One of the biggest struggles we engineers face is not knowing when to call it quits. There seems to always be “just one more tweak”.
But in reality, spending an inordinate amount of time on a mix doesn’t actually make it better, it just makes it “different” and most likely it will make it sound worse.
So in this article, I laid out a few tips that you can use to help you get to the finish line and get you there faster.
1. Unfinished Mixes: Ain’t Nobody Got Time Fo Dat!
The thing is, unfinished mixes are like the greatest form of mental torture for a mixing engineer. Nothing can deflate an ego quicker than not being able to figure it out.
I find that the more time I allow myself to spend on a record, the more I keep moving into the abyss of never finishing. 8 hours turns into 2 days and then into 4 days etc.
As corny as it sounds, you need to sit down and literally tell yourself “I am going to have this mix finished by the end of the day”. It’s almost like a positive affirmation, if you will. You’re telling your mind what you want your body to do.
If you come in thinking “Well this is going to be a tough mix, I hope I can get it done by atleast 8 o’clock”, then chances are you won’t get it done.
First you must will it, then you do it!
If you don’t think you are capable of turning a mix around in a day then find a client with a tight deadline, i.e. “I need it tomorrow!” Trust me, you will see just how capable you are. Nothing focuses your mind more than having an extremely tight deadline.
Suddenly everything else seems less important.
2. Remove the Clutter
As my mom would put it “cluttered people have cluttered minds” and she isn’t lying.
I don’t know about you but whenever I am put into a situation where there is a big mess of information, it’s hard for me to concentrate and focus on the task at hand.
In mixing, it is not any different especially when you have high track counts. The idea is to remove as much of the technical process as possible so everything else becomes automatic.
Here’s a of couple ways to remove the clutter from your mixes:
1. Get rid of as many unnecessary tracks as possible. For example, if all the verse vocals are separated onto different tracks, just move them all onto one track. Another example is to bounce multiple tracks of a section, onto one stereo fader (i.e. harmonies, a string section etc.) Just use your best judgement.
2. Organize and color code the parts of the song into an order that makes sense to you. I’ve already talked about in on my post How to Mix Music: A Beginner’s Guide so I will spare you the details in this article.
Removing the clutter might take you an hour or more but it can honestly shave hours off a mix session. It allows your mind to make sense of everything. The more you understand the parts, the easier it will be to focus on the music and ultimately get to the finish line.
3. Bus First, Mix Later
Another thing that I find helpful is to do the “plumbing” before I get into the mix. I usually just equate this to figuring out how I want everything routed in my mix and then creating some aux channels to accommodate that.
Examples would be routing my drums to a Drum Bus, maybe all the vocals to a Vocal Bus, and then everything to a Mix Bus etc.
The key here is to remember that it doesn’t have to be perfect just get as much of it done as you can so you don’t have to do it while you are in a creative frame of mind.
4. Templates Can Be Useful
I’m not a huge user of mixing templates (click to see why) but I tend to lean towards having FX templates.
The thing I like about having FX templates is it gives me some general reverbs, common delays (1/8 , ¼, ½), and some other treats that I can quickly call on, when I’m in the moment.
Sometimes you just need a delay right then and there and nothing is more annoying then having to set up an Aux, loading in a delay, tweaking the settings AND THEN routing your sound to it. It’s just a vibe killer.
If I can keep myself in a creative space longer than chances are I am going to be using my intuition and the mix will ultimately come together quicker.
5. Focus on One Problem at a Time
One question that gets asked a lot in regards to mixing is “How do you know where to start?”
I mean there are literally hundreds of things that could be done at any one moment during a mix and it’s tough to figure out which one takes priority.
So how can we prioritize the problems?
The thing that I do (besides balancing first) is figure out what’s bugging me the most, then I tackle that problem. I won’t move on until I am satisfied that I have fixed the issue.
Sometimes it’s as small as brightening a piano and other times it’s more complex like tightening up the vocals.
Everyone is different and everyone will prioritize problems how to they want to. The best way to go about it is to let your intuition guide you. Just remember to ONLY focus on one problem at a time.
You only need to see the first step, not the whole staircase. Don’t worry that you need to do 100 things, those will all sort themselves out as you go along – trust me.
6. Break Time!
The most terrifying thing to do is to get up and leave your mix. It’s almost as if we think something bad will happen, like our entire session will get erased.
Taking the occasional break is a good way to gain some perspective on the mix. Maybe that high harmony isn’t as important as you thought.
Another thing I like to do is to get up, open the door and walk around outside my mixing room as the mix is playing. This helps me feel the record, not think so critically about it and figure out if the song makes me feel like it’s supposed to (Sad, Happy, Angry etc.)
By stepping away you stop focusing on little nuances that most people don’t care about and get more in line with how the record makes you feel. If you can get the song to make you feel something, than you are probably getting close to being finished.
7. Friends With Benefits
Anytime you enter into a client relationship, you want it to be a pleasurable experience for both sides. You want to work with people who you could see yourself being friends with but who will also pay for your service – hence “friends with benefits”.
Though at this stage, if you don’t have paying clients, it’s not that important. The main thing to take away from this is to try and find at least one person who will be objective with your work. You want someone who will tell you what they really think. Also, the more they are into actually making music, the better.
This person will act as your buffer. They will help put some perspective into the song for you and it’s a good way to help you stop spinning your wheels.
Instead of tweaking a kick drum to death, send the mix over to your trusted friend. You might actually be closer to being finished then you think. At the very least they might actually help you focus your attention on certain areas of the mix so that you can finish.
Just remember not to take offense to the comments you receive. The person is trying to help you (and the music), not undermine you. If you need to, read my article on the 11 characteristics of highly successful mixing engineers. A pleasing personality and being a perpetual learner are two of the more important traits.
Take these 7 tips and run with them. Just remember to simplify the process as much as you can and focus on the emotion of the song. It’s really all the technical stuff that gets in your way of getting the record finished.
If you have anything that you would like to add, that you feel would help others, please don’t hesitate to leave it in the comments.