Technical Articles/November 11, 2015
Ever tried listening to the same song 100 times over? Of course you have… every mix engineer does it in the natural flow of work.
But what about 1000 times… or even 5000? What happens to your focus and interest in the song then? Or how about working on it for six months… or even a year? Time to get the gun out then I reckon… or look for another job.
Whether you’re a professional getting paid to mix, or an enthusiast looking for benefits other than money – credit on a record, backstage access, experience, friends, whatever – you will eventually come up against mixing fatigue. When you do – and you certainly will – be prepared for your approach to fall apart like Tiger Woods’ golf swing. Think you’re immune? Think again.
Mixing fatigue takes all forms – from ‘compliance’ (where you find yourself doing anything to a mix that your client demands, just to get them out the door); ‘disinterest’ (where the whole process suddenly becomes more soporific than filing a tax return, and anything you do to the song seems pointless and stupid); through to ‘avoidance’ (where calls from the client for yet another session on ‘that song’ go unanswered and the mix eventually stalls). But the most common form of mixing fatigue is ‘frustration’: where you get angry at the client for not paying you enough, not understanding the limitations of their project, not knowing what’s best for the song… sometimes even the way they smell!
And that’s just a handful of symptoms. No-one wants this lurgy anywhere near them when they mix, and yet every time we overwork something we all run the risk of catching it. Here are some general preventative measures… the best medicine, they say.
A PLAN OF ATTACK
There’s no point starting a mixing project without some sort of discussion or agreed terms. I know this may sometimes feel a little inappropriate, inartistic or even ‘uncool’, but trust me: clarity at the beginning of a project is crucial to friendly and balanced interactions in the studio.
Nothing festers faster than concealed agendas or unspoken frustrations, so do yourself a favour right at the outset and get things out in the open, or better still, on paper. Keep things open and honest throughout proceedings and the project will always be better for it.
The most obvious thing to avoid once you’re up and running is working on something for too long! And by that I don’t simply mean mixing a song on a computer for eight hours and then shutting down the file to work on something else.
Mixing fatigue isn’t just about learning how to avoid working on a song for too many hours in a given day, nor should it be confused with listening fatigue… that’s something else. Mixing fatigue covers the entire elapsed time you devote to any particular piece of audio, whether it’s a song, an album, a film or whatever. The time it takes can be spread over a day or a decade; it’s up to you. Either way, mixing fatigue is cumulative. So be warned: time is of the essence and right now is the time to nail it.
As a general rule, any time spent in front of a piece of music should include some sort of productive work. Don’t just have it playing over and over in the background while you have dinner or play table tennis. When you’re hearing it, it should count… otherwise turn it off.
There’s no point rushing things either – I’m not advocating that – but neither should mix sessions (professional or otherwise) dawdle along at a snail’s pace as if time is somehow irrelevant to the outcome. It’s always relevant, irrespective of the budget. Enjoy your work and have fun by all means, but if days go by there should be something to show for it.
DON’T BECOME ISOLATIONIST
Sometimes mixing without the client is unavoidable, and in some circumstances, like TV music mixing for example, it’s commonplace.
For the most part, however, mixing without a client is an accident waiting to happen. I know it may seem preferable in some circumstances to ditch the client and just get on with it – particularly when things aren’t going so well. But often this instinct is, in truth, a defensive manoeuvre, designed (sometimes unconsciously) to get people away from you so you can flounder in private.
Moreover, it’s a huge time sink. When you catch yourself doing this, toughen up and work through it. Sure, there are those clients that like to fire questions at you with tennis-ball-launcher monotony – “Hey Andy, sorry to interrupt… just another quick question if I may…” – but generally speaking, having the client in a session is often your greatest asset and a means to quick outcomes, provided you know how to interact with them and ask the right questions. It’s their music after all, don’t forget.
The slowest route to final mix masters typically goes something like this: the client is kept away from proceedings until the mix engineer is happy with the mix… the client hears the mix 12 hours later for the first time and doesn’t like some aspects of it, and from this juncture the engineer spends the next 48 hours trying to defend the aural high ground by resisting any notion that the client may, in fact, be right about something.
This is no way to mix. Inflexible and/or stubborn mix engineers are the worst kind. If you’re one of these, consider a job in the military.
STAY FLEXIBLE, STAY TUNED
A bit like ageing, flexibility and focus are in finite supply when you mix a song, so make the most of them while they’re still at your disposal. As you get more experienced, you’ll develop better stamina anyway, but even the most experienced engineers find it difficult to mix something that’s completely open-ended. Actually, that’s arguably a professional engineer’s greatest skill: having the capacity to handle themselves and their clients over the long haul of a marathon mix.
Flexibility is the key here too; there’s no point getting 80% of the way through a mix only to stiffen up at the last hurdle in reaction to suggestions from others about valid mix changes. Leave your precious ego at the door and never let these suggestions be misconstrued as a personal attack. Life’s too short.
One other crucial point to reflect on here is that, for various reasons, it’s often far easier for the mix engineer to arrive at a musical outcome than it is for the client. Put yourself in their shoes as often as you can and try to understand what it is they’re striving for. And particularly for those clients whose project has been percolating for years – sometimes even decades – they can often scarcely imagine their world ‘post-album’, so the idea of actually finishing it can be a psychological barrier in itself. Bear this in mind…
EDITING & SOFTWARE MANAGEMENT
It almost goes without saying that technical skill and imagination are crucial to great mixes. Editing skills – being able to recognise what’s right and wrong with performances, musical arrangements, song structures etc – are vital to your ability to land a project before mixing fatigue sets in. Recognising what modifications need to be made swiftly can save you huge amounts of time down the track. Imagining a mix is a skill all its own; reimagining the same mix 10 times over is the hardest part.
No sane person can realistically expect to remain interested in a project indefinitely, and once you push this boundary you’re in dangerous territory.
Get fit for the long haul, sure, but never think you’re immune.