Let's talk about mixing ... Part 2

Almost everybody knows what mixing is all about: the next step after recording, when you put everything together. When the mix is done, the artist/producer comes in, listen, and have the objections and requests, the mixing engineer makes the adjustments and there you go: the final mix. Actually, the process usually is more complicated, the artist /producers are given rough mixes in the process, and they provide feedback to the mixing engineer.

The general mixing steps are the following:

1.     Assessing the song, understanding the direction of it. Generally, this is a short step, but a very important one, when the mixing engineer establishes what is important in the song, the driving element. Good communication between the artist/producer is the key here.

2.     Preparation stage: gain staging, cleaning and editing of the tracks, noise removal, pitch and timing corrections, establishing the groups, buses and auxes. Only the famous mixing engineers or the large million dollars studio have assitants or interns to do it, as this step takes quite some time. The rest of them are doing it themselves. There are different ways to do it, and sometimes, when working on a budget, the fast way is chosen, like gating drums versus manual editing (which provides better results).

3.     Build up the static mix. Every engineer developed his way of doing it, some start with the foundation – bass+ drums, others with the vocal, or any instrument identified as the driving force in the song. This is the stage when the instruments are brought together, through the use of EQ, compression, effects and so on.

4.     Automation. In fact, this is usually the most time consuming. It is the stage where finesse and careful attention to details allow the song to shine; it is the process that makes the difference between a top commercial mix and the rest. If getting a static mix can take 2-3 hours, this step will take much more, sometimes days.

I know that I go to a great extent to make the artist happy, because music is a very intimate and personal thing, and when I used to record with my former band, I wanted to get a good sounding product. Most mixing engineers are doing the same. Given the today’s competition, not trying to do your best is suicidal. And it is like that even if the competition is not there, because word of mouth makes or breaks your business as a mixing engineer.

That leads to some problems actually. Until the mixing engineers gets established, they do a lot of work that’s not being paid, but they do it, so they can get a chance of working for somebody that breaks in the business. In this time they gather experience, and every day counts. But also, they have to make a living, so it’s a fine balance.

From the artist/producer perspective, a realistic expectation of the mix and an open mind will be as beneficial as for the mixing engineer. Within this expectations, maybe the most important is the extent to which the mixing engineer understand the artist concept and needs, as you, as an artist, are able to communicate and articulate all the details you feel are important.

Generally, artists that are going for the first time in the studio have a tendency to control everything, from recording to mixing. It’s just in the nature of things. Mature artists, on the other hand, are very relaxed, and allow the recording/mixing engineer to do their job without being control freaks. That comes with time, as the artists understand that the engineer is actually in his corner. So, shopping for a studio is a very important step: this is the moment when you can decide for yourself if you can like and trust the mixing or recording engineer.

However, the above fact also can go the other way; I had some clients that, in their desire to control everything, trying to motivate their actions with some generalities read in magazines, forgot the essential: both sides – artist and engineer – has to play their part to maintain the session upbeat, and keep the fun going. Human nature is a very interesting thing, and it is so easy to offend.

I think that the situation can be reduced to two scenarios when it comes to artist expectations: some desire to get what they pay for plus a bit of “better”, and others want to get from the recording/mixing engineer the best they can do. That is the main reason the first discussion - before the project starts or is contracted – has to specify clearly all the issues and facts. The client is always happy if the mixing engineer goes above and beyond the artist needs, but, like everything else, there are some constrains – like time and money.

While music is a very personal thing for the artist, bringing a constructive approach by both the artist/producer and engineer is what makes for a good collaboration, as both have a genuine interest to get a great song at the end. As the mixing/recording engineer does everyday the same thing, getting into a recording/mixing session with the right expectations is a big plus for the artist.

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