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What Separates a Demo from a Polished Mix?

by Nick Messitte, iZotope Contributor February 22, 2018

Balance your own mix:

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After hours of hard work, yes, we’ve all been there: that which we have mixed—which we have spent hours upon hours fixing up—sounds more like a demo than a record.

First of all, don’t be too hard on yourself. Demos are very good these days! In fact, some maintain there is no such thing as a demo anymore (what you send out is what gets heard, so you better make sure that it sounds like a record!). Home studios have also come a long away from four-tracks and flash-drive recorders; today’s average interface beats the heck out of those all-flattening, stereophonically sterile 002s and 003s of erstwhile epochs. Plus, tutorials are everywhere, so everyone is learning how to mix at a rapid clip. It stands to reason that today’s demos and rough mixes will force us to work that much harder.

I propose, then, that we stop for a moment and ask ourselves an essential question: what separates a demo from a polished mix?

Let’s take it further: if we can identify some key things, what can we do to transmute our mixes from demo-quality blandness into exciting, lovely vehicles for the music at hand?

Read on to find out!

Well-Executed Edits

This is the most obvious contender, so let’s address it first. Precise, intentional editing certainly separates demo-quality work from a polished product.

Any sloppy drum fill followed by a staggering band-entrance should definitely be lined up. Any bum bass note should be dealt with. A nominally in-tune vocal with the occasional sour note should be dispatched into tonality, as should untoward plosives, mic rumble, bleed from headphones, and other unwanted noises.  

But be careful: we can’t edit everything so carefully as to kill the groove, and the grid is not our best friend; uniformity of downbeat is boring and sterile. Indeed, it can sound even more like a demo, since so many producers and artists tend, when working with MIDI, to quantize themselves to the hilt.

The key concept here is intentionality—your edits should have intent behind them, and that intent is always to enhance the music.

Game plan: if you’re given a rough track/demo as a reference, identify first what you love about the song. Next, put up a static mix as quickly as possible (I’ll admit, sometimes basic editing tasks will take precedence, but try as best as you can). Now identify what is detracting from the elements you love—which notes rush too quickly, which sounds need de-noising, and the link.

This is what you’ll need to edit.

Once it’s been identified, you can get to work culling the tracks into shape with every tool you have, but do this with as light a touch as possible. That heavy-footed drum part might actually groove once the hi hats are sidechained to the snare, so don’t get too zealous.

If this is new to you, use a mastered reference track in the same ballpark as a guide. And if all this takes a while, that’s fine! It should. Many top mixers have assistants who do this for them. The rest of us assign hours to the job.

Edits to Hide the Edits

Yes, you need to make edits to hide your handiwork. Nothing calls attention to itself like a badly-edited breath, or a digital pop between contiguous regions. This is basic maintenance for achieving a polished sound, but still, it bears paying mentioning here.  

Game plan: at the end of your editing session, before you really dive into the mix, apply fades both into and out of every region. Be judicious here. For two regions abutting each other, apply crossfades to smooth the transitions.

For edits between drum takes, make doubly sure these takes match in timbre. Listen for a lingering cymbal that’s suddenly ringing out of context, or a kick sliced right on the transient. The same applies to the vocal: if you’ve got a region obviously recorded with a different preamp chain or mic position, do some basic EQ matching in a software suite like RX.

Look for any regions that aren’t muted and make sure they’re silent. Don’t forget to look for hidden tracks or unchecked groups. Bonus tip: a pen and paper helps with this (as you can tell, I rely heavily on checklists).

Bass that Fits the Context

Turning our attention to the mix itself, let’s examine an element sure to attract attention: the low end. If your low-end isn’t sitting right, you’ve got something more like a demo and less than a record. Mastering Engineer Dave Kutch, in his infinite wisdom, calls the phenomenon of badly treated low-end “sloppy bottom.”

