When you sit down to mix a song, you may find yourself bursting with excitement about delivering the best mix ever that you immediately begin dropping in plugins and tweaking like a crazy person. A little compression here, a little EQ there. You’re just going for it! But what if I told you that there was one crucial step in the mixing process that you can only do once and never get back to if you skip it? Would you be interested?
Via Stephen Dann Flickr
Hearing A Song For The First Time
I was listening to Grammy winning mixer Dave Pensado over at Pensado’s Place and he said something that struck me as very wise. In describing his process for mixing and how he starts, he dropped this insightful nugget of gold:
There’s only one time to hear a song the first time, and I like to catalogue my first impressions because I trust them. So I’ll begin the process by pulling out pen and paper and noting down the weaknesses and strengths of a song. – Dave Pensado, Mixer (Christina Aguilera, Destiny’s Child, Justin Timberlake)
What a geniuous thought. If you are a mixer and are given a song to mix, you only get one true first impression. You have only one shot at hearing a song like the eventual listeners will hear it, fresh. How profoundly helpful your first impression will be if you write it down. It can and should be your clue as to where to start working and what to feature in that mix.
Clues For How To Mix
Whatever your gut tells you about the song when you first hear it, that is where you should focus your time and attention. If your first impression is that the drums sound thin and lifeless and it’s distracting you from the vocal, then clue #1 is that you need to spend a good chunk of time on bringing the drums to life.
If at the same time you notice that the piano riff is so tight and it makes you want bob your head to the beat, clue #2 is that you need to feature the heck out of that piano. It moved you instantly as a listener, it will move the intended audience as well. Don’t let that piano part blend in with the rest of the tracks.
What If You Recorded The Track Yourself?
Many of you might be both the mixer and the tracking engineer, especially if it’s your own music we’re talking about. I would submit that this process still applies to you. You want to give yourself some time (at least a day for crying out loud) to separate yourself from the recording process before you start mixing. Go listen to something else, or do something else entirely for some time. Then schedule mixing into your calendar and sit down intently.
Fire open a song, grab a pen and paper, and press play. For those 4 minutes or so, make note of everything you like and don’t like. Be honest with yourself. Don’t defend your poor recording choices with stubbornness. Instead admit that you’ll need to work on some tracks more than others. And at the same time, be sure to highlight what truly are the strengths of that song, the parts that still move you as an engineer who is very close to the project. This is a strong indicator of what others will like as well.
It’s All About Intentionality
In the end, what Dave Pensado is bringing to light is that it’s wise to be intentional about that first listen through. Give yourself a moment to think with focus about the big picture of the mix. What should you focus your time on fixing and what should you focus your remaining time on highlighting. You’ll have a clearer vision for the hours that lay ahead of you and your final mixes will likely reflect that focus.