by Andrew Anderson
Avoiding these six simple mistakes will help you improve your mixes and take your sound design to the next level.
Okay, I admit it: I’ve been brushing my teeth the wrong way my whole life. Twice a day for 30-plus years I’ve brushed for three minutes, spit, and then gargled with water. That’s fine, right? Actually no; it turns out you shouldn’t rinse at all. In fact, keeping that leftover toothpaste in your mouth is an important part of the brushing process, and helps repair your teeth.
Why am I telling you this, and what does it have to do with sound design? Well, because it’s an example of how you can keep doing something wrong – sometimes for years – without even realizing it. Even if by all appearances you’re a full-grown adult and should really know better (yep, that’s me). And that applies to sound design as much as it does to your daily ablutions.
So, with this in mind, let’s take a look at the top six sound design mistakes you should never make (but probably have).
Leaving your tops and tails untrimmed
Let's say you’ve got some great sounds going that feel nice and natural. So, you let them build in slowly, and then have them run out into infinity… which is fine, except that leaving your tops and tails – the start and end sections of your audio files – can actually pull their punch.
Think about it like this: a speaker has to move in and out to produce sound. If it’s constantly pushing out, it’s not going to be very dynamic. You need to give it a moment to pull back so that when your super awesome sound design moments happen, they have as much impact as possible. Car commercials are a great example of this. For every extreme engine rev, there’s also a moment of subtle silence. It’s (almost literally) the quiet before the storm. And that’s why those ads are seriously exciting to watch.
So, at the end of a project, go through and check all your tops and tails. Are you leaving audio in there that you don’t really need? If so, cut it. You won’t lose anything, but you could gain a lot.
Too Many Layers
When is enough…enough? You’re working on a mix, and you keep coming up with good ideas. So, you add them in. And then you have some more ideas, and those go in too. And so it keeps on going… but at what point should you stop? This is a problem for people in all creative disciplines. Writers submit scripts that are way too dense, filmmakers make movies that are much too long, and designers create layouts that are far too busy.
But it’s particularly tricky in sound design, where often you’re working on your own without an editor who will come in and cut out your excesses. And that’s when you end up with a project that simply has too many layers. Rumbles on top of rumbles, drops on top of drops…it’s all just too much. And, chances are, it’s going to sound very muddy.
So, what’s the solution? Well, there’s two schools of thought. One is to get to a level where the mix feels full, and then finish there. You’ve got something good in the subs, bass, mids and high end…no need to add more.
The second school of thought – and the one I personally go for – is to keep adding stuff as long as you’ve got ideas. After all, your later ideas might be better than your earlier ones. But then, at the end, it’s time to go back and be your own editor. If you have three sub parts, ask yourself “which serves this project the best?” Keep that one, mute the rest (but don’t delete in case you change your mind).
Heck, if none of them work, you need to come up with a new idea, or lose that section completely. Do the same with each sonic section of your project, until you’ve got something sleek and efficient (and definitely not muddy).
Skipping the Headphones Check
You’ve spent thousands (or tens of thousands) on your speaker set up. So why would you listen to your mix on anything else? Because 99.9% of the people that will hear your work have not spent that much on their speakers.
Yes, it’s a depressing thought, but much of your best work will be heard on speakers that suck, cheap earbuds, or the ultimate nightmare: the phone placed in a glass. In the end, the only way to make sure your mix is going to work is to test it on all kinds of systems.
So, as well as playing it on your big rig, make sure you also have laptop speakers, budget earbuds and a portable Bluetooth speaker that you can try your mix on. If you drive, that’s a good option, too. It can feel a bit annoying, but if you follow this final step you’ll quickly find out if you’ve got mix issues that simply aren’t as noticeable on your professional system.
"Keep adding stuff as long as you’ve got ideas. After all, your later ideas might be better than your earlier ones. But then, at the end, it’s time to go back and be your own editor. If you have three sub parts, ask yourself 'which serves this project the best?'"
Sound Designing in a Vacuum
You’d never design an engine for a car without first knowing a lot of other stuff: how much does it weigh, who it’s being sold to, what kind of body does it have, and so on. Otherwise you could end up with a huge engine in a car meant for city driving…or vice versa.
It’s the same with sound design. Yes, your mix might sound amazing, but if it doesn’t fit with the music and the dialogue, it’s about as much use as a turbocharged V12 in a Mini Cooper. Worse still, if your sound design is walking all over the rest of the project, you’re not going to be getting more work anytime soon.
Another point to add here is that you should have clear communication with the client. If you don’t know their intentions, vision and aesthetic for the project, the chances of you nailing that are nearly zero. So, always keep all the other elements on standby for regular ear checks…and if your work is getting in the way, you’ll probably have to cut it – no matter how amazing it sounds soloed.
Forgetting the High Pass Filter
Sounds are messy. They resonate, reflect and will spread out all over the place if you let them. Now, that’s not always a bad thing, because often this messiness creates character. But where it is almost always a problem is in your low end.
Let me explain: all elements in your mix will naturally have more low-end than you really need. And if you don’t cut them back, you’re going to end up with your bass frequencies growing out of control. The result? A mix that’s muddier than a musical festival held in a monsoon. Like I said, sounds are messy. But luckily there’s an easy solution: high pass filters.
For those new to this, high pass filters do exactly what their name suggests: they let high frequencies pass through, and attenuate low frequencies. This means they’re perfect for preventing a bass frequency build up.
For sure you’ll want them on any sounds that definitely shouldn’t have a ton of bass. But they can also be useful elsewhere, from bus channels to bass drums. Just make sure you test each filter with the bypass function to ensure you’re not accidentally cutting out any sounds you really want to keep.
Reverbing to Death
Probably by now you’re noticing a pattern: a lot of these mistakes are around making sure your mix doesn’t end up muddy. That’s because there’s simply so many ways that can happen – and overuse of reverb is another. Yes, reverb can make parts sound amazing when they’re in isolation. But once you start putting them together, all of that shimmering brilliance is quickly going to turn into sludgy nothingness.
Think of it like this: sound design isn't just about making interesting sounds, but instead it’s about editing them so that they serve the full mix. Yes, reverb can make everything sound epic, but if it doesn’t serve the mix then it’s really just getting in the way. So, dial back the reverb and think about which parts need it, and which parts might be just fine without. Reduce decay times, and reduce the wet/dry balance if you need to. The goal is for a rhythmic, clean and interesting mix.
Think of this in the same way as the tops and tails – if you don’t really need them, then you should be cutting them. And if you do, you’ll soon find life and brightness returning to your work.
Andrew Anderson is a journalist and musician based in Bulgaria.