CUTTING THROUGH

/June 15, 2016

“A good song will always cut through!”

 

It’s an old cliché, that a good song is what first grabs a listener’s attention. But a great song? Not even bad mixing could ever prevent a great song from connecting with its audience.

Rubbish. In truth, the opposite is true.

Songs and their success are a fragile combination of synchronous events that are easily knocked off balance anywhere along a production’s timeline. This untimely bump might occur during recording, mixing or mastering, or even as a result of a dodgy video. It might be the lack of cash to promote the song that’s ultimately to blame, or the ineptitude of the band’s manager who’s better known for his skills on a unicycle…

Whatever the cause and regardless of when it occurs, one thing’s for sure, great songs are not the robust, infallible, sure-bets the old cliché would have us believe. To assume they are is naïve thinking so detrimental to your process it may just stop your next potential hit from ever reaching an audience.

And don’t think for a moment your song is the only one worthy of success. There are great songs everywhere; it’s just that the vast majority lack one or more of the crucial ingredients required to make them a hit.

One of these is the mixing process – that amorphous, deceptively delicate stage where everything is laid bare and a song is made or broken.

Far too many artists get this stage of a production terribly wrong. Some try to do it themselves, figuring the process to be little more than a few fader moves and compression, failing miserably as a result. Others, having spent their entire budget on the recording phase, get someone to mix it for them as a ‘favour’ to the band. This rarely works out (or does anyone any favours in the end). Then there are the unlucky ones who actually pay good money for a mix engineer, but still get a bad outcome.

 

THE UNKNOWN ‘CLASSICS’

A great song badly mixed can be disastrous. Your potential hit can be turned into an ugly duckling in the same way a terrible paint job can ruin the look of a house. It is almost certainly not the case that your great song will survive such ill treatment and succeed anyway. If you’re thinking it might, think again.

Most badly mixed good songs are the one’s you’ve never heard of, and there are literally millions of them. In the vast majority, these songs never reach a listening or viewing audience because the people in charge of programming television and radio habitually ditch them before they ever see the light of day. There may be other reasons why a song doesn’t grab a programmer’s ear of course, but you don’t want the mixing process to have been one of them (the fewer technical impediments to your song ‘making it’ the better).

There are far too many artists and bands in Australia who fail to recognise this simple fact. As a result, most of them spin their wheels in the industry before quickly dissolving back into the general population.

If you want your music to make an impact you have to assume that no-one is listening, and understand that until you get someone’s attention – or the attention of someone whose job it is to listen, like a radio DJ – you won’t make inroads.

The way to do this is with a great musical product, not just a great song, and this must include decent mixing. Combined with your impressive song, a fantastic mix takes your recording to new artistic heights, making it more compelling to anyone who hears it.

Don’t forget you’re trying to reach people with your music, so if your great song can be made to sound so amazing that a radio programmer gets excited like a prospector striking gold, the next thing that happens is that thousands of people have the same experience via the airwaves. Radio programmers are looking for things to play – things that will make them look like they’ve got their finger on the pulse. They’re not looking for things to ditch, so if you get them excited they will be your ally.

A dull, lifeless or stodgy mix meanwhile will have the opposite effect. People in charge of programming can be quickly turned off by the lack of clarity and detail in a mix before they’ve even really heard the song. I would argue that it takes programmers about 15 seconds to decide they like a song, and about 5 to decide it sounds bad. Based on this theory alone, your great song has just tripped on a hurdle before it’s even had a chance to prove itself. And now, sadly, it’s game over.

 

HIRING A PRO

When I mix a song for people – and at the risk of blowing my own trumpet here – they often say: “Andy, what did you do? It sounds amazing.”

My answer is always a deflecting statement like:

“Well, a lot of things really… where do I begin to explain my process?”

The point here is that most people – and I really must, without any sense of passing judgement on them, include most musicians in this – don’t really understand what it takes to make a great mix.

I’ve said it a thousand times, but I’ll say it again. Mixing is a complex art-form that takes years to master. It’s not something you can necessarily pull off just because you played on the recording, or because you’re sensitive to music, or indeed because you’re a great musician.

It is far beyond the scope of this rant to explain what mixing is, or what a good mix engineer does, but suffice it to say, it’s not something you should entrust to a friend or band mate if you hold high hopes for your newly recorded single. Just because you like cars or drive them well doesn’t mean you know how to build one…

 

WHO TO CHOOSE?

Let’s just for a moment assume you’ve decided to employ a professional to mix your next single. Once that in-principle decision is made, how do you choose the right person for the job?

Like any industry, the audio profession has its experienced masters and its charlatans. Picking the right person from an alphabetical list is thus fraught. If you go with Aardvark Audio you might just get one of the turkeys, and besides, lists aren’t something most good engineers I know ever sign up to anyway.

One of the best ways to find the right person is to ask around amongst friends and colleagues, to see if the same name crops up repeatedly. It might be someone these colleagues have had first-hand experience with, in which case it’s probably worth quizzing them about how easy that engineer was to communicate with, did he or she have their own studio, what were the costs, and did the mixes ultimately exceeded expectations? If you also discover, after some simple internet searching, that the individual in question has mixed some of your favourite records, then maybe the planets are aligning.

It’s very important that this person feels like they’re on your wavelength. If the first phone call to them makes you feel ill at ease, or if their personality seems to clash with yours, maybe you should look elsewhere. If, on the other hand, they seem affable and open-minded about the project then maybe they’re worth meeting face to face. A chat over coffee or lunch is often the best way to introduce a new personality to your musical venture – outside the studio walls preferably. If you like them, respect the work they’ve done, can afford them and your calendars sync, go for it.

If you think your song is great, give it every possible chance of succeeding by making sure the mix is awesome too.

There are thousands of great songs out there, don’t forget. Don’t let yours be one of the ones that fail to capture an audience because the mix is ho-hum. Life’s too short.