What if mixing music is a whole lot simpler than we think?
At the end of the day, all we’re trying to do with EQ, compression, reverbs, delays, faders, automation, and all the tools at our disposal is simply make great sounding music to share with the world.
And while that’s easier said than done, it certainly doesn’t have to be complicated.
Today I want to share with you a stupidly simple, yet rather genius, approach to mixing that helped me a couple years back and still guides me today.
These Kids Have No Experience
One of my favorite engineers/producers is Brian Malouf.
He’s worked with everyone from Michael Jackson to Dave Matthews, but I’m more of a fan of his work mixing so many of my favorite 1990s rock tracks from bands like Pearl Jam, Live, The Verve Pipe, and Kid Rock (Bawitdaba anyone?!).
A few years ago he mentioned on an interview a powerful lesson he learned about mixing from the perspective of live sound.
He was an artist playing in a band at the time and they were doing lots of outdoor festival gigs. For a period of a few weeks his band had a bunch of shows at a local theme park.
One thing he noticed was that the park was rotating in summer staff interns to run sound for all the shows (including his). As you can imagine this made him a little bit nervous considering these kids had no mixing experience whatsoever.
After playing their first show, Brian went up to his friends in the audience and asked them how the band sounded. Their response floored him.
They said his band never sounded so good live!
This totally blew Brian away. How could these kids with no mixing experience be getting such a good mix on the board?
He went to the manager of the live events looking for an answer to this mystery.
I Gave Them Only One Rule
Brian goes up to the person in charge of these mixing “interns” and asks him point blank: “My friends are saying the mix coming out of the speakers is amazing. How are you getting these kids with absolutely no mixing experience whatsoever to make us sound so good? What are you telling them to do?!”
The manager’s response was genius.
“I gave them only one rule. All I told them to do was stand in front of the console, put on their headphones, hit the AFL button (after fader listen – like “solo”) for a track, listen to what it’s doing, then take off the headphones and look up at the band on stage and listen to the mix. If they can’t hear that part coming through speakers, I told them to simply turn up that fader till they could. Then I told them to repeat this process down the line with every track on the board.”
Can you see how brilliant (and crazy simple) this is?!
No EQ. No compression. No complicated routing or bussing.
This sound guy knew that he didn’t have time to train all these kids. He also knew that not everyone would understand all that mixing can involve.
So he boiled mixing down to what really matters most – being able to hear everything.
If You Get This Right You Can Screw Up The Rest
There is SO much application in this story for mixing in the home studio, but let’s get to the big takeaway.
Your job in mixing is simple: listen to each track in solo and then make sure you can hear it in context with the rest of the mix.
If you have a track that sounds awesome in solo but you can’t hear it in the mix, you need to turn it up. If turning it up doesn’t help, then you might need some simple EQ to help it sit just right.
Or it might be that the track doesn’t actually add to your mix at all and you can use my favorite button – the mute button!
Either way, if you get volume balance right for every track, then it really doesn’t matter if you have the “wrong” buss compressor on your master fader, or the “wrong” delay settings, or if you mix at the “wrong” sample rate.
Balance is everything. It’s the big win that matters more than all the tiny wins we have strong opinions about.
If you get get it right – you can screw up the rest with little to no fallout.