By Allen Farmelo
TIP #1 — STOP READING TIPS & TRICKS LISTS
Look, nothing works every time. No EQ curve, no compression setting, no parallel processing trick, no reverb setting will work to accomplish the same thing twice. Every audio track is different; every production is different. From recording levels to performance dynamics to the unique frequencies captured on each specific track, audio is a true moving target. But we are not aiming just at a moving target when we mix; we are aiming at 10 moving targets with a quiver of crooked arrows while standing on a rotating platform mounted in the back of a pickup truck racing down a bumpy dirt road. Now shoot!
TIP #2 — NO, SERIOUSLY, IGNORE TIPS & TRICKS LISTS
Only you and your creative collaborators can know the aesthetic goals of a recording project, while the author of a Tips and Tricks piece has no idea what those goals are. Your job as a mixer is to come up with creative ways to achieve the project’s specific and unique aesthetic goals, not to reach toward some generic sound or (oh how I hate this term) “best practice.” Your project’s goals are specific and unique, therefore your approach to mixing should be, too.
TIP #3 — FOR REAL NOW, IGNORE THE DAMN TIPS & TRICKS
Think about this: any Tip and Trick is just as likely to screw up your mix as it is to help it. These damn lists—seemingly everywhere these days—are full of ideas that might mess you up entirely. These lists say: “When you have X do Y.” But your X isn’t some absolute X, and who the heck knows how your X is going to respond to Y anyways? And does X+Y = Your Sound? Who the hell knows? In all seriousness, any Tip or Trick is probably more likely not to work as it is to work in any specific mixing scenario.
TIP #4 — YOU ACTUALLY STILL WANT MIXING TIPS & TRICKS?
Ok, fine. Go be homogenous. Try to be a clone. Go use the damn techniques that some person posted on the internet. Go copy the way so-n-so the Grammy Award Winning Mixer du Jour did such-n-such on so-n-so’s record. Great, now you’re chasing down someone else’s sound rather than contributing something original and finding your own aesthetic.
TIP #5 — DON’T BE A SCHMO
I mean, seriously. Did Geoff Emerick or George Martin or Brian Wilson or Sam Philips or Phil Spector or Bob Power or whoever you consider to be the greatest visionaries of recordmaking go follow some Tips & Tricks list? Hell no. They innovated. They took risks. They got way out in front of the standard practices and did something no one had thought of before. They pushed equipment to new places. They broke the rules. The world needs your unique, original voice. It doesn’t need imitators. Don’t be a schmo.
TIP #6 — EFF’ PRESETS
It should be relatively clear at this point that using plugin presets (of which there seem to be an endless supply) is as likely to work for you as getting Black 19 on a roulette wheel. I call this “Preset Roulette.” The odds are stacked against you. This doesn’t mean that a present won’t work for you, but the chances are exceptionally slim. Also, again, don’t be an unoriginal schmo.
TIP #7 — SNEAKERS CAN’T IMPROVE YOUR FREE-THROW
With all due respect to my colleagues, one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen is presets for the LA-2A compressor plugin. This plugin has two knobs: gain reduction and make up gain—hardly an artist’s palette. Turning these knobs requires no creativity. On top of that, the behavior of any compressor is completely dependent on the specific audio signal coming into it, so any preset is kind of a joke. So why are these presets there? This is nothing other than the age-old marketing strategy of affiliating the product with well-known professionals. You might as well buy some pro basketball player’s Nikes and see if your free-throw improves. Have fun with that.
TIP #8 — FORGET TIPs #6 & #7
I told you not to listen to Tips and Tricks lists, didn’t I? Presets are kind of interesting if you use them as starting points. And on more elaborate tools with deep settings (like some reverbs) they can be great for seeing a set of possibilities. One of my favorite reverbs ever is Lee Quintana’s “Warm and Smooth” preset for the Roland R-880. I don’t think I’d ever have come up with that sound, which uses two matched reverb algorithms, has highly specific and unique early reflections and modulates the reverb tails of one of the two algorithms in a gorgeous and subtle way. But, alas, it doesn’t work every time. So I have about 30 modified versions of it stored with my name on them. “AF Warm & Smooth 23” is pretty nice. But don’t be a schmo and use “AF Warm & Smooth 23.”
