The following is a guest post from my friend Stephen Kelly, a London-based musician, mixer and educator.

His mission is to help you take giant steps forward on your audio journey. You can check out all of his free techniques and systems to help you understand everything you need to know about producing better audio on his site, Understanding Audio.

Take it away Stephen!


“What sort of music do you like?” 

If you’ve ever been asked this question and answered… “Oh… everything and anything”, you’re missing a trick.

The right answer isn’t to list off every single artist you’ve listened to since you were three years old but you could give a few short examples of who you really like, why you like them and then ask the other person who they’re into; like the good conversationalist that you are. 

The “everything and anything” answer is never really true.

As a music lover, you’ve been listening to so many different artists and styles over the years that you’ll undoubtedly have your favourites and that’s what truly makes you stand out from the crowd.

Maybe you exclusively listen to death metal or acid jazz and that’s cool – that’s your taste and no one should judge you for it. In fact… you’d be a specialist.

Photo by Raffi

It’s Your Taste That Makes You Unique

As a mixer, your taste is what separates you from every other engineer out there.

I agree with Dave Pensado’s point that it’s better to sound new than it is to sound good.

To take that a step further, there’s no such thing as a perfect mix. You can be technically very good but as Graham has already pointed out, there are plenty of “good” sounding recordings and mixes out there that simply don’t interest most of us. 

Why?

They’re not unique.

In my opinion, unique is better than perfect. In fact, a little bit of imperfection never hurt anyone.

But, where’s the line? How do we know when we’re on the right track to getting a professional sounding mix and making sure we’re creating something unique?

The Music Dictates The Mix

Think about the music that you love. There’s a reason why you love it.

Not only that, but as someone with an interest in music production, you know why certain mixes catch your ear and stand out. 

Let’s look at an example… In the second verse of Jeff Buckley’s version of ‘Hallelujah’, the following lyrics always stand out to me 

“She tied you to her kitchen chair
She broke your throne and she cut your hair
And from your lips she drew the Hallelujah”

Yes, they’re powerful lyrics but the reason they stand out is because the vocal performance escalates at this point and Jeff Buckley’s vocals are much more prominent.

If Andy Wallace decided to over-compress the vocals at this point, then a beautiful moment would have been lost. He used his taste as a mixer to compliment the style and arrangement of the song.

If you’ve ever over-compressed a vocal (which I definitely have), you won’t have set out to do it intentionally but it completely removes the professional feel that you would have originally wanted to achieve.

That’s because somewhere along the way, you strayed away from the plan and focused too much on the technical elements rather than your taste. That can happen to all of us during a mix – especially if we’ve been mixing for a few hours.

The Most Underused Mixing Hack

How are issues like this avoided? By using references.

If you had a reference of what a great vocal mix sounds like, then you won’t ever encounter issues with poorly balanced or over-compressed vocals.

By taking the steps to define your taste and use references of what you feel are great mixes, you make yourself stand out.

You can take elements and ideas from mixes you love and apply them to your own mixes. Not only that, but you can even “borrow” from other genres to really bring something different and truly unique to the table.

As you are soon to see, I think that reference mixes are so powerful that their use is the greatest and most underused mixing hack there is.

In fact, I believe their use is so powerful that I created a free guide to share with you – ‘The One Hack That Guarantees A Unique, Pro Sounding Mix’ 

Ever ask yourself these questions?

  • What is a good mix?
  • How do I start my mix?
  • How do I get my track to sound like (Insert Mixer Name here)’s mixes?
  • Why do my mixes sound so harsh?
  • Why can’t I get my snare to sound like (Insert Track Name)?

The answer to all of those questions is not as complicated as you might think.

Your unique taste helps you get the answers to those questions, but what will help even more is my free guide.

I’ll show you the steps to take to unlock this one unique hack in your mixes, get the most out of your taste, references and take huge steps toward your mixes sounding like the pros 

So, grab it for free here!

Now, I’d love to hear about your taste.

Are there specific styles that you mix all the time or do you like to reference and borrow techniques from many different styles? Leave a comment below!

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