4 Non-Technical Changes You Can Make Today To Help Your Mixes
Well here we go, a new website and I have decided to start writing some blogs. Blame the lockdown for my wittering. Before I start, I just want to make it clear that this is an opinion piece. I am in now way trying to tell you or anyone else that you are wrong and I am right. This is intended as advisory for those who are at any stage of their mixing.
I'd considered quite a few subjects for this first blog but this one seemed quite pertinent at the moment. The lockdown has given us all a lot of free time, and one way I've been killing some of it (apart from making music, of course) is re-reading some old mixing books that I first read many, many moons ago. In particular Michael Paul Stavrou's 'Mixing With The Mind' and Roey Izhaki's 'Mixing Audio.'
Re-reading has been a really worthwhile exercise. I was reminded of so many concepts and things that I had either forgotten, decided to completely disobey, or had replaced with instinct without any actual conscious thought process. So much so I started to write some notes as I read. Not necessarily what the books were telling me again, but my thoughts on what they were telling me.
This experience has coincided with two other things: Me spending a lot more time online, on producer and mixer forums, reading posts by noobs and experienced music makers alike, and me participating in community discussions and conference calls. What has really interested me isn't the answers that myself or many others provided, but the questions asked. I decided to write some of these down for a later blog, but for now I thought I would condense some of these thoughts into this one here.
Before I start, I feel I need to state from the off that I am still guilty of some of these some of the time myself. We music makers are humans selling emotions, we SHOULD be making mistakes. Not just because that is how we learn, but mistakes lead to new discoveries and new roads to travel down. This is by no means an objective, scientific statement of fact, and it shouldn't be seen as that. If you're new to mixing, see this as helpful guide of some common traps we all still fall into. If you're reading this as an experienced pro, see this as a bit of a refresher, as I have done in my recent re-reading!
4) DON'T MIX SO LOUD
Okay, so these really aren't in any order, so I decided to go with this one first as it's probably the one thing I have been reminded of myself (thanks to my good friend Ed Buller!). Who doesn't get excited and feel good when we hear music we are making blasting from the studio monitors? It's exciting, right? Yes. It is. Very exciting. That's why we make music. However, it doesn't lend itself to good mixes for a few reasons.
1) Everything sounds great loud. If everything sounds great, how can you fix it?
2) You will hurt your ears. With hurt ears you can't hear very well, and won't be able to make critical decisions very well for very long.
3) The louder you listen to your mixes, the more you can hear the effects of your room. Unless you're in a professional space, I am going to go out on a limb and say that isn't a good thing! A loud mix bouncing off walls, adding verb and artifacts will give a completely unrealistic representation of your mix.
4) Mixing quietly makes you work harder! In an interview with Sound on Sound, Chris Lord Alge was asked how he made everything he mixed sound so alive. His answer? No tricks or special buttons. Just mixing quietly. By listening quietly you are always pushing things and driving them as a consequence. Read the artcle here: https://www.soundonsound.com/techniques/secrets-mix-engineers-chris-lord-alge
So how quietly should you mix? I would say that's subjective. Everyone's ears are different and the level at which it becomes too quiet (losing the ability to hear the bottom and tops) will be different from one person to another. The typical recommendation is to mix at a level that still allows for normal conversations without needing to dip monitor volume.
1) Lot's of monitors and speaker systems have volume pots on the rear of the speakers. Turn them down, so even when temptation closes in, maxing out your monitor controller knob is a lot quieter than it would be if your speakers were turned right up. I have a pair of Kii Three monitors, that have their own controller. I set that to 50% and hide it out of sight! The monitoring level of my API desk is therefore controlled even if I get excited!
2) Wherever possible, stay at the same volume. Changes in volume change your perception of the music and can really affect the way you mix.
3) DON'T WORK SO MUCH
We love what we do, so we inevitably do it for a long time. How many sessions have you had that go through the night? Before you know it, it's 6am and the coffee hits aren't working any more! The fact is though, the more time we spend on a mix, the more our critical decision making ability deteriorates. We have a window of opportunity.
You know the old saying, 'the more you listen to a song, the more you like it.' Well that's true of us in a room listening to the same song on repeat. We become acclimatised to the sounds, balance and problems in a mix. Our ears become normalised to what we hear and it becomes harder to spot flaws or problems with what we are hearing.
There has probably been someone far cleverer than me that has carried out scientific tests into the duration of listening in relation to the ability to make good decisions, but it would probably look something like this (please appreciate my deliberately 'charismatic' graphics here):
So what do we do to combat this? Long sessions DO have their merits, especially when they are fuelled by inspiration and an all round good feeling. So for me, splitting the technical mixing from the creative mixing is important. If I find myself in a creative mindset with a mix, I will run with it and save my project as different names as I go, so if the vortex I fly down doesn't turn out to be a good one in the cold light of day, I can snap back to any specific point in time, just before I got carried away.
As well as resting over night, a good way to freshen up your ears and regain some objectivity to the music you are working on is to continually refer to your chosen reference material. Like, actually really listen to it. Listen to the areas that you may be working on in your mix. Focus on that part and readjust your ears before starting again.
Another obvious mitigation against this is breaks, and break often. Think of it as a gym session. You don't go in there and try and lift a weight 100 times in one go. You continually allow yourself to recover. Whilst listening to music is hardly lifting weights, it still changes the efficacy of our ears.
Our final suggestion to try out is speed of work. Aim to get 80% of your mix done in 50% of the time. It was great to hear Mike Crossey (The 1975, Wolf Alice, Arctic Monkeys) talk about this concept in a recent Q&A for the Control Room forum. Do anything you can to speed up your workflow when you first begin a mix to make the most of your critical listening threshold.