I shouldn’t have to say this, but you definitely don’t want a sloppy bottom. First of all, that sounds awful. Secondly, the low-end of a mix is something that, in sociology terms, we might call a “master identifier”—a governing characteristic that will be judged immediately. It’s no accident that many demos don’t stack up in the low-end department. You’ll notice they might consume too much bandwidth, sound too thin by comparison, or boast certain notes resonating in weird places (a phenomenon abetted by badly treated rooms).

It doesn’t help that low end is so hard to hear well; our rooms, if not properly treated, do strange things to our perception of the bass. Our monitors, if not placed correctly, fail to give us an adequate sense of power.

Now, the easiest thing in the world would be for me to say, “get proper treatment and good monitoring!” But I’m not going to do that, because ideal monitoring situations are just that: ideal. Most likely you mix out of a shared space, like a bedroom or a living room, and in these situations, compromises must be made. You won’t be able to drop expensive mains in a room easily overwhelmed by their output. Similarly, you’re not going to block out your window for sonic purposes, as this would crush your very soul.

But good mixes can be achieved on compromised monitoring systems—it happens all the time. What you need, in these cases, is a comprehensive strategy for dealing with room inefficiencies. I recommended ample use of reference tracks, an unwavering loudness-matching practice, consistent monitoring levels, multiple pairs of cans, and multiple speakers.

Game plan: pick out two references. The first should represent your ideal bass sound, regardless of genre. The second should be more genre-appropriate—either recommended by the artist or your own choice. When you’ve got a mix going, level-match the reference to your mix (this is easily done in Ozone 8 with Tonal Balance Control). Now, A/B your work. Use different monitors, cans, and listening positions.

What do you notice in the low end by way of comparison? If there’s a problem, can you identify what instrument is causing the hiccup? Mute that instrument and listen. Did the problem go away? If so, unmute the offender, and work on that instrument till it fits.


A Tightly Sculpted Mid-Section

A poorly-shaped mid-section also carries sonic problems that scream “demo.” Indeed, you have to be careful with the midrange because it communicates so much of what’s necessary—it’s the main aspect of any mix that translates from system to system.

If there’s a game plan, it’s the same as the previous one, with a few caveats: keep in mind that you’ll have more to contend with than frequencies in the midrange, because panning comes into play in a heavier way. So, when you’re comparing between references, play with panning positions to see if that clears up your midrange—it might just do the trick, even in mono (as mono fold-downs roughly translate into level changes).  


Properly-Balanced Vocals

Much of what we could say about vocals falls into the purview of editing, so let’s not rehash that. Let’s also assume you know the basics of mixing vocals and skip to what might be the most important—and yet most basic—aspect of successful vocals:

To my ears, the biggest difference between the voice on a demo and polished vocals is the level. Not the expensiveness of the sound (Steven Wilson, a famously “expensive” sounding mixer, often uses canned vocal parts), not the microphone chain, but the simple, nuts-and-bolts level. Simply put, the relationship of the vocal to the rest of the mix has to be perfect at all times.

This doesn’t mean the vocal has to be loud; quite the opposite. Some of my favorite Tool songs bury their frontman under the guitars. Conversely, go too soft on a ballad, and you’ll often engender unintentionally unintelligible results.

It’s objectively tough, because you don’t want to give the illusion of creating a karaoke track, nor do you want people to strain to hear the lyrics. Also keep in mind that vocals should be dynamic. You can’t just pick one level position and stay there; you have to make sure the level of the vocal matches the intensity of the phrase, the word, the music, and the moment. Sometimes the vocalist has taken care of this for you; you’ll find that if you haven’t over-compressed the track, you don’t need to move the fader all that much. In other situations, get ready to make friends with automation.

Game plan: Mix with the vocals in from the start. Yes, it’s annoying to focus on your drums with a vocal going on—and you can certainly dim the vocal when you’re working on other elements—but keep the vocals somewhat audible, and you’ll always have a feeling for the general timbre of the voice, and you’ll be able to mix them in a complementary fashion.

