Beware of cookbooks – Strategies, not Recipes!
Seeking out a recipe for mixing in which someone else tells you the best EQ settings for snare drum or the best compressor settings for a lead vocal is futile. Not all snare drums are alike, and no two drummers are the same. They’ve never heard your vocal, as tracked with your microphone, in your room, for your song. How dare they tell you what to do?
Great mixes come from great strategies. You need a creative vision for the set of tracks provided and the technical expertise to realize that vision. Creative vision plus technical expertise! Each is a profoundly challenging thing to achieve on its own—the result of a lifetime of passionate progress—and you must excel at both.
You need to be such a great musician and such a creative thinker that your vision for the mix is artistically valid and transcends what anyone else would ever dream of. To be a great mixer, you must be as strong and talented an artist as your favorite musicians.
But that’s not enough. Your artistry needs vast technical capability. You need to have achieved such total mastery of the studio that you can coax your artistic vision for the music out of the knobs, sliders, buttons, and thingamajigs that fill your studio. This mastery comes from knowing how to change a signal from its current mediocre state to its needed stellar sound. You choose the needed devices and tweak the necessary parameters to accomplish this. You don’t plug in someone else’s settings.
There is no single right answer—there are countless possibilities. There is no universality—what works in one mix may not work in another. Your mixes sound good when you solve problems and exploit opportunities unique to the particular project you are mixing and when your musical goals are reached effortlessly, wielding any and all tools necessary to get you there.
Asking some stranger for the best settings for a snare drum reverb on your mix is as useless as asking someone to recommend the best words for a chorus. Who would take the following statement seriously?
The best lyrics of a chorus in a rock tune are “baby,” “love,” “yeah,
yeah, yeah,” and sometimes “sprocket.”
Or, for figuring out how many snare hits should be in a rock tune:
My favorite song has 147 snare hits!
Such an observation is trivially interesting, at best, and offers no relevant information for our next project. Deep knowledge of recorded music as an art form, mastery of tools and techniques and heightened listening skills, plus experience, judgment, convenience, luck, and creative whim are your guides.
It can be tempting, but don’t allow yourself to chase the false goals of mix recipes. They are easy to implement, to be sure, but they are unlikely to help your mix. It is a comfort to some:
My mix is great! I’m using the exact same reverb settings they used on
the hit “Imitation, It’s Not Just for Apes,” by the band Heard of Sheep.
But applying recipes to a mix removes you from the mix—your musicianship, your opinions, your technical savvy, your artistic influences, and your mix character. Mixing is a personal, nonlinear, creative endeavor expressed through hightech means, not a fait accompli in need of accomplishment.
An excerpt from the book Mix Smart by Alex Case
Alex Case is an Assistant Professor of Sound Recording Technology at the University of Massachusetts Lowell, an active member of the Audio Engineering Society, and a Fellow of the Acoustical Society of America. Case is an engineer, educator, and author who speaks frequently on audio and acoustics across the United States and internationally. With degrees in Mechanical Engineering, Music, and Acoustics, Professor Case lives and works at the intersection of art and science.
Photo from Flickr by rob.wiss