full mix, but you’re also missing out on the way that instrument is interacting with everything else in the context of the mix. Some frequencies will only pop out as a problem when they’re reinforced with another track behind them. Other times, things that you think are a problem really aren’t when they’re out of solo.
Essentially, soloing is great for quickly verifying things you think you’re hearing, but it’s not a good spot to start mixing from. You’ll drive yourself crazy on details that don’t matter.
3. Extreme EQ Adjustments
While crazy EQ curves are a great tool for marketing EQ plugins, they’re rarely something you want in an actual mix. Generally speaking, your EQ moves should be largely transparent.
Outside of notch EQ or filtering where you’re trying to completely remove something, most EQ adjustments don’t need to be more than a few dB in either direction. If you find yourself getting more extreme than that, it better be because you’re going for an equally extreme effect. If not, there’s probably something seriously wrong with your source track that deserves re-recording.
4. Drowning In Reverb
As you work your way down through your mix, reverb is one of the latest stages where over-processing runs rampant. Whether it’s our musical inclination or some other cause, producers, engineers and mixers ALL love adding reverb to sounds. It adds a sense of space and dimension that few other techniques can.
It’s because of this interest that we’re also notorious for overdoing reverb in our songs. When there’s too much reverb, things start to sound washed out and dark. Neither of those are qualities of a professional mix.
An easy fix for too much reverb simply involves dialing it back in small increments. The next time you add reverb to a track, try back it off 5 – 10%. Then gradually increase it until you barely notice the effect at all. I think many of you will be surprised just how little reverb you can get away with using without completely losing the space that it adds.
5. Too Much On Your Master Fader
As you work through any mix, small amounts of over-processing might go completely unnoticed. Depending on your track count, nobody’s going to notice small problems – that’s the benefit of layering tracks like vocals and guitars. The same terms apply to over-processed tracks; add a little too much compression to one track or too much reverb on another and those things can easily get overlooked by a listener.
With your master bus, you’re not afforded the same luxury. A bit of compression here is good, but too much and you’ll get called out for killing your dynamics. You’ve probably heard engineers and mixers getting called out for squashing their mixes – master bus compression is the primary culprit for that.
So how do you save your master bus from over-processing? By using a less is more approach.
As a mixer, you’re not expected to make the loudest possible mix. As long as you can get a good sounding mix, trust your mastering engineer to take the song that last few steps to commercial quality. It’s okay to use small amounts of compression to glue things together, but handing the mix off with minimal master fader processing is in your best interest 9 times out of 10.
Other Signal Chain Solutions
The routing and processing of a mix can be intimidating, but the great part is that once you’ve mastered the use of an EQ or compressor on one track, those skills translate to all others.
If you want to take the next step in your journey to control your session (instead of letting your session control you), make sure you pick up a copy of Signal Chain Secrets. It’s got everything a new engineer or mixer needs to get started, and acts as an excellent reference for experienced engineers wondering how to get the most out of their signal chains!