1) If you are on a creative ride in a session, see it out. Let the magic happen! But learn to separate that from any technical aspects of your music making.
2) Be disciplined. Rest often. By that, I don't mean sit on social media, I mean get up out of the seat, get some fresh air, talk to people.
3) Listen to your chosen reference material often. Focus on the region of music that you're currently working on in your mix. Continually A to B with it.
4) Get the bulk of your work done quickly. Do everything you can to improve your workflow over that initial 3 to 4 hours.
5) When you start to get excited about a mix, walk away. Have ten minutes. If you come back to it and it still sounds great, tread carefully. Make every move after that a considered one. (This one was a particular favourite of Mike's comments, so this one is completely his!)
2) INVEST TIME AT THE START IN HAVING AN END PRODUCT IN MIND
I can still remember my early mixing sessions. I would sit for days using a trial and error method of gradually improving the mix to a point where I was happy. While I loved the creative process of doing it this way, the mixes I produced weren't necessarily technically or emotionally significant.
One of the biggest game changers for me was when I read about how to use solid visioning in mixing. By that, I don't mean just having a loose idea in mind and working until you have reached it. I mean having a clear illustration of what the finished product will sound like. This doesn't mean you can't experiment, in fact it actually helps you experiment, but I will get on to that in just a bit.
I must admit to being guilty of this sometimes. I get excited and dive straight into a song, but started to notice that it was always when I started this way, that I struggled to finish. So to combat this, I always spend half an hour after the session has been set up doing a few things. First, I get a balance of the song up and listen to it a few times through. I listen to all of the parts and try to understand what they do and why. I write notes and ideas as I do and this becomes a bit of a mission statement for the mix.
Something else that always helps me too, is creating a visual image of the final mix being played in a situation. Whether its imagining people jumping round a club dance floor, or people sitting around a camp fire, I always try to picture the scene where the finished song will be suited to play, and find that this image gets stronger as I get nearer the finished mix. I will even have certain friends pop up in these images!
The most important note to remember in this is the artists vision though. Make sure you talk to them before you listen to the track. Sway your own initial thoughts with what the artist is telling you. Listen to the artist talk about their vision THEN listen to the track in that context. It will help you reach a mutual goal for the work.
Finally on this point, spend time choosing your references wisely. Understand why they are a reference for the artist. Is it the vocal sound they love, is it the drum sound they're after, do they love the delays and reverb or is it the fuzz of the guitar they're going for?
1) Take time to create a balance of the raw audio before diving into the mix.
2) Take the time to listen to that balance, to the parts and understand what each does and just as importantly, why.
3) Write notes in the first few listens - you will never get the chance to listen to this song fresh ever again. Make the most of those early playbacks.
4) Use visuals. Don't be afraid to close your eyes and picture a scene where the music is being played. Use this often through the mixing process.
5) Talk to the artist before you even listen to the song for the first time. Listen to it for the first time with their vision and intentions in your mind.
1) STOP OVER-PROCESSING
Okay, so this is verging into the technical side of mixing, which I didn't really want to do. I know, I'm kind of breaking the one rule I set out with. But it is probably the biggest mistake I - and I would guess most others - so here it is.
Imagine you've had a great big dinner, feel really full and couldn't eat another thing. If you don't see another bit of food for the rest of the day, you probably won't eat another thing. However, if there's a great big box of leftovers looking at you, you can bet you will be diving straight in within a couple of hours. This for me is true of music - if you have an array of plug ins sat staring at you in your DAW during your mix, the temptation is too strong. I have seen people add Pultec to a bass track without even listening to it. I absolutely love the UAD OTO Biscuit plug in, and almost instinctively add it to synth tracks without properly listening to it. I'm lucky to have a great arsenal of analogue equipment at my disposal, and I always felt like I HAD to strap my Fearn EQs onto a vocal or bass.
Going back to the Q&A that Mike Crossey did for Control Room recently, it was interesting to hear him discuss his bass management approach and how he always used to over compress it, trading off the bottom end for a less dynamic presentation. He was almost (in my interpretation) warning us to only process when it was really needed. One thing Mike did say that surprised me was how little he effected in parallel. Parallel compression in particular is something I do a lot of as it allows me to retain the original signal, whilst getting a sense of stability in the track. I very rarely compress directly on a track, even if the equipment has a wet/dry balance. Of course compression isn't just about stability within a track, but also making tonal changes. There are no rules, but I am certainly more aware now and before i strap a compressor on, always ask myself if it is really needed and what do I hope to achieve with it.
Over EQing is one of the biggest things that can kill a mix for me. Hi-pass filtering everything far too much, huge boosts in the 3 to 6k range. That can come when ears get tired, when you aren't referencing properly, or simply from being too excited! In the same CLA interview I mentioned previously, he stated that level automation was more important to him than EQ. That's something that really made me think, and wonder how much EQ I can get away with NOT using.
Before I give you some summary tips on this, it's probably worth noting that all of the above is assuming properly recorded material. We all know that mixes we receive aren't that perfect and processing is the only way we can get any hint of tone, clarity or excitement from a source.
1) Always process in context. Soloing tracks is useful, but processing completely by itself isn't. Always process in context of the rest of the mix.
2) Don't ever process for no reason. Always challenge yourself as to why you are doing it. Make sure you have identified a clear problem you are trying to fix.
3) Try parallel processing for reverb/fx and compression. Not always, but play around with it.
4) Always consider phase both before you reach for EQ and after you have used it if it's part of a multiple mic situation.
So that's a wrap on my first ever blog. I hope it had some useful content. I will be keeping these a lot shorter in future, I just found myself typing away and couldn't stop.
Until next time