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The art of music mixing is by far the most elusive and difficult part of the music production process to comprehend. Of all the engineering skills one could learn, mixing audio is by far the most difficult to master. That’s why, in the professional audio engineering world, it is by far the highest paying job. The record companies are well aware of this critical part of the music production process and will pay a premium for engineers that do it well.
I am often humored by home recording enthusiasts, musicians and students of engineering when they fail to understand why their mixes don’t measure up to what they hear on CDs. To give an analogy that may put this in perspective, let’s say that you are a guitar player who idolizes Jeff Beck. You’ve been playing guitar for 1 year and can’t understand why your guitar playing is not as good as Jeff Beck’s. Mixing is as much of an art as guitar playing. It requires a lot of patience, knowledge, and practice.
In this article, I want to give you some insights that will help correct your approach to music mixing. Without the right mindset, you will be embarking on a journey with no map and no idea of where you are going. Mixing is not about processing, tricks, effects or EQ. It is all about understanding how we perceive sound, and how to capture that essence in a pair of speakers.
The art of music mixing is very much the path of the zen master. The more present you are when you mix, the more quickly you will work and the less you will fall prey to the trappings that come from over processing. You will only do what is necessary, no more, no less. The biggest problem I see today with music mixing is that the mindset for mixing is completely wrong. It’s easy to get caught up using compressors, equalizers and effects processing on everything without even listening to see how it affects the whole production and the message of the song.
There are some basic rules I always use when mixing music. What’s great about these basic rules, is how simple the concepts are. Essentially, your frame of mind, when music mixing, will take you much farther than any plugin ever will. Playing Jeff Beck’s guitar will never make you play like Jeff Beck. Understanding how Jeff Beck approaches guitar playing will not either, but it will at least send you off in the right direction.
The sense of hearing is one of five physical senses we have as human beings. For those who have all five functioning properly, the most predominant sense is sight. Our ability to see something has the greatest impact on our lives. Think about all the things we say, “You’ve got to see it to believe it” or “seeing is believing”. We are a “visionary” or have “foresight”. We want to “look” somebody in the eyes to see if they are lying to us. It is the sense we trust most.
By contrast, sound is lest trustworthy. We use phrases like, “That’s just hearsay”, “we’ll play it by ear” or you should be “seen and not heard”. The term “phony” was coined with the invention of telephones. It implied a lack of trust with the person on the other side of the phone because you could look them in the eye to judge if they were lying to you. In general, our innate measure of sound is not a very trusting or positive one.
The truth is that sound is secondary to sight. Sound adds meaning and feeling to what we see. It forewarns us of what to look for as we are out in the world. This understanding is very important. To put it simply, everything we have heard throughout the existence of mankind is related to something we can see or at least feel. It is a fundamental part of the design of our brain.
Even with the invention of synthesis, sampling and processing technologies, the neurological programming remains. We still have the ability to visualize what we hear. Once you understand this fundamental design, you will start to “look” at your music instead of listen to it. You will start to become conscious of the unconscious programming of the listening audience. Your mixes will start to sound good on all speakers, not just on the ones in your studio. Most engineers call this “imaging”. Learning the skill of imaging for your music is a process that requires a lot of listening, practice and a basic understanding of acoustics.
There are two basic aspects of hearing, the physical and the psychological. There is loads of information on how the hearing mechanism works and, while this is important, it is more or less easy to understand. What I want to focus on here is the part that isn’t as obvious or understandable, the psychological.
The programming of all of our senses has been primarily developed for one purpose, survival. Our sight allows us to see things that are in front of us, like a truck passing through an intersection. Our hearing forewarns of things we cannot see, like a car racing from around the corner. The survival mechanism focusses on one basic principle, what is changing in front of us. What is it in contrast to the environment.
If you are sitting in a room and hear the air conditioning turn on, you will notice it. After a short time, your conscious awareness will shift to something else in the room that is changing. You will forget about the AC because it stays the same. A soon as it turns off, however, you will notice it again because it has changed.
