IT’S ALL ABOUT WORK ETHIC
Technical Articles/November 11, 2015
I’ve mastered several albums recently that had one thing in common: their mixes were unfinished.
In a recent article on this site (‘Big Picture Focus’) I described the common scenario of a mix being wrapped up before some of the key elements had been properly balanced in the track. This issue I want to highlight some of the pitfalls that can trick you into thinking you’re done when you’re not.
HOOKED ON A PHILOSOPHY
The first pit that so many engineers and musicians fall into is the one where someone involved gets ‘hooked on a philosophy’. Whether it’s the engineer or the musicians involved (or worse, an outside opinion), getting trapped in a misguided philosophy and using that to drive your thinking is nearly always fraught. I’ve heard thousands of them, and I’ve heard some doozies:
“We’re going for a ‘vintage’ sound; that’s why all the tracking was done with ribbon mics… that’s the ‘sound’ of old recordings…” Bollocks.
Or this: “We’re working fast because drawn out mixes always end up sounding too polished…” Crap.
“We’re going for a dull tone because ‘digital’ makes things sound too bright…” Utter garbage.
And the all-time classic: “We couldn’t fix all the technical problems we had during the recording, but we were told they could be fixed in the mix.” Um… well no, unfortunately not always.
RUSH TO JUDGEMENT
When an engineer tells you things like: “I never put 400Hz in my mixes because it always sounds crap” or “reverb is something people use to hide things that aren’t played well, that’s why I never use it” cancel the session and run for your life! There’s nothing worse than an engineer who’s so set in his or her ways that they’re happy to prejudge your music before they’ve even opened the session.
Musicians are guilty of this too of course. Engineers should be vigilant against musicians saying stuff like: “We don’t like top-end in our music… we want the ‘warmth’ of the songs to dominate the mixes,” or, “a mate of mine told us to watch out for the mixes getting too compressed… compression always tends to make things sound unnatural.”
These sorts of statements lack foundation, and it’s the job of the mix engineer to recognise them when they’re made. Steering clients away from naïve philosophies like these without being condescending or sarcastic is one of a mix engineer’s most important skills. Left unchecked, misinformed clap-trap can send you up the garden path faster than a weasel on a ball-bearing. Then, when you arrive at your destination, everyone is unhappy with the result.
Getting hooked on a philosophy hinders your ability to listen impartially and think rationally. In short, it’s naïve. The next time you catch yourself – or someone else – trying to convince you of their latest ‘thinking’, question it. Ask them: ‘Why are you thinking like that? How is that idea relevant to this scenario?’ They may be right of course, but if the philosophy is a house of cards, you’re best to knock it over early.
One of the key reasons why mixes are sometimes rushed or left unfinished is, of course, money. If there’s no budget for mixing, chances are you’ll be on the back foot right from the outset and the outcome will be sub-standard. (I’ve long ago lost count of the number of good Australian records I’ve heard ruined by poor mixing.) But there’s no guarantee things will work out even if there are funds available. Money doesn’t necessarily ensure good outcomes, but it does help… most of the time.
As a general rule, if you want a professional sound for your single, album, film soundtrack or live gig, expect to pay someone for it. If not, fine. No one’s forcing you. If you have a mate who reckons he or she can help out, go for it.
If, on the other hand, you are paying someone – whether that be in dollars, pésos or peanuts – don’t then delude yourself with statements like, “a quick mix is a good mix.” There is more delusional thinking constructed around budgetary constraints than anything else.
If money is tight, be honest about it. If you have to work fast or wrap things up because you’re out of money, accept it. Don’t conjure up a philosophical cover story to conceal the truth of the matter. By telling your musician friends things like: “Yeah, it sounds cool… mixing fast is the only way to go” – by lying to yourself and them – all you’re doing is spreading the disease. These friends will then take your lie into their next studio session (if they’re foolish enough), and turn your bullshit into a mix philosophy… and so on it goes.
Almost everyone I know who’s ever mixed a great record has the same story to tell about the process: that it involved a lot of hard work. From a personal standpoint, it’s what all my best mixing has been built around.
If you want mixes to sound great, don’t just surround yourself with a mountain of fancy gear and expect that it will all somehow magically conspire to make everything sound amazing. It won’t. Be prepared to work hard. Push yourself: listen and act. Don’t necessarily work for 24 hours straight, I’m not advocating that. But where time allows, keep pushing the envelope and improve the mix wherever you hear a problem. If you’re a slack-arse who can’t handle long hours of concentration: if you can’t bear taking five steps backwards occasionally to find a better path through a mix; or if you’re into wrapping things up quickly because you don’t know how to fix the problems a song possesses, you won’t produce great mixes.
The beauty of most modern digital mixing scenarios is that they’re recallable. While this capacity poses its own unique set of problems that we haven’t got time to discuss here, it does offer engineers and musicians the ability to work together on the same mix over an extended period of time without tying down the studio in between sessions.
There’s a fine line between working hard to make something sound great and obsessing over meaningless issues, of course, but that’s precisely where professional help comes in. Good engineers work hard to improve a mix, and are usually experienced enough to know the difference between a client’s insights and phobias. Knowing the difference is the real trick.