Making the Best of What You’ve Got

   By Emilie L   Categories: Mixing Techniques
minimoog synthesizer

Photo from Flickr user Bernd Sleker

Great mixes can be made on pretty much any speakers or any headphones if the person using them is extremely familiar with both the sound of the speakers or headphones and how they sound in the room that will be used for mixing (obviously this second part isn’t relevant for headphone mixing as the size and shape of the room isn’t a factor with headphones). The same is also true of pretty much any other type of equipment you care to mention. Take hardware or software synthesizers for example. While there are certain undisputed “classics” (the Minimoog being one of the most ubiquitous), and while I would never criticize anybody for wanting to own such a thing, not having a Minimoog doesn’t prevent you from making great sounds. They just won’t be great Minimoog sounds.

Now if you think about plug-ins, a name that will almost certainly spring to mind to anybody who has been in the music business for even a short while is Waves. The plug-ins made by Waves have a thoroughly deserved reputation of being among the best available today. But they also have a price tag to match. Many people feel that if they were suddenly able to afford to buy these Waves plug-ins their mixes would magically improve. The truth, however, isn’t quite that clear cut. Yes, the Waves plug-ins (and many other top end plug-ins) do sound amazing… if you know how to get the best out of them. In some situations, a better sounding or more flexible plug-in can actually sound worse if you don’t know what you are doing, because the extra depth, clarity, and punch will be much less forgiving than a not-quite-so-good plug-in would be.

Going back to synths for a second, a good sound designer can get better sounds out of a very average analog synth than someone simply turning knobs and pushing buttons on a Minimoog without really knowing how to achieve what he or she wanted. In my opinion, it really does come down to taking the time to get to know whatever equipment you do have. Get to know its strengths and weaknesses, and all of its frustrating little intricacies. And take some time to actually learn a little bit of the theory about that piece of equipment—whether it’s a synth, a compressor, or an EQ—because if you know those fundamental principles then when you do eventually move up to the better quality equipment you will already have a head start on knowing how to get the best out of it.

With all this in mind, one of the most frequent questions I get asked is “What’s the best kind of…?” Most of the time people aren’t satisfied with the pseudophilosophical answer outlined above and tend to get a little frustrated when I don’t just say to them “Ah you want to buy a PhatTastic MegaSynth 2000! That’s easily the best synth on the market.” There are two reasons why I really can’t give any examples of “what’s best,” the first of which is that, again, there really isn’t a “best” as it depends on what you are used to and how well you know it. The second reason is that (taking as read that there isn’t an absolute “best” anyway) what might work very well for one person’s working methods and sound he or she wants to achieve might not work as well for the next person’s unique needs and musical desires. There are certain “classics,” as I already mentioned, but, depending on what genre of music you make and what your skills and abilities are, a Minimoog (or a Yamaha CS-80 or Roland Juno-106, etc.) might not be what you need to get the sounds that are in your head.

It is easy to fall into the trap of thinking that, just because something is considered “the best,” that it will be the best for what you want to achieve. As an example, consider the question: “What’s the best car?” Is it a Ferrari, a top-of-the-range Mercedes, a Volkswagen Golf, or a Ford pick-up truck? I am sure that you immediately made your mind up and you would, of course, be right! Personal taste is just that… personal. However, if I changed the question to “What’s the best car for somebody who works on a farm and has to transport quite a lot of sometimes dirty equipment around from place to place?” then I think there would (hopefully at least) be a pretty general agreement on which car would be best.

So when you are asking “What is the best?” type questions you really need to be much more specific with your questioning in order to even get advice as to possible options and alternatives from which to make your decision. If you are asking about speakers, you need to think about qualifying your question a little more. What size is your room? Where is it located? Do you have acoustic treatment? Do you want active or passive speakers? Are they required to run really loud sometimes or would you always be monitoring quietly? What kind(s) of music will they be working on primarily? Have you had any other monitors in the past and, if so, for how long and were you in any way happy with the sound you got from them? Will these be your main monitoring source or do you have other sets you will be able to use for A/B comparisons? What about headphones? The list goes on. Once you have clarified exactly what you’re looking for you should be able to get some better guidance as to a few possible alternatives. You should always check out and do some research for yourself wherever possible. And by “research” I don’t just mean Googling a few specs, I mean getting out there and trying them out in the real world. In case you are curious about my thoughts and opinions, there is a Buyer’s Guide section on this book’s companion website where I have gone through each type of equipment and listed my own preferences and thoughts. It includes some reviews of particular favorite pieces of equipment of mine.

Excerpt from The Remix Manual: The Art and Science of Dance Music Remixing with Logic by Simon Langford © 2011 Taylor & Francis Group. All Rights Reserved.

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