The Subtle (But Liberating) Truth About Great Mixing

2015 Feb 09, 2015

If you’re looking for the next great trick, technique, or piece of gear to take your mixes to the next level you might be disappointed with the most profound mixing truth of all.

This truth is shared (and proclaimed) by every great mixer I know and yet so often we dismiss it as not important. And yet, it’s the single most powerful and liberating fact about mixing.

If you truly can get this deep down, you and your mixes will be set free.


Via Josef Grunig Flickr

Mix The Way You Hear Music In Your Head

At the NAMM show last month, one of my favorite mixers Ken Andrews was interviewed and asked about his approach to mixing. He said something profound:

I mix in a way that represents how I hear music on stage. Having been a live musician for many years, I hear loud drums behind me on a platform and screaming guitar amps a certain way. That sound makes sense to me, so I try and mix in a way that replicates that sound in my head. – Ken Andrews (Paramore, Beck)

There. It’s that simple.

Mix the tracks in front of you however you tend to hear them in your head. Trust your gut and musical vision and then arrange things in such a way that the tracks reflect that vision.

Legendary mixer Chris Lord-Alge said something almost identical when asked about how loud and punchy his drums sound in his mixes:

Being a drummer, I hear drums a certain way. I hear them in your face; I hear them having a certain impact. – Chris Lord-Alge (Green Day, Switchfoot)

The answer to how they get the sounds they do is counterintuitive. Rather than being a set of techniques or gear recommendations it’s simply the obvious statement: “That’s just how I hear music.”

If this sounds too simplistic, then you’re missing the point. Yes, it’s simple, but there are so many implications to unpack.

Remember, Mixing Is An Art

Recording and mixing music is part science, part art. But mostly art.

Many people lean towards the science, or technical side of things and they ask questions like: “What is the right way to EQ guitars?” or “What sample rate should I record at?”

Unfortunately, despite the technical nature of recording and mixing, it’s primarily an artistic and creative endeavor; one where the questions you should be asking are totally different.

Dave Pensado famously said, “I can tell you how to get a good kick drum sound, but I can’t tell you what a good kick drum sound is.”

His point is that the most important part of recording or mixing is discovering and identifying what good sounds are, having a sonic vision in your head. If you don’t like the sound you’re getting, then by definition it’s not a good sound.

You Are The Expert On What You Think Sounds Good

At the end of the day, there are countless sonic visions. All that matters is that you discover YOURS.

You hear music a certain way, and you are the expert on how you hear it. You know your musical tastes best, so trust them, grow them, and share them.

Don’t assume that there is a right way to mix. That’s foolish and limiting.

Instead mix in such a way that what is played back is an accurate representation of how YOU hear things.

Decide what a good mix is to you (drum sounds, panning, reverb settings, dynamics, vibe) and then do a large body of work in order to get better at manifesting that good mix that you already hear in your head.

No More Playing The Comparison Game

I think the most liberating thing about mixing the way you hear music in your head is that you can stop playing the comparison game.

I experience this every month with Dueling Mixes. Joe and I each mix the same song and they always turn out differently. Why? Because we hear music in different ways. And I had to learn early on that’s OK.

You and I can ignore how other people mix (unless of course they mix the way you like to mix) and instead focus on getting OUR tracks to up to OUR standards.

Now of course in the early stages this is hard to do.

It’s hard to get what you hear in your head to come out of the speakers, but you will get there much faster if you stop lamenting how bad your mixes are when compared to the pro’s and instead focus on your musical vision.

You “see” music in a certain way. So instead of focusing all your energy on matching someone else’s work, divert those resources to serving the song at hand the best you can.

You’ll get farther, be happier, and learn a ton in the process.

Be Set Free

Here’s the point: it’s time to be set free. It’s time to let go of trying to mix just like Chris Lord-Alge, Kevin Andrews, Dave Pensado, or anyone else you like.

It’s time to start mixing like YOU.

Be an innovator. Be creative. Be musical. Be free to make art, not to copy someone else’s. 

Yes, use the tools and training provided here and elsewhere to get there, but only if it serves your musical vision for your songs.

And most importantly, have fun. We’re making music here, remember?

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