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Going into a mix with a solid plan or at least a general direction is a great way to keep on task and prevent yourself from getting lost in the sea of minutia. Let's face it. Mixing can be a highly technical detail -oriented task, shaping the sounds of individual tracks, scrutinizing every note and sound. It's easy to lose sight of our core goal. Creating an interesting and compelling mix that compliments the song's message, ultimately serving the song in the vocal and delivering that idea to the listener effectively.
A great mix can take a great song to the next level, while a bad mix can heavily mask that genius and be a real turnoff for the listener. Here are a few things that I like to consider when I begin to mix. First off, what is going on in the arrangement, what's going on with the vocal? So, do I anticipate any problems with the tracks that I have in the current session? Was it recorded poorly? Are there editing problems? Is something out of tune or out of time? I am thinking about things that are outside the realm of mixing that I might need to correct before I move into the mixing and mastering stage.
So, if I produced or arranged the song, it's likely that the mix has already taken a direction during the production stage. So, I generally just think about extending this. Now, if I didn't produce this song, what I'll do is I'll discuss with the producer, or the song writer, the direction that he or she thinks the tune is moving at and get some ideas about how they envision the song and maybe ask them for some reference material that they see the song sounding like. At that point, I'll start getting sort of emotionally invested in the song, I'll sort of pump myself up about this song, and generally when you are working on your own music, you hopefully already pumped up about your song, but a lot of times, if you are mixing someone else's music, it's really important to kind of get really juiced-in and into what you are doing and this can be hard for some people, especially if it's a genre that they don't like.
So, what you can either do is don't work in genres you don't like or learn how to sort of get yourself out of personal listening mode and into sort of engineered mixing mode where you can really engage in whatever material you are working on. Now, the next thing I usually like to do when approaching a mix before I even push a fader is kind of make sure that I understand the genre or the listener group for the style of music that I'm going to be working with. So, is anything typical in this genre, as far as, mixing goes, or the vocal is generally really hot, really compressed, maybe they set low in the mix.
At this point, I'll bring in some reference material to my session and kind of listen to that and try to listen to as much music in that genre as possible. Again generally, people that are making their own music are already very familiar with their own specific genre, but if you are working on someone else's music, it's important to kind of connect with the producer on the specific aesthetic goal that they are going for. At this point, I also consider who is going to be listening to it. So, if it's a MySpace kind of thing or if it's a thing for audio files, that's going to mean two different approaches to sort of monitoring and kind of adjusting the mix for those two environments.
So, MySpace thing might be sort of heavily data compressed, and I might need to pay more attention to how it encodes into MP3, whereas an audio file project, I want to sort of listen really critically on some great sounding speakers and not worry so much about how it sounds on ear buds, for example. Next thing I'm going to do is I'm going to listen to all the tracks in this session as they sit. So, possibly from a rough mix that came from the production stage, possibly not and at this stage, I'm going to kind of listen for an overall direction that I want to take the mix.
I like to, at this point, pick sort of what I like to call a stylistic adjective. So, then I want to kind of be a shiny mix, maybe a dark or a deep mix, maybe it's going to be intimate or huge or very small. I try to imagine the finished mix in my head and then later on I'm going to use these sort of adjectives sort of as an overall guide when making more focused decisions, and when I'm EQing something, I'll ask myself is this going towards the overall result of making the mix big or making the mix intimate or dark, and then I'll think about what elements will be the focus of the mix, right? What elements are active foreground elements and what are going to be background elements that are going to fill around those foreground elements? Now generally, the vocal of the lead instrument is going to be that foreground element and that's where the track is going to put most of its focus and I want to make sure that I compliment these main elements effectively with secondary elements.
What I'm going to do is continuously ask myself during every decision, is this decision getting me closer to my goal, mixing is only half technique and the other half is going to be sort of aesthetic and artistic direction. You can't ignore that, right? It's sort of strategy and tactics. You can have tons of tricks, but if you have no strategy to glue them together, they are really useless in the end. I like to write down notes, as I'm mixing, to make sure I keep on task and so I don't get lost in again that sea of minutia, thinking about a sound of a snare drum for two hours, when really the listener is not going to pay attention to that too much.
I once heard an engineer-- I don't remember his name. This was in a magazine article. He referred to a mix as sort of like a movie treatment and you being the director. So, as a director for a movie, you get a script and you think about, well is this going to be a really high energy, lots of special effects, lots of tricks and everything like that kind of movie, or it's going to be pretty straightforward and let the story and the characters kind of guide all of our aesthetic decisions. And you can do the same thing when you are mixing. Let the song kind of guide you towards where you think the mix should go.
When you are mixing, I generally suggest that you move through, at a moderate not a fast pace, but not too slow. I find that even with experienced mixers, it's easy to get overly infatuated with one element in the mix and really you just need to keep your eye on the bigger picture. Now, if you don't have any idea of where to start your mix and sometimes, I don't have an idea of where the mix is going or where this song needs to go as far as the mix is concerned and what I'll start doing is I'll just start pushing things around, organizing the session, moving tracks, routing my sub-mixes and effect sends and it's getting my brain sort of into this mixing workflow mindset and ideas usually start flowing at that point.
So, don't be upset if you don't know where to start, just start organizing that session, and ideas will come to you. And at that point, I'm usually going to try to emulate a reference track. A lot of times, I'll identify the key sounds that make a great mix happen and I'll work towards those. Now, you might not know how to get those sounds from your favorite mixes, but the first step is having a goal of what sound you actually want to work towards. Above all, you definitely want to have fun and be creative.
Remember, there is no right way. There is no best mix. So, try every idea. You never know what might work. Just remember that the mix is not the end-all and be-all of the song. And while it can heavily influence a listener's perception, sometimes keeping it simple and clean is the best solution, really just allowing the song to speak for itself.
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