You’re Always Mixing
You’re Always Mixing
By Andy Stewart.
You may not even realise it, but when you call yourself a recording engineer – or more importantly, think that’s all you are – your might be selling yourself short. You’re also a mix engineer by default too, whether you like it or not. Why? Because you’re always mixing.
It seems like an odd statement to make – ‘you’re always mixing.’ Surely there are heaps of roles in the audio industry in and around the process of audio production that don’t involve mixing. Don’t some of us record, edit and restore audio, overdub and so on, but not mix?
Well, sure, in a way we do. But there’s a dangerous distinction being drawn here when engineering roles are discussed as involving only one specific technical process, like say recording, as if mixing is somehow an entirely separate process that only ever follows afterwards.
It also infers that judgment calls in and around the recording process – whether a take was good or bad, whether a certain sound is right for its context, and so on – somehow occur in isolation, as if their mixing context is irrelevant for now.
That’s almost never the case.
Crucially, mixing also occurs during the production process, often dozens of times and in countless ways for a variety of specific purposes: headphone mixes (paramount), rough mixes, overdubbing mixes, test mixes, mixes for editing etc.
To say that it’s somehow a separate process to an album’s recording, or somehow exclusive to a club of dudes that don’t get their hands dirty in tracking sessions, is a gross over-simplification of what mixing is all about, and a semantic demarcation that can bite you on the proverbial when you least expect it.
1 The Perils of Mixing Rough
A perfect example of this occurred to me only the other day. There I was tracking on my own, adding a couple of new parts to a song. After a few hours of recording, and few more editing, I was finally happy enough with the parts that I quickly sent off a rough ‘mix’ to the client, to get her up to speed with where the song was now at.
To give this example a little more context, I’d played drums on about six other songs on the album, and of all the performances this was the one I was most happy with.
I was shocked then, the next day, to discover that the drums overdub had gone down badly with my client – like a lead balloon, to be specific. ‘We’re going to have to ditch them from the track, I think,’ was her polite way of saying she didn’t like them very much (or worse).
‘How is that even possible?’ I thought to myself, as I read the email over a heart-starting coffee. I was sure she was going to love these drums. What had gone wrong? I re-read the email, trying to imagine what it was that could have specifically engendered such a reaction. Then I called up the track and listened to the previous day’s performance.
Weirdly, there seemed to be nothing inappropriate about it. (Sometimes you wake up the day after a tracking session, listen to your performances and gasp in horror – we’ve all had days like that. This was not one of those days.) ‘They’re fine,’ I thought to myself. ‘What can she be thinking?’
As it turned out, the newly overdubbed drums were just way too loud in the rough mix I’d sent, and that carelessness on my part had thrown my client for a loop. The performance itself was okay; the problem was that the drums were just too loud for her to be able to properly gauge their musical role. I should have placed them in a more approximate and sympathetic context before I sent her the track.
I kicked myself for having been so stupid.
I was in such a rush to get the tracking over the line that I shot a mix from the hip without paying it much attention. As is so common when you record overdubs, the thing you record last is always the hardest to mix, and invariably it’s too loud because it’s been loud in headphones and you’ve grown acclimatised to that excessive volume.
When someone hears a new overdub for the first time in a poorly mixed context – particularly when they weren’t around to witness the performance themselves – often the natural instinct is to take a dislike to this new musical element… which is precisely what happened here.
2 The Levels They’re Always A-changin’
For almost any audio production – but certainly for music production more specifically – mixing is a constant process of re-establishing levels: putting an overdubbed instrument into
a musician’s headphone mix at a level best serving them at the time, and later dropping this level by 10 or sometimes even 20dB!
This radically shifting mixing focus is an art-form unto itself, sometimes involving all the instruments, sometimes only a handful, sometimes with the newest drenched in a hall reverb, and in the final mix, dry as powder.
It’s all about establishing the right mix for each different occasion, never assuming that the one you setup last time somehow applies to your new circumstances.
This is one of the specific reasons why a ‘mix engineer’ is sometimes called in to land a project. Because they’re not the producer or tracking engineer – namely someone new to the production – they’ve not been privy to all the different production mixes along the way, making their perspective ‘fresh’ and unbiased.
That’s the theory at least.
Sometimes hearing a track mixed 50 different ways over the course of 12 months can do an engineer’s head in, making their production of a final mix difficult to say the least. Or not… it depends entirely on your circumstances. Other engineers find this background work vital to the production of a great final mix. Indeed, for some, this in-progress mixing constitutes half the work already done. There’s no point doing it all again if it already sounds good, is there?
3 Editing Your Way Onto The Rocks
Another example of how crucial mixing can be halfway through a production’s timeline is during an editing session of a newoverdub or two.
Sometimes an engineer may decide to edit the new parts with several of the other instruments muted, allowing them to hear timing and pitch with greater clarity (maybe the overdubs were recorded this way too, who knows). Maybe the engineer just goes with the last headphone mix he or she established in the DAW session… sounds like a plan.
Problem is, when you do this you may discover that, upon un-muting all the other tracks, the timing of your editing work and/or the decisions you made around which performances were best, suddenly seems questionable again now that the full instrumentation has been restored to the mix bus. Here again, mixing is crucial because with half the track muted or playing at the wrong level, your perspective can be thrown out of whack.
4 Highly Developed Immunity
There are countless circumstances where a mix is required (often at breakneck speed), and for every one of these situations, the right one needs to be established.
You may find it easy to set aside any issues associated with a rough (sometimes very rough) mix in your own brain (like I did with the overdubbed drums) but for others less involved in the more technical side of the process, this may be far more difficult to do.
The obvious example of this is a headphone mix for a musician (assuming it’s not you).
A great headphone mix can make or break an artist’s performance, but for the engineer there may be no real appreciation of its impact. It’s important therefore to remember that for a musician, a headphone mix sounds different than it does to the engineer, even when you’re monitoring the exact same mix.
The musician experiences things like latency, volume and pitch in ways you simply cannot appreciate from your perspective. So be mindful of this, and vigilant against their adverse influence – even if there’s a problem with a musician’s headphone mix, they may not be able to articulate what’s wrong.
Very few engineers I know mix exclusively; the rest of us spread our skills wider. But make no mistake: we’re all mix engineers. So embrace the role, improve your skills, and never assume mixing is separate from the other roles you play.