Why I Mixed My Latest EP At Starbucks (And 4 Lessons I Learned Along The Way)

2015 Jan 26, 2015

Today I’m proud to announce the release of my latest solo EP, What Lies Beyond. Not only do I love the songs, but I love the way they were written and created.

Feel free to pick up a digital copy of it here (name your price) and if you really want to support me, pick up the Deluxe Edition which features the 24 bit multi-tracks of the song “Wandering Man” and 4 bonus videos with explanations of the song lyrics.

Thanks in advance for listening. Now, let’s dive into the good stuff!

The Creativity Switch

Before we jump into the lessons, I want to get you up to speed on why this project was so interesting.

Six months ago I decided to do something called The Creativity Switch where I challenged myself to make an EP in a completely different way than I normally do.

Instead of writing songs on guitar, I started with drum loops. Instead of Pro Tools I used Reason (which I’ve never used before). Instead of mixing in my studio on monitors, I mixed at Starbucks on headphones. You get the idea.

I knew it would be difficult for me, and I sometimes wondered if I would produce anything even half decent.

Fortunately, the challenge was a success (in my eyes at least) and the EP is proof that anything is possible in the home studio today.

Now, on to the lessons!

Lesson #1 – Exploit Your Weaknesses

Early on I knew that using drum loops was going to be my biggest weakness. Not because drum loops are a bad idea, but because I’m not particularly good with programming drums. Full disclosure – I’m horrible at it.

Add to that the fact that I’ve never worked in Reason as a DAW before, I knew it would be painfully slow for me to create realistic sounding loops with MIDI.

The best sounding option for me was using real drum loop samples. The only problem with that is it’s hard to change them up and keep things varied.

Plus, like I said, I’m not any good at that sort of thing.

So what did I do?

Instead of lamenting my weakness (simple, repetitive, boring drums) I exploited it. I made that part of the songwriting process and arranged my songs around the loops.

Instead of writing songs that called for a different type of drum pattern in the chorus or hook, I kept things simple and cyclical – allowing the drum loops to fit better.

In essence, the songs took on the character and vibe of the drum loops themselves.

It sounds a bit obvious I suppose, but the best thing you can do with your weak link in the recording/mixing chain is to not cover it up, but instead exploit it and turn it into an intentional strength.

Lesson #2 – Get The Sound Right On Recording Day

I’m a huge proponent of recording things right on Day 1 instead of trying to “fix it in the mix” later on. But this became an absolute necessity for me on this EP. Here’s why.

Knowing that I was going to be mixing in a DAW that I’ve never used (and in all honesty scares me) I decided I would make things easier on my mixing self and try to make all my tracks sound as “mixed” as I could from the start.

Since I was using a lot of virtual instruments and guitar amp simulators this meant using Reason’s built in effects and plugins to tweak the sound in the “rack” and get things sounding awesome, saving little for mixing.

Practically this looked like tweaking the amp sim settings for quite a while until each guitar part was playing well with each other. I also put any delays or reverbs on the guitars that I wanted right away.

Reason’s “rack” is really an interesting way to work with plugins because to me it wasn’t mixing, it was recording through virtual outboard gear. I inserted compressors and effects “on the way in” while I was recording and I simply left them there when it came time to mix.

In the end, that allowed mixing to be a pretty simple process because I already had some great sounds that were working well together.

If you keep this concept in mind when you record (pretending like there’s no mixing phase) you’ll get a better mix in the end – and be a happier person!

Lesson #3 – Mix Until It Feels Right, Nothing More

Part of my self inflicted challenge was to mix the EP on headphones – at a coffee shop! Talk about two big “no-no’s” when it comes to mixing: exclusively headphones and loud environments.

The key to getting a great mix under these conditions was to keep things simple, work quickly, and not over mix the song.

I know this might seem backwards, but I honestly didn’t worry too much about getting the perfect EQ balance. It was simply too hard to hear – so I just said “forget it.”

I spent much of my time in mono, mixed at low volumes (which is challenging when they are blaring jazz at Starbucks and 30 other people are chatting right next to you) and used the built in EQ to get as much clarity and balance as I could.

But once things started to sound right (not perfect, but right) I had to move on. There’s nothing more I could do.

I had no real way of knowing if I was getting all the bad frequencies out and all the good frequencies highlighted.

I simply had to trust my gut – if the song felt “good” and I was liking it, then I called it a day.

I think there’s a huge lesson here for us all, even in the best of listening environments: mixing isn’t that complicated, you simply need to make the tracks feel right to the average listener.

If something is getting in the way of the song, then you gotta fix it. If however it is starting to feel really good, then you’re probably about done.

Lesson #4 – Creativity Is Still King

As much as so many people out there would like you to believe that mixing is mostly math or science, the truth is quite different. Mixing is an art.

I think the only way I could get a good mix on this EP is if the songs were good. There’s nothing else to it.

Ironically by putting so many limitations on myself, virtually handcuffing my normal mixing routine, I was able to write and record some really creative songs – songs that move me and get me excited.

This surge of creativity is what allowed the mixes to come together so easily. Creativity trumps technicality any day of the week.

Stick to writing (or working on) really creative songs and the recording/mixing part will come together much easier.

If the songs or arrangements aren’t really that compelling, then no amount of plugins will help you get a great mix.

I Appreciate Your Support

Thanks to all of you who have supported my music over the years. I hope you’ll take a minute to listen to my new EP, download the songs at your own price, and maybe even consider picking up the Deluxe Edition with the bonus content.

Either way, please let me know what you think of the new tunes and if any of these lessons help you in YOUR next project!

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