If there’s ever an elusive mixing question it’s this one: when is my mix done, and how can I know that for sure? If mixing were truly a technical endeavor (as many audio pundits want to make it out to be) then there should be an obvious end point. You’d stop when the mix is technically “finished” or “correct.”
Via Andrew Hurley Flickr
Mixing Is Subjective
But you and I both know that this is a ridiculous way to think about mixing. Because in fact, mixing is purely an art form, and like just about every other piece of art in the world it’s subjective. That’s why finishing a mix is so hard. There’s no objective end, only a subjective one.
So where does that leave us? In utter frustration probably. But just because mixing is subjective, doesn’t mean there aren’t a few helpful principles to lean on when needing to know when your mix is finished. Here are some simple things I look for to know when my mix is “good enough” to be done.
The Sweetening Test
If you’ve heard me talk about sweetening before, you’re about to hear it again. Sweetening is what I call the process of systematically going through your song from top to bottom listening like a music fan and not an engineer. You’re listening up until the mix gets a bit boring, repetitive, or uninspiring. Whenever you feel like you’d probably change the “radio station” it’s time to do something.
It could be as simple as some panning automation, a little vocal delay candy, or muting some parts to keep the mix fresh. Whatever it is, you want to make sure that every single moment of the song is engaging to the average listener. I will NEVER consider a mix finished if it doesn’t pass the sweetening test. It might only need 10 minutes more work, but it’s still not done until the song is compelling from intro to final note.
The Distraction Test
Whether before or after the sweetening phase I try to listen through the mix a couple of times and pretend to be a fan, someone purely listening in for enjoyment. I don’t touch the faders, plugins, or pan pots. I’m just listening. What am I listening for? Distractions!
If I hear anything that takes me out of the music zone and thrusts me back into the engineer/studio zone I have a problem and my mix isn’t done. It could be a vocal that comes in just a bit too loud. It might be a snare drum hit that’s more rim than snare and it seems out of place. It might be a little breath that sounds weird. Whatever it is, if it distracts me from the essence of the song I take note and go fix it. Nothing about the mix should distract the listener from the song.
The Timer Test
Here’s one more test for you: the good ole’ fashion timer test. Plain and simple, I know about on average how long I take to do a mix. So, I always set a timer when I mix. If by the time that timer goes off I’m not done, I at least know that I should be pretty darn close. If I push on much beyond that timer, chances are high that I’ll be hitting a point of diminishing returns, where I’m not really improving things, just tinkering.
But Graham, don’t some songs just take a lot longer than others?!
Sure, there are always exceptions to just about any rule. But in reality I find this to be true. The timer doesn’t lie. It knows when you should be wrapping up. For some of you that means 5 hours to a great mix. For others 3 hours, or maybe 9 hours. Whatever it is, set the timer and trust it. You can only do but so much for your song.
Your Mix Is Never Truly Finished
These three tests help me to know when I should stop a mix. Notice I didn’t say when the mix is completed or finished. Because the truth (and we all know this) is that a mix is never really finished. There is always something more you could have done. But in real life you need to stop working on it at some point and move on.
These tests help me get to that point with 95% certainty, and that’s good enough for me!