The 4 Step Listening Check For Your Mix

| Mixing, Tips

I think the hardest part of a mix is the end. That point where you are 90% of the way there, and it’s all to easy to cut out early, declare the mix over, and render that sucker down. Either we get impatient, or honestly we’re simply tired of the song. We’re over it already. Time to move on.

Before you reach for the Bounce To Disk option, you would be wise to consider a simple four step listening check. This process is fast, simple, and free,  and it could be the very thing that takes your mix to the next level. What are the four steps? Well, they actually are one step just repeated four different ways. Simply put, you’ve likely been working on one set of speakers the majority of the mix. Now is the time gauge your mix in four different listening environments, each with its own set of clues.


TRR180 The 4 Step Listening Check For Your Mix

Via Quinn Dombrowski Flickr

Step 1 – The Low Level Listen

Hopefully you’ve been already mixing at a reasonably low level the entire time. Why? Because your ears won’t be fooled by the hyped highs and lows characteristic of loud volumes. But what I’m suggesting you do first is turn your speakers way down (think light background music), turn off your computer monitor, and just listen to the faint noise of your mix.

What this does is allow for your ears to relax and your mind to simply take in the mix as a whole (not individual parts). You want to hit play and listen straight through the whole song, noting anything that stands out as irritating or out of place. Just make a mental note or write it down. That wasn’t so hard now was it?

Step 2 – The Cheap Speaker Listen

If you don’t already own a pair of cheap speakers (or single speaker) it’s time to grab one from a junk pile or a consignment store. I’m talking consumer grade computer or small stereo speakers. Hook these up to your audio interface, mute your main studio monitors, and listen back through the song a second time.

With this step, you’re listening for the midrange. Cheap speakers often give you plenty (or exaggerated) mid range and not a lot of bottom or top end. This is helpful because it can expose any glaring issues you might have in your midrange. Again, take note of what jumps out at you as obvious or annoying. Let’s keep this party going!

Step 3 – The Tiny Headphone Listen

During the mixing process you may have already been referencing a pair of studio headphones and that’s great. I switch to my headphones a lot during a mix. But now it’s time to grab your favorite pair of tiny headphones and get to listening. I usually employ the classic Apple iPod earbuds, but it doesn’t matter the brand. Just make sure they are small and fit inside your ears.

The interesting thing about  a lot of these tiny earphones is the muted top end. You want to listen for how clear your mix sounds even without that upper range of frequencies. Do the vocals still sound clear, does the snare still pop, how about the kick drum? Again, just jot down any thing that doesn’t sound good and leave it at that. Time for the final step!

Step 4 – The Open Door Listen

The final thing I like to do is put my mix back on the main speakers and a moderate volume level, get up from my desk, open my studio door, and walk just outside. I literally stand just beyond the doorway and listen to the mix from the hall way. It’s crazy just how helpful this one step alone is.

For one, you lose all sense of stereo image, which is helpful to know if your EQ moves really hold up. Plus I always seem to get a good read on my lead vocal level. If the vocal sounds too loud or quiet from the doorway, I know it’s wrong. Again, just listen through the song the fourth and final time keeping tabs on anything and everything that is noticeably bad, wrong, or out of place.

Combine Notes And Make Your Tweaks

At this point you should have a handful of notes made from each of the four listening steps. The goal is to now take those notes and try to make some sense out of them. If the vocal seemed at a good level in 3 out of the 4 steps, but too loud from the doorway, you can simply turn the vocal down a notch, knowing that it likely will better from the door and probably about the same everywhere else. You’ve now just improved the mix a little bit.

The same holds true for any frequencies that jump out at you. That guitar solo seem a tad too harsh on the cheap speaker? Dial out a little bit of whatever frequency is the culprit. It will sound smoother on mid range heavy speakers and likely no different on other systems. You get the idea, right?

This four step process is all about gathering information, clues about your mix so that you can get it just right. It’s likely close, but it could be that much better if you just take the time to dig a little deeper.



