Mixing, what, why, and how?
Updated: Nov 18, 2019
Before getting to mixing, lots of music begin as a live performance, in-studio, or in front of a live audience. An important aspect of watching a live concert is seeing artists performing their musical intentions, and we pick up a lot of information from their facial and body expression, which is also amplified by the use of creative lighting, visual effects and powerful sound systems. A music recording lacks the human presence, visuals, performance, and wattage (in most consumer cases), so it needs to be refined in some other way to simulate the human expression and to be more engaging for the listener.
As a musician myself I get to play and communicate with different audiences. The interaction is really important and is part of shaping the vibe of the performance, which makes the event more dense and lively. Something very unique happens which resembles a grand scale 2-way conversation. We the musicians put out our musical intentions which get absorbed by the crowd, then in return, the audience projects their reaction, which we pick up.
When I later watch a video recording of the concert, I usually enjoy it, but I’m watching a past real-life experience through what feels like a closed window. It's still a good experience, but I am no longer engaging in any interaction either as a performer, or an audience member so I have less attachment to it. An audio recording of the concert has a similar effect to a video, although it is as if I am now blinded and can no longer see the performance. If the recording happens to be poor in quality, the translation of the performance isn’t clear, and I’m unable to hear precisely what was happening. As we capture and re-experience a live musical event, we are left with a diluted substance of what really took place.
What is a mix for me?
I like to think about a recorded piece of music as a sculpture carved out of a painting, which is in constant motion. The content is created by sounds but involves images, colors, textures, depth, space and time. It can be perceived in 3-dimensional space, where elements exist and move around through a given landscape. It involves different layers, with interplay play between proximity and depth of field, displayed like an invisible art exposition. A well-mixed song or piece of music can trigger an almost overwhelming experience, and to describe this phenomenon, I like to use the term ‘’Immersive”
Mixing music could be compared to developing a photo film in a black room. It needs to be done well with precision and skill for the content to become clear, exposable and enjoyable, but for a great picture, the content itself needs to be enjoyable, the capture of the content needs to be interesting as well as the development of it. A major part of the process can be guided by the developer’s creativity.
A certain piece of music might get my attention because something about it is attractive to me. It opens a door and allows me to step into different environments where my feelings, thoughts, and emotions are affected in a way that is beneficial to me.
Since great music recordings can provoke such a large and diverse experience and has the potential to be extremely immersive, my aim as a mixer is to improve the level of immersion we can get from a piece of recorded music. I try my best to facilitate and improve the listeners experience of what the artist is expressing and performing. To me, a recording is like a capsule containing a designer experience, which someone can consume and re-live at any given time, in their own way and through their own lens.
Another way of looking at it would be to compare mixed music to a drug like ecstasy. Say I get base ingredients to make the ecstasy from a provider, and if I just put them together I might get a mild consumable substance. My job would be to improve the recipe’s potency, so I will adjust, modify and rebalance the recipe to get a more powerful experience out of smaller quantities of the substance. I want you to get the most out of the product, as fast as possible on a small dosage, and have the greatest experiences possible. I want you to listen to the tune I mixed and be transported from second 1.
To mix I basically need to be able to manipulate non-visible shapes and objects. If I were blind and would attempt to improve a sculpture, I would need to map it out first, and I would probably do so in part with my hands. I use a similar mapping approach for mixing, although I map out the sound with an entanglement of my sense of sight and hearing (as opposed to touch). I imagine/see a painting/sculpture-like 3D image, that pops out of a canvas-like, three-dimensional textured plane, which is in simultaneous motion with the music
What mixing is about
The “act” of mixing for me is first and foremost about improving my ability to get immersed in a state of deep listening, which is a practice that also improves my ability to experience music at a clearer level. I need to sit down comfortably in a quiet environment, let my focus direct itself away from my thoughts and towards the sound emitted from the monitoring system, and then visual effects start to appear. It intensifies as I reach more heightened states of focus. I need to adjust my focus to get aligned, like finding the sweet spot with an old tv’s antennas, trying to reduce the amount of interference or “distraction” to the signal. The main benefit of practicing mixing is the improvement of the state itself, and as a result, or I could even consider it to be a positive side effect, the sound quality of the music improves as I manipulate it through this state.
To start work I often do so by listening to other music/mix references I really enjoy, mostly to get ideas, but also to start mapping out the space I have access to for the music references. I once had a mixing studio that was located beside a busy street, and had to readapt my schedule to begin work later at night. By doing so I became more immersed in my work, and as a result, the noise “fog” faded away and everything became clearer. The effect was similar to putting on my glasses and looking at a distant view. I need to see clearly in order to manipulate small details.
Once I’ve opened a new mix session I’ll let my attention wander broadly through the stockpile of sounds. After having been immersed in landscapes of great mixes and productions for about 15 to 30 minutes, I am almost instantly destabilized by the contrast in the sound quality of my raw tracking session, or rough mix. My instinctive reaction is to clean as much as I can as fast as possible, by placing all the content in what seems to be a better aesthetic arrangement for unpacking and enhancing. If I listen carefully to my intuition, an instrument will simply feel and sound better in one specific area, but I will need to move it around for a bit to sense where it sits best. I could compare this experience to placing furniture after having moved into a new home. Some items fit naturally and practically in specific areas, like a couch or stove, which its placement is mostly determined by its role and functionality, and other smaller items may be placed in different various creative ways like decorative items.
To accomplish my goals I use recording and mixing tools and techniques, which are ineffective unless I can clearly perceive what I have in front of me. In other words, the more precisely I can examine and be aware of this multi-sensorial event, the more naturally and seamlessly I chose my tools and techniques to make something creative with the use of them, and as a result, make the mix more interesting to the listener.
Recording and mixing music implies that I make decisions that will affect how the music will translate from the artists’ feeling, perspective and life experience, to the listener, and I try to enhance the recording of the performance to the degree that I myself get transported to the expressed experience as seamlessly as possible.
I trust my basic intuition when it comes to creative decisions (and communicate them with the artist to confirm the artistic direction), because I think in general people have vast amounts of common tastes and interests, so I try to develop the sound of music the way I think it should feel, and if I do it up to my ever increasing standards, lots of people seem to enjoy the mix. The key to improve the sound of any music I am mixing is to push and improve my own listening standards, and I do that by constantly listening to and researching what other mixers are doing. Listening to other mixes help me hear and imagine lots of new sounds and shapes I wouldn’t have thought of. I also believe that processing material using my taste and opinion will inevitably leave stylistic marks from the processor itself, which ends up creating a mixing style.
This might explain why certain mixers like Chad Blake, Chris Lorde Aldge and Alex Myerson are really sought out. The music is processed through their minds for maybe an average of 8 to 12 hours (more or less per piece) and comes out different, tailored to what they imagine sounds good. Artists pay substantial amounts of money to get their music recorded and mixed by great audio engineers because of how the engineer hears music and how they will particularly develop the sound of it. Artists can also greatly benefit from choosing an engineer that mixes in a style that will match their music, and they can experiment with different mixers to hear their music through different lenses.
Craftsman, not engineer
I consider the term audio ‘’Engineer’’ to be inaccurate, at least inaccurate for what I do. I consider myself to be more of a craftsman then “engineer” or even “technician” , a term I also consider to be inaccurate to describe my work. What I do is less scientific then it is craft-like and artistic. I’ve had to learn basic principles and scientific notions to understand what sound is, and how it physically interacts in different contexts and environments. My knowledge is very basic but is a part of the underlying foundation which I utilize for executing creative mixing ideas.