It’s a well-worn phrase, but not always true, especially in music. And in creating pop music, there are few places where it’s more proven than in mixing. Just ask yourself; How many albums have you heard which sound really dreadful? You scratch your head and wonder how was it possible those mixes got approved.
I remember when I was a young assistant engineer at Bill Schnee Studios and discussing a particularly bad sounding album with the tech. “How could they make such awful sounding mixes?” I asked. He told me that as bizarre is it may be, for some reason, everybody there thought they were great. They no doubt played back their mixes in their cars, and home, and signed off on it. Somehow they were convinced it was good...but it wasn’t.
How is it possible professionals couldn’t hear the difference between what was good and what they were doing? Were they unable to hear the difference? Maybe. Not everyone is a great mixer, just like not everyone is a great singer or songwriter. But when they played back their work, couldn’t they at least acknowledge that it wasn’t quite there and try again?
I’ve thought about this a lot. I don't want to be fooled into a bad mix...no one does. And there are some albums I’ve mixed that I'll play for no one, so by no means am I claiming I’ve never been in this situation. But how do you keep that from happening?
In thinking about this, I recalled a funny situation on a session back when I was an assistant. The producer was very successful; his engineer was an up-and-coming engineer/mixer, whom today is one of the top mixers in the world. Both of these men have done work all of you have heard countless times on the radio.
It was a tracking session and we were on a break. The producer, who’d done a good bit of mixing, told a story of a recent mix he'd done. He'd put some EQ on one of the tracks…or so he thought. He tweaked away and after a few minutes, was satisfied with the results. He told us he looked down at the EQ...and you guessed it! It wasn’t even engaged! All that time he’d been doing nothing. We had a good laugh, the engineer knowingly, but admitting nothing.
Well, about that time, the band had come back in and began playing. The producer asked the engineer to put some EQ on the bass guitar to get a bit more definition in it. So the engineer went right at it, fiddling the knobs for 10 or 15 seconds. Listening, working away. I looked down to see what he was doing and sure enough--the EQ on the console WASN’T ENGAGED! The same story the producer had told not five minutes before! The engineer continued on, me thinking at any minute he’d realize what was happening...or not happening. I tried in vain to cover for him and discreetly get his attention to the “In” button on the console. Confused at my vague head jerks and subtle finger pointing, he yelled, ‘WHAT?? WHAT??” So I finally pointed to the “In” button. The producer of course saw all this and burst out laughing! The engineer turned beet red, and with a large dramatic hand gesture, inserted the EQ and finished the job.
Of course, this is something that’s happened to anyone who’s done a good bit of work. More than we’d care to admit. Clearly it’s possible we can “hear” changes when we’re in fact, doing nothing.
But let’s take that phenomenon one step further.
If our brains can fool us into thinking we’re doing something when nothing is happening, then it can also fool us when something IS happening. This is why sometimes after a break, we come back to the mix and think, “Geez! That snare still sucks! I worked on it for 30 minutes and thought it was good. What the heck?”
This time, we’ve worked away and actually made changes. But we heard what we wanted to hear, not what was actually happening. Our perception was NOT reality!
So how can we keep this from happening? These are a few of things that I do: Stop every hour or so for a short break. Critical listening can be tough work, and allowing your brain to rest is a good thing to do. Set a timer if you are OCD and get too carried away. It’s also good to make an early CD ref and listen in your car or wherever without waiting till the traditional time when you think the mix is almost done. Early references can save a lot of time. It’s also good to keep a reference CD or iTunes playlist running and refer to it from time to time. It can keep you on track and you may even get a good idea from the albums you’re listening to. It’s helpful if it’s musically similar to what you’re doing, but even if not, just a change is good.
I think great mixers have at least two great qualities that factor into this conversation. They have great mixing skills, and at least as important, they have the ability to hear what they're doing when they're doing it. Most of us know a good mix when we hear it, so it comes down to our abilities to mix and keeping a good perspective on what we’re doing. And always keep a critical ear to what you’re doing. Never believe your own hype (if you have it). It’s easy to think of your work like some parents view their children. They all think their babies are the cutest and smartest ever.
But this isn’t a child. It’s quite possibly your living.
David Schober is an Engineer/Producer with 20-plus years working with the best in the biz, here to help with your recording and production needs. Find him at his website and on Twitter, or leave a comment below.