When learning any new activity, it is difficult to keep track of the things that your learning are picking up and need to be carried out to assure a good quality end product. Producing music is no different, and therefore, I have created a comprehensive checklist for you to download, print off, and keep next to your DAW while working through your projects.
As a seasoned project manager, I’ve always found that checklists provide an excellent way to dot the “Is,” cross the “Ts,” and help us to manage our workflow, time, and budget. This checklist is aimed at Home Studio Owners, but I dare say the many Professional Studios would benefit from its use. Use the list as-is and refer to the detailed notes below for each item.
Figure 1: Mixing Checklist
Download the Home Studio Mixing Music Checklist PDF here.
The checklist items are arranged in a generic chronological order, which is designed to work in more than 90% of mixing, and mastering (maximizing) situations. The checklist is split into eight sections, and the items should be read from top to bottom.
Fill in the first section at the top with the date, project name, artist, song, and customer if appropriate. Each item is numbered for easy reference and provides a checkbox where applicable.
Figure 1: Mixing Checklist - Top Section
Use a cross mark to denote items that are not applicable, and use a tick mark to record progress. Some sections also provide some blank line items that can be used for personalized items that you need to plan, track, and complete (identified with an asterisk).
In all cases, the checks will:
Where applicable, I have made a note that if corrective action is needed, some previous checks may need to be repeated. I have tried to keep it as simple as possible, so use your own common sense when you suspect that something you are changing will affect another part of the mix.
For example, if you reduce the amount of reverb being fed to the mix bus, recheck the mix bus compression is still behaving in the way that you had initially set it up.
You remember the story about Goldilocks and the Three Bears? In the fairytale, there was always something that was either too much, not enough, or just right. Many of the procedures for the checklist follow the “Goldilocks” principle - too much reverb, not enough reverb, just the right amount of reverb.
Figure 3: Mixing Checklist - Groundwork
Whether you are using a new session or a ready-made template for recording and mixing, the tempo will be set to a nominal value. Therefore, one of the first things to do in the session is to set the session BPM to the song BPM. This is important while recording if you’re using a click track, and during mixing for time base effects and instrument quantization.
Before finalizing the BPM for a song think about playing it slightly faster, and slightly slower to determine if the feel of the sound can be improved. Sometimes even an increase or decrease of 5 BPM can make a huge difference. Trying different BPM’s can be done quickly by setting the metronome and playing along, singing along, or quietly humming along to the new BPM.
Before you set out on your mission to record all your instruments and vocals, spend a little time considering the song arrangement. Will it be a traditional intro, verse, chorus, bridge-type song, or something a little less traditional?
In any case make sure that the arrangement is planned out and communicated well with the vocalist, and other musicians. The simple way to do this is to use the lyric sheet and highlight how the song will flow.
It is also essential to check that everybody understands how the song will start and end. And provision should be made in the session for a count in, or fade out depending on the arrangement of the song.
While mixing, remember that you can add place markers (memory locations) in the DAW session to be able to see which section of the song you are working.
Regardless of the type of planning that you decided to use (percentage or LRC) you need to doublecheck that bass instruments, such as the bass guitar, and kick drum, vocals, the snare drum, are all centered in the stereo image.
Figure 4: Mixing Checklist - Panning
Also, check that the drums are either audience perspective or drummer perspective and that the image of the overheads and the single mic drums are consistent with one another. Finally, check that the snare drum is placed in the center (or near enough) and that any reverbs, and delays do not work against the snare drums position (i.e. the snare drum sound is not smeared by any reverbs for delays).
This is an optional check to make, however, it is often crucial to identify the sound space relationship between the drums and the vocal. By soloing the drums and vocals separately, you will be able to hear if the two sounds are in the same space. If they are not you may want to think about adjusting the reverb of either, or both of the sounds.
Figure 5: Mixing Checklist - Sound Space
The checklist provides a standard list of instruments and vocals but also has blank spaces for you to fill in any additional instruments for your project. Go through each track one by one, check it, and then tick the box on the check sheet.
Figure 6: Mixing Checklist - Tracks In Solo
While a very time-consuming process, checking each track individually for unwanted noises, clicks, pops can dramatically improve the quality of the final production. Using a good pair of studio headphones, if you have them, listen to each track in solo, at a reasonable volume and listen out for noise, clicks, pops, buzz, fret and finger noise, and any other unwanted sounds. Listen to each track from the start to the end.
This process is highly intensive and requires a great deal of concentration. If you are like me and find it difficult to concentrate for long periods, try splitting this task up into manageable parts. A good idea may be to do this check before processing each track in your mix - just remember to take the checkbox as you go along.
If you do find any problems with pops and clicks, this can either be repaired (if you have the right tools or know-how) or if you still have access to the recording equipment and musicians can be rerecorded. The latter is not always the best option, especially if you have captured a well-performed recording.
There are some great audio repair plug-ins on the market, such as Izotope’s RX7 (or the budget-friendly RX Elements version) which provides a very intuitive and powerful set of repair tools.
The other things to check in solo mode are the clipping and headroom of each instrument, along with the average sound pressure level. I advise using the K-20 system, and consequently, each track’s audio level should be hovering around the -20 dB mark. If it is not, try adjusting the clip gain, use a trim plug-in (or equivalent), or as a final measure, use the track’s fader position.
As well as giving each track enough headroom, it is vital to ensure that audio does not clip and produce unwanted distortion.
While in solo mode, listen out for any performance hiccups made by the musician. Many “problems” can be ignored as small performance issues are usually not noticeable in a final mix (in fact, these kinds of “problems” are what makes the music sound natural and appealing).
