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The path to a great mix…

The question is often asked, what makes a great mix?  First and foremost, the subjective nature of this question makes it largely rhetorical.  Let’s take things back to the start: i.e. the basic act of listening to music.  Even as producers, audio engineers and musicians, can we honestly say that, when we are listening to our favourite albums or songs, that we are saying to ourselves “wow that was such a great mix?”  For example, when I am listening to “Off The Wall” by Michael Jackson, I’m essentially not admiring the mixing.  Yes, I may have a fleeting thought during a random section in one of the songs where I may think to myself “I really love the kick drum there” or “wow, that snare is just sublime” or “man, that groove is phenomenal”.  But it’s the song that wins out every time.  If we were just listening to “the mix” then we are not listening to anything.  I can guarantee you that during albums with supposed “great mixing” that you are still hitting the skip button at some point.  The crux of the matter here is that a great mix will not hold a listener’s attention as much as a great song.

Consequently, I can name countless albums and songs that have what may be considered to be totally abhorrent “mixes” or audio engineering practices undertaken throughout, yet somehow they still manage to feature as a favourite.  An inspiration, even.  A worldwide sensation, even.  These days, with decent quality recording equipment available at VERY affordable entry level prices, artists and musicians are able to bring their music to the world instantly.  With the absence of quality control, that means we have unprecedented numbers of figuratively sub-standard recordings flooding the marketplace.  The question remains, does this matter?

Ok, so now that we have the philosophy taken care of, let’s perhaps consider the technical aspect.  To use an analogy, let’s just say you decided to bake a cake (I know, very technical right?).  You have no recipe but you know how you want it to look and taste.  You want it to look like that fancy one you saw in the baker’s window and you want it to taste like that one you ate at the fancy restaurant last week.  So you start throwing together some ingredients, except without knowing what to do, you put salt instead of sugar, pepper instead of cinnamon, yoghurt instead of milk, cheese instead of eggs.  You put it in the oven, wait patiently for it to cook and then the moment of truth arrives.  You bring it out of the oven, don’t even bother to wait for it to cool and you dig right in.  It tastes weird.  Definitely not like that one at the restaurant…but hey, you sort of like it.  It’s your cake.  Heck, you might even make it again sometime.  Would you suggest the cake would have been different if you sought assistance from the owner at the bakery, or the chef from the restaurant? (or maybe even picked up a magazine on cake baking??).   Absolutely.  But it still won’t taste like yours did.  The chef might not have even been able to match your star recipe.  A great technical mix is sort of like cooking.  It starts with the recipe.  To make sense of the recipe, you also need to consider the right ingredients.  When we are in the studio (or at home) preparing to record a hit song, take some time to find the right ingredients.  That means, the right microphone, the right amplifier, the right effects, the right room and most importantly the right performance.  What’s right, you ask?  Well, there are some tried and true options, many of which you won’t need to search long to find a glowing endorsement.  What’s right though, is what’s right for you.  You will know when you find it.

In simpler terms, a great song is the ideal starting point for a great mix.  Get your song right.  Yes this means, working on the arrangement, shifting verses and lyrics around, trialling different sounds and textures.  Engaging the services of an experienced producer or engineer.  This can be invaluable and it just might help fast track you to your desired destination.  Once you have the song and the foundation, you can then start thinking about what it will take to bring it to life in reality.  If that means recording a snare drum through a stairwell via a drummer sitting on a rooftop, then you need to be doing that.  You will know it’s right when you hit that moment of “THAT’S IT!”  Once you arrive at that point, you are well on your way.  If you happen to enjoy the luxury of experimenting in a professional studio for inspiration, then that can spawn all sorts of inspiration.  Many a hit was realised during the art of tinkering and sometimes a particular sound can be the catalyst for the elusive.  Stay 100% committed to the initial vision you had for the song or project.  Don’t settle for something that sounds “close” or “about right”.  If it doesn’t give YOU goosebumps when you listen to it, how can you expect it to have that effect on anyone else?

Until next time,

Mike

the path to a great mix

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