Kim Lajoie's blog

Don’t make better mixes. Make better music.

by Kim Lajoie on August 23, 2010

Stop it.

No really, stop it.

Stop focussing on the mix. There are more important things to focus on. Your mix is fine anyway.

Newsflash: The mix isn’t really that important. Sure, a good mix helps the listener understand and enjoy the song. But a good song is still a good song regardless of the mix. And a terrible song is still terrible no matter how good the mix is. And listeners can tell the difference.

Making music is not all about mixing. Don’t hide behind the technology. There’s so much more to do:

Creative direction

Don’t work on your mix. Work on your creative direction.

  • Come up with new ideas for projects. Don’t just work on individual songs – embark on something big. Something ambitious. Compose three songs (a demo) or six songs (an EP) to express a musical idea or feeling.
  • Invent! Try out a new idea. Take a different direction to what you normally do. Invent something new. Combine two or more unlikely musical elements.

Composition

Don’t work on your mix. Work on your composition skills.

  • Focus on what the listener will hear. No-ones going to care how analogue your kick drum sounds if your song is boring and uninspired.  It doesn’t matter how ‘tape-like’ your mix bus chain sounds if the singer sounds like she just woke up.
  • Melodies. Doing interesting things with sound doesn’t count for much unless you’re also doing interesting things with the notes. Learn how to compose an interesting melody. Don’t just read a few online articles – practice! If you spent half the time writing melodies as you do reading internet guff about plugins, you’d be coming up with beguiling and captivating melodies without trying.
  • Harmonies. Don’t just choose four chords and repeat them forever. Develop them. Let them grow and evolve throughout the song. Extend the chords. Use substitutions. Use slash chords. Vary the pace for dramatic effect.
  • Rhythm. Enough four-on-the-floor. Disco is over. DJs have enough music to last until the sun spectacularly devours us all. Do something interesting. That’s not enough.  Now do it in 7/8. Alternate between 6/4 and 4/4. Seamlessly move between straight and shuffle. Vary the amount of syncopation for dramatic effect. Use composite time signatures. Juxtapose them. Some of the suggestions are silly, some aren’t – and you won’t know the difference until you try them.

Preproduction

Don’t work on your mix. Work on preproduction.

  • How will it all fit together? Think about all the elements in your song and reflect on what value they’re adding to the song. Be clear about the creative direction of the song and cut out anything that doesn’t support it. Have the courage to throw away good ideas.
  • How can it be strengthened/improved? Don’t stop when you have all your material arranged into a structure that makes sense. How can you continue to improve the music? Pay attention to the contour of each section. Make sure each transition (from one section to another) is clear and deliberate – not just one section after another.

Rehearsal

Don’t work on your mix. Rehearse your parts.

  • Physical instruments. Yes, I know we’ve got Elastic Audio and Autotune and endless disk space for multiple takes… but they’re no substitute for a good performance. Editing can turn a sloppy or lazy performance into a competent one. It can’t, however, turn even a competent performance into an inspired one.  Editing can’t add expression or feeling or excitement to a performance.  No technology can – it comes from the performer. And the performer can only do it after hours of practice and honing the craft. So get on it.
  • Virtual instruments. Oh, you thought virtual instruments are different to physical instruments? Take a look at those black and white keys under your fingers. Take a look at those assignable knobs. Make a performance of it. Put some expression into it.

Oh yeah. That sounds like a lot of work. Making music is a lot of work. Cry me a river. You think you can become successful by being lazy? Yes, you do want to be successful. Success isn’t a record label contract or a sold-out stadium. Success is honing your craft. Success is becoming insanely good at what you do. Success is shipping.

And if you see yourself exclusively as a mix engineer? Make sure your clients do all the above.

-Kim.

20 thoughts on “Don’t make better mixes. Make better music.

  1. reflected says:

    so true my friend, so true.

    I’m gonna make a wallpaper with this slogan lol

    “Don’t make better mixes. Make better music.”

  2. D says:

    You seem to have an answer to everything so I’ll just ask. Would you happen to know how one could beat a depression that has plagued everything one does for over 12 years?

    The person might for example enjoy making music tremendously but often loses interest in even the potential songs because of feelings of inadequacy. Everything the person does will eventually turn into crud in the person’s ears even if something felt exciting or perhaps even great only a couple of days ago.

