Why if you are trying to Mix It Yourself, you are probably doing it wrong

The definition of a broken mix is:
A mix that does not help people to get into the Scene & Story of your Song

Day after day I see people deciding to mix their own songs & albums. Commonly the reasons given are around price and the “importance” of the project. I understand, I do. Hiring is not cheap and if it is, you do not want the results that cheap gets you.

So DIY right? Sure, but what if it leads to this sort of scenario:

Spanish Eddie

You have a band, called the Perambulating Pebbles. They are pretty good and have a show tonight that is well booked. Except your guitarist is off playing fancy dress as a pirate with his girlfriend “Onion” and not coming to the venue for the show. There’s a bloke called Eddie hanging about who can play guitar a bit, he says he can fill in. You say “sure” as it lets you keep going.

The Perambulating Pebbles hit the stage and before your singer can even open his mouth the stand-in guitarist raises his fist and announces “Good evening Springton, I am Eddie Van Malmseteen and I am gonna Rock ya!”. He proceeds to play really fast and really complex. The problem is that Eddie is not really a great guitar player. He can play but not as well as he is trying to play. As a result the show falls flat and people leave disappointed.

Here is another outcome:

The Perambulating Pebbles hit the stage and your singer Muck (who is a New Zealender) apologizes that Kuth is off sick tonight but friend of the band, Eric from Chapham will stand in. The Pebbles launch into a popular song and Eric plays simply and functionally. Eric is not a great guitarist so he decided that it is better that he just covers the basics and lets the rest of the band shine. If he tried to be clever he would probably mess up the show. As a result the show goes well and people leave really happy. Eric gets a well-deserved pat on the back.

How Am I Supposed To Live Without You

Henry Ford realized that if you break apart the process of production and have people specialize in each bit that they are good at, not only could people become more productive faster, but that the overall result was delivered better & faster than if one person tried to manage it all themselves. This did mean hiring people but overall the results changed how the world works.

Nowadays we try to achieve the same results as a highly specialized process alone, often whilst in a real hurry. How does that seem like it might work out?

We all know logically that anything we try to do when we do not really have experience or expertise will not likely work out well. This does not have to mean that we can’t get away with it BUT like in the Eddie/Eric example above it depends entirely how we approach doing these tasks that we are not specialized in.

Shattered Glass

All too often people take the “baffle ’em with bullshit” approach. It is part of the modern mindset where rather than being honest about limits and finding creative solutions, we must appear to be the most clever person in the room at all costs. That means that people try to overplay their hand – like Eddie above. This shatters the good parts of the work just as Eddie being a smartypants ruined the whole performance not only for the band but for the audience.

Everyone lost that night as Eddie got famous for being a shitty guitarist. No one hires Eddie for anything now as he “ruined the Perambulating Pebbles”.

Self Control

The second scenario where mild-mannered, self-effacing Eric knew his limits and stayed within them is completely different. Eric knew that to conspicuously try to be the cleverest person in the room would most likely only end in a less successful outcome. As a result, the night went well for all.

Self-control won that night. It also won respect for Eric who has now managed to move out to Ocean Boulevard as a result of income from playing with several other bands who value his understated sideman skills which lets them shine.

Moonlight On Water

Battleship Game

The problem that I see as a Mix Engineer when people who have no experience in mixing take over to try to save some money is that they often sink their own battleship in the process. This is a hard thing to recover from.

While it is easy to think that only another Mixing Engineer will be able to tell that your mix is broken or strange, this is not so. The definition of a broken mix is not a technical one (even tho people in groups will shout that in your face).

The definition of a broken mix is:
A mix that does not help people to get into the Scene & Story of your Song

If people can’t naturally feel the scene & story they will walk away. First impressions matter. First impressions of your new record matter. I heard a new song from a new record from an act I loved in the ’80s. Excitement soon faded away as it sounded mechanical, it sounded like they lost faith. I lost faith.


I am NOT saying that you can’t mix your own record (and therefore have to come to me). My advice here is that if you really must do it yourself, as you do not have access to a skilled Mix Engineer, you really need to approach it like “Eric” above.

Keep it simple: If you mix from fear and approach it as “I will remove all the bad things so it becomes good” you will struggle. That struggle and fear will be what the audience hear in your new record. That is not what you want. If you try to be clever to prove how great at mixing you are, using all 215 Tipz n Trix you picked up from YouTube, your record will most likely come out sounding strained and strange. That is not what you want.

  1. Start with understanding what the Scene & story of the song are. If you skip this, later decisions probably won’t make sense to the listener, no matter how technically correct they seem.
  2. Lower ALL the Faders to the bottom except the Master that needs to be at 0dB (and never move).
  3. Find the most important part of your song and put that up first. This is usually vocals. Never the Kick Drum.
  4. Insert a Reverb on Send 1. Send some of the part you chose above (usually the vocal) to that reverb and adjust the reverb so that it feels like it helps build that voice in the scene that your story is taking place in.
  5. Bring all the other parts in and balance how they send to the reverb.
  6. Balance the levels of all the parts of your mix from most important to least important.
  7. Consider panning a couple of parts of your mix, not by formula but based on what feels right for the song. Do not overpan things – even guitars. A simple centered mix beats a weirdly overpanned mix every time – listen to real Punk & early Rap.
  8. Make any tone adjustments. Seek to keep all your parts in order. It is far better to bring forward what makes a part shine than to go trying to cut the bad bits.
  9. If you feel like some parts conflict, simply lower one of those things, the one that is less important. Doing more will probably make for strange results.
  10. Gently set final levels and export.

What you must do is mix as simply as you can. The idea and reality needs to always be:

Nothing fancy at all. If you are using plugins or techniques that you barely understand, remove them.

Play this song you mixed to someone brutally honest after asking them to tell you the scene and story of your song. If they seem engaged with the song you probably did this right. If not go back and start again. Trying to fix a broken mix that you made can be very dangerous. It is better to pull it down and start again.

If you have tried this two or three times and it is not really happening then please consider working with a skilled & experienced Mix Engineer. If the dollar thing is still an issue read below before you unwittingly sink your own battleship.

If you need another example find the Simpsons episode where Homer designs a car. Oh my!

Another look at causes & solutions of broken mixes.

This article from Audio Interface people Audient has a very similar approach to what I have advised above. This article is possibly a more conventional approach – not doing the reverb space first (or maybe not discussing it at all) – but note the similarity of a really pared-back approach to ensure what you have works.

Silent Partners

Something that people totally seem to have forgotten in this Instaham world is that people who work out how to fit their puzzle pieces together (like those fellas John, Paul, George, and George, oops sorry, Ringo) often end up doing amazing things.

There are many people hoping to do amazing things as part of a team and eager to help in the ways that they have a special skill (remember old Henry Ford’s production line). To be fair & honest, many of those people have limited skills but not all. Some are just great at what you need if you give them (or yourself really) the chance to build a relationship where you do what you are great at and let them do what they are great at. This is what makes outcomes that appear magical.

Look around you. Is there someone there who when you look is doing something special in that area that you are not? I know that guitar & I are not happy together. I know I am great at Mixing & Record Producing. I know a great guitarist whose mixing is workable but not special.

Yes, it is that obvious. By understanding each other, we now work on each other’s projects and both of us are better for it.

This doesn’t mean that I work for free for any random who drifts past (esp those who don’t have a real conversation with me), but it does mean that if there is something special, I would generally rather see it happen with my name on it than more bread & butter clients (read people who will probably not even let on I am the reason their record sounds good).

Is mixing your own record as wise as it seemed before?

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