Tip 12 – Why do your mixes sound ‘Muddy’ and Soft?

why your mix sounds muddy and soft

You might have heard people speak about the term ‘muddy’ when it comes to your mix downs. And possibly you’ve wondered what they meant with that. Or perhaps you already know but haven’t been able to figure out how to fix it. No worries, we’ve got you covered. In this feature ‘tips & tricks’ we’ll focus on what exactly a muddy mixdown is. Why it starts sounding muddy. And of course, how to avoid it.

The definition of a muddy Mix Down

A muddy mix down is basically the opposite of a clean mix down. Instead of having a tight, clear and focused sound (or frequency range), the sound will start to get unfocussed, with a lot of frequency masking going on. This is especially noticeable in the low to low-mid frequency area of tracks that haven’t been mixed down properly. The result is a track where the low end sounds washed out, and ultimately with a lower volume compared to the tight, clear and loud professional mixes of the tracks you’re listening to in your streaming collection, or on the radio. Why it often sounds softer to, is something I’ll explain in the next paragraph.

Why does it start sounding muddy? – The Theory

The reason for this is much more simple than you would have probably thought. It’s just something a lot of people don’t think about. It all has to do with the theory and physics of what ‘sound’ and ‘pitch’ is. In this case, It’s all about the ‘Fundamental Frequency’ and ‘Harmonics’ of a sound. As you might know, sound is in essence vibration. Or oscillation. Now in terms of this oscillation, the amount of cycles of this oscillation is expressed in HZ (Or kHz when we get over a thousand Hz). In terms of sound; the lower the amount of cycles, the lower the pitch. The higher the amount of cycles in a second, the higher the pitch.  (More Theory). Now the fundamental frequency in audio is the lowest vibrating frequency of a particular audio signal. This fundamental frequency gives the sound the biggest reference to its perceived pitch. For example; a piano sample with a fundamental frequency 440hz, will be perceived as a sound in the pitch of A (A4 in this case to be precise).

Why does it start sounding muddy? – The Practice

Now you’ve probably seen a bunch of EQ frequency charts or EQ cheat sheets in your time (such as this one). What you might see when you look at it, are the individual instruments. And a guideline for their fundamental frequencies and their harmonic contact. Now take a step back, forget the individual instruments, and look at it again. What you might see is that A LOT of instruments have, or might have, a fundamental frequency in the area of around 200hz to around 500 Hz. Now what happens if you don’t take this in mind when mixing down your track, is you’re going to get a massive amount of frequency build-up in this area. Since this area specifically is more vulnerable to the effects. The result will be a massive build-up, muddy sound, with a lot of frequency masking. And because your limiter (at the end of your signal) is trying very hard to compress your track, but keeps hitting the build-up in this area first, you won’t get your mixes to sound as clean and loud as professional mix downs either.

How to avoid a muddy Mix Down

Now once you know why your mix sounds muddy and soft, you probably can get an idea of how to avoid this right? EQ is key, as well as smart songwriting. Now please don’t go removing this frequency area on every single sound, but make conscious decisions about which sound doesn’t need the frequencies in this area, which could do with less, and which absolutely needs to be present in this area. Just as long as, in the end, you don’t have this massive frequency build-up. Besides that; smart songwriting can help you out a lot as well. You can write all your melodies and melodic layers around the same pitch, but you can also vary with that. A good balance in the pitch of your melodic information will be really beneficial to your mix downs, and will make your life a lot easier.Once you’ve gotten the hang of this, you’ll also see you can push your limiter a lot more, making your mixes sound both louder AND cleaner.

Now keep in mind; you shouldn’t forget about the sub area either. An area you might not always hear (depending on how low your studio monitors/speakers/headphones can go), but can have a big impact on your mix down and perceived loudness. But that’s something for another time.

That’s it for this time. Hope this production tip helps you with your tracks. Happy producing!
And if you need any help, you know where to find me! 🙂

Michael de Kooker