Realizing Your Creative Vision
By Teri Danz
Have you ever recorded some really amazing tracks, and
when you built your mix, everything ended up sounding
like mush? If you’re wondering what happened; you’re
not alone. Every recording artist, producer, or engineer
has experienced challenges transforming their musical
ideas into the perfect mix at some point in their career
(hopefully in the beginning). If you feel overwhelmed at
the prospect of realizing your musical vision, don’t dismay.
Below are some tips to approaching the mixing
process with confidence and creativity.
Don’t Look, Listen
“Mix with your ears, not with the screen,” notes threetime
Grammy winner Dave Isaac (Anita Baker, Prince,
Marcus Miller). In the era of the ubiquitous waveform
display, don’t let visual cues determine what your mix
should sound like. Isaac closes his eyes to “feel” the mix.
Mix at a Low Level
Many people mistakenly think they need to mix at a loud
volume to get the “intensity” of the music. Working for an
extended time at high SPLs causes ear fatigue—in the
best-case scenario, you won’t hear things accurately,
which can lead to poor mix decisions, and in the worst
case, you can irreparably damage your ears. If your mix
sounds good at a low level (we’re talking 85 dB and
lower), the balance will still hold at “ear shattering.”
Visualize Parts of a Whole
Mixing is a delicate balance of art and technology. For
veterans like Isaac, the DAW (or the console) is a tool,
but the vision for the music is in his mind. This is
where the art comes in: He creates a focal point in the
music to guide the listener through the song. It’s one
thing to merely arrange everything in a logical place;
it’s another to view the individual parts as a tapestry to
best communicate the story of the song.
When Crafting a Soundstage,
Imagine a Real Performance
In terms of mix dimension and virtual “placement” of sonic elements, think about where the drums might sit
on a real stage, or where a guitar amp might be
located. Which voices and parts would normally
come forward onstage, and when? Re-creating the
realistic physical scope of a stage performance gives
the mix a natural feel.
Since today’s powerful signal-processing plug-ins recreate
the sound and function of a spectrum of highend
hardware at a fraction of the cost, it’s common
for engineers to have dozens, even hundreds, of virtual
effects at their disposal. This doesn’t mean that
you have to use them all. Each plug-in has a sonic
impact, and it’s easy to get mired in the details and
overdo it; be sure to keep your big picture in mind
while you’re piling on the effects.
Let Your Music Breathe
It can be tempting to make your mix as loud as possible,
but when it comes to volume levels, more is
not necessarily better. Take a cue from mastering
engineers: The more you compress your mix, the
more you squash the dynamic range that gives it
expression and life, and the more you introduce
ugly distortion artifacts.
Says Isaac, “the mix is done when something
moves me.” (For example, he gets goose bumps.)
You may or may not get that feeling when you’re
finished, so after you mix, sit with it for a while.
Sleep on it. Play it on different systems—in the car,
on an iPod, etc. . . . I can’t tell you how many sessions
I left thinking a mix was great, got in the car
or at home and thought, “Oh, noooo . . . it sounded
great in the studio.” (Famous last words!) And just
sometimes I’ve left, and guess what, the mix is
amazing! So when you’re “finished,” give it some
time, gain some perspective. You’ll know it’s
finished, when it finally feels right.