The art of mixing in many ways is an art of balancing — you’re weighing different frequencies, audio levels, sound placements, etc. Many times when trying to balance too many things at once, things begin to fall apart. If your mix is too busy and crowded with clashing frequencies and harsh-sounding audio clips, you’ll need to clean it up before releasing the music. So, before you give the greenlight to a mix that’s on the border of being too busy, give it a few tests. We’ve outlined four ways to tell if your mix is too busy, and in each way, we offer a solution.
1. You can’t hear individual parts
While not every sound in your mix is going to have a front row seat, if standout elements such as vocals, guitar, or drums are fighting to be heard clearly, that’s not a good sign. There’s nothing wrong with packing in a ton of sounds into a heavy-hitting chorus for example, but make sure the frequencies are properly balanced and mixed in order for each sound to be heard. Tracks like background rhythm guitar or ambient synths might take a backseat to things like vocals, and not being able to hear those parts is okay. But if your lead vocal is getting washed out or the drums just sound muffled and unclear, you’re going to want to tone back your mix.
Solution: Focus on the tracks you want to hear clearly. Work on them in isolation, then as a whole, until they all balance clearly. If you need to hear something to get the message of the song, such as the lyrics or guitar melody, keep working.
2. The sound is muddy
The word “muddy” is thrown around all the time when mixers talk about too much unwanted sound clashing. So, what do they mean by a muddy mix? Essentially, if your frequencies are fighting, the master audio is peaking, nothing is popping, and everything sounds distorted, you’re dealing with a muddy mix. It’s actually not uncommon for a producer to be working on a mix with their headphones on at a low volume, only to take them off, crank it up, and hear tons of mud in the mix.
Solution: If you are getting mud, a few ways to clean up the mix are to cut out unwanted frequencies — especially lows and sharp highs, carve space between frequencies, and get ahead by always working with clean samples and recordings.
3. It doesn’t translate over multiple stereo interfaces
As we mentioned in the point above, if your mix sounds good in headphones at a modest volume, but starts to fall apart once you play it loudly on other stereo interfaces such as laptop speakers, studio monitors, or a car sound system, that’s a sign your mix needs work. By piling on multiple tracks, sounds, effects, and embellishments, it’s easy for things to become cluttered.
Solution: If you’re testing your mix on multiple interfaces and half of what sounded good in headphones sounds good on other speakers, get back to work. Of course what you hear in headphones or studio monitors will be different than iPhone speakers, but the basic premise and mix should deliver the same thing. Always keep in mind the lowest common denominator.
4. It lacks focus
A common mixing mistake is giving too much leeway to unnecessary sounds and embellishments. While there is nothing wrong with experimenting with multiple layers, if you go overboard and there is no coherent theme or point of focus, the message can get lost. As the expression often goes, “less is more.” If your mix has so many bells and whistles that listening to it feels completely unfocused and sporadic, try cutting it back. Artists tend to be very attached to their original ideas and have a hard time letting sounds go.
Solution: Ask a friend to browse through your mix for things to cut out. When Kanye West put out his 2013 album Yeezus, it was his shortest album to date. Producer extraordinaire, Rick Rubin, was given the task of finishing off the album before we heard it, and he cut tracks on tracks on tracks. He cut so much, West referred to Rubin as a reducer, rather than a producer. While this approach doesn’t work for everyone, keep in mind that every sound you’ve clung to should serve a clear purpose. You want your mix to be focused and digestible — not oversaturated and cluttered like a messy room.
Sam Friedman is an electronic producer and singer-songwriter based in Brooklyn, creating music as Nerve Leak. Praised by major publications, his unique blend of experimental and pop music has earned him hundreds of thousands of streams across the web.