If you’re reading this blog, you probably do some mixing. Chances are, you sometimes mix other people’s music too – whether you recorded it yourself or not. If this is you, you’ve probably experienced dreaded ‘mix revisions’. You think you’re finished, but then the artist comes back for just one more thing. And another. And another.
It often doesn’t end well. If you pick up the change request for free, too many revisions will cause you to start harbouring resentment toward the artist. If you charge for each change request, too many revisions will cause the artist to start harbouring resentment toward you. If either of you go down that road, you’re both going to have a bad time. For the sake of the relationship, you’ve both got a strong interest in getting it right first time.
These days, almost every artist I work with is happy with the first version of my mix. And the reason for that is nothing to do with plugins or hardware or gear or technology. It’s exactly two things:
1. Talking at length before the mix sessions about musical influences and references.
This is so important. It’s extremely difficult to communicate the complex and subtle musical and sonic aspects of a mix. It’s hard enough when both people are highly experienced and technical. For a most everyone else, it borders on impossible. Add into that the various significant factors that affect the result of the mix, yet are almost entirely impervious to the mix process itself. These are factors like arrangement, performance and recording. As engineers and producers, we can tell the difference. But not everyone can. And relying on words alone can do more harm than good. Most of the words we use to describe sound are inherently ambiguous at the best of times – even within the engineering profession. Outside, it can be anyone’s guess what words like warm, sharp, thick or funky even mean.
To combat that, I always ask artists about the music they listen to and the music they’re influenced by. The best artists actually make mixtapes for me. We talk about life and music and sound and emotions and use other artists’ songs as common frames of reference. For many artists I work with, this actually happens before we even record. And it continues throughout the production process. In fact, I almost never work on an artist’s project without them physically with me. Which leads to:
2. Making sure the artist sits next to me while I’m mixing.
Even with the shared reference points, I often disagree with my artists. Mist of the time, they’re fairly minor disagreements. But with the artist with me while I work, there’s no chance that I’ll go off on a tangent without being pulled back into line. When I start going in a different direction than the artist intended, we catch it early and have a conversation about it. Sometimes it’s something as simple as hearing her/him explain it and then remediating. Sometimes it’s a bit more complex and we need to talk about creative direction, emotions and storytelling. We might need to explore different processing approaches. We might even need to try different edits. But by the end of the session, the artist walks away with a mix their happy with. Even more importantly, the artist has had a positive experience being listened to and understood.
PS. This is why lately I’ve been turning down opportunities to do mixes for people outside Melbourne. Sorry, but Skype doesn’t cut it. You need to be in the room with me. You need to hear what I’m hearing.