Go With the Flow

Way back in the days you probably don’t remember, a wacky bunch of studio engineers, producers, and musicians churned out final mixes with blistering speed. They didn’t obsess over minute details, or spend hours tweaking every single element in a signal chain. They typically chose musicality over technical excellence; and capturing a performance that literally throbbed with feel, vibe, and excitement was considered far more important than worrying over some audible hiss, bits of mic or analog tape distortion, imprecise tuning, wavering tempos, and other such gremlins. By the standards of today’s digital-audio producers, these cats would probably be considered nothing more than inspired and impassioned dunderheads who couldn’t deliver a truly great mix if it crawled into their clean, white Fruit of the Loom undies.

But here’s the kicker: These very same maniacs provided our culture with absolutely classic mixes in every musical genre — in many cases, delivering work in the ’60s and ’70s that all mixes since have been judged by.

Now, while only a fool would argue the wisdom of careful attention to musical and technical details, if you’re trying to crack the mojo of a fabulous Led Zeppelin mix, and you’re spending hours meticulously dialing in a diffusion setting on a reverb plug-in, well, you’re probably just howling into a tornado. Remember, those legendary producers were typically on strict record-company deadlines, so they had to follow their guts and make critical mix decisions in minutes, rather than hours or days. Think about that.


For tone-obsessed guitarists, the acts of recording and mixing guitars are rife with opportunities to get lost in the fog of details. Ironically, the guitarists who stress out over every string squeak and compression setting are often the first to bemoan the fact their recorded works don’t possess the life, excitement, and fire of their live performances. To put the thrill back in your mixes, it may be best to steal a few licks from the Jimmy Page playbook. In addition to being a guitar legend, Page was also a savvy and visionary producer whose work with Led Zeppelin struck a marvelous balance between concept and passion. He knew how he wanted Led Zeppelin to sound — hence, the mammoth drums and thrilling “guitar armies” — but he never allowed details to compromise the power and mystery of the band’s performance. He tracked basics live with significant signal bleed, and he admitted to leaving mistakes in the mix, so long as the gaffes somehow added to the impact of a song.

Now, it will be tough letting go of your paranoid, obsessive tonal nitpicking, but here are three simple tips to be more Page-like than Mr./Ms. Perfectly Boring.

Go natural. Listen to those Zep tracks, and you’ll notice Page’s guitars are predominantly organic without a lot of effects or other studio goo. Page typically got a sound, sweat over optimum mic placement to capture that sound, and then got outta Dodge. So try to get the tone right when you record it, and then leave it alone during the mix. Promise yourself you won’t touch the EQ (or a plug-in) until the song is almost completely mixed. Then, if you need a “little something” to carve out some space for the guitar(s), do it — but do it as subtly as possible.

Commit now. If, like most digital-audio recordists, you tracked a ton of guitar parts, give yourself 15 minutes to select the most critical elements — the parts that drive the song best — and freeze. Pretend the other parts are dead. Hopefully, the deadline forced you to indeed pick the tune’s essential guitar moments. If so, you’re done. If something is still lacking, allow yourself ten minutes to find a couple of additional guitar bits that kick the song in the butt. Listen. If you discover that you want to go back and mine more guitar parts, you’re probably lost. Slap yourself in the kisser, zero the mix, and start over from scratch until you learn what’s truly important, and what is just extra stuff.

Know your “why.” Jimmy Page was making art — not “hits” — which is why he fought for complete artistic control over Led Zeppelin’s masters. He didn’t care whether his mixes were similar to whatever was on the radio at the time, or what a record executive thought he should do. Page set a definitive goal, and followed his muse. If you can be that committed and that brave, you should also be able to strip your music down to its essence, and not waste creative energy chasing meaningless details, current hits, “friendly” advice from peers, and other blah-blah-blah that can seriously wound your soul.

There’s no reason to compromise your vision, and, on the other hand, there’s also no reason to spend six days mixing one song on a demo. If a song has to be “fixed in the mix,” there’s probably a problem with the song. Keep things in perspective, prioritize your song’s important elements, and don’t mix out the funk. Also, the less time you spend “over” mixing, the more time will be available to write more songs, rehearse your act, intensify your marketing and promotion, and, hopefully, succeed.