Let's talk bout mixing - Part 3 - Mixing expectations

Not once was I given mixing jobs, and the clients told me that they expect a lot, and were not happy with the previous mixing engineers they dealt with. It is just fair to assume that sometimes they’re saying that about me too. So I decided to get deeper into this problem, what would be a realistic expectation from a mix. These are mostly personal thoughts, and I think musicians can benefit from them.

Maybe the best secret of them all is this: the main ingredient of a good mix is a good arrangement. Listen to any of the hits in your style of music, and analyze them: what instruments are playing at the same time, are they complementing each other or everything is cluttered, how are they placed in space (close to you, further, etc). A vocal together with a strong guitar or piano solo may not be the best thing, and you won’t hear it often. A good arrangement is essential for a good song, period. You make it work, but the good producers know what I am talking about.

As a musician, do not underestimate the recording stage! This is extremely important! If you go into a recording session determined to do it as fast as you can to save money, you’re shooting yourself in the foot! It is completely unrealistic to think that your song can compete with top label productions, and expect that all the problems will be fix in the mix; that is not going to happen, and those who tell you different  just want to take your money! 

When you record, always listen afterwards and try to see if the raw recordings prove to have a nice groove, there is a good fit in the low end between kick and bass, the vocals are performed properly and you could feel the emotion you expect from them. A good mix brings punchiness, definition, space, balance, interest, build up, you can correct pitches and breathings, but you can’t really substitute for a poor vocal recording, poor performance, poor arrangement, either from the technical point of view or emotion/message point of view.

Use references as much as you can during your recording session. Let the recording engineer understand as much as possible what you want. Communication is key here. A recording engineer has multiple options of mics, preams, and he will do his best, however, you may have an image that is quite different about the sound you expect. If the recording engineers knows before session what you’re looking for, that helps a lot. That’s not to say that this will solve every situation. However, he can point to you at some differences versus the references, and help you get the best for your sound in the process.

Provide references also for the mixing engineer. The more info, the better it is. Make sure that what you expect is communicated fully to the mixing engineer; and do not be surprised if he tells you sometimes that what you want may not be realistic, given the quality of recording or arrangement. However, he will offer you professional solutions, just take your time to understand them. The mix won’t change the musical message: it will make it sound right, it is a creative process, but it doesn’t change the vocal or bass lines and the likes.

They say that in the end you get what you pay for! The cost of recording and mixing is more affordable today that at any point in time, but, while the technology helped a lot, it won’t do by itself the recording/mixing. So, be upfront about your project, and listen to what the engineer has to say. Mixing is a pretty elaborate process. Today, more than at any point in time, people are doing recordings and mix in their house/bedroom, and, by the time a song is finished, while they have all the software and what not, their production sucks. There is so much more involved in a mix than some plugin presets thrown over a track: it is the room, the monitors, the knowledge of the engineer, the time to find solutions knowing what the tools are doing, the musical understanding… and so on.

I already said communication is key. You need to understand that the mixing engineer may have some suggestions that are extremely valuable, and, if you are genuinely interested in working and respect the work of others, the mixing engineer will go to a huge length to make your project the best it can be.

I had a situation a while ago that left me feel uncomfortable and forced me to reflect about the importance of communication. It was a couple - a  guy and a girl - who asked me to do a mix job. Right of the bat he told me that he worked in audio engineering, but, as he doesn’t have proper monitoring and equipment, he wants the mix to be done by me. He produced the song (mostly software, I think in Logic), and he recorded the vocals in his bedroom with a Rode mic, straight into his laptop. His voice actually was a good fit for the mic, however the same mic brought up the weaknesses of the girl voice. They told me there were about 10-11 tracks, so I offered them a quote for this situation. However, when they brought the tracks, I ended up with more than double the number of tracks they told me initially. I was somehow bothered by that, actually, and realize that these guys want a great result, but paying as low as possible. 

They pointed to me some references (recordings) in the vein of music they did. That was great. When I finished the mix and compare with the references, I was really proud, it sounded in my opinion a step above the reference provided, a major label product. So, I gave them the mix, so they can sit on it for a week or two, and have their input (I believe there is no right or wrong, we all have different taste in music, so, for acts that do not have a producer who can make decisions on the spot, I give them the mix, ask them to listen to it in a couple of audio systems, and come back with their observations). They paid 75% of the initial price (for the quoted 11 tracks!), with the balance left to be paid when the mix was finished. Three weeks later I got a phone call, they told me that they decided to leave the project for now, which is fine. However, the guy offered to give me some advice on how to behave with clients; he felt I was a bit pissed, he also told me that they didn’t feel that I treated them properly. I listened, and then we finished the conversation.

Well, for once, I was pissed indeed, and I was pissed because, for a guy that says he studied audio engineering, he wasn’t capable to export the tracks out of his computer properly, having them at all kind of levels. Believe it or not, it took almost 4 hours to move the project from his laptop to me. By the way, these hours were not paid; I understand that I have to spend half hour to transfer file, but I am not guilty that a guy doesn’t know the basics and abuses my time. The mix was not paid in full; instead of 11 tracks - as he exported initially two-three instruments grouped, but don’t think of steams, they were like instruments that were at the opposite in the audio spectrum. At the end, they said that the initial price is the one they accepted, and the fact the project was double in size didn’t count at all.

What the guy didn’t get was this: I was able to go over my ego, because I actually respect too much what I am doing, and, while I was pissed I took the job (because I shouldn’t have done it), I tried my best during the mix and put the effort, no different than for other clients. However, I was disappointed with the lack of respect this guy manifested for the work others are doing for him. I wonder if he pays half for the gas, heat, food; even more, if he accepts to be paid half at the end of the day.

I understand selling music is difficult today, with all the free downloads. But then, if your hart is not there, if you do music to get rich, not because you love it to death, then start to do something else, open an eatery, an investment firm, a shoe repair shop, whatever… 

I also know that there are so many called “recording studios” that do a mixing in two hours, nothing wrong with that, I wish I can do it that fast too. But I also know that you can’t do a mix properly in two hours.

 In the end, like in any other human activity, being a good communicator, being respectful and humble takes you far and makes people around you to support and help you. Today, people that are running recording studio (the vast majority) are not rich, they invest huge amount of money and a lot of time, and they would not do it if it were only for the money, because it’s not worth it. But they love music, they crave the magic moments when everything comes together, they wouldn’t do anything else, no matter how much money are involved. Is that simple.    

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