The Changing Face Of My Australian Landscape

/November 15, 2014
Sometimes the only way to improve your audio mixing technique is to force yourself out of your comfort zone.
Most listeners are relatively easy to impress and amaze when it comes to recording or mixing techniques. So when you find yourself relying on the flattery of novices to get you through the day, chances are you’re showing early signs of grinding to a halt… Time to shake things up and expand your horizons.

It’s been a crazy summer here at The Mill. Between the death of my father, the birth of my son – dad dying on the same day as baby River was discharged from hospital – and our cat surviving a snake bite from a cranky Copperhead, suffice it to say there hasn’t been a dull moment in the last couple of months.
And it’s all taken place seemingly in the blink of an eye. One minute I had a father; the next minute I was one. Everything changes, that’s for sure – there’s no telling what’s going to happen next.

So it should be with mixing.
Today I was lying on the studio floor to escape the 40 degree heat, listening to a fantastic album by The Flaming Lips on some new headphones when I was suddenly struck by a thought: for me, this will be the year of musical change.
In 2014 I’m determined to rewrite my rulebook, ditch some old methods and try some new ones. I’m overdue for a new perspective, new ways of imagining the musical soundstage and placing instruments in it.
It’s hard to fight against your own techniques sometimes, especially when they’ve been hard earned. But as they say, cutting back the dead wood allows for new growth.
When you work with similar song arrangements over the course of several albums back-to-back, there’s a tendency to start placing things in ‘familiar’ positions, and the more this occurs the more uncomfortable things then seem when you try to place them elsewhere. So this coming year is going to be all about imagining new ways of determining what goes where in a mix: what goes up front, what sits out the back, what marks the horizon and what frames left and right.
Like most mix engineers, I have my habits and preferences, and I know what I don’t like as much as what I do – perhaps too well. So this year, more than ever, I’m determined to fight against my natural placement instincts. I’m going to re-imagine how reverbs work too and play with their parameters more. I’m going to explore new acoustic guitar tones, rediscover key-input techniques, and listen to more music. Where this will all lead me I have no idea… that’s the best part about it.

In the past, the way I’ve tended to avoid habitual mixing practice is by working them up from different start points. If I’ve been working with drums for an extended period first up, next time around I’ll try to listen to them last… this immediately refocuses my priorities and opens up the space for different instruments to inhabit, rather than the ‘usual suspects’ going where my ear ‘naturally’ demands they go – drums in full stereo, vocal and bass in the centre, guitars left and right… yawn.
One approach I’ve already been seriously interested in this year has been the mono-ing of almost everything on the board in complex mixes. And by ‘mono-ing’ I mean: not spreading sounds across the stereo image using multiple mics or stereo sources. I’ve been ditching everything that’s stereo and positioning sounds as point-source information with pan pots – instruments, reverbs, delays… the lot. Not fanatically, mind you, just whenever possible. This has the effect of opening up the space and prevents any one thing from swamping or ‘vagueing out’ the mix.
It’s an approach I’ve used to great effect in the past when things have gotten overblown in the track count department. Using this methodology when the arrangement is sparse allows for a more panoramic mix to develop, and for things to be wetter without sounding unfocused.
However, the difficulty I have with super-wide mixes is the strange effect they have on me when I’m listening in headphones. I don’t like things pushed to the extreme edge of left and right in headphones without there being other musical elements compensating for them in the soundscape. My cure for this in the past has been to add small delays or reverbs to the widest sounds, panned well away from the source. But this tried and true method must go if my new period of exploration has any hope of getting off the ground. I have to fight the discomfort if I’m to explore new territory, and find other ways of alleviating this sensation rather than immediately reaching for my standard remedy.
With any luck the end result of all this will be a wider perspective on this sound production caper and an enthralling 2014. It’s going to be a challenge, but better than doing what some of my friends and colleagues seem to have done lately – close up shop and leave the industry altogether. Boo and hiss to that!