Is my mix good enough?
You've just finished a mix. You've been sweating hours - no, days - until it's just so. Your levels are good, you've tested everywhere you can and it seem to translate well, from the phone speaker to a full range PA. Hopefully you haven't mastered it yourself, but you like the result that comes from the mastering house (or the mastering friend) and you begin to think the track may be worth publishing.
But then you get a little cold feet.
You've been listening for hours to the thing and maybe, just maybe, you ears no longer perceive it impartially.
Maybe the vocals are too high? Too low?
Maybe you should get a second opinion? Or a third?
Why not going someplace (studio, one of the two audio forums, a Facebook group) and ask other mixing engineers, real or wanna be?
So you go and upload the mix to Soundcloud (or Dropbox it, or whatever), log in into your favorite forum/group/engineering area and pose a question along the lines of "hey, I've just made this mix, can you review it?".
Because what you want to know is, is your mix good enough?
Or, is your mix "professional" sounding?
And presto - you immediately get all sorts of comments, judgements and suggestions for improvement. Or, sometimes, people go "wow" and love the mix as it is. Now that I think about it, I've never seen someone replying that the mix is "professional" but might have happened sometimes.
What's the problem with that?
Well, the problem is that you usually get what you asked for. You get opinions. Tons of them.
And opinions - mind me, even informed opinions - are utterly useless.
That means that most of the times, the question "is my mix good enough" or "does my mix sound professional" makes absolutely no sense.
Because when it comes to mixing, there certainly is no such thing as "professional" sound.
Yes, sure, there are (few) people who get paid for recording and mixing and mastering and stage sound etc, and since money is exchanged for services, they are "professionals"... so by definition all they do is "professional". Even if it occasionally sucks.
But of course you don't mean professional like in paid... you mean professional like in as good as commercial mixes that other people pay for, get played on the radio, or in discos, or the coffee bar on the corner, and are gonna make you a filthy rich superstar (scrap that, the coffe bar on the corner probably plays anything--).
Which is a completely misguided conception.
Let's a conduct a little experiment: there are thousands and thousands of hit, many of which did indeed made the recording artist a filthy rich superstar.
Pick a dozen of them.
Listen to the mixes.
They are all different.
In one, the vocals are louder than the snare.
In another, the drum kit is totally obscured by the vocals.
In a third, the kick is clicky and much louder than the bass, but in the next, the bass is a mere purring and the kick is fat. Certain acoustic guitars are bright. Others are dark. Some have tons of reverb, some are super dry. And so on and so on. I could literally fill pages with mix differences among many superstardom-inducing, Ferrari-buying, cocaine-by-the-tons-providing smashing hits of the past - which all contains the common drums/guitars/bass/vocals elements.
All of them are commercial hits: evidently their mixes all sounded great (to someone), since they got published, and more importantly they sounded great to the buying public.
Yet they are all deeply different.
I remember realizing this a few years ago, when I was on a long drive alone and was listening to a number of songs I love, in rapid sequence. It really struck me how much different the sonics and the balances were - all over the place really. But I loved them all. What I loved wasn't certainly the specific mix - but the melody, the arrangement, the lyrics of course and yes, finally, the overall sound - all of which inspired me and made me put the track on again and again.
Mind me, I am not saying that crappy mixes do not exist. They do.
This blog is dedicated exactly to the art of avoiding them: record well, with proper gain structure, in a good sounding room, spending time to select, know and position your microphones, keep the levels far from the yellow, avoid over-compression or over-limiting, consider digital distortion like the plague, keep the dynamics intact as much as you can and so on and so on.
But, beyond a small set of fairly evident horrors (which can be objectively evaluated), the balance, sound, even panning of your mix is your decision, and you decision only.
Do you want the drums louder than the vocals? Okay. Do you want a thundering bass or a flimsy one? Why not. Actually, do you want to pan the kick left and the bass right? Risky, sure - but it's your mix, not anybody else's.
So long you know what you're doing and why, there are no rules on how you want your mix.
There are also, of course, no guarantees that anybody else than you will like it.
But such is life.
Yeah, I hear you - but what about genres and genre conventions?
Yes. of course. There's a point there.
If you want to make a copycat, you probably should adhere to its conventions, and use well rehearsed formulas to write stuff that gives people what they already like. It's generally good business. People buy what they like, and like what they know.
But I suspect that the hits we remember (the ones that propel artists into actual superstardom. or at least a villa at Monte Carlo) are often different to what came before. They often defy genre and they innovate. Some don't of course, and the best that we can conclude is that a hit song may be adhere to the conventions a genre, or it may not.. and it doesn't seem to make a great deal of difference.
In other words: there is no recipe for a hit - and certainly no recipe for a "good" mix.
Also, when you ask for opinions, the people you're asking to are mixing engineers (or tyhey would like to be). Even wannabe ones - they're gonna have some opinion. They're gonna question the level of your vocals. They're gonna take issue with the sound of your snare. They're gonna tell your your acoustic guitar recording sucks. Or they're gonna tell you everything is wonderful, of course.
Both are meaningless.
That's simply because the only opinion that matters is the one of listeners - listeners who don't necessarily have a clue about balance choices, effects, or how pure and natural a certain sound is.
They give it by buying/streaming - heck, even pirating your music.
They get attracted by the overall sound, the vibe, the lyrics, the material - and of course, the over-important artist image. The mix will create that sound, but an infinite number of sounds can work just as well for a given artist and material - all very different to each other.
As an artist (or a mixing engineer working with an artist), your job is to create a sound and a vision. Your choices are yours, and yours only, and they are your (and/or the artist's) artistic vision.
It's no surprise that any other person may have a different vision.
It's also quite irrelevant.
All this said, there is of course feedback worth having, but it's not opinions on the sound of your kick or the level of your vocals.
Mostly, it's about the aspects I mentioned when discussing why it's not a great idea to master your own mixes: technical issues and primarily, how well your mix translates.
An opinion like "hey I listened to this in the car and the kick was disappearing" is actually pretty helpful. Upon refceiving it, it's well worth go and listen to the mix in a few cars, to see how the kick behaves.
It's also the case, of course, that if you consistently get the same feedback by several independent people, it's probably worth exploring (that doesn't make it necessarily right, but dismissing it is probably unwise). In other words if total strangers in three forums tell you that your mix sucks, it probably sucks (cheer up - find out why it sucks and the experience will make you a much better mixing engineer).
Also, before getting too enamored with your own ideas, it's still a very good habit to rest your ears frequently when mixing, or even "reset" them with some totally different material - to ensure that you're really doing the mixing decision you think you're doing.
Finally, it goes without saying that it's a good idea to build the sound of the mix in a deliberate manner, so that what you arrive at - regardless of anybody's opinion - is really a sound you wanted to build, rather than the questionable outcome of a bunch of random decisions.
But if you have done so, and you think your mix is good - be bold and be confident: you don't need anyone's opinion on it.