Mixing in the modern DAW has become way too visual. The fact that we can “see” our audio in the form of sound waves and graphical plugins makes our ears lazy. It becomes far too easy to rely on these visual cues rather than what we’re actually hearing. The problem? We might not actually be making the best mixing decisions.
That EQ Curve Looks Right
I find this to be most true with EQ. When mixing with a graphical EQ like the stock Avid EQ III or any modern EQ plugin, you get to see your boosts and cuts in the form of a line going left to right. This is helpful in some regards to be sure, but in the past I have found myself thinking things like, “That EQ curve looks right.” But outside in the world it doesn’t quite sit right. Could it be that what I was visually seeing in the EQ was tricking my mind into hearing things a certain way?
The past year or so, when looking for an EQ I’ve reached for the SSL channel strip from Waves. One thing about this plugin that I hate is that it looks like a real SSL channel. There is no EQ curve or visual indicator of what is going on. There are simply a bunch of knobs. But this lack of visual cues is sometimes exactly what I need to mix well. This plugin (and others like it) force me to listen harder to see if my tweaks are making a difference or not. And isn’t that all that matters? That you can hear it working properly?
Our Eyes Play Tricks On Us
It’s hard not to be influenced by what we see in the DAW. You have a million things screaming for your visual attention: meters, sound waves, plugins, colors, grids, menus, etc. And if you’re anything like me, if the visual element is stealing part of my brain power, that leaves me with less to offer the sonic side of things, the part of the equation that really matters for our industry.
So not only are we distracted and divided mentally between the visual and the auditory, but the visual elements color what we hear. If we anticipate audio waves coming for the next chorus then we think we hear all the instruments coming in nice and full. But that might be only because we KNOW they are coming. We can see the blobs on the screen. But the listener will have NO visual cues to clue them in. In reality you might not be mixing things to sound big when the come in, because you were tricked by the visual. Bummer.
Learn To Listen
Visual cues are helpful, don’t get me wrong. But what we need to do is create a workflow that forces us into better listening habits during the critical mixing process. Start with plugins that give you fewer visual aids. It will frustrate you to no end at first. This is a good sign. Keep your “mixer” view of your DAW open as the primary window. You will have no clue what is coming next in the song. That is a good thing. It gives you a real listener perspective.
When all else fails, close your eyes or turn off the screen. Try to listen with focus and make note of what you hear. Then go back and re-tweak your EQ and compression settings from that perspective. Remember, the eventual audience for this mix will have no visual cues. Shouldn’t that affect the way you work?