Creative blocks impact mixers of all skill levels. For new mixers, these creative blocks can be especially disheartening, since you might not know how to get past them—yet.
Here are five common, but no less maddening creative blocks, along with mixing strategies for moving past them. Click on a blocker to learn how to solve it.
- Too much time tweaking? Use presets
- Too much time tweaking, even with presets? Use assistive audio tech
- Trouble setting levels quickly? Use Mix Assistant
- Do you think you're done with your mix? Get feedback
- Does your mix not have the vibe you want? Try a reference track
Needlessly tweaking sounds and trying out dozens of effects without a clear idea of what you want is one of the biggest traps for newcomers. This can make a two-day-long session take weeks, or even months, to finish.
Worse yet, the longer you spend on a mix, the more you become attached to it, and tonal problems and imbalances can start to sound normal to your ears (ear fatigue is real). So even after all that time you spent on the mix, it still sounds like it needs work!
When you find yourself tweaking every parameter on a plug-in, but not really getting anywhere, take a step back and use a preset instead—your favorite artist might even have a preset you can use. Lots of work goes into designing presets, and while they may not be a perfect fit right out of the gate, they will give you a strong starting point for further adjustments.
Spend some time studying preset parameter positions and how these settings affect your sound. Why does this EQ have a high shelf? Why does this compressor suggest a short attack?
Pro tip: Many top-level mixers offer up their entire mix sessions for download, often in exchange for an email or small price. These sessions are kind of like having a preset for an entire mix. If you are new to engineering, it might serve you well to download one of these sessions and look at what is being done on a professional level. Then, borrow some of these ideas for your own work.
Practice your mixing skills with "Okay" by Latrell James, as part of iZotope Sessions (it’s free!) and follow along with the tutorial video.
One of the challenges of using presets is that plug-in designers can’t prepare for everything put through them. As a result, you can get some bad pairings, even when the preset name and description match your sound.
I find these clashes typically happen with EQ presets. There might be only two stock snare EQs, but you have hundreds of different snares in your sample folders.
Since frequency sculpting changes drastically from one mix to the next, you may be better off with a tool like Learn EQ in Neutron, which will listen to your audio and suggest points across the spectrum that need your attention. It's still up to you to decide whether to boost or cut.
You may find this process more intuitive than EQ presets, and get a better understanding of where recurring issues, like resonant snares, rumbles, and raspiness occur in the mix.
Though every engineer will have their own precise definition, the static mix refers to the brief, but the all-important process of setting initial track levels before moving on to dynamics processing, effects, and automation.
In a large session bursting at the seams with background vocals and percussion, setting levels can be an overwhelming process. And when encountering such a session, a new engineer may skip right over the static mix, setting themselves up for disaster later on.
Mix Assistant, which comes as part of Neutron 3, is your ultimate helper here. Using your suggestions as a guide, it will automatically adjust the individual levels of each track in the mix so you get a starting point to work from. By removing this tedious task from the mixing process, you get to focus on more creative aspects.
Learn about how Mix Assistant works in the video below:
In the name of deeper learning, iZotope writer Nick Messitte also provided his strategies for tackling the static mix from scratch, which you can read here.
If you can’t find a way to go forward in your mix, have someone else listen to it. Roommates, family, partners, friends—anyone who can give you a response quickly. It's best if they are in the room with you, this way you can see their reaction to the mix as it plays. Truthfully, just having someone else in the room during playback can get you to listen differently and take on a different perspective.
If you’re on a deadline or can’t get someone to listen to your mix at the moment, get feedback from a different playback system. The restricted frequency response of laptop and phone speakers will usually draw attention to the parts of the mix that need some fixing, which you can investigate once you’re plugged back into your rig.
No matter what project you’re working on, it's essential to have a goal to measure yourself against. This way you know whether you’re going in the right direction or what you need to do to get back on track. Having cues for tone, arrangement, and mix levels goes a long way.
One thing to keep in mind when choosing reference mixes is their quality. Following a poor quality YouTube stream or a poorly mixed song will lead you down a similarly bad route. Stick to downloaded WAV or AIFF files.
For the new mixers out there, I hope these tips help get you back on track when things are looking low.
Above all, the best tip I can give you is to take breaks throughout a mix session. Many of the issues described in this article are heard in a different light once you’ve been away from your computer for a while and your ears have had a chance to re-adjust.