Man, I can’t really say. I’ve been doing it so long and have tried so many approaches- I've had a few work out great and had an incredible number of failures. I’ve read books & magazines, I've harassed older engineers. I’ve mixed loud, quiet, with headphones, on state of the art speakers and on cheap stereo speakers. I’m still learning and still frustrated with the outcome a lot of the time. But the one thing I’ve done that made the biggest difference was to train myself to listen. And one of the best ways to do that is by comparing your mix to a great mix of a hit song that you are familiar with. Here is how you do that:
Take your stereo returns of the mix you are doing and the stereo return from a cd player (or your computer output if you can play cd’s from it independently of your Protools/Logic/DAW output), and put them side by side on your mixer. Go back and forth between your CD and your mix and check the levels on your mixer so that they are the same. Have your mixing un-muted and the CD channels muted. Now, as you are listening to your mix put your fingers of one hand over the mute buttons on your mix and your fingers of your other hand over the mute buttons of the CD channels and press at the same time, quickly switching between your mix and the mix of the hit song. Now the differences will really jump out! Your goal is to make your mix sound like the other. Just try copying it.... I dare you. It is harder than you think. Keep in mind that it helps if the songs are of a similar type, vibe, tempo and so on. The bass is very important, too- If your mix has a lot of short and fast bass notes, but the mix you are comparing to has really long notes, you will never match up because of how bass reacts in the mix, on your speakers and in the room (this is a whole other subject to be covered in my workshops or lessons).
When I first started doing this it nearly drove me crazy. I could hear that my mix didn’t sound as good but I couldn’t place my finger on what the problem was. I had to start removing elements from my mix one at a time and see how that changed the comparison process. After doing this for years I trained my ears to hear things I could never hear before.
Here are two other techniques you can use by applying the same process: 1. Compare two mixes of two different hit songs against each other. This requires two CD players. You will be amazed by how different the mixes will be sometimes. This is because mixing is not just a science- it is also an art. And a good mixer takes many aspects into account to get a good mix. Mixing is not just about sound but about emotion, and that has to be shown in the spotlight. 2. Use the comparison process to define ranges. Years ago I pretty much just mixed rock music, which is much more challenging to mix than urban stuff (for me at least). I was always concerned about my low end, how loud the vocals were and how much mid-range I had in the mix. What I did was use 2 songs that were somewhat current to compare to. One was the Goo Goo Dolls song Iris mixed by Jack Joseph Puig. The other was The Verve and their songs Bitter Sweet Symphony and Lucky Man (or anything else off that amazing album) mixed by Christopher Marc Potter. I noticed from comparing them that the Goo Goo Dolls had a tremendous low end, a scooped mid-range and a somewhat lower vocal level. The Verve mixes tended to have way more mid-range and the vocals were mixed a bit louder. So I would do my mix and then make sure that my mixes had no more low end than the Goo Goo Dolls and that the vocals were as loud or louder than theirs. I would then make sure that my mixes were no more mid-rangy than the Verve mixes and that my vocals were no louder than theirs.
Of course then it was out to the car test, the hallway test and so on.
This is just one of many techniques you can use to train your ears and improve your mixing. I hope this helps some of you.
I am a record producer, mixer, musician and songwriter currently operating in Atlanta, GA. With more than 30 years of music experience under my belt, I have amassed a goldmine of valuable tips, tricks and information.