Mixing Minimalism And The Art Of Subtraction

2013 Jun 14, 2013

What is our goal as mixers? To add our special something to the tracks? Perhaps. Is it to polish things up a bit? I suppose. What if I told you that the true goal of mixing was to take away everything that doesn’t belong?


Via Javi Flickr

Nothing Left To Take Away

There’s a quote by French author Antoine de Saint-Exupery that I’ve always loved. In case you’re not familiar, he’s the guy that wrote The Little Prince. 

Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away. – Antoine de Saint-Exupery, Author

Brilliant, right? The idea of reducing things down to their minimalist beauty is one way of describing perfection. Whether it’s a sleek piece of technology with no wasted buttons or space (think about when the iPhone first came out), or a simple and clean website that is easy to navigate due to it’s minimalist design and layout, sometimes less is more.

What Doesn’t Belong Here?

When it comes to mixing music, Saint-Exupery’s words are very relevant. As a mixer, one of the most helpful questions you can ask yourself as you listen through tracks of a given song is: “What doesn’t belong here?” Not every frequency, riff, or even instrument is going to stay in the mix. It’s very rare at least.

Your job is to start removing things to reveal the character and soul of the song. Let nothing cover it up. This could be as simple as some high pass filters on many of the tracks. That one simple move will free up loads of headroom and bottom end. You could employ some simple subtractive EQ carving on your midrange heavy instruments. Your tracks will pop more, with no EQ boosting needed.

Or you might even discover the most powerful of all mix techniques, pushing the mute button. By simply removing a track or instrument all together (or in certain sections of a song) you can sometimes improve the entire mix effortlessly.

The Marble Statue Mindset

You get the idea, we want to remove things in order to reveal the mix. Not add things to make the mix. I think it helps to visualize an artist carving a statue out of marble. In order to create a beautiful statue you must start with really good material. The artist likely would want the most beautiful marble slab he could find.

Once the marble is attained, the artist with chisel in hand will begin to carve away much of that beautiful stone, seemingly wasting it. Why? To reveal a masterpiece underneath.

This is exactly what we do as mixers. We hope to start with good marble (quality recorded tracks and solid arrangements), then we use our chisel (EQ, compression, mute button) to sculpt a masterpiece of a final mix.

Start thinking of mixing in terms of subtraction, you’re more likely to be left with natural, musical mix that is more faithful to the originally recorded tracks.

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