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32 Responses to “The 4 Step Listening Check For Your Mix”

  1. Lee

    Again, some great advice that I employ on a regular basis. Thanks for being a great resource, Graham. Have a great weekend and rock some mixes. I’ll be doing the same!

  2. Jay

    Great advice, Graham! In the past year I’ve grown my A/B/C options like crazy and it’s really helped. Of course, it’s of no help if you don’t take time to learn what each of those speakers do and how they perform. Sort of like mixing on NS-10’s. They say you need to “learn” them.

    Currently I use my main 5″ monitors, some retro Realistic Minimus 7’s as the pseudo NS-10 (apparently a lot of studios are using these?), some PC speakers with a sub, my iMac’s internal speakers, a mono button for all of them, a cheap 2″ mono clock radio with an aux in, speakers wired to a different room in the house, earbuds and semi-open mix headphones. Loving (and using to my advantage) all the options! The crap speaker is also great at setting initial volume levels.

  3. Felix

    Wow. Just by reading, I can already feel the importance of each of these moves. Thanks Graham, you are making us better musicians by the day.

  4. Jason Coleman

    All very important, I read the “open the door and step outside” somerwhere a long time ago, and have been doing it ever since! It is perfect for vocal to music leveling!! Thanks – always enjoy your stuff

  5. Anodine

    I’d add another, 5th step: The really loud listen, because you want to know what it sounds like in a club with emphasized bass und high frequencies (Fletcher-Munson effect), if you expect it to be played that way. Even if not, it might give a little more insight, especially on the transparency of your mix.

    For example with some mixes I noticed that they sound extremely dense and cluttered on high volume levels, even if they didn’t on low volume. Other mixes you can turn up as loud as you want and still everything sounds clear and does not become unpleasant. This may be even more important in the mastering stage.

    Apart from that, I just like to feel how the music resonates in my body. There are more senses involved in music than only the ears. Don’t overdo, of course.

  6. Andre Veloso

    I would also add the “Laptop Speaker Test” at low volume – those speaker are like a high pass filter – no low end at all. It’s where I loose all the bass guitars on my mixes, and also a challenge to make bass guitar noticeable on those small speakers (and not to make them crap on regular set of speakers by adding to much low middle EQ to compensate for the lack of bass on those laptop speakers). And nowadays is where we’re spending most of our computer time listen to background music and Youtube videos. Integrated speakers on tablets/smartphones also count….

    • Javier DeLoza

      Gonna have to try this. I know I hate listening to anything on my laptop. No kick and no bass.

  7. Javier DeLoza

    Hey Graham, some great stuff I have been employing myself lately, thanks. Like several of the other posts, I also do an additional bounce version to listen to in my truck. My truck is where I do most of my “jamming out” so how it sounds in there is important to me as well. I have the bass, kick, mids and highs just like I like ’em so when something stands out, I go back to the mix and edit. I have learned what pro mixes sound like in there so its a tool I like to use a lot. Its a little time consuming but I like it.

  8. Ethan Liner

    There’s a spelling error on the second to last sentence of Step 2. The word “not” should be “note”.

  9. Ethan Liner

    Also, in the last sentence of the last paragraph, “but it could that much better” should be “but it could be that much better”. I’m really excited to put these techniques into practice soon! Thanks for the very insightful read.

  10. SoulFelix

    Yes. great tips. I love to just play the music loud (without distorting) and walk around the house and get a feel for how it would sound in a larger space. I also mix primarily with headphones, and agree testing with them can be very beneficial, because many people listen through those earbuds.

  11. Andrew Bontey

    Sound advice. For a fifth option, if you drive a car, pop it in your stereo and go for a cruise. I find this is a great way to see how everything sits on a general level, and seeing as a lot of people listen to music in their vehicles, it’s good because it’s a familiar listening environment. Stereo balance may be a little hard to gauge accurately, but this far into the hypothetical mix, that shouldn’t be a worry. I’ve found it’s mostly about finding those nuisance frequencies than anything else.

