Once your multi-track files have been recorded, it's time to clean them up with any necessary editing before mixing them down into a stereo file for mastering and for distribution to your audience. During the all-important mixing stage, notes are made to identify and communicate any changes needed to get the sound of the song to better fit your musical goals.
Before starting any mix session, I always want to have a clear path in front of me. When I first hear your raw tracks, I'm asking myself some key questions and taking actual handwritten notes I can refer back to throughout the session:
What is awesome about this song that needs to be enhanced?
What is distracting me from just enjoying the song, and how can I best address that?
What is featured during this section of the song and what is supporting it?
Is the mix working musically?
These are not decisions your mix engineer should necessarily be making on their own. As the artist and/or producer, you should certainly have a say in the direction we take the song at this critical stage in the music-making process.
I truly believe the artist, producer and engineer are all working together to serve our mutual customer—the song itself.
If you're mixing your own songs, you should still take some notes to remain objective. When you're hiring a mix engineer, it's even more important to provide some clear direction in order to get to the "right" sound, faster—and with fewer mix revisions.
"Music can express that which cannot be said." —Victor Hugo
A great quote to be sure, but it also represents one of the common challenges with mix notes being shared between two or more people.
Let's recognize that clear communication is an equal responsibility between all parties involved and I'll always strive to make you feel you're being heard and understood, even when you may not be able to verbalize the sounds you have in your own head.
With that said, here are some practical and simple things that we can do upfront to set the right expectations before the mixing session even begins, as well as a few things we can continue to do throughout the process to get your tracks mixed faster and with fewer revisions.
BEFORE THE MIX SESSION
Provide a Rough Mix
It's not uncommon to have a rough mix done right after tracking. Sure it's rough, but with the basic levels set the way you feel they ought to be, you can have a solid representation of what your song actually sounds like now that the performance has been captured as a whole and the individual parts feel somewhat balanced.
Your rough mix can be the "road map" of sorts that we use as a starting point in identifying what you like about the overall sound of this recording and what you'd want to change. Notice that we're talking about changes to the sound recording and not the actual song, as those changes are much better addressed beforehand.
When the song, performance, and recording are all done well, it may not take very much during a rough mix to get to where you want to be. It's even been said that the classic version of Under Pressure, released on the Queen album Hot Space, is actually the rough mix itself!
Provide a Reference Mix
What sound are you going for? This is where music really can help to express what words alone cannot.
There are too many adjectives used to describe certain sounds, and these can easily be misinterpreted by two different people. What does bright & punchy mean to YOU? Do we all share the same understanding of muddy, dark, or washy?
References make things easier for everyone. What commercially available song sounds awesome to you? What is it about that record that you want your finished song to sound like?
Every artist has their own unique sound, but the sound recording made of a particular song often captures something on its own. You may not even like that particular artist or genre, but maybe the recording has a warm low end you really dig, or a kinda-dry vocal sound you want to replicate. It could be the way the mix separates a lot of dense parts or creates a certain space around the guitar solo.
Whatever it is, tell your mix engineer about it and—most importantly—why you feel it suits your recording.
Remember that these same audio references can help your musicians and tracking engineer get the right snare sound or guitar tone during the recording session, making the whole process much easier from the beginning since the raw tracks already capture the intended sound vs. having to replace individual drum hits with samples or re-amping multiple guitar parts after the fact.
Provide a Single Point of Contact
Whenever you have more than one person involved (whether it's the just artist and their producer, or a full band), it's necessary to establish a single person who will take on the role of speaking for the others.
You can (and should) discuss everything as a group to make creative decisions—but then have that one person be responsible for providing consolidated mix notes to your engineer to avoid what I call the potential "tug of war", in which the guitar player or vocalist is telling me to "turn it way up", while the rest of the band is telling me to "turn it way down".
DURING THE MIX SESSION
The days of everyone sitting in the same control room and listening to the mix in real-time are arguably coming to an end, if they're not over already. It simply is what it is.
Time, distance, and budgets are making remote mixing more practical for many independent artists.