This analogy is one of the most basic principles to understand when music mixing. In order for something to stand out, it must be changing in a meaningful way. In other words, what you want the listener to focus on must somehow contrast the environment of the rest of the music. This basic principle works hand in hand with another key element of the way we perceive sound.
As much as we all like to believe that we can multitask, study after study continues to show that it is impossible to effectively focus on more than one thing at a time. This is perhaps the biggest reason why most peoples mixes sound like crap. They are trying to get you to focus on everything in the mix all at the same time.
If you’ve ever been in a situation where two or more people are trying to talk to you at the same time, you can understand why mixing music with this same principle in mind does not work. Your immediate reaction to such a situation typically is to step back and say, “wait a minute, one person at a time…” To approach your mixing in this way is to make one of the most basic music mixing errors. Remember, a song is essentially a story, that can only be told by one person or instrument at a time. The rest, must support that message without extended conflict.
Music mixing is very much like moving into a house. The furniture and personal items you bring in will determine how inviting your house will be to your guests, the listeners. Anyone that plans to move into a new house or apartment will typically become aware of what other peoples places look like. The layout of the house, the positioning of the furniture, the size of the TV, etc… You will notice things you like and things that you don’t about each place you go into.
If you extend these natural skills of curiosity to music, your job must then become to look at the music mixes you like and try to figure out how they got to be that way. You may find yourself studying the “mansions” of the music industry in your quest. There is nothing wrong with that. In fact, it is critically important to study the best of the best in order to absorb the highest level of the art.
Even though you may not be working with the same quality of songs, performances, and equipment, you can still achieve very similar results. It’s just like the reality show where the host comes in and makes the crappy beat up studio apartment look like a great place to live. The interior decorator studies mansions, and great decorating through magazines and seeing great houses whenever possible. They study the intricate details that make a space convey the feeling that is appropriate to the purpose of the room being decorated.
What I am attempting to do here is to perform the music mixing equivalent of an intervention much like the many makeover shows we see on reality TV. Every decision you make in a mix directly affects the feeling and message of the lyric and song. Are you using bright EQ in a song that is about depression? Are you adding too much low end to an upbeat fun song? You must become sensitive to the technical aspects of what makes a song work, while being sensitive to the feeling that results.
Study mixes of songs that you love. Grab a pad of paper and start by writing down what you think the song is about. What is the prevailing sentiment, depression, love, jealousy, is it a party track or inspirational in nature? Next, you can write down every instrument that you hear in the mix. On a scale of 1-10 (10 being loudest) how loud is each instrument or element. Note where each instrument is panned in the speakers.
What effects do you hear, delays, reverb, chorusing or flanging. Close your eyes and try to see the music. Where does each instrument in the mix sound like it is coming from. Is it far away or close up front. Is it loud or low, clean or distorted. Any adjective you can use to describe what you hear. If you notice certain types of effects, list them as best as you can. By taking on this practice, what you are doing is creating maps for how music is mixed.
I cannot overstate how important the process of studying mixes and making maps is to becoming a good mix engineer. The purpose of this approach is not to duplicate everything you hear in other mixes. The purpose is to create templates for the production style so that you can get most of the mix done in an efficient manner. Once you have built a good foundation, you can get creative to make the song unique.
Every style of music has certain music mixing principles that are fundamental to making in work. You can make a dance mix with a small kick and bass sound that is low in level relative to the other instruments, but no DJ will ever play it in the club. The more you understand, from an engineering perspective, what makes a particular type of music tick, the quicker you will be able to build that strong foundation from which to build a great mix.
Remember that everything you do in a mix must support what the message of the song is about. There is no one way to EQ, compress or otherwise process any given instrument that will work for every song and every style of music. Each song is unique and must be approached as such.
There are many common practices and methods for music mixing that are embraced by the professional engineering community. These are not hard and fast rules, but rather guidelines that are a good foundation to start from. They allow you to get from point A to point B in an efficient way. Once there, it’s the creative decisions that separate the great music mixers from the amateurs. In Part 2 of the Music Mixing Process we will look closer to this approach