You can be fairly clueless about something and at the same time be exceptionally good at it, because the results are what matters.
I’ve read, I’ve heard, and I’ve been told: when building a mix from ground zero, it helps to have a clear vision of what you want it to be, how you want it to sound. And somewhere along the way, that idea (outside) became a thought (inside), and it started repeating.
Every time that thought popped up in my brain, it would press the well-worn grey button which activates the voice of doubt living close by, in some other neighborhood of my brain that, while generally hidden from my view, often makes its presence known. There are a lot of other dark and unhelpful voices living in other, equally hidden neighborhoods in my brain, but that’s a story for another day…
Right out of the gate this voice of doubt, duly fired up and ready to rumble, would start laying into me. ‘Do you have a clear vision when you’re mixing? Maybe that’s why you have so much trouble building a mix you like? Maybe you only get there thru blind luck, thru random stumbling persistence, thru tedious trial and error.’
‘Maybe,’ it would go on to say, ‘the fact that you rely on luck and experimentation to finish a mix means you don’t actually know what you’re doing.’
For years and years and years --- too many to count, actually --- I believed that voice, because I had fallen for it’s impenetrable logic. Because let’s be honest: if you’re actually good at something, you have to know what you’re doing, right?
I say ‘no’. as it turns out, I’ve developed a very different take on what it means to ‘be good at something’. Time and again, I came up against the same basic walls when trying to mix my own music… and mixing my own music was all I was interested in. I’d flirted many times with mixing other people’s music (half of which I’d recorded as well), and every time the same thing would happen: I’d get bored. Maybe after one song, maybe after three (once, I actually made it to 4!)… eventually, inevitably, I got bored.
All of which is to say that I rarely care about producing a song unless I’m a writer or co-writer. As a result, I haven’t practiced mixing nearly as often as a typical professional mixer has, nor have I honed my craft on as many songs, nor have I faced the pressure to complete a mix the way you do when a client is breathing down your neck waiting for you to birth their baby.
And all of that is to say that my development as a mixer was naturally retarded by the choice I made to restrict my practice to songs I’d written. Hired guns often mix material they’re often completely unfamiliar with, or only passably familiar with; they’re exposed to a lot of songs at a much faster clip, and they can’t afford to dawdle with their choices or they’ll never finish enough gigs to get paid a decent living.
My point is simply this: I stumbled and groped my way to some semblance of mastery over this craft. It was trial and error all the way; I had no grand vision, I had no master plan. The same is true of just about everything else in my life, and to this day it’s still 100% true when I go to mix a song. If I shackled myself to the story that I need a ‘vision’ before I can pull a mix together, I’d be screwed.
Here’s my truth: when I push up the faders on a song that’s ready to mix, I have absolutely no idea what anything needs. Two to three hours later I may have the bulk of the sounds in reasonably good form --- mix buss eq is honed, drum smack is in the ballpark, vocals have a compelling size, depth, and texture, etc… --- but I still have very little idea how the mix is going to end up feeling.
It takes repeated exposures, pass after pass for hours, before I can mine every nook and cranny of a song’s arrangement for those dynamic and compelling moments of drama that I try to pack into the top, middle, bottom, and transition out of every 4 or 8 bar section of the track. I throw faders around aggressively, I crank fx sends aggressively, I continuously adjust panning, I flip phase again and again, I step thru different ratio’s and attacks and releases. I’ll experiment tirelessly, all in an obsessive quest to expose and highlight all the one-off moments, unique energy crests, magnetically empty spaces, and random ear candy that manifest unexpectedly and, when done right, unforgettably.
If I’m intimately familiar with the song because I played a role as writer, arranger, tracking engineer, and/or producer, then finding the perspective needed to effectively draw the emotion out of a tune is roughly 100 times harder. In those cases (aka, almost all the time for me), I’ve got a deeply skewed bias and intensely close familiarity with every individual sound, element, and moment in the track. And if mixing is nothing else, it’s a continuous series of choices where you ruthlessly sacrifice small or large chunks of individual sounds in favor of the whole. The big picture is all that matters, and the more precious you are about the pieces of the puzzle, the harder it is to create something that’s bigger than the sum of its parts.
Knowing all of this, learning how this game works and what my role as mixerrequires, has been liberating. To that end, one of the most critical things I’ve come to understand is that I don’t need a vision for a production before laying into the mix, and in fact if I wait to get any kind of a clear vision the project will grind to a halt.
Instead, what I do find to be my greatest ally is this seemingly endless well of determination that pushes me relentlessly forward, stumbling and tripping my way to the end game. And all along the way, I’ve only got one method for getting me into, across, and through the myriad obstacles and pitfalls a mix will present me with: trial and error. I just keep experimenting, using every trick I’ve ever learned and (hopefully) inventing a few new ones along the way, expanding my toolkit one small bit at a time. Eventually, all of the walls fall and the heart of it is made bare, from start to finish, in one continuous, unbroken storyline of energy.
When that process is over, no one knows that I had no idea how I’d get through it. No one can tell whether it took me 2 days or 2 weeks to pull the mix together. And let’s be honest: nobody cares. The results speak for themselves; people will either get it or they won’t, but they won’t be thinking about me either way.
So my position is that you can be fairly clueless about something and at the same time be exceptionally good at it, because the results are what matters. You may not be the most efficient, or the most practiced, or the most clear-sighted, you may even get there like I tend to do: through some strange synergy of hard-won experience and blind luck.
But if you do get there, and if ‘there’ involves some kind of magic that’s capable of breaking through the numb, disinterested, and desensitized shell that most people wear like armor these days… then you really have done something quite rare, something masterful… something that I wouldn’t hesitate to call extraordinary.
- Gregory Scott - UBK