You know the drill. The song you're working on sounds amazing while you're working on it. But when you hear it the next day, or on a different stereo, it just sucks. What happened??
A number of things, to be honest.
Sources of the Damage
First, our hearing adapts very quickly. Within seconds. And if you mixed your track yesterday to sound very fatiguing, but acclimated to it before you fixed it, you likely became used to the problem. This happens to me all the time.
Second, you're likely not as skilled and talented as a commercial mix engineer with a pattern of chart-topping hits. I know I'm not. You and I do our best, but sometimes we need a reality check to compare our music against what we know sounds good.
Third, we become so accustomed to hearing the song we're working on from only one set of speakers or headphones that we forget to listen outside those speakers. Maybe the speakers add a little too much boom at 110 Hz and a little too little at 50 Hz, or maybe there's too much 8 kHz or not enough. Despite what the marketing material on speakers or headphones would indicate, there's no such thing as a perfect speaker or headphone. And many that you and I own probably aren't even in the ballpark. How can we make great sounding music on flawed equipment?
Let me introduce you to my two secret weapons, two different types of reference checks that save my bacon every time.
Start Comparing Against Commercial Mixes
The first kind of reference check can be done on the same speakers/monitors/headphones you're engineering on. Find two or three songs in the same genre as the song that you're making that you think sound superb. These songs just sing from the speakers! Right? What makes them do that?
Well, a good sounding song doesn't sound good because of one or two elements: it's the sum of many, many good decisions that leads to a great sounding song. You can't break down all of these elements in a reference check. But here's what you can do:
Listen to the professional song's chorus for a few seconds, then listen to yours. Listen to the reference song again, then listen to yours. What's different?
- Is their kick drum louder or softer than yours? Does it sound more clicky or more tubby or more plush than yours? To the extent that making changes doesn't detract from your song, mirror that song's engineering choices in your track to get your kick sounding more like their kick.
- Same for the snare: does their snare sit louder or quieter in the track than yours? Is their snare more snappy or dull or spacious than yours? Try making changes to get your snare to sit in the mix more like theirs.
- Same for the vocals: are the professionally mixed vocals brighter or darker than yours? More dynamic or more contained? Cleaner or dirtier vocal effects? How is the vocal level relative to the vocal level in your track?
- What other instruments or elements sound different than in your song? What can you do to minimize the differences in your mix?
You can take notes digitally or on paper of what needs to be done, or just try fixing things in your song in real time. And while you still retain creative control over what the elements of your song sound like, it can be a huge boost to hear what commercial tracks are doing to get the mix to blend together, particularly relating to the volume of each element compared to the others, and the frequency balance of the entire mix.
I know this can feel like busywork at times. It can be a bit tedious when you just want to share your music with the world. But if you want to shock and awe the world with how professional and polished and simply good-sounding your music is, learning to hear what makes music sound professional and polished and good-sounding is an important step.
A word of caution: it's not a fair fight if you're hearing one song louder than the other. Likely, it's the commercial track you need to play at a lower volume in order to match to the volume of your mix in progress. Be sure to match the volume levels to each other before taking notes.
Now that our mix is is sounding closer to a commercial mix on our primary speakers, what can we do to ensure our music sounds good everywhere?
Start Comparing On Several Stereos
The second kind of reference check takes you outside of your music space. You already know how your mix sounds on your favorite speakers/monitors/headphones. That's where you made the song, and that's what has influenced all the decisions you made. But since the entire world doesn't listen on the same speakers, you need to make sure the great-sounding mix you achieved translates to other speakers too. Make sure it sounds great on everything, right?
This is when you take your prized mix and play it back on your bluetooth speaker. Play it back from your computer. Your home theater setup. Your crappy earbuds. Your best sounding headphones. Your buddy's hi-fi system. The classic "car stereo test". You need to know what your mix sounds like on as many stereos as you have access to.
Whether you take notes physically or digitally, take notes on what sounds different to you; what sounds wrong to you. These are the elements of your mix that you need to spend a little more time on.
Now this is tricky. No matter how much love you give your mix, it's never going to sound like a million bucks from a pair of crappy $12 earbud headphones. You can't make up for them being crappy $12 earbuds. But what you can do is make sure that your mix sounds as good as can be expected to from $12 earbuds, particularly since that is how a lot of your listeners will be hearing your music.
Acknowledging that each stereo can't all make your mix sound like a sparkling gem, what does each stereo tell you about your song? Is the kick drum louder or softer than you realized? Does the bass of the entire song need to be ratcheted up or tamed? How are the vocals sitting in the mix? Is the percussion too loud or not cutting through enough? What aspects of your mix sound squirrely and need to be brought into balance?
Once you have your notes, go back to your mix and start making changes towards eliminating the issues you discovered. Hopefully the changes also sound good on your primary speakers, but you just needed perspective to realize what needed to change. It's also possible that the changes don't sound as ideal on your primary speakers. But if four other stereos told you the same thing, that your kick drum is too loud in the mix and needs to be lowered, you need to trust those four stereos, not your primary speakers. It's more likely that those other speakers are telling you the truth.
Also, it may be worth it to listen to some of your reference tracks on the same headphones and stereos, so you get a feel for how good each stereo can sound, and what each sounds like when presented with well-engineered, great sounding songs in your genre.
When your mixes more closely match the engineering decisions of a fantastic-sounding commercially-produced song, you'll find your song just sounds much more polished. Particularly over time, as you go without hearing your track for a while and then hear it again later. This is a great thing. It means you engineered a better song. And it's totally acceptable to use a couple of pro songs as a guide on how to get there.
And when your mixes sound better on a wide variety of stereos, that is to say your mixes "translate better", you'll be much happier hearing the songs wherever you hear them, and so will your fans.
It's an awkward step in the process, but it definitely is a big boost to your music's quality, and a series of steps I make sure never to miss when I'm finalizing a track.
Refining the Process
But wait, Milo - you're telling me that I have to listen to all these songs, take all these notes, and make all these mix revisions? And then listen on all these stereos and make all these other mix revisions? That will take forever! I don't have time to listen to my song on thirty-eight stereos!
No question, this is a time consuming process.
But it's immeasurably valuable because it directly teaches you how to make your music sound more consistent and more professional. That is the dream, right?
And ... it gets easier and faster over time. The more you make comparisons to great songs in your genre, the quicker you'll get at identifying what needs changing, and the quicker you'll become at making the changes. Not to mention, you'll probably identify some themes. One of my themes is that I always create songs darker and duller than commercially released tracks. And brightening song after song following my reference checks is teaching me to create brighter mixes to begin with. Which is more suitable for my genre. You as an engineer will start to realize your biases and compensate for them as you create. And that's a wonderful thing.
And ... reference checks on other stereos get easier and faster too. The more you do it, the better attuned your ear will become for spotting key differences. And the more accustomed you'll become to fixing the same trouble areas. For example, when I mix on my beloved AKG k702 headphones, I find I virtually always add in too much low bass, in the 40-60 Hz range. But reference checks on other stereos tells me that these mixing decisions do not translate! If I were to mix on them now, I know to aim for less energy from 40-60 Hz than I enjoy in the kick drum and bass synth. And I create a better song for it.
As you do more reference checks, you'll need to compare against fewer songs, and you'll need to check your mix against fewer systems. Because you're becoming a better, more polished engineer that's accustomed to delivering more professional sounding mixes.
And that's something to celebrate.