The Perfect Mix?
By Roey Izhaki
It doesn’t take much experience before the novice mixer can begin to recognize problems in a mix. For instance, we quickly learn to identify vocals that are too quiet or a deficient frequency response. We will soon see that, once a mix is problem-free, there are still many things we can do in order to make it better. The key question is: What is better?
At this point, I recommend an exercise called excerpt set – an essential experiment for anyone involved in mixing. It takes around half an hour to prepare, but provides a vital mixing lesson. The excerpt set is very similar to a DJ set, except each track plays for around 20 seconds and you do not have to beat-match. Simply pull around 20 albums from your music library, pick only one track from each album and import each track into your audio sequencer. Then trim a random excerpt of 20 seconds from each track and arrange the excerpts consecutively. It is important to balance the perceived level of all excerpts, and it’s recommended to have crossfades between them. Now listen to your set, beginning to end, and notice the differences between the mixes. You are very likely to identify great differences between all the mixes. You might also learn that mixes you thought were good are not as good when played before or after another mix. While listening, try to note mixes that you think overpower others. This exercise will help develop a heightened awareness of what a good mix is, and can later be used as a reference.
Most of us do not have a permanent sonic standard stored in our brains, so a mix is only better or worse than the previously played mix. The very same mix can sound dull compared to one mix but bright compared to another. (With experience, we develop the ability to critically assess mixes without the need for a reference, although usually only in a familiar listening environment.) In addition, our auditory system has a very quick settle-in time, and it gets used to different sonic qualities as long as these remain constant for a while. In essence, all our senses work that way – a black and white scene in a color movie is more noticeable than the lack of color on a black and white TV. The reason why the excerpt set is such an excellent tool for revealing differences is that it does not give the brain a chance to settle in to a particular style. When mixes are played in quick succession, we can more easily perceive the sonic differences between them.
Different engineers have different ideas and mix in different environments and therefore produce different mixes. Our ears are able to tolerate radical differences as long as mixes are not heard in quick succession. The truth is that it is hard to find two albums that share an identical mix because different genres are mixed differently – jazz, heavy metal and trance will rarely share the same mixing philosophy; different songs involve different emotions and therefore call for different soundscapes; and the quality and nature of the raw tracks vary between projects. But mostly it is because a mixing engineer is an artist in his own right, and each has different visions and ideas about what is best for the mix. Asking what is a perfect mix is like asking who is the best writer that ever lived, or who was the greatest basketball player of all time – it is all down to personal opinion.
So, there is no such thing as a perfect mix but, as with many subjective things in life, there is a multitude of critically acclaimed works. Just like generations of readers have acknowledged Dostoevsky’s talent, and many people consider Michael Jordan to be one of the greatest sportsmen ever, many audiophiles hold in high regard the likes of Andy Wallace or Spike Stent and the inspiring and pioneering mixes they have crafted. There might not be such a thing as a perfect mix, but the list below includes a small selection of noteworthy mixes produced by acclaimed engineers.
There are many albums with truly outstanding mixes. I could have easily listed 50 of my personal favorites, but the rationale behind my selections was to provide a small, diverse list. It is worth noting that, apart from being superb mixes, all these albums are exceptionally well produced.
Kruder & Dorfmeister. The K&D Sessions. !K7 Records, 1998.
Mixed by Peter Kruder and Richard Dorfmeister.
Fascinatingly, neither Kruder nor Dorfmeister are mixing engineers by profession. This downbeat electronica remixes album is a masterclass in almost every aspect of mixing. From the entire list, the mixes on this album are probably the most integral to the overall product, clearly blurring the line between producing and mixing.
Nirvana. Nevermind. Geffen Records, 1991.
Mixed by Andy Wallace.
Considered by many as the godfather of mixing, Wallace is perhaps the most influential mixing engineer of our time. He had two main breakthroughs in his career: The first was Walk This Way by Run D.M.C. and Aerosmith – a landmark track in rap history. The second was the release of Nirvana’s Nevermind. Wallace’s impressive and prolific mixing credits are far too extensive to catalog here. Suffice it to say that the majority of his mixes are bordering on immaculate (or just plain immaculate) and provide a great learning source.
Massive Attack. Mezzanine. Virgin Records, 1998.
Mixed by Mark ‘Spike’ Stent.
One of Britain’s most notable mixing engineers, Spike’s career soared after he imbued the KLF’s seminal The White Room with his idiosyncratic mixes. With Mezzanine, an album that is bursting with mixing nuances, Spike crafted one of the most enchanting soundscapes in trip-hop history, and mixing history in general.
Muse. Absolution. A & E Records, 2003.
Mixed by Rich Costey.
During his early career, Costey engineered for Phillip Glass, a fact that I believe is still reflected in his unique mixes. He quickly became one of the most distinctive mixing engineers around. To some he is known as the record breaker when it comes to power and aggression – a result of mixes he did for bands such as Rage Against The Machine, Audioslave, Mars Volta and Muse. Each mix on Absolution is inspiring, but one specific mix – Hysteria – sums up an era, whilst also heralding the beginning of the next.
Radiohead. OK Computer. Parlophone, 1997.
Mixed by Nigel Godrich.
Nigel Godrich has hinted in the past that mixing was never his strongest area. A celebrated producer, who is known for his immense creativity, perhaps Godrich’s strongest mixing skill is his exceptional ability to reflect and deliver the emotional vitality of the music he works with. His mixes are rarely polished to the highest of commercial perfection, but never fail to be penetrating and emotive.
The Delgados. The Great Eastern. Chemikal Underground Records, 2000.
Mixed by Dave Fridmann.
If a mixing studio was a playground, Fridmann would probably be the hyperactive kid. He is not a purist; that is, his mixes are infused with many tricks, gimmicks and fresh ideas. The opening track on this album, The Past That Suits You Most, is a demonstration of how, arguably, a mix can demand more attention than the song itself. A later track, Witness, also demonstrates outstanding work.
The above is an excerpt from Roey Izhaki’s book Mixing Audio, 2e. Roey Izhaki has been involved with mixing since 1992. He is an academic lecturer in the field of audio engineering and gives mixing seminars across Europe at various schools and exhibitions. He is currently lecturing in the Audio Engineering department at SAE Institute, London.