  12. Andrew Bontey

    Ah sorry for the double post, just noticed Javier said the same thing.

    Keep on rockin’ in this freak world!

  13. Vic beatz

    Hey Graham, just thought I should holla on your page…I’m a Nigerian producer and your tips are absolutely awesome. Keep the good work coming bro. God Bless you

  14. John Lardinois

    I tell people these steps often. One thing I always add, however, is to listen to just the midrange. Not every speaker has soaring highs or booming lows, but every speaker has a midrange. Take an EQ and use a HP and LP filter at about 200Hz and 7kHz. If it still sounds good, then it’s solid.

    Likewise, in the initial stages of mixing, setting up your volumes (using the faders) while monitoring this midrange and in mono yields impressive results. After that is complete, start panning your instruments. Now what will happen is stereo and doubled instruments will be quieter in the mix, so keep them panned, return to mono, and re-balance. Now, all at once, switch to stereo and bypass the EQ. It will sound like a magic “mix” button. You’ll notice (almost) everything has fallen right in place. You’ll even grow fond of the midrange sound.

    Throughout EQ’ing, every proper decision can be made with a HP of 90Hz and a LP of 12kHz, at about 12dB. That’s about what a pair of iPod ear-buds would sound like. If the song doesn’t make your heart thump with those filters on, then keep mixing, and keep EQ’ing.

    Another trick is to place compression on the master track, then remove it. Apply 2.5-3 dB reduction at a ratio of 1.5-2, with a 10-30ms attack and 200-300ms release. What happens is every time you add a compressor, the effect is amplified. You find yourself compressing less to avoid that crushed, smashed sound. When you finally remove the master compressor, you’ll see, again, that everything sort of falls into place.

    With all these techniques, you’ll have to do some final tweaking, of course, but they are sort of like little DAW hacks to get people listening more critically and thinking with small speakers in mind.

    A new definition to small-minded mixing.

  15. Elle

    “Just make sure they are small and fit inside your ears.”

    Hahaha, oy. Do you know any smaller than Apple? I thought they were all the same, basically (and I HAVE tried others – all owww and they pop out after that pain) and I am a very petite lady, so I’m thinking child-size?

    I liked reading that tip (makes sense but I hadn’t thought of it OR read it elsewhere) and thought I might take one of my probably-misplaced Apple pairs, but probably borrow my beau’s and just kind of place them against my ears. If they need to fit, I’ll need to do a good shopping hunt!


    Also … “Hopefully you’ve been already mixing at a reasonably low level the entire time.” Yup! I started at what’s mid to me, and went even lower the last time (still kind of early into my song though) and it has mattered already.

    Finally tip #4 is also intriguing. I’m looking forward to getting to these steps!

  16. Roberto Burton

    This is a great tip. I am wrapping up and hugs choir project and I will put this to good use. I will try to post some of these mixes on my soundcloud page.

  17. JV

    Sound 101. ALWAYS have 4 sets of speakers. From cheap to great. Always mix at 85db or less. Always refuse to hit the final mix unless you are listening with FRESH EARS the next day. Never use FINALIZE! Use finalize and U B lazy! Always turn your mix all the way down to zero, bring up 3 db and be sure you only can hear the main lead vocal. Otherwise it gets buried in the mix. Roll off everything under 100HZ that carries more than one track with 100hz. THen play it at 100db and get your socks blown off!
    But hey, that’s just me.

  18. Rodrigo

    Great! I am applying these concepts for my band’s next CD and they really work! Some little adjustments needed in a couple of the themes listening on different environments, but those tiny adjustments really made them sound better. Thanks always for all your help, I discovered you about six months ago on youtube with the “5 minutes to a better mix” series and though I have years recording your page, videos and tips give me new lights every time. Or course I will be attending the new series, learning more… I recommend you to all my colleagues, being experienced or not.
    Greetings and blessings from Costa Rica



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