Kim Lajoie's blog

How to know if you’re any good yet

by Kim Lajoie on May 27, 2015

See, here’s an interesting observation. I’m obviously not using enough EQ.

There’s a stereotype in our industry of the delusional artist/producer – the person who thinks they’re much better (and deserving of success) than they really are.

Interesting, I hardly ever meet these people. In fact, I often come across the opposite – people who think they’re much worse than they really are. They most often come to me asking for assistance with mixing. Which, on the face of it, is pretty understandable – they might have been mixing for a couple of years, and I’ve been doing it for a couple of decades. But the way they talk about their mixes (prior to my listening to them) makes me brace for something nigh on unlistenable. And I’m pleasantly surprised when I hear something that, instead, is nigh on releasable. It’s almost certainly better than some other commercial releases I’ve heard. Once day I should present some examples of songs that are successful or popular despite having a terrible mix.

So I started to think about some of the ways that I know my mixes (or any other musical work, really) are good enough. They’re not that surprising, so I won’t bore you.

  1. Listen to your intuition. Trust yourself. Do you like your own work? Does it make you bop your head? Does it make you jump up and dance? I think this is absolutely necessary. You must like your own work. Of course, you can have a terrible mix that you love (happens to me too), but I don’t think you can have a great mix that you hate. You need to like your mix first. If you don’t, then that’s when you need to switch to your analytical mind – work out what’s working and what needs fixing. Sometimes this might mean stripping everything back and starting from scratch. For me, it’s usually the drums – if the drums aren’t happening, the rest of the mix just won’t come together. If I mute everything but the drums, they need to sound right before I add anything else. In my early years I used to joke that ‘If the mix sucks, the drums aren’t big enough’. Obviously now I take a more nuanced approach, but the sentiment is the same. I need to like the drums before I can like the whole mix.
  2. Listen to similar music. These days I have a habit of listening to commercial reference tracks while I’m setting up a mix session. Right at the start of the session, I’m usually importing audio, renaming tracks, organising track folders and groups, trimming audio files, etc. Hardly any of these tasks actually need me to hear anything. So for those ten-fifteen minutes or so, I’ll have some reference tracks playing – at the same volume through the same monitoring environment as I’ll be mixing. It’s a great way to calibrate my ears, and I find that when the mix is about 90% finished and I have a listen to my references again, I’m much closer than I expected to be. A similar approach should also work if your focus is composition, sound design, recording, etc.

I didn’t think you’d be surprised.

The more interesting question is this: Why do you think your mixes aren’t good enough?

Maybe it’s because you listened to your references and they all have a certain je ne sais quoi that you can’t quite identify or pin down. And maybe they do. Maybe your hearing isn’t refined enough to accurately analysis and identify everything that’s happening in that mix. And that’s fine. You just need to spend a few more decades mixing and listening critically.

But it might not be that. Consider that you are hearing the end result of someone else’s work. And often, you are hearing only the end result. By contrast, you have heard your own work at every step of the way – from the raw recordings or presets or naked oscillators. You’ve heard every experiment and explored every cul de sac. And you’re hearing all this when you listen to the final mix, whether you like it your not.

It’s not a fair comparison, and the unfairness has nothing to do with the listening experience of someone uninvolved in the production process (i.e. your audience). No-one hears your own work like you do. And the sooner you accept your bias, the sooner you can work at counterbalancing it with more focussed objective listening. And less reliance on your intuition. Make no mistake – your intuiting is very good for determining whether your work stands on its own. But it’s terrible for determining how it stands in comparison to others.

-Kim.

4 thoughts on “How to know if you’re any good yet

  1. leo says:

    Fantastic post.

    I’ve been producing for ages, however the earlier music I’ve made (when mixing was all panpot/volume faders and that’s it) sounds so much open, cleaner..

    As you progress you think everything needs refinement.. the final work is a refined refinement of refinements.. and loses that “something”. Commercial reference tracks always sound “spot on”, and seeking “spot on” without knowing how to get there is tough if you’re producing and mixing yourself..

    I liked it when you said “it’s OK you need another decade mixing and listening critically!” so true.

    As long as music making is around until I’m around I’ll be happy to learn 2 or 3 good things every year.

    Leo
    http://www.soundcloud.com/mavenboy

  2. Shelby says:

    Good pep talk!

    The second to last paragraph is spot on.

    It reminds me of another point. People are always encouraged to use reference tracks. The thing is, nowadays most pro tracks have been compressed to such a crazy degree that the balance of the mix has been changed by the compression/limiting that has been applied to the master channel.

    Certainly they can still be helpful, but what would be more helpful is to get ahold of some really well mixed unmastered tracks. There are some on soundcloud if you look.

  3. Kim Lajoie says:

    Hey Leo,

    It’s an ongoing journey! Don’t worry too much about getting ‘spot on’ if you don’t know how to get there. Just focus on doing the best you can. Get as close as you can. You’re probably already closer than you realise.

    -Kim.

  4. Kim Lajoie says:

    Hey Shelby,

    Mastering shouldn’t change the mix too much, but you’re right – sometimes it does. But unless you have the mastered and unmastered versions, you won’t know exactly what’s changed and by how much.

    Anyway don’t let that hold you back. If you can get your unmastered mix to sound similar to a mastered reference track (when the reference is appropriately turned down, of course), then your track should survive a heavy-handed master.

    But it’s better, obviously, to not be heavy handed in mastering. 😉

    -Kim.

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