In the case of performance issues that really do need to be fixed, consider re-recording that part if possible, or fixing it using audio from another part of the track, or by using techniques and processes specifically for fixing the problem. For example, elastic audio in ProTools can be used to great effect, to fix performance issues with guitars, and drums.
Avoid the overuse of auto-tuning plug-ins for vocals. Do not “improve” vocals to the point that they do not sound natural anymore. As with much of the work in audio engineering, subtlety is worth its weight in gold.
Tracks that have been provided or recorded in stereo should be checked for their left and right balance. Examples of this include, guitars recorded using two microphones, and drum overheads. Using your studio monitors and your headphones check that the stereo tracks are balanced and place the instrument’s image in the center (or wherever you need the instrument to appear).
Figure 7: Mixing Checklist - The Mix
You may also need to do this check for mono tracks that are bussed to a stereo auxiliary, or to the mix bus.
As you cycle through each individual track, decide whether you need to add a high-pass filter to remove the low end of the instrument. Allowing the low-end of every instrument to be audible presents problems with headroom, and will often make your mix sound muddy and indistinct.
From my own experience, it is worth checking that every track is routed through the mix bus. This may seem obvious, however unless a new track is set so that the output defaults to the mix bus, it is easy to overlook where the output actually goes.
If you do find that you need to re-route any of your tracks, just make sure that you doublecheck the gain staging into any compressors that you are using on the mix bus.
Gain staging is often overlooked in a mix but is nonetheless a critical consideration. On each track, and on every plug-in, ensure that gain staging this correct. It is often useful to match the output gain of a plug-in with its input gain. For example, if the audio level entering an EQ is -20 dB, and the EQ processing causes a drop of 2 dB, then the EQ’s output gain should increase by 2 dB, so there is no overall loss of gain caused by the plug-in.
You can probably tell by now that I like the analogy from this famous fairytale. Hopefully, you will have followed the advice of creating a reverb bus to use for sends to a single auxiliary reverb track. The result being that the reverb for the whole track can be controlled by a single fader. You did that? Great!
Figure 8: Mixing Checklist - Reverb
Referring to checklist item CL 1.1 slide the reverb fader up 2 dB and check the reverb effect is making the mix sound worse (yes worse! with way too much reverb).
Referring to checklist item, CL 1.2 slide the reverb fader down 2 dB and check that the reverb effect is causing the track to sound too dry (not enough reverb).
When these two checks are made, you can confirm that the reverb level is set to “just right” - just like Goldilocks’s porridge!
These two checks are repeated in the other “Listening Environment” section. Check reverb levels on your studio headphones, earbuds, and different listening environments where it is practically possible.
Want to know how your mix or master compares to commercially available music? Simply carry out an A/B comparison between your music and one of your favorite reference tracks. Use a reference track that is comparable to your own music - same genre, similar groove, similar instruments - or anything that you are specifically trying to emulate.
Figure 9: Mixing Checklist - Reference Tracks
Listen carefully to the differences between your own music and the reference track, and consider if there are any improvements that you would like, or think you could carry out. For example, if the snare drum on a reference track is a particular sound and reverb, are you able to tweak your own mix to get it to sound closer to the reference track.
The benefit of reference tracks should not be understated. The action of comparing your own music to another track will help you to understand your shortfalls, but will quickly lead to recognizing improvement areas and allowing you to focus on the gaps that need to be closed.
The checklist provides space for three reference tracks. Write the names of the reference tracks in the area provided on the check sheet so that you can refer back at a later date.
The music you are producing needs to sound good on all sound systems. Just because it sounds incredible on your home studio monitors and in your headphones does not necessarily mean that it will sound great everywhere else.
Use as many other listening environments as you can to ensure that your mix or master translates well to other systems. When using headphones, we can simply plug into your DAW directly, but for checking on other systems, you will probably need to create a bounced version and put it onto a USB, or your phone.
When checking your music on other systems, make notes of any adjustments that you may need to make to the original mix. But just remember that any changes that you make from one system can have an adverse effect on another system, so a balance must be made.
Figure 10: Mixing Checklist - Alternative Listening Environments
Probably the most straightforward alternative listening check to carry
out will be with a pair of earbud headphones (and your studio headphones
if you have them). Simply plug in these devices directly into your DAW
On small-diaphragm headphones listen to the bass frequencies - too much? Not enough? Or just right?
Take a mix of your production and hook it up to your car stereo. Listen to your music with the engine off, and all of the windows down, with the engine on, and all of the windows up, and while driving at a reasonable speed to see if your mix can cut through the road noise.
Depending on your car’s stereo system it will either be a little tinny, or bass-heavy. Compare your mix with a similar song if you are unsure if the translate well or not.
Your home hi-fi system is designed to color and add tone to the music. Hopefully, you will be familiar with the sound of your own stereo system, and you be able to recognize easily if your mix sounds good or not. Try listening to your mix and low and high volume levels. Another trick is to stand in another room well the song is playing - you can often hear how well the song translates while doing this.
If your hi-fi system as a mono button, you can also hear how that sounds. And, if you have a pair of home hi-fi headphones, also use those as an additional check item.
Use your mobile phone speaker to listen to the mix. Most music doesn’t sound that great through the mobile phone’s built-in speaker; however, your own music should be comparable with commercial music played through the same device.
I personally have some Logitech X300 Portable Bluetooth Speakers that I use as an additional listening environment. This kind of desktop speakers artificially enhance music played through them, and therefore it is advisable to check your own music through something similar. Listen to the tone of the music being played - think about Goldilocks and make sure the music is neither too heavy or too bright.
Download the Home Studio Mixing Music Checklist PDF here.