TIP #9 — KNOW THE AESTHETIC GOALS
What? You can’t articulate the project’s aesthetic goals and your’e already mixing? You didn’t talk about this with your co-creators? Your just working from the seat of your pants? They played you Led Zeppelin II and said they love it? You’re turning knobs until people smile? Everyone’s talking about what they like and don’t like in real time as you work? OMG, you’re so ‘effed.
TIP #10 — FIGURE OUT WHO’S THE AESTHETIC BOSS
This might sound strange, but figuring out who the boss of a project is can be one of the best mixing tricks you’ll ever use. Suss it out. Be overt and explicit about wanting to know who the aesthetic boss is. You need to know who holds the aesthetic vision and who is making the final calls. Most projects have some dictator, whether you know it or not. That dictator is ultimately the one in charge. Sometimes it’s total anarchy on purpose, sometimes it’s a democracy (ugh, see TIP #11 below), and sometimes it’s a totalitarian dictatorship, but somewhere among these possibilities there is an answer as to who is in charge. Maybe you’re the boss, which would be good to know. If you don’t know who the boss is, find out and work within that reality. You’ll have a much easier time aligning your efforts to the boss’s aesthetic than you will groping in the dark (See TIP #9).
TIP #11 — DEMOCRACY USUALLY SOUNDS BAD
When a creative team becomes a democracy with the goal of pleasing everyone, you often end up with an incoherent aesthetic vision. When this happens, you’re likely going to compromise the mix for what are, ultimately, interpersonal reasons. The sonic results are often not great. Two options to cure democratic mixing: get everyone on the same page around a unified and robust sonic aesthetic; or form a coup, install a powerful aesthetic dictator and let other team members deal with some hurt feelings. Either way, assure that a strong aesthetic is guiding the work, not fragile egos.
TIP #12 — IN EUROPE THEY SAY “BALANCE ENGINEER”
‘Mixing’ is kind of the wrong word, because everything is already mixed together. You’re job is actually balancing the levels of the various elements in one way or another. Not just individual audio tracks and effects, but also frequencies across the entire mix (more on that below). If you think of yourself as a “balance engineer” you might approach mixing with a more realistic sense of what the job actually entails.
TIP #13 — AN EVEN BALANCE ISN’T A GOOD MIX
See, I told you no tips and trips can work. Balance doesn’t mean that things are even. And in terms of what’s going to work in a mix, there is absolutely no rule whatsoever as to what is going to work for that particular set of tracks and for the specific aesthetic goals of your mix. Some early Motown records, for example, have so much tambourine that it can drown out the drums, and yet those are the mixes that got people dancing in the streets. So, sometimes things being out of balance is a great balance. Get it? But, then again, sometimes a perfectly even balance is really the best balance. Also: ignore Tips and Tricks.
TIP #14 — THINK OF THE FREQUENCY SPECTRUM
It appears to be often true that mixes with representation across the whole frequency spectrum tend to sound big and full and exciting. When mixing (or balancing), be mindful of getting representation across the entire usable audible frequency spectrum. Of course, because all productions are different, there is no one tip or trick for how to do this. It involves balancing the levels of the different elements and also managing frequencies via EQ (e.g., subtractive EQ can help to reduce frequencies that are bunched up in a certain octave). Thinking in terms of balancing the frequency spectrum while mixing is one of the few actual tips I’ll throw at you—though I have no Tips or Tricks to tell you how to actually balance the frequencies. That’s your job.
TIP #15 — A GOOD ARRANGEMENT = A GOOD MIX
Just as a mix that covers the entire frequency spectrum tends to sound full and exciting (see TIP #14), so does an arrangement that fills out all the octaves. Thus, when you’ve got a great sounding arrangement, you often don’t have to do all that much as a mixer, while, conversely, we tend to struggle with arrangements that have elements bunched up in certain octaves. Pay attention to the arrangement, and even seek out changes to it while mixing (hint: the mute button is pretty powerful).