Also, I wouldn’t rely on headphones to give you an accurate sense of vocal placement, as they tend to bring elements closer to you. I prefer judging my vocals on my monitors, in car speakers, on consumer stereos, and over laptops. To check vocal integrity, I’ll often beam the mix to my clock radio in my kitchen, boil water, fry an egg, and do other things to create a noise bed. I want to make sure I hear more than the vocals while this is happening—I want to hear the song.

A Single Peacock Feather

Whatever you think of Neil Strauss’s The Game, his concept of “peacocking” has a corollary in the “game” of mixing. In his somewhat amoral take on dating advice, he writes about adding a clashing, somewhat bold element to your clothing—something to distinguish you from the other people at the bar.

An exciting, fully fleshed-out mix can be thought of in a similar vein, as every song has at least one element, turn of phrase, or bit of playing that stands out from its surroundings. It might not stand out because it’s technically better—it might actually be worse. But it will carry a lot more soul. When you find this element, grab onto it for dear life and use it to its full advantage, so that it enlivens the proceedings.

If you’re looking for examples of this, they include the peculiar burr in Thom Yorke’s voice on the last chorus of “And It Rained All Night.” For a more poppy example, examine the slightly out-of-tune quality of Alicia Keys on the song “No One”—the deliberate flattening of the notes add to the yearning flavor of the tune. A good instrumental exemplar would be the drumming on Black Sabbath’s seminal hit “Sweet Leaf.” There is no reason that pocket should seem as tight as it does, given the push-and-pull of Bill Ward’s playing. But it’s the grooviest part of the song, and as a result, the anchor of the track (at least, in my estimation; your opinion of course may differ).

Game plan: In the book Mixing with your Mind, Michael Paul Stavrou gives an interesting tip—he tells you to put the faders up at the beginning of a mix one at a time, in solo, and to calibrate the signal-level in a manner he lays out. I’m not going to recount it in full, because you should read his book yourself. But I’ll say one benefit of this technique is that it helps you to zero in on the standout player. So, give that a shot. If the element is repetitious, build your mix around it. If it happens only once, give it space.  

A Feeling of Openness

Listen back to one of your old demos, or a rough mix you’ve received from a client, and you may notice the following: at some point in the arrangement and mix, there’ll be so much going on that the elements will begin to lose balance as they approach the digital or analog ceiling (because yes, demos and rough mixes can be quite loud). A crowdedness will begin to cloud the proceedings, as though the mix were a bar packed with too many people. Suddenly the drums, which sounded fine in earlier sections, feel quieter, less powerful, and made distorted by the sheer pile-on. The result is a mix that doesn’t feel open, that doesn’t breathe, and isn’t fun to listen to.

A polished record, on the other hand, often aims to retain a feeling of openness, balance, and clarity, even as the mix swells to grab you in its densest sections. The pop productions of today are good examples of this: even in their most intense, climactic moments, they approach the ceiling, tease it, and yet maintain the width, depth, and openness that are hallmarks of pleasurable mixes.

So how do we do this?

Game plan: after you have your static mix, start the nitty-gritty of the mixing process at the climax of the song, or at least, the part with the most amount of stuff going on. Get this section to the appropriate breaking point, to where the excitement-to-openness ratio is perfect. Then, take a five-minute break. Keep this break silent.

When you come back to the mix, check out the climax of your level-matched reference for a couple of seconds—no more—and flip back to your mix. How does it stack up?

If you like what you hear, move on to the rest of the song, starting at the top of the tune. If not, keep working on this vital section. This has the added benefit of making much of the rest of the mixing process easier: you’ve already handled the grunt work, now it’s a matter of pairing things down for quieter verses, or rebalancing timbres for different sections.

Granular Automation

This will be hammered home in a subsequent bullet point, but a zealous use of automation on a granular level will elevate the quality of the mix beyond the demo stages. This automation can apply to level boosts, so that second verses come down in intensity, while final chorus rises to the heights it craves. Automation can also be used to widen or narrow groups of instruments at key moments (check out, for example, the use of mono-to-stereo strings on Cracker’s classic album, The Golden Age). You can automate EQ moves, or fade delays and reverbs back into the ether so they disappear appropriately.

