Producer Lingidy-Ling - How do I know if the "mix" my producer just sent me sounds good?

This blog post is my attempt at bridging the language barrier between Artist and Producer

How do I know if my "mix" sounds good?

That first experience of going to a studio, hearing your voice in the headphones, forking over your hard earned and painfully saved money to the engineer and/or producer is a mixed bag of elation and terror. Amirite? A few days later, that engineer/producer sends over the first "mix" and asks you what you think. Ummm...I guess it's ok. I mean, it's so weird hearing my voice! I hate my voice!! But my mom loves it. She even cried. I guess it's great!

But is it? How do you know?

First things first; there are several different meanings to the word "mix".  The "remix" of familiar songs by a DJ is not the same thing as what we are talking about here. You could quite possible see the word "mix" on a YouTube video like this, "The DJ Freekout Mix". Not the same thing. There is another term you need to know about and that is the term "master" or "mastered". The "mix" of your song will sound different after it's "mastered" but not a "bad to good" difference.  Let's define these terms.

Note: I am giving you my own definitions from the perspective of a singer rather than digging out a text book and giving you the technical definition on purpose. So, fellow engineers - back off! This is language singers can understand, which is the exact reason I write this blog called "Producer Lingidy-Ling" because singers don't speak your language, ok?! Ahem. cough. Ok, where were we?

The "mix" is referring to all the elements of the music, including instruments (drums, guitars, synthesizers, pianos, strings+), vocals, backing vocals, sound effects, etc. and how they sound together as a whole. Volume, frequencies (treble, mids, bass), and where they fit in the stereo spread are all within the engineers control. Isn't that cool? That's why I love mixing so much! It's like having a pot of clay in your hands and you can mold it to be whatever you want it to be. Um. Within reason. Anyway, I digress. When you listen to your favorite music through your headphones, can you hear some sounds on the left, some on the right, some move from left to right, some things are loud and up the center, some things sound close, some sound far away? Again, all of that is controlled by the engineer or producer mixing the song. Every sound needs to be heard without crowding the other sounds. As a matter of fact, all the sounds should compliment one another. Which also means you don't want a particular sound to be so loud that you can't hear the small details of the other sounds. Make sense?

When a song is "mastered", it is the final step after the mix is done. The song is "tweaked" (for lack of a better word) by a mastering engineer with a specific set of tools and skills. This adds a final layer of shine, separation of sound, overall volume, sparkle and oomph to songs before they are commercially released.

Now, back to knowing if you are listening to a good mix or not. First, you really need to know your engineer/producers process. Are they sending you what they are calling a "final mix" for your final approval before mastering or are they just asking if you like your vocal performance? If they ask if you like your vocal performance and you say stuff like, "It's not as loud as my other music" that will only make them crazy. And mad. Remember what mastering means? Overall volume? That's a last step, people!

Let's say you are listening to the "final mix". Here is what you need to listen for:

Does the song have variety, dynamics, breathing room and an obvious climax? This really has more to do with the production of your song but in many cases, you'll be working with one person as the producer and mix engineer. If not, this part of your creative process should have already been worked out before getting to the "mixing" stage. In any event, make sure that there are interesting things going on throughout the song, but not so much that it becomes cluttered or too busy. There should be a good shape to the overall song with dynamics, surprises, drops, moments, etc. If there are 4 instruments and they do the same thing throughout the entire song, then listeners will be bored. Aren't we so picky?

Vocals heard loud and clear? Contrary to most guitar players beliefs, the vocals are the most important part of your song...almost always. If you find yourself straining to hear a word or a phrase, report that to your engineer. If you can hear a bad edit (a breath chopped off or something), if your vocals don't sound like commercial releases, then report. The effects on your voice (reverb/echo, delays, distortion, etc.) should add character to the song, not distract from it. If you are a bad singer then, he/she probably can't help you. Just kidding. Not.

Does it translate well system to system? When you listen in your car, does it seem like the drums are too loud but not when listening on your phone? Then the drums might be too loud. Does it sound amazing on your big home stereo but like crap on your phone? That's because phone speakers suck. Seriously, though. You should listen on a couple of different systems where you regularly listen to music and make sure it sounds about the same as other music you listen to on those systems (except volume may be a little lower on pre-mastered mixes, right?) If not, report to your engineer what you are hearing and they should know how to fix it.

How does it compare to other music? Remember, mastering. If you are listening to a pre-master mix, then it will not be as loud and will be lacking a fullness perhaps. But if something is sticking out, if it sounds crowded, muddy or just crappy, mastering won't help that. Mastering won't "fix" anything. You can't polish a turd. If the mix is bad, mastering it is only going to make the bad mix louder. Once you have a mastered version of your song, THEN compare it to your commercial releases and make sure they are at least close. Remember, your budget may be a tad smaller than the one's the major artists on the radio had to work with ;-)

Here's a little challenge for you singers. We (singers) have a tendency to only hear the lead vocal - which, in pop music, is almost always going to be the loudest thing, along with the snare drum and hi-hat. What's a snare drum and hi-hat, you ask? Those drum sounds that are as loud as the vocal. Haha. Anyway, if you are used to only listening to the lead vocal, do a little exercise and try hearing what is behind and around the singer. Make out as many sounds as you can. It may be really difficult at first but the more often you listen to everything, the easier it will get. Take it a step further. Learn how to identify specific sounds so you can communicate with your engineer . I have heard cymbals called the funniest things from singers. Like, as if they think music is made with household items. ?? You may need to sit side by side with your producer while they create your song to learn the names of the instruments. Do it! Knowledge is power, so know what you are listening to and become an artist with creative input rather than just a singer. Bam.