The line between a song in production and a finished project is very blurred. You can spend dozens of hours mixing and mastering, and still not achieve success, but you can, on the contrary, devote quite a bit of time to mixing and get a high-quality track. SAMESOUND tells you how to know when a song is ready.
One of the most difficult questions that musicians face when working on their own tracks: “How to understand that a song is ready for release?” When is it time to stop turning the knobs and polishing the mix and just let it go out into the world? Distinguishing a finished track from a demo is not so difficult, you just need to meet a number of conditions.
We’ve put together all the must-haves that distinguish a finished composition from a working project. The text will not contain instructions: instead, it will focus on what needs to be done and what to achieve from the project so that it can be safely published. No one pretends to be the ultimate truth, however, if all 12 points of our checklist are observed (the checklist itself at the end of the article), you can safely mixdown and publish the track everywhere.
Instrument tracks and parts are in place
Mixing any song begins with arranging tracks in the correct order and assigning audio files and MIDI regions to them. Before starting work, check the mix for content: all instruments and parts should be in place, no one should be forgotten.
There are often cases when, due to carelessness, musicians forgot about any part in the mix and released a track without it. For example, in 1993 the ChayF group forgot to add a guitar part to the song “Dogs of the Urban Outskirts” – it was released incomplete. The problem was discovered after the “Children of the Mountains” album went on sale.
Audio files are cleaned of unnecessary sounds
All audio files in the project must be cleaned of unwanted noise – the hum of a connected guitar or amplifier, dirty sounds from touching the neck or strings, smacking and chomping in the vocal track. During the recording, there is no escape from them, but they have no place in the final mix.
Open each file and apply a silence effect to the beginning and end of the audio file. We are talking about places where there is no useful content – those where the musician has not played anything. The same applies to pauses in a game and pauses between lines of text.
Additionally, make small, almost imperceptible fades at the beginning and end of each segment. So the parts will not suddenly burst into the mix and beat the listener’s ears – their appearance will become smooth.
Tracks are balanced in volume and panning
Volume balance, competent panning and the absence of peaks and departures in the red zone are already half the success of the mix. The harmony between the instruments is achieved in the early stages of a song using the volume and pan controls.
Correct volume and panning will ensure that processing the effect does not create additional problems. Even if the sound of the mix changes, it will all return to its place after minor adjustments, and not a complete rework of the project.
There is nothing superfluous in the arrangement
Dozens of layers seem to create a feeling of complex arrangement and some kind of conceptuality, but they do not bring the work on the track closer to its logical end. Mixing dozens of sounds in one project is easy, but oversaturated compositions are impossible to listen to. The brain simply cannot focus on the music, it gets tired of the flow of information. As a result, you want to turn off this mix as soon as possible.
Earlier we advised to check the presence of all parties in the project. Now that every piece of the puzzle has taken its place, it’s time to get rid of the excess. Assess the arrangement adequately, think about what meaning each part carries and whether the mix needs it. Why does a track need dozens of percussion instruments? What’s the point of having four guitar tracks? What is the purpose of the synthesizer in the verse?
If a party raises questions and creates the feeling that you can get rid of it, get rid of it.
To find unnecessary elements, put yourself in the shoes of the person listening to your track for the first time. Put your project in the background, go to another room, or do something while listening. With distracted listening, many moments come to light that you do not pay attention to in front of the DAW window – unsuccessful parts, unnecessary instruments, inappropriate sounds.
Mix is free from mud, hum and turbidity
All instruments sound in their own frequency ranges. Due to the fact that signals from different instruments can exist in the same or similar ranges, mud builds up in the mix.
Bass and kick live in love and harmony
The bass-kick relationship is an important aspect of a good sounding mix. You need to work with this pair especially carefully, as they require a properly built balance, clipping of colliding frequencies, elimination of hum and masking.
Additionally, check the sub-bass range – frequencies up to 60 Hz inclusive. The excess and lack of bass is easily overlooked when mixing on small near-field monitors, but it is noticeable when using larger, more powerful monitoring systems.
Given the nature of the low frequencies, it is best to set the bass and kick tracks to mono so that they do not run down the bottom of the mix and create mud.
To test the relationship between kick and bass, you can listen to the mix on different sound sources. Run a rough mixdown through your stereo, Genius tweeters, in-car speakers, headphones, headphones and wireless speakers. Check the identified sound flaws with a spectrum analyzer: it is the main assistant in mixing bass and kick.
Vocals don’t come to the fore, but they don’t get lost in the mix either
Whatever role the vocals play in the song, there should be exactly as much of it as needed. It sounds too spatial, but the fact remains: the voice should not bulge forward, covering the rest of the instruments, but at the same time it should not hide behind other participants in the mix.
The voice should be in the center of the mix, streamlined and enveloped by other instruments. To achieve the desired result, rely primarily on your ears, not on your eyes – it does not matter in which position the volume control is fixed, as long as the voice fits perfectly into the mix.
Be aware of the human voice when working with vocals. Some voices sound more powerful in nature and require more careful processing.
The mix sounds like a whole
Pay particular attention to the transitions between different parts of the arrangement. The transition from the verse to the prechorus , and then to the chorus and back should not get out of the general musical flow. All parts of the song must be at the same volume in order to smoothly transition into each other.
If your project lacks smoothness, add some reverb. It often smoothes corners and makes transitions smoother. Remember, however, that reverb is not a panacea. If the problems are caused by recording at different levels, peaks and unevenness of the signal, reverb will not save here – it is better to rewrite the knocked out moments.
Mix maintains clarity when converted to mono
In stereo and mono, the mix should sound equally clean. If the track is humming, and the reverberation floods all the free space, turning the music into mush after the master channel is converted to mono, then the song is still far from release. The most common causes of problems are overuse of effects, panning errors, and high volume levels of individual tracks.
The mix sounds the same on any equipment
Above, we have already noted the importance of checking the mix on different audio systems, but we talked about this in the framework of working with individual instruments. If the previous problems are not noticed in the project, unload the track and listen to the song in cheap headphones, in the car, and even through the phone speakers.
The point is, what sounds good in professional headphones and studio monitors can be a disgusting mess when listening in more mundane environments. Changing sound sources is one of the most effective methods for finding weak and problematic parts of a song. Listen to your track in everything you can reach, with a preference for consumer electronics.
Write down everything you need to pay attention to so you won’t forget to double-check the mix and make any necessary adjustments.
However, keep in mind that the goal is not to listen to the mix on as many equipment as possible, including your grandmother’s iron. Your task is to find problem areas and determine what is missing from the mix to complete.
No artifacts in the mix
Audio artifacts occur in the project due to recording and mixing errors: recording at too high levels, using poor-quality switching, inept audio editing and bad crossfades. The result is clicks, pops and other digital distortion. All of this should not be in the mix.
The mix has been finalized
Output limiters are one of the key aspects of mixing and mastering. They significantly raise the overall loudness level, which, in turn, helps to identify errors in balance, to detect excess and lack of any frequencies.
Use an RMS meter, set it to -10dB peak, and add low frequencies. In general, work until this moment comes:
Now that you know how to know that the song is ready, take our checklist. A4 format – can be hung on the wall to track the path of the demo to the finished track: