If you keep these five principles in mind when working on audio mixes in your home studio, you can avoid a muddy mix every time.
Have you ever heard the Primus song, “My Name is Mud”? I have a saying inspired by this song: My BANE is mud. As in, I hate the sound of a muddy mix.
If you record at home, or you are mixing a standard rock band setup, a muddy mix is a problem that needs addressing every time.
Working in less-than-ideal rooms — as is typically the case with home recording — almost always leads to a build-up of frequencies in the lower mids, the frequency area responsible for muddy mixes. But people neglect to address this problem, or in many cases, make it worse.
When you treat muddiness, your mixes can become clearer and more defined. Apply these five principles when recording, and you will be well on your way to clear, soaring audio mixes.
1. Improve your arrangements
Before you even think about addressing muddiness with EQ, consider the arrangement of the song. A typical rock band has multiple instruments focused in the lower mids (male vocals, electric guitars, snare drums, and sometimes keys). This leads to a build-up of frequencies in this area, making the mix sound muddy.
To counteract this issue, analyze the arrangement of the parts within the song. If multiple instruments are sitting in the same register or octave, muddiness will increase.
One fix is to spread the different parts across multiple octaves. For example, rather than having two guitarists playing their parts on lower frets, move one part up an octave further up the neck.
2. Manage the lower mids
In general, 200-500Hz is the frequency range responsible for muddiness. If you starting boosting instruments in this frequency range, you are going to make the problem worse.
If you want to make a track sound warmer, try cutting the upper mids around 2-6kHz instead of boosting the lower mids.
Also make sure you apply cuts and boosts in the context of the mix. Quite often, something will sound like it needs more warmth in solo, but will sound perfectly fine in the mix.
3. Use a reference track
It’s hard to tell if your mix sounds muddy or undefined without comparing it to a professional release. Pull in a song from your favorite CD or your iTunes collection (avoid compressed tracks) and A/B your mix alongside it. You could import it into your DAW for quick comparisons, or just play it through the same speakers or headphones.
Focus on the lower mids. Does your mix sound muddy in comparison? If so, which instruments in particular sound like they are contributing to this problem the most?
Continue to use a reference when applying EQ to make sure you don’t remove too much of the 200-500Hz range, as this could make your mix sound brittle.
Using a reference doesn’t only apply to treating muddiness. You can use a reference track to check the low end, high end, and overall balance of your mix.
Another reason referencing is important is that the setup of your studio and speakers could be making your mix sound muddy, even if it isn’t.
You could counteract this problem with room correction software, such as Sonarworks Reference 4 Studio Edition. But an even easier way is to use a reference track to give you a basis for comparison.
4. Pinpoint the culprits
Even after focusing on a strong arrangement and avoiding a boost in the lower mids, subtractive EQ is usually required to fully address this problem. In most cases I will apply a subtle wide cut in the lower mids on guitars, vocals, snare, overheads, and keys.
If you notice that a particular instrument sounds muddy, start with a wide 3dB cut centered around 300Hz. Now move the frequency around until you notice the muddiness disappear, and adjust the gain to taste.
If you find that a smaller frequency range (e.g., 400-450Hz) is guilty, use a narrow bandwidth. Otherwise, keep it wide and cut the entire 200-500Hz range.
5. Check on the mix bus
One of the quickest and easiest ways to treat muddiness in a mix is to apply a subtle cut on your mix bus or master fader.
Again, start with a wide cut, around 300Hz, and adjust to taste. Keep it subtler this time, and try not to cut by more than 1/2dB. I recommend using an analog modeling EQ for this to add more character to your mix, or you could use a linear-phase EQ if you want the cut to be more transparent.
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Although most people reach for EQ to fix muddiness, you should address the arrangement and instrumentation first. Even after that, some EQ work will be required to ensure that your mix is not muddy. Make sure you aren’t making any of these mistakes, and your listeners will thank you for it.
This article first appeared on the Disc Makers Blog in 2016. Rob Mayzes is an audio professional, musician, and educator. He has helped thousands of home studio owners produce better music through Musician On A Mission, his website full of tutorials designed to provide a way for people to learn music production and launch a career in the industry.
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