Realizing Your Creative Vision

Have you ever recorded some really amazing tracks, and when you built your mix, everything ended up sounding like mush?

By Teri Danz

Have you ever recorded some really amazing tracks, and when you built your mix, everything ended up sounding like mush? If you’re wondering what happened; you’re not alone. Every recording artist, producer, or engineer has experienced challenges transforming their musical ideas into the perfect mix at some point in their career (hopefully in the beginning). If you feel overwhelmed at the prospect of realizing your musical vision, don’t dismay. Below are some tips to approaching the mixing process with confidence and creativity.

Don’t Look, Listen
“Mix with your ears, not with the screen,” notes threetime Grammy winner Dave Isaac (Anita Baker, Prince, Marcus Miller). In the era of the ubiquitous waveform display, don’t let visual cues determine what your mix should sound like. Isaac closes his eyes to “feel” the mix.

Mix at a Low Level
Many people mistakenly think they need to mix at a loud volume to get the “intensity” of the music. Working for an extended time at high SPLs causes ear fatigue—in the best-case scenario, you won’t hear things accurately, which can lead to poor mix decisions, and in the worst case, you can irreparably damage your ears. If your mix sounds good at a low level (we’re talking 85 dB and lower), the balance will still hold at “ear shattering.”

Visualize Parts of a Whole
Mixing is a delicate balance of art and technology. For veterans like Isaac, the DAW (or the console) is a tool, but the vision for the music is in his mind. This is where the art comes in: He creates a focal point in the music to guide the listener through the song. It’s one thing to merely arrange everything in a logical place; it’s another to view the individual parts as a tapestry to best communicate the story of the song.

When Crafting a Soundstage, Imagine a Real Performance
In terms of mix dimension and virtual “placement” of sonic elements, think about where the drums might sit on a real stage, or where a guitar amp might be located. Which voices and parts would normally come forward onstage, and when? Re-creating the realistic physical scope of a stage performance gives the mix a natural feel.

Don’t Over-Process
Since today’s powerful signal-processing plug-ins recreate the sound and function of a spectrum of highend hardware at a fraction of the cost, it’s common for engineers to have dozens, even hundreds, of virtual effects at their disposal. This doesn’t mean that you have to use them all. Each plug-in has a sonic impact, and it’s easy to get mired in the details and overdo it; be sure to keep your big picture in mind while you’re piling on the effects.

Let Your Music Breathe
It can be tempting to make your mix as loud as possible, but when it comes to volume levels, more is not necessarily better. Take a cue from mastering engineers: The more you compress your mix, the more you squash the dynamic range that gives it expression and life, and the more you introduce ugly distortion artifacts.

Get Perspective
Says Isaac, “the mix is done when something moves me.” (For example, he gets goose bumps.) You may or may not get that feeling when you’re finished, so after you mix, sit with it for a while. Sleep on it. Play it on different systems—in the car, on an iPod, etc. . . . I can’t tell you how many sessions I left thinking a mix was great, got in the car or at home and thought, “Oh, noooo . . . it sounded great in the studio.” (Famous last words!) And just sometimes I’ve left, and guess what, the mix is amazing! So when you’re “finished,” give it some time, gain some perspective. You’ll know it’s finished, when it finally feels right.