How Do I Make My Mixes Sound Professional?

The first of our multi-part series on how to make your music sound professional.

As producers, perhaps the biggest question we ask ourselves at one time or another is why doesn’t my music sound as good as commercial releases?

It’s a question that marketing departments have taken advantage of for years. Its used to sell you the latest piece of hardware (or software) with quotes from artists about how they use it on every track or mix. And while they may well use the product, its certainly isn’t the reason their music sounds professional.

While there can be numerous reasons your music doesn’t sound professional – that I’ll cover over a series of blogs – the largest contributing factor is ear training. After all, if you can’t hear it, you can’t fix it.

Ear training is a topic that is so rarely discussed because it lifts the veil from most marketing departments. It’s not something that can be accomplished quickly with a simple plug-in or piece of hardware. It takes time and hard work and those are words that nobody in the 21st century likes to hear.

But if you want your music to sound like a commercial release, you have to develop your hearing. Many artists who improve are doing so because they’re beginning to hear what’s actually going on in the music.

How do we train our ears?

There are two forms of listening;

  • Critical listening
  • Analytical listening.

The problem we face is that our survival mechanism relies on ears to alert us to possible danger, so we must constantly fight our brains survival instinct to listen on a critical level. And this is more difficult than you think.

In order to train our ears, we must first accept that we are unable to concentrate on more than one aural element at once.

Although when a professional listens to a piece of music, he or she appears to be able to identify the problem almost immediately, it is not a result of listening to everything at once. It’s a result of speed attained through practice and a well-developed aural memory.

Try listening to music and to someone talking to you at the same time (often referred to as the cocktail party effect) and you’ll find its almost possible. It’s the same with critical listening. When professionals listen to a piece of music, we are not listening to all of the instruments at once, instead, we compare the tonality, balance, and frequencies to those stored in our aural memory.

This could be considered the same as employing reference software, whereby the software allows you to jump between a professionally produced track and your own. By moving between the two, you begin to hear the deficiencies in your music.

Aural memory is how long tonal and frequency responses remain in your memory. And for the untrained, aural memory is typically less than a couple of seconds.

You can find out how long your aural memory is with a simple test. The audio below contains a drum loop that is unprocessed, followed by a processed version.

Each time the audio plays, the separation between the processed and unprocessed shortens. The clicks dictate the next section starting over again.

Which pass do you begin to notice the difference between the two…

Audio Memory Test

  • 1st Pass – 10 Seconds
  • 2nd Pass – 8 Seconds
  • 3rd Pass – 6 Seconds
  • 4th Pass – 4 Seconds
  • 5th Pass – 2 Seconds
  • 6th Pass – 1 Second

I suspect your aural memory is a lot shorter than you first thought (if you need a clue, listen to the kick and snare). This is the first hurdle you have to overcome and unfortunately, there are no immediate shortcuts. To improve your aural memory, you need to get into a couple of practices so that they eventually become automatic to you.

We can begin to develop an aural memory by becoming familiar with tonal frequencies. This is best accomplished with some specialist software. My personal choice for this is “Train your Ears” software. Just 30 minutes each evening for a month on this software will massively develop your recognition and aural memory of frequencies. Although it’s not free, at a cost €49, it should be considered a worthwhile investment in your future as a producer.

If you’re already subscribing to our monthly newsletter, there’s a code in each that’ll give you an additional 20% discount off Train your ears (amongst other discounts and freebies). If you’re not yet a subscriber, just drop in your email below.

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