Technology keeps improving and there are live streaming services that allow clients to listen remotely to their mix in real-time but it doesn't change the fact that they're listening in a separate environment with different speakers and different room acoustics than in the mix engineer's room. While still in real-time, they may not be hearing things the same way, and that is a sure recipe for a mix session that goes in circles.
Listen to the Mix on Different Speakers, in Different Spaces
With remote mixing, it's more of an iterative process where I deliver a mix to you based on your initial goals and you respond with any specific changes—after listening to the mix on different devices and/or in different environments.
This lets you hear how your song will translate to different speakers—your car, your phone, your earbuds—to make more informed decisions. I strongly recommend taking anywhere from 12 to 24 hours before responding with any changes to remain objective and to let everyone involved get a fair chance to listen to the mix in a room or space they're each already familiar with.
While many mix engineers (including myself) offer a certain number of free revisions, we also impose a limit before we have to start charging for additional time and work but it's important to understand that most songs can easily be delivered before we ever get to that point when you take the time to listen more than once and on more than just one pair of speakers.
While your phone's speaker by itself may make your vocals sound "too nasal" or may not be able to produce the massive low end you want from your bass guitar, telling me to turn it WAY up could easily blow out a sound system with more low end range, while adding less presence to the vocal makes your singer sound "distant" on most other systems.
More feedback from more speakers helps us both dial in the right tone for your song. This goes a long way in helping your mastering engineer preserve your sound while still ensuring a consistent experience for the listener.
Provide Consolidated Mix Notes in Writing, from One Source
As mentioned, we should identify a single point of contact upfront who will submit any changes needed to the initial mix and any revisions. This greatly cuts down on confusion and any back-and-forth changes that eat up our time and objectivity.
After taking time to listen to the mix, come to an agreement on what changes are needed and why. The designated contact can then put all of those decisions into a single place we can all refer back to when needed to make sure everything is being addressed properly and efficiently. This also allows everyone to be heard and understood, as I'll always respond in writing with the changes I've made and with any further questions I have about your sound.
Even when you're not working with anyone else, it's important for us both to also identify the one source or method of communication that will be used during the project.
While seemingly convenient, it only causes confusion when messages are being sent back and forth between multiple apps, emails, and voice mails—all from multiple accounts.
I strongly recommend we rely on email sent between two email addresses—one of yours and one of mine—to keep all of our notes in one place and within one single thread we can both easily refer back to whenever needed. Yes we can always talk on the phone during business hours but much of the conversation and details provided often take place offline, outside of normal business hours, especially when different time zones are involved.
I don't know about you, but when I get text messages from an unknown number and/or emails from AL234986@mymail.net, you can almost always be assured it will end up in our spam folders and never be seen.
Personally, I love technology and innovation. There are a growing number of cool apps and services that allow for effective communication between the artist and mix engineer; however, it can often be unproductive and unrealistic to get everyone to set up a new account and learn a new tool for each project.
Sending an email is simple, fast, and already understood by almost everyone you'll collaborate with. No one method is perfect, but it's safe to say that email isn't going away anytime soon and most of us have already figured out how to manage our inbox in a way we are comfortable.
Use Time Stamps for Clear Reference
Do we all truly understand what is meant when one person mentions "Bar 64", or even worse, "the intro going into the third pre-chorus"?
It's a lot easier for everyone involved to find a specific time stamp instead.
During the mix process, I'll provide you with MP3 files that can be played on any number of apps and devices, all of which will easily show minutes and seconds elapsed. This lets us both refer to the section "starting at 2:17", meaning 2 minutes and 17 seconds into the song.
Once approved, your mix is provided in a high-quality WAV file, but MP3 is super convenient for these quick checks and assessments.
How Do YOU Prefer to Work?
These are my recommendations based on my experience. None of it is intended as a "my way or the highway" kind of attitude.
While I stand by these recommendations, we all look for people who are easy to work with, both creatively and professionally, and I'm certainly willing to hear your ideas and thoughts about the process. Ultimately, it's all about transparent and honest communication to set the right expectations.
With these logistical things addressed and out of the way, you and I can focus on getting your songs to sound their very best and getting back to the fun and creative work that goes into it.
I'd love to hear how YOU prefer to work and what questions you might have about the process. Tell me about your music!
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