March 3, 2016
As both an art and a craft, mixing can take a lot out of you and leave you both mentally and physically drained. It can be daunting staring at the raw tracks waiting to be shaped, slogging your way through long hours with only coffee and fast food as fuel, and losing track of exactly where or when the end is.
On top of that, when you reach the point of needing to wrap things up, it almost always perfectly coincides with the moment you’ve lost all perspective. When you can no longer hear subtle differences, and really need another set of ears, you’re more likely to make some tough choices in the wrong direction and potentially spoil the hard work you’ve put in.
Fortunately, there are some ways to push through the pain. By maintaining perspective, working methodically, being smart about breaks, and keeping things moving forward you’ll be able to get to the end with something you can feel proud of, and with your sanity—and hearing—intact!
Be sure to take frequent breaks, since ears get tired from overuse. Take a 10-minute break every hour or follow the 90/20 rule: a 20 minute break every 90 minutes. Sometimes it’s important to spend as much time not listening to the mix as listening. This way, your ears will be refreshed when you start working again.
A mix is a series of logic puzzles, so approach is methodically. In many cases, one action will affect something else in your mix. Listen to subtle changes carefully to understand how they influence other tracks. Try to be shift back and forth between objective mixing and creative mixing, using both sides of your brain in solving the puzzles of the mix.
The solo button is your enemy. When listening to a track soloed, you don’t get the impression of how it sits in the mix. It’s fine to solo an instrument to see if there’s a trouble spot in the performance or in how you’ve processed it, but you should then quickly take it out of solo and listen in the context of the full mix. A better option is to bring the fader for that particular track up in your mix to hear if there are any issues. It doesn’t give a perfect sense of context, but it’s better than tweaking while just hearing the track by itself.
Listen to your mix on different speakers and in different environments, particularly the environments where you normally listen to music. If you have any questions about how a certain instrument may be sitting in the mix, you’ll have better information if you know your speakers aren’t tricking you. Also, your client is likely to perform the ‘car test,’ or ‘ear-bud test,’ listening to the mix in as many environments as possible. All of those real-world listenings spots are far removed from a treated, acoustically perfect mix room.
Have a set of songs to reference that you are familiar with. Create a playlist of tracks that you know intimately. Listen to how the vocals sit in the mix, how the reverbs and delays sound in context to the instruments, where the drums are in relation to the bass and guitars, how tight or how loose the low end is, and so on. Comparing your mix to familiar material can give you a point of reference for everything that you’re doing. Asking the client to suggest references mixes that they admire can also help.
Turn off the computer screen and just listen to the mix, at some point or multiple points during your mix session. You’ll be surprised what you can hear when you remove the visual component from your work. Music is made to be heard, not viewed, so really give it chance to get in your ears.
When you finish your mix, put it away for the night and listen again when you first get to the studio the next day. This will offer the freshest perspective you can possibly have and will give you a psychological and physical rest before sending the mix off to the client.
If you can make it through the process with these tips in mind, you’ll come out the other side excited about your work, rather than feeling beaten down by it. When you feel good about what you’re accomplishing, you’ll be able to learn and grow from the experience, and then each time things get even just a little bit better.
Plus, you’ll feel all that much more confident when you share that Dropbox folder of your mixes with the rest of the band or your client.
So, treat yourself right, respect the craft, and your work will soar.