I’ve seen the fear. Musicians focused intensely on their mixer or DAW, struggling and sweating for hours upon hours to craft an absolutely “certified perfect” mix. Wow. Chill. Let’s see if EQ can save you a few grand in therapist’s fees and high blood-pressure meds.
First off, there is no such thing as a “perfect” mix. If you listen critically and objectively to all the music floating around this orb we call Planet Earth, you’ll notice that myriad sonic spectrums exist. There are thin and spiky mixes, fat and warm mixes, mixes with tons of bass, mixes that sound as if they were recorded inside a yak’s colon, mixes that are dense, mixes that are minimalist and airy, and on and on and on. And what does this diverse assemblage of mix soundscapes have in common? Practically every single one of them has charted a smash hit.
So, you see—the pressure is off. You can basically deliver almost any mix to an audience and score kudos, acclaim, and, if you’re really lucky, massive royalty checks. The real trick here has nothing to do with fretting over whether the bass is too loud or if the vocal sounds too thin. The most positive goal is ensuring that whatever mix direction you chose, it energizes your music and blasts it right out of the listener’s playback system.
Of course, you can worry yourself into hamster sweats over that objective, as well, but let’s not go there right now. Instead, let’s focus on three tactics that can help your mixes seduce an audience without your having to spend days freaking out over whether to boost the midrange on a snare track by 3dB or not. You know who you are. Read on.
You Can’t Mix Genius Into a Crap Song
This is an awful and merciless truth that few musicians have the guts to face. You can craft the greatest sonic mix ever rendered in recording history, and if your song is a dog, that puppy is going nowhere—that is, unless an angel kisses your forehead or Lady Luck takes pity on your sorry ass. Personally, I’ve never been that lucky, so I put a lot of energy in trying to ensure the song—and the song arrangement—is worth recording before I set up a single microphone. Knowing whether you actually have something to record is key, and, deep down, I believe even the most egotistical schmuck knows when he or she hasn’t done their best work. You just have to admit it to yourself—which is painful. But it’s worse putting tons of effort into recording sessions and mixes, only to discover at the end-ofthe- line that you’ve slapped a nice paint job on a derelict wreck of a song that should have been tossed into the “bad ideas” bin months back. So work that song viciously hard until it gives you goosebumps from intro to outro. If you can do this, I think you’ll find the mix will come together as easy as vanilla-bean ice cream and chocolate cake.
Nothing Exists in a Vacuum
One of the most interesting—and time consuming—mix tactics I’ve witnessed is soloing an individual track, working judiciously on the tone and signal processing for that one track, and then moving on to the next soloed track. The classic example is focusing on the sound of the kick drum, then soloing the snare and working on that sound, then soloing each tom, and so on. Um, did it ever occur to you that the individual mix elements you are so carefully dialing in must ultimately coexist with every other element in your mix? You could craft a bitchin’ kick drum sound all by itself, but when you finish messing with the soloed snare, the combination of the two tracks together is going to affect the tone of both elements— and, sometimes, the result might make the snare, or the kick, or both sound like dung. Wow, all that effort for nothing!
A trick I learned from the very smart and easy-going engineer/producer Joe Chiccarelli is to never solo instruments when you start a mix. There are a couple of ways to take Chiccarelli’s counsel to heart, but my favorite method is to just throw the entire mix up all at once. This way, I get a basic idea of how the final mix should sound, with all the track levels in pretty much the same relationships they will be in when the song is done, dusted, and (hopefully) being listened to by someone other than my mother.
The genius of this approach is that it forces you to listen to the mix as an organic piece of music that must be tweaked as a whole, rather than pieces of music (or tracks) that cry out for individual attention. This is also a far more musical way to mix, as you’re hearing a “finished” song while you add a bit of treble here, or lower a fader there, or pop in a touch of reverb.
Better yet, you aren’t focusing angst and neural energy on the minute elements of, say, a drumstick or guitarpick attack that most probably won’t be heard in the roar of the finished stereo master. You’re more relaxed, and less detail obsessed—which can be a good omen for the quality of the final mixdown. After all, didn’t your teachers ever tell you that it’s difficult to do your best work when you’re stressed out?
Obvious Mistakes Are Obvious
When I berate friends on obsessing over mix details, their common excuse is, “Well, I just don’t want to make a stupid mistake that causes my mix to sound unprofessional.” I can relate— no one wants to be considered lame and unprofessional. But do you really think a stupid mix move is going to get past your own personal crap filter? You should have more faith in your ability to evaluate good music. But, okay, let’s consider some less-than-genius mix tactics.
• Way too much reverb sends vocals, guitar solos, and perhaps most of the mix into a Niagara Falls of idiotic ambience.
• The bass is muddy and out of control.
• The vocal is mixed so loud that the instrumental track is an aural representation of the size of ants viewed by an alien giant.
• Everything is so distorted that it’s hard to differentiate the guitars from the kick drum.
Wouldn’t you be able to hear that stuff? Duh. Yeah! You’d certainly hear it if it was all over one of my mixes. So my advice is to relax on the “mistake” apprehension, because you won’t let them happen. And, anyway, it will be far more damaging to your music to slaughter your ears and mental state with constant worries about what might happen if a boo-boo sneaks through. Breathe. Relax. And just naturally do what the Doobie Brothers always advise: “Listen to the music.” Your mix will rock. Believe it.