    The person would like to finish more music and other projects but feels helpless and inane. How could the person find any value from the person’s own work when everything the person creates feels average at best?

    Or is the person’s illness just laziness after all?

  3. Kim Lajoie says:

    @D
    Are you serious? Clinical depression or any other mental illness should be diagnosed and treated by a medical professional. I’m a music producer.

    -Kim.

  4. reflected says:

    @D

    I don’t know you, but I think that this is not about the music, but about the communication with the world.

    this person obviously need to find out the roots of his life.

    be real with yourself…

    sit down and WRITE with a pen on a white paper…why do you make music and other things, answer…and keep asking the right questions…you need to find out why do you make what you make and act like you act and desire what you desire…

    be honest(!!!!) with yourself while you are doing so.
    also you may need to do calisthenics…it sounds like this person is very weak and unstable…trainings helps both mentally and physically, your blood and oxygen will stream better.

    what also good in running (training), is that while you make a long run, you learn how to focus! if you are not focused on the running, you will not make it…you have to focus. it is a good training on focusing and influence on other things that you do instinctively.

    you need to get to the roots before you make any other beat.

  5. mani d says:

    Awesome…just what I needed to hear

    THANKS

  6. Dello Dee says:

    Kim, your article made me think for days on how much time I’ve wasted cincentrating on the ‘mix’ rather than actually work on the craft of ‘composing’! In dance and electronic music it’s very easy to get lost though. Some tracks use a kick and bass and here I sit figuring out for hours how the hell they made it sound fat while my remake sounds like a toiletflush. Is it side chain compression? Did they use a multiband compressed in the bus? Are there separate reverbs for kick and bass? I look through an analyzer and see the stereo width is much more focussed than mine and before I know it it’s 6 hours later working on the same damn loop and give up with frustration. It’s so damn easy to get lost with VSTs and professional tools in non professional hands. So your article kinda made me relax and takes me back to what this is all really about. Thanks!

  7. Kim Lajoie says:

    Glad you find it useful! Remember – it’s important to take a step back sometimes and think about the *whole* process!

    -Kim.

  8. 3ee says:

    @ D … also ethics and discipline will help big time! Try to ignor bad things around you (when possible) and focus on good things as they will help you to get used to good stuff and gain a positive perspective 🙂
    A lot of answers to your problems come from within…so you can help yourself more suitable than we can help you! …just take it easy.. relax and drink fresh water… and…. the list goes on and on.

    @ Kim
    Thank’s for another great and helpfull article!
    Cheers!
    3ee

  9. Kim Lajoie says:

    @3ee
    Thanks 3ee – glad you find it useful!

    -Kim.

  10. womusic says:

    thank you so much for this post 🙂 it’s help me a lot

    for all of you guys, interested in solving problems with work and time, check

    also this post

    http://www.smashingmagazine.com/2010/04/21/five-tips-for-making-ideas-happen/

  11. Kim Lajoie says:

    @womusic
    Great to hear the post is helpful! There are some interesting ideas in that article too.

    -Kim.

  12. Pingback: The best of 2010 « Kim Lajoie’s Blog

  13. 3ee says:

    “Success is honing your craft” … and the rest comes naturally as a bonus.
    People these days are aiming only for the “bonus” …but they aren’t getting any respect from me! :hihi:

  14. Kim Lajoie says:

    @3ee
    The ‘bonus’ that some people aim for is just a side-effect of success. The accolades and respect isn’t the success – it’s the accomplishments, the capability, the skills and experience that are the real fruits of labor.

    If you just want to be famous, being a musician is one of the most difficult ways of getting there!

    -Kim.

  15. Brian desimone says:

    This is gold. Your golden Kim !

  16. Marek Sramek says:

    So true… Thanks very much for the article, Kim.

  17. Tony Ha says:

    Good article Kim, that’s a very valid point that many often overlook.
    Most people assume the music will sound good after they send it off to mastering.

  18. Kim Lajoie says:

    @Tony Ha
    Relying on any single part of the process to make things ‘sound good’ is short-sighted. Relying on mastering to make your song sound good is just as foolhardy as relying on expensive compressors to make your song sound good.

    The truth is that *every* part of the production process affects the end result.

    -Kim.

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