In The Mix is a new small series from JZ aimed at helping you engineers at home, in the studio, and (hopefully soon) on the road, to focus your goals and achieve the best sound possible in recording, mixing, and finally, mastering.
This month, I recorded a new song for my band, Damaged, called ‘Avise la Fin’ which inspired this first entrance to In the Mix. Avise La Fin is the family motto of my good friend Dan, and also Latin for ‘Consider the End’.
The song we recorded turned out to be one of the better quality tracks of my career I personally think, and this is because of the moto; considering the bigger picture and the end of the mix and the track ultimately is hugely important to any one of the stages you’re specialized in.
So let's dive in and observe this in more detail - hopefully it’ll help you as much as it did me!
What Is the End To You?
The end of a track and knowing when it’s done is one of the hardest things to learn for yourself. Ultimately no one can tell you when something is finished - I myself can be extremely cynical of the tracks I create for my own projects, however much less so on those I create for others.
I think this is usually because of one main difference: On my own tracks there is no deadline - I always listen back for years after thinking ‘Oh, I could’ve added that in if I had been recording it now!’. Whereas, with clients, there is usually some sort of deadline set, and I have a focused goal of when the track needs to be returned.
For a long time, I didn't enjoy the music I was creating because of this view, and without setting myself a deadline it was hard to overcome it for other artists' work as well as I would keep working on the mix once they had been sent back thinking ‘maybe I’ve missed something?’ - My simple, but effective route around this was to set limits in place, for me and the artist. I now work to a deadline (the end for me), and the artist has 2 revisions of the mix I sent originally.
This takes the power from out of my hands, somewhat, as I let the artist have the struggle of knowing when enough is enough, and it becomes my job to tell them when that point is.
Simply put, I turn the perspective of the mix on its head. Try this if you’re not already, as it holds several benefits like the ones above, but it also shows the artist, or your band as well if it’s for yourself, that you are receptive to ideas, and when you need to say ‘enough is enough’, you show yourself as a good leader as well.
The Ultimate Goal
Before recording anything, it’s important to have a goal in mind to know you’ve achieved the end result you wanted (or better if you can!). A song, for me, is a way of connecting to people - for others it's a way of having fun, or similar, and that's totally fine too; but set yourself goals to achieve during this process.
The songs I find the most emotional attachment to are those that almost tell a story with their composition. Think about the mood of the song, the structure, tension and release, and ultimately having a climactic point of the song that it all builds towards. This can be a drop in the beat for hip hop, trap, or similar, or it can be a massive epic ending for a rock or metal track - either way make sure you have a clear idea in your head of why you’re writing it in the first place, don’t lose sight of it, and keep focused on the big picture as it’s easy to get lost in the mix!
Adding Elements - For them, or for you?
Boiling down to the end result can know when what you’ve added to the mix, be it EQ, compression, or FX, is enough to have achieved the sonic picture you had in your head or the artist had in their head before this process started.
Sometimes, it’s easy to get lost in an EQ and listening too intently to cymbals and the nuances of them, or obsessing over a delay or reverb that you want to sit in the mix but be heard at the same time - I’ve spent day automating no more than -1db across a vocal track because I thought it needed it!
And then it hit me; most people that listen to this aren’t going to realize these things I’m obsessing over.
So I became bold in my choices, If I was adding something it had a purpose and I wanted it to be heard, or its purpose was to help the other elements of the mix sit well together. I can’t tell you how much this realization helped me streamline my work, but it also stopped me wishing and wanting for changes after the mix was done and the song was returned because all of my choices were for a reason, and not extra sparkle that only I would notice - which, when someone else doesn’t notice, can be quite disheartening as well, so it saves some minor heartbreak too!
Resting and Feedback
If you’ve ever been to a gym, played sports, or similar, you know that after a while your muscles and your body become tired. This is exactly the same with your ears, but usually, a lot quicker depending on how loud you’re mixing or recording. It’s super important to take small breaks between your mixing sessions, recording sessions, and to let your mind and ears rest.
Not only is mixing at a loud volume for a sustained amount of time dangerous to your hearing, but it won’t solve the puzzle you’re fighting within the mix or the recording session - sometimes, it’s better to save your work, grab a beer, and sit with your girlfriend/band, or with the Xbox/PS4, to take your mind off the work at hand - focusing too much can actually make you lose sight and as we discussed the ultimate aim is to return the track back in the best way you’re are possible of. If your ears are tired, you can’t achieve this.
Lastly, when you feel like you are at the point you can’t do anymore - I’m here to tell you can. It may be tired ears, it may be that you’ve been working on this session for longer than usual - it may be that you’re just not that into the song and it’s hard to think of what to add!
When I feel like this, I rely upon my audio community, mixing or engineering friends, etc. and ask them ‘what would you do?’ - it’s important to be specific with what you’re struggling with, and it can be a matter of swallowing your pride and asking for help if you’re afraid of looking like you don’t know what you’re doing; just remember everyone has felt like you are in that moment - myself more times than I can count! But you’ll find a fresh pair of ears, which will always bring benefits - Hell, a lot of the time, they’ve told me that enough is enough and it’s fine as it is…