I’ve been mixing a hip hop album recently. One of my readers needed some help and got in touch.
Usually when I do a mix for an artist, I allow them a certain number of revisions. Music is subjective and our (language) tools for describing and communicating it are inexact. The artist often has a certain sound in mind and sometimes it takes a few iterations to get there. That’s ok, it’s part of the process. It also avoids the amateur-hour “You paid your money and SURPRISE HERE’S YOUR FINAL PRODUCT”. I like to work hard to make sure people are happy with the end result.
This particular artist wants a hip hop album. And he’s got quite a bit of engineering experience himself. This works out really well for a number of reasons:
- All the multitracks are perfectly prepared with no fussing about.
- He has a really good understanding of the kinds of challenges faced by mix engineers (e.g. Everything can’t be louder than everything else)
- He’s really clear about what he wants and describes it well.
I’ve also been working on my own project (Bare Toes Into Soil) in parallel. And while — technically — the postproduction work has been identical, the approach and direction are completely different. More importantly, my role is completely different.
For my project, I am the creative director. I make all the decisions about how the music will sound. It is my creative expression. For the hip hop project, however, I am a problem solver. I start with a pile of multitracks and I have to create a sound with them. The start and end points are set, and my job is to get from A to B. I use the same set of tools and skills, but my creative contribution is dramatically different.
In my music work, I make sure I have a balance of projects where I work for myself and projects where I help other people. It’s a balance of art and craft. For me, too much art is selfish (I love helping people) but too much craft runs me dry (I need to create).
Finding the right balance is really difficult.
A few years ago, I was focused almost exclusively on recording and engineering my solo album. It was long, solitary work. It was extremely satisfying creatively, but toward the end I started to feel the need to use my skills and tools to help others. I felt restless.
More recently, I experienced the other extreme. Late last year I spent a few months doing almost no production work of my own – I was almost exclusively working on other people’s projects. I found it satisfying, but started getting irritable because I wasn’t making my own music.
Finding the right balance is not about formulas or rules or ratios. It’s about feeling. Remember how important emotion is in music? It’s just as important for the process of creating music as it is for embedding within the music itself.