TIP #16 — FORGET TIPS #14 AND #15
All of this about frequency spectrum and arrangement is useless as a general rule, because just as often the exception is the better sounding record. And, it’s all so genre specific. Black Metal relies on thick, densely built up low-mids, while Hip-Hop thrives on loud sub-sonic bass and ultra-crispy, brisk high end. Some of the best recordings in history have completely defied TIPs #14 and #15. A couple examples: almost everything by The Rolling Stones before 1970, any acoustic guitar and vocal track, the entire lo-fi movement, solo harp music. I’m sorry—I tried, but tips and tricks just don’t work.
TIP #17 — WHERE’S THE GROOVE?
Remember what I said about the Motown tambourine in TIP #13? An even balance isn’t a good mix. Ok, so if you’ve got groove-based music on your hands, try to find a balance that brings that groove to life, and don’t be afraid of off-kilter levels. Groove always trumps balance. If the groove is happening, your mix is happening. If the music isn’t groove based, well….yeah, tips and tricks never work all the time.
TIP #18 — LEARN HOW COMPRESSORS ACTUALLY WORK
One of the biggest mistakes people make these days when mixing is throwing compressors on stuff and not really knowing anything about how they work. There are many types of compressors and they all behave quite differently. If you don’t know about all the different types of circuits (yes, how the actual detector and control circuits are laid out and how they work), then you’re probably going to open a plug-in list—or start patching in hardware—with about as much luck as playing Preset Roulette. Hint: it’s a relatively deep topic.
TIP #19 — USE LESS STUFF
A single affordable DAW on a laptop provides more gear (ok, virtual gear) than you’d find in 25 large studios combined. Sounds like a great thing, but it’s actually a huge problem because people tend to use way too much stuff when they’re mixing. Over and over I see mixes with tons of compressors, multiple reverbs, maybe ten different echoes. The results? Rarely any good. When I see a professional’s mix, it’s often incredibly elegant and stripped down. Do less, use less, and, in fact, try to use nothing at all for a while and see if you can’t just build a great sounding mix with no processing. That’s a great place to start.
TIP #20 — USE YOUR INSTINCTS, YOUR GUT, YOUR INTUITION
No elaboration needed.
TIP #21 — DEVELOP YOUR INSTINCTS, YOUR GUT, YOUR INTUITION
Ok, but how? By mixing a lot. I mean a LOT. As in all the time, constantly, without pause for years and years. There simply is no substitute for experience. Stop tooling around on the internet reading Tips and Trick lists and get back to mixing. Are you mixing now? No? Then you’re not developing your mixing instincts. (You could stop reading this now. It’s not a bad idea.)
TIP #21 — GET A LIVE SOUND GIG FOR A FEW YEARS
Probably not what most aspiring studio mixers want to hear, but if you want to develop your instincts as a mixer, there’s probably no better way to do that than to go mix bands in real-time night after night for years. You might make a few bucks, and you’ll meet a bunch of musicians every night, and before long you’ll have developed a real and unavoidable knack for how to get a mix to happen. And if you treat that job with genuine concern and care, you’ll not only be training yourself wonderfully, you’ll be helping to undo the horrible trend of live sound engineers who mostly just play with their phones during the show.
TIP #22 — NO ONE KNOWS WHAT THEY’RE DOING
Seriously. I mean, OK, some folks know stuff, of course, but even the best—in fact it’s probably why they’re the best—suffer from imposter syndrome. That’s when you feel inadequate, like you’re faking it, like you’re making it all up and aren’t an expert. Truth is that making it up is the mixer’s job description! There just aren’t any rules to follow. Almost nothing works twice. Every set of tracks is a new challenge. Suffering imposter syndrome is a sign that you’re approaching your work with a fresh mind, and that’s a required skill. Now get out that crooked arrow and start shooting.
TIP #23 — STOP READING THIS TIPS & TRICKS LIST
Go be yourself. Make up your own thing. Take huge risks. Talk about aesthetics during dinner. Trust me: the shrinking, digitized, increasingly homogenized world needs your original approach (to everything) more than ever. Disobey the rules. Create new rules. Throw those rules out and start again. And whatever you do, stop reading Tips and Trick lists.