What’s a test mix?
It’s just a quick recording of the track you’re working on. When I started making beats, I did this using a cassette deck patched to the second outputs of my mixing board.
The main outs went to my monitors, and the tape outs went to a tape deck. I kept a tape ready, and every night after I got a good track working, I flipped on the recorder and grabbed ten minutes or so, just fooling around with the layers and sounds to keep a record of what I did.
My original reason was that I was making all live electronic music with samplers, where the music disappeared when I switched them off at the end.
But later I found out how powerful this is, for checking your mixes and even more importantly, for hearing how the flow of your song structure works.
Here’s how test mixes help, and this is so easy to do, you have no reason not to.
In a hurry? Grab this as a PDF so you can read it later. Print it out and hang it on your refrigerator.
THE POWER OF TEST MIXES
Test mixes help you learn to mix better. Eventually you will have a folder of test mixes that allow you to compare your different versions and hear which one sounds best. You won't notice all the small changes you do during production, unless you keep a record of them with your test mixes. Then you'll notice.
Test mixes force you to make a mix quickly. You know what good music sounds like. Test mixes are where you can break all the rules, push faders way up, don't worry about it, and just make it sound good by intuition and feel. Easy.
Test mixes make you stop second-guessing every single thing. Just make a decision in the moment and go with it. You KNOW you will have to make decisions about your mix sooner or later, so get some practice on that.
Test mixes let you stop worrying about what "the perfect mix" should be. Think of it this way. Total failure would be to leave all your music in Ableton and never export a mix at all. Forget how good "everybody else" might be.
Test mixes make you COMMIT to mix decisions. Can't stress this enough. Don't let the options enslave you. Decide to be finished, decide to move on, and stop auditioning 50 different hihat samples for F's sake! If you can't even decide which hihat to use, you will never get anything done.
Test mixes let you listen in different environments. Get away from your computer. This means hearing your music from a different headspace, where you can purely enjoy it with zero option to hit the spacebar and make an edit.
Test mixes let you listen back more often, without having to load up Live. For example, listen when you first wake up in the morning. It really helps to be able to hear what you're excited about from last night's session, without having to load your project and start up your music rig.
Test mixes let you actually LISTEN with your ears, not with your eyes. In fact, you should completely stop watching the track in the timeline. Music flows by feel, not by appearance. NOBODY in the audience will EVER see your track in the timeline, except for Traktor DJ's, and all they care about is what color the bass drops are.
Test mixes let you hear it on different speakers in different rooms. Mixes all need to transfer to every type of speakers, from earbuds to giant sound systems. Test mixes are portable. Take advantage of opportunities to hear your music in the car, at your friend's house, etc.
Test mixes let you share your music: with other people to get feedback and comments. Not everybody is into this but come on, we have the internet. Share your music, talk about what it means to you, and ask people if they feel the same thing from it. This will give you a lot of encouragement and help you find things that need work, which you didn't even realize. We are blind to our own circumstance. Get help from outside or else.
Test mixes give you a reference point to see your progress. This is probably the most important of all. Everybody feels like "my music isn't good enough" sometimes. But when you hear an old test mix that sounds like crap, and a new test mix that sounds amazing, you will not be able to continue criticizing yourself so harshly. Test mixes give you PROOF that you're improving, and this can be an essential emotional stepping-stone towards publishing your tracks. Don't wait. Do it. Export. Share. Listen. I mean it!
Instant death. You never know. You could get eaten by a monster tomorrow and leave nothing behind except your test mixes. Just sayin’.
EXPORT A TEST MIX EVERY NIGHT
Every time you work on a track, you should export a mix. This is one of the fastest ways to your mix skills, your confidence, and your music.
At the end of the session, at the end of the night, whenever you stop working on it for that day, make it a habit to export some audio.
This doesn't have to be a full-length song, it doesn't have to be a complete track, it doesn't have to be the final mix or anything like that.
Just take a section of the music that you like, get it into the timeline, and export it.
There are a lot of really good reasons for this, all of which will help you improve your skills and make better music, make more music, and get there faster.
Essentially what we're doing is making a record of your progress.
And you never know... some of your 'test mixes' might end up being playable versions you can use in a DJ set!