When it comes to studio work, I’ve been fortunate to have wise teachers that have shown me the way. It would be disingenuous to claim any of the ideas in this article as my own; they are all things that I’ve learned from peers and mentors that I later applied toward my own method. (A method, incidentally, that is constantly under construction, growing, expanding, or otherwise being fiddled with.) In any event, I’m grateful for the opportunity to share some of what I’ve learned along the way.
1. Find the Drama
When I’m mixing, I like to find the most dramatic moment of a song and focus on that first, then work outwards from there. Sometimes it’s the split-second crack of a lone snare drum, or it could be a whole section of a song, such as the last chorus. This climactic section of a song and how you mix it will determine your bandwidth, your headroom, and how hard you can push the edge (if it’s a musical style that requires edginess). Everything before and after the climax can be shaped to support that moment.
2. Listen to the Lyrics
It seems obvious, but it’s not. (At least not for me, as a sax player/instrumentalist who is more accustomed to thinking about melody, phrasing and harmony.) I recently told a well-known client what I thought about one of his songs, a truly beautiful track that we had spent hours recording. “I could listen to this song all day long,” I said. “It just really makes me smile.” He laughed and replied, “You mean the song about dying?” It’s easy to get wrapped up in the technical aspects—like the sound of the music or the voice—and that’s a fine place to start getting tones in the ballpark and shaping a rough balance. But to mix effectively, you need to be aware of the bigger picture, which is the song as a whole and the emotion that the artist is trying to convey with each word. The words tell me what needs to happen, where and when the music needs to swell, and when it needs to simmer. Lyrics will often dictate what a mix needs and doesn’t need, telling me when to feature (turn up) a musical moment that supports the mood, or tame (turn down) elements which get in the way of that mood.
3. Ditch the Drums
Just for a while. I find it a great exercise to see if I can create an engaging, finished-sounding mix with the drums muted, as if it were recorded that way. So much pop music revolves around a killer beat -and I love recording and mixing drums! But if the mix is getting most of its power from a big rock drum set or a huge banging club beat that you’re listening to all day long, it’s easy to miss important mix opportunities within the rest of the instrumentation. So I mute the drums for a while and see if I can still make the song rock from beginning to end. When I think I’m there, I’ll un-mute the drums. It’s always surprising and immediately revealing.
4. A Balance Is Not a Mix
Every good mix starts with a good balance. You’ve got your tones together; maybe you’ve filtered out some of that flabby low end on the acoustic guitar and shined up that lead vocal so it sits just right, and everything is fitting together nicely. Creating a good balance sometimes requires a lot of time, but it is just the beginning. The fun really begins when you start shaping your balance with automation (either with an automation system on your console or within your DAW, or simply by riding the faders by hand while printing a “live” mix to disk or tape). That’s when a balance becomes a mix. Maybe you feature the guitar riffs between vocal phrases, or push the bass during the guitar solo. A balance is static. A mix moves. The best mixes, in my opinion, surprise you and keep your interest through each section of a song. And if it’s done right, a mix moves in support of the song’s meaning and its featured performer (i.e. the singer or soloist).
5. Don’t Be Snobby
I feel just as confident mixing “in the box” as I do mixing on a console. And I don’t care about fancy gear. Don’t get me wrong—I’ll pick a Neve 8068 over a Mackie 1402 any day. But if you had a great band and a Mackie, there’s no question I could work with that and have a great time and make a fine recording.
Grammy-nominated mixer, engineer, producer and saxophonist Dana Nielsen has amassed credits that run the stylistic gamut from Neil Diamond to Slayer and just about every style in between. His work can be heard on albums by artists such as Bob Dylan, Black Sabbath, Justin Timberlake, Adele, Rihanna, and countless others. Most recently, Nielsen mixed Damien Rice’s highly anticipated Rick Rubin-produced album My Favourite Faded Fantasy. He also produced, recorded, and mixed the forthcoming album All Rise for the emerging hip hop artist Crown and his ten-piece live band The M.O.B.Find-out more at dananielsen.com.