April 23, 2016 in Studio

Digital Mixing

I am in the thick of Mixing my album. We are using Pro Tools, which means one thing.

We can stop and start mixing at any point, and there is nothing that makes the experience end.

Some of you have never been in a recording studio. And some of you have only been in a modern recording studio. So I will paint a picture for you of old world mixing.

You have a board in front of you, with hundreds of sliders and knobs. And you have a rack of equipment behind you with hundreds of knobs. Here is a good picture of a small studio


All of that hardware can make a song sound sweet when you are mixing it. Maybe I should back up and define what mixing is. It’s taking all of the things you recorded and adjusting the volume and sound, to make a stereo (left and right channel) audio file. Making sure the bass isn’t louder than the vocals. Its the kind of thing that takes hours for each song.

In Pro Tools, you can mix a song for a while, press the save button, and close the program. You can work on other things. In the case of the album i’m working on, you can leave the song alone for 2 years, and then open the file, and continue where you left off.

If you are in a studio with hardware, you can’t do that. You can’t save state. You can take a break and stop mixing for a while. But you can’t do anything else in the studio unless you reset all of your work. This changes things completely. It turns the mixing of a song into a single event. You spend all day twisting the knobs and sliding the sliders. You get it sounding great. You drop it down to a stereo recording. And then you are done. You unhook all of the components and reset the knobs. If you hear something in the mix you wish you could change, it’s too bad. If you wish the bass guitar was a little louder in the outro, there is nothing you can do. Unless you want to spend the 6 hours trying to recreate the mix again.

There are some who think that the flexibility that Pro Tools gives you is a positive thing. And there are those who think that it is a negative. I am reading a book called Zen And The Art of Mixing. In it, the author describes what happens mentally when you listen to a song that you mixed, once you can’t tweak it anymore. He suggested the following concept (put into my own words and embellished):

If you know that you can change the mix easily, then you are always listening with a critical ear for nuanced perfection. Your left brain is focused on the mechanics. Should I turn this up? Should I tighten the compression? – But once the mix cannot be changed, your brain doesn’t listen that way anymore. You are not focused on finding imperfections. You can absorb the impact of the song, the way the audience will. Then and only then can you determine if the mix has the right emotional impact.

The way things are now, in a digital world, we don’t get the feeling of immutability until we hold the songs in our hand on a CD. Only then are they “chiseled in stone”. And that isn’t a good time to start listening to the impact of the song.

So, I am wondering what to do with this information. How do we mix with speed, aggressiveness, and decisiveness, quickly come to the end of the process, and absorb the impact of the final track? There are fake barriers we can put in place, but we live in a digital world, so the real barriers are gone.

I will spend the next few weeks and months working on this, and sharing my findings. I know that as time goes on, I can start to transition. If I mix a song on Monday night, I spend all day Tuesday listening to the song and writing notes on things I find annoying. But by Friday I find that I don’t hear those annoying things anymore. So, this is what I will try for now

Mixing the Song – Do all we can to get it sounding right. Replay it in my car. Through headphones. Focus on getting it “perfect”. I usually say “let me listen to this mix for a while and see what I think”. I’ll stop doing that.

Living with the Song – After I leave the studio, I will listen to the song for a while. But I wont take notes for at least 5 days. I won’t capture my first impressions. I will distance myself from the left-brained exercise of mixing, and experience the song as a piece of art. After several days, once I am detached, I can take notes about things that could improve the emotional impact.

One more Mix – I’ll allow us one more chance to tweak things, to maximize emotional impact. Maybe I’ll have to justify why a change is needed to improve the impact of a song. Turning the bass guitar down .2 DB is not going to do that.

I don’t know. I am just thinking here. I’ll let you know how it goes. Here is a link to the book that I bought. It is amazing.


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