Indeed, much can be done to avoid the oft-static feeling of a demo by means of automating; you can send the drums to a parallel compression bus for a pre-chorus, or mute all the reverbs in time with a dramatic hit to emphasize the resulting silence (think here of Nine Inch Nails’ “Capital G,” Gomez’s “Notice,” or Twenty One Pilots’ “Heathens”).

Game plan: Toward the end of your mix, listen back to what you’ve done, pen and paper in hand, and write down any automation moves you believe may help. Go back and write those moves into the mix. See if they do the trick.

Bells and Whistles

Recently I had a client in the studio, an excellent punk rocker from CBGBs’ glory days. He came to see me in part because he wasn’t satisfied with his previous studio. Over the course of our time together, he had me re-master two of his back-catalogue recordings. In fact, comparing two of these two mixes back-to-back gave me the very idea for this article.

Sure, one of the songs could be mastered to be “sonically pleasant.” It could be made less brittle, could be elevated in level at the appropriate time to give it a lift, or rebalanced to a certain extent for clarity. But what I could not do—because this was no multitrack—was change the overall static feeling of the song, the sense of parts moving in their own little world instead of cohering to sell the narrative of the song.

The other song was eye-opening, for here was a mix with dynamism. Here was a mix with risk! Sure, that background vocal-throw in the second verse poked out too much, but so what? It livened up the song, as did the verb introduced on the guitar in the second chorus, the delay throw on the repeated refrain, and other individuated bells and whistles that allowed the mix to come alive.

The takeaway? To the extent to which they’re tasteful, bells and whistles (delay throws, section-specific reverb, aggravated panning decisions, etc.) can inject a sense of movement into your mix—movement that a demo might lack.

Game plan: In the middle of your mix, after the EQ and compression has been put in place, listen to the whole tune, and think of any interesting bit of trickery you can accomplish. Write these down on a piece of paper, save the session as a new file (this is important—you want the ability to backtrack) and go about implementing your ideas.

I’ll tell you right now, many of these ideas will not work. But if even one of them sells the vibe, it’s worth it to have tried them all.

A Constant Sense of Flow and Movement

If I had to put my money behind the biggest differentiator between demos and full blown mixes, it would be this: the constant sense of flow and movement. But what in blazes does that mean?

If you’re a musician, think of your first experience on the other side of the glass, the time you spent with your band putting the demo together, and what you wanted out of the final mixing process. Sure, your demo had all the parts, but it lacked something, right? It felt flat—the parts seemed in search of a larger whole. You wanted to feel the same journey of a truly great song, the same rush of arriving at the final chorus. You knew your song was capable; it had a great hook and a mean beat! The problem was, by the third chorus, it all felt stagnant.

So what did you do? You looked for a professional to bring it the rest of the way.  

As the mixing engineer, yes, you must provide balance. But you must also offer a journey for the listener. The flow from one section to another must be honored, so that the song’s quintessence is elicited, made explicit, made relatable, and ultimately, tied into the listener’s emotions forever.  

Every one of the details we’ve listed heretofore contribute to this goal, from solid editing decisions, to proper tonal balance, to the creation of an open soundstage. For this last tip, I’m sorry (and happy) to say that there’s no hard and fast way to get there. Some engineers like to introduce a new timbre or element every thirty seconds; some like to play their outboard mixer as an instrument on the final bounce, breathing and riding life into the parts. Some like to keep their options open, tailoring their approach to the particular song.


Your Last, Conclusive Game Plan

All paths up the mountain are valid. The important thing is to be aware of this journey, and to work towards it. Not necessarily right away, because you have hard work to tackle first—the edits, the balancing, the tonal sculpting, and all the rest of the nuts and bolts.

But don’t let too much time go by before you start paying attention to the journey of the song. Ultimately, it’s the journey of the song that you’re working so hard on—it’s this journey that sells your mix, and separates it from a demo.

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