Okay, so you've had your moment of inspiration ; you've written the song, recorded all the parts, finished all the programming and added loads of fancy tricks to your production. There's only one thing left to do - the mix. It shouldn't take too long should it? After all, mixing should simply be a matter of balancing the different tracks until it sounds "right"? The difficult part is deciding what's "right" in the first place. There are guidelines, and some basic rules to ensure that your record doesn't end up being unlistenable, but generally speaking it comes down to taste. This can make it very tricky to know when something is finished, and a good reason for employing a dedicated mix engineer to mix your material for you. Assuming they are working with a good recording to start with, a decent mix engineer will make your track come to life.
They also have the benefit of being impartial, which means they can help you through the process of realising that the project is finished and it's time to move on, no matter how hard this may seem! When I'm mixing, I often find a pattern in the process I go through in order to finish a track. I tend to know when things are starting to sound "right" and "finished", so I usually print a mix and have a break. Later on I'll have a listen to the mix and make notes about things that may be wrong, usually simple stuff like "guitar verse 2 too loud" or "kick drum gets lost in middle 8", that sort of thing. So I'll go back to the mix and make minor adjustments and then print it.
Usually I'm happy with this mix, and in my experience I've found that the more your revisit your original decisions, the easier it is to move away from the original "vibe" of the track. It can quickly become a balancing act between paying attention to detail and "mixing the life out of it". This is a problem that I often encounter with artists, (who can be very hard to satisfy) as the pursuit of perfection can be a very long and often disappointing journey! But equally it can lead to fantastic results, it's just a question of knowing how far to go. The truth is you probably got a lot of things right to start with, and trying to perfect your mix too much can end up in a track that sounds lifeless and undynamic (perfect?!) This is why people talk about trying to keep things "raw" and not too "polished". Music that has been "overmixed" is a sound that we associate with background music ; smooth, inoffensive and not requiring your attention.
Not characteristics that most of us want to be applied to our music! But knowing when to stop can be very difficult, because you can pretty much always find something wrong with your own work. It's important to remember that everyone else will hear your music differently to you. Assuming that the song and the recording is "good" to start with, and you're not deliberately trying to break the rules by panning everything hard left and having nothing in the right speaker, not many people will notice that the hi hat is maybe a little bit louder than you think it should be. They'll be listening to the melody, the words and the beat. I once worked with a band who seemed really happy during the recording session, but as soon as they heard the mixes decided the results were not what they wanted, even though everyone else who heard it thought it was great.
Why were they expecting the mix to sound so radically different? Probably because they had a sound in their head, an idea of what they thought they sounded like rather than what they actually sounded like. They demonstrated this by giving me loads of reference tracks to listen to, and saying "we want it to sound like this", to which my reply was "but you don't sound like this!" It's this pursuit than can lead to endless tweaking, changing and revisiting. There's a romanticism involved with music that can distort your understanding of your art, which is why having an outside opinion can make it easier to make decisions about things like mixing. And of course, the opinions you really want are not other band members or even mix engineers - it's the music buying public! In this case, I went along with the band's wishes to change things and we spent a long time slowly turning the mixes into a flat, watered down version of the original. They were happy, but from an objective point of view the music had nowhere near the energy or fun that it had to start with. Eventually I put my foot down before it turned into an Enya record.
This is not to say that there's nothing to learn from the artist's pursuit of perfection ; it's easy to get into a routine if you're mixing a lot of material, so if somebody suggests something a little bit crazy it's nearly always worth trying, because they may lead you to some great place you may not have found on your own, and encourage you to try new things. You just have to know when to stop, and try and have the discipline to stick to your guns if you know that something is "right" and shouldn't be changed. For example, Be wary when people ask you for bass, more bass and even more bass, to the point where your mix is unplayable on anything other than an ipod ( with the bass turned right down! ) The best rule to follow when learning the basics of mixing is the rule of simply trying things out. Do a mix, stick it on a CD then play it in a car and on your ipod. Play it on as many different systems as you can find.
Try turning off your computer screen when you're listening back to the mix - looking at the arrangement on screen gives you visual cues about what's coming next, and can influence what you think you're hearing. If you're getting things "wrong" it should be very easy to tell the difference between your mix and a commercial CD, as things like too much bass or top end tend to show themselves up everywhere. It's also a good idea to trust your instincts, and when something "feels" right it can very often sound right too. Just remember, if you find yourself at a point where you've got files called "I Love You Baby Mix 23" you're probably in trouble.
Go back and have a listen to "mix 1", you may be surprised what you find.
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