A Mix Too Far

/March 11, 2016

There are times when a mix needs more work. There are also mixes that should have been signed off on yesterday. So how can you tell one from the other?

Let’s find out.

In other articles here on The Mill website I’ve talked about work ethic being one of the cornerstones of good mix outcomes. In my experience I’ve never really known a mix of mine to suffer from over-work, and all of my best results have come from hard work and determination.

Conversely, mixes of mine I haven’t liked were generally the ones that wrapped up prematurely, before the fine detail, or in some cases the basic levels, were properly resolved. Where I’ve collaborated with others the same tale can be told: all the best mixes were worked through until everyone was happy; the ones I haven’t liked weren’t pushed far enough.

As a mix engineer who’s been at this game a while now, I’m lucky to have supreme confidence in my ability to finish a mix to everyone’s satisfaction. But I certainly didn’t start out that way. Confidence has only come with experience and I’ve worked hard to reach the point where I’m able to make such bold statements.

In the early days of my career, internally at least, I was a bit of a nervous wreck at the console, concerned as much about the public nature of the process (mixing in front of people was stressful) as I was about the sounds coming out of the speakers. The complexities of developing sonic ideas on the spot while simultaneously conversing with five band members, making them all cups of tea and cleaning up after them, was exhausting. I felt like a circus juggler. The threat of public humiliation was a great motivator, and the pressure it applied was ultimately a healthy one.

 

OVERCOOKED EH?

Most often, mixes that go ‘too far’ are often thus described simply because they haven’t worked out. Personally I think there’s no such thing as a mix that’s taken too far, only mixes that don’t hit the mark for whatever reason – in short, that haven’t gone far enough.

For engineers or musicians delving into mixing for the first time, it’s often very hard to know when a mix is finished, especially when the capacity of modern computers to add yet another compressor, yet another EQ, is almost limitless. Frankly, the digital domain is a bottomless pit, and no-one should ever expect their computer to ever help them decide when enough is enough. Provided it’s a half decent setup, your DAW will always be happy to provide you with yet another plug-in, for good or ill.

Mixes that you and your clients love are finished mixes. Everything else is a work in progress. If you can’t get through a song you’re mixing without thinking: “Gee I must remember to turn that guitar down there,” or “wow, that backing vocal is low… that’s got to come up,” the mix obviously isn’t finished.

A finished mix should pose no questions; trigger no thought process. You should be able to play it from beginning to end and do nothing but revel in its artistry! Of course, months later there will always be something you wished you’d addressed… but that’s mixing.

 

TOO FAR, OR INCOMPLETE?

So, why do people sometimes say a mix has been taken ‘too far’? Is it because they think there’s too much reverb, too much compression on things, or too much automation detracting from the song? Do they think there was a line that got crossed beyond which all the hard work only took them further away from the ideal outcome? Well, they might, but I’d refute their claim. There is no line, and nothing is ever taken ‘too far’, and the reason is simple: mixes aren’t linear.

Mixing is an artform, and there’s no such thing as an artform where the journey is predictable, always methodical, and guaranteed of an outcome. It’s not like car manufacturing, where everyone knows their job backwards, there’s an assembly line, a pile of identical parts and a known outcome. Even in that circumstance there are no guarantees things will always work out! So how can anyone ever expect a bespoke, custom process like mixing to always reach a satisfactory outcome before 4pm, or within the confines of a six-hour shift?

You can’t.

If you think mixes always develop in a linear fashion; that there’s no backtracking or journeys into the unknown along the way, you’re dreaming. In reality, things go wrong, ideas fail, methods prove inappropriate, and predictions prove false. That’s why mixing requires a strong work ethic, to get you through the doldrums and back up off the canvas when all seems hopeless.

Humility and openness to the process are the keys here. Being strong enough to admit that something isn’t working – even when it’s your work – is vital to progressing the mix and bringing it closer to completion.

If you’re stiff and resistant to change, or in denial about the things that aren’t sitting right – things that you yourself loved two hours (or days) ago – you’re rarely going to produce a great result.

 

ALL IS PROGRESS

Think of it like this: when you make a decision about a mix and apply the necessary changes – that’s progress. It may not always get you to your destination in one step, and the changes you’ve made may generate the need for 10 others, but that’s mixing. Your decision may have caused certain things to unravel completely – maybe the guitars suck now, or the vocal is too low… who knows – but that’s mixing.

Don’t think that by applying five plug-ins to a sound and making it worse, that you’ve somehow bungled things. Everyone makes mistakes – I make them every day. When you take all five of these plug-ins away again and realise that the instrument sounds better on its own, that’s progress, even if it did take a journey of discovery to arrive at your conclusion.

When you’re mixing, don’t beat yourself up about things that apparently wasted time, or things that supposedly failed. That’s a defeatist’s mentality. If something sounds bad, ditch it, no matter how much time you spent on it. Remember: every masterpiece ever painted in history involved hours, days, weeks and sometimes months of work, not to mention the 10 failed attempts and 40 years experience that preceded it.

Da Vinci didn’t grow up magically knowing how to paint. He learnt to paint: by applying colours inappropriately, by getting proportions all wrong, by choosing the wrong subjects and picking up the wrong brush. He didn’t start out a master, he became one!

 

VISION VALLEY

The trick is to learn from your mistakes, concede that you’ll always make them (no matter how good you are or how many years of experience you have under your belt), and understand that they’re crucial to your development. Every time you make a mistake you can put it down to experience, and draw on it next time. The trick is to never attribute mistakes with failure. The way I see it, mistakes pile up, and the bigger the pile the further you can see when you stand on them!

Mixes are never taken too far, only abandoned for any number of reasons. If a mix you’re struggling with hasn’t worked out after three days or two weeks, fine. Maybe you have made some poor decisions along the way; wasted time trying to repair that terrible backing vocal or adding reverb to that dobro. Don’t despair. Dust yourself off and realise that all of it is progress in one form or another. Keep at it and work through the problems with determination. You’ll get there in the end.