Let's talk about mixing... Part 1

These days recording is much more accessible than it used to be. The technology advances outpace by far the skill levels people have for recording and mixing, and it takes a while for the ones that are doing it to understand it. And sadly, a huge part of musicians or wanna be musicians they don’t get it. Once signed to a label, they generally are not making these decisions in regards to where do they go to record and who does their mixes, they usually get a good producer, who knows what and how. But until you get there, you have to go through a large avenue of possibilities.

There was this band that came to see the studio for their project, and when we discussed about it they complained to me about previous mixes, telling me how disappointed they were in their first experience and how unhappy they are with the previous mixing guy. I didn’t say anything, and then we talked about their project. After all was said and done (meaning I got what they really had in mind and planned to do), I offered them a quote. They told me it was too much, and ask for a package price.

I asked them how much they paid for their previous demo – 3 songs.  They paid 900 dollars, recording and mixing.

The first impulse was to tell them you get what you pay for. But then, it would have been a mistake. The problem is much deeper. While the songs they did were not bad at all, and they show an acceptable level of musicianship, they were not up to speed when it comes to their expectations and what would be a fair cost if their expectations would have been met. I listened to those mixes.

They basically paid 400 dollars for recording and 500 for mix. That is 300 dollars per song. They spent 10 hours recording, which amounts to 40 dollars/hour. I would assume that the guy who mixed didn’t spend more than 12 hours for mixing, which is like 4 hours per song. It was a 4 guys band, drums, bass, guitars and vocal (including BV). The mixes did not sound great, the editing of drums was not the greatest, no pitch correction, the mix was static, land it lacked excitement. However, for the 500 dollars paid, the mixes were actually very decent.

These guys’ expectations were very high, in line with the best bands productions, and they are not the only ones that are thinking that way. And this is the real problem. The difference is that the 500 dollars they paid for mixing are enough for Michael Brauer’s or Chris Lord-Alge’s assistants just to prepare one song for mixing.

So, why are some mixes good and some bad? The answer of the ones that are recording on a tight budget is that the mixing guy is no good, and he basically cheated them. That is in most cases far from reality. I agree that there are differences between the engineers, and sound is a very objective thing. However, does somebody believe that top engineers like Brauer, Swedien, Clearmountain can do much better in 4 hours? Bob Clearmountain, a legend on the mixing world, and known for the fact that he doesn’t agonize over mixes; however he needs anything between one to two days per song. We’re talking here about huge experience, golden ears, million dollars studio, top-notch equipment, and therefore results. But you’re paying for it.

The sad reality is that I would say 70 percent of the music produced today is sub-standard from the point of view of mixing/production. It is a fact of life, and it’s normal, as so many are doing it as a hobby; they have the technology (agreed, it’s not the top one used in professional studios, but it’s not bad), and that drove the prices down, and drove so many professional studios out of business. However, the famous engineers still have their own studios, with the top gear and acoustics, and they do not charge less (actually, most of them are doing better than when they worked being employed by famous studios). But they’re not taking shortcuts.

I do believe that musicians have to do their homework when they choose a studio (which they usually do), but also they have to define clearly their expectations and then decide accordingly which way to go. How do you set you expectations when it comes to mixing? It’s not that hard, you need to be very realistic, and define what exactly you are looking for: a CD to sell to gigs, or make some songs for radio promotion, or regional/national distribution, or a demo. You also have to judge who is going to buy/listen to your music; if you move the crowd locally and you sell at the gig, or if you want your songs to be out there, competing with the expensive production on radio and major online internet stores.

Once you have the answer, you need to narrow your search for studios (both for recording and mixing). And I think that where you mix is very important, and it will also influence your decision on where are you going to record. In the next blog (I promise it will be posted in three days) we’ll take a look at the mixing process – not a technical one, but rather the steps and their implication on the final song. The times are difficult for the music industry, as it goes through a lot of changes. I read that 70% of the music people listened is downloaded for free; but that doesn’t mean that the mixing engineers should work for free; maybe that day will come, and it will be the day when everything – from the food at the food store to drugs and gas, will be for free; the same goes for plumber, dentist and so on. But until then, understanding the process and requirements of a good mix can help you make a decision that will provide much more then complaining about the mixing quality of your last project.

Stay tuned,

Flo Fandango

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