11 Characteristics of Highly Successful Mixing Engineers

It shouldn’t be a surprise when I say that there are certain things professional mix engineers live by that most amateurs don’t. After all there is a reason why the professionals keep getting called back.

After interviewing a lot of engineers for my Psychology of a Mix Engineer series, I started to notice similarities and common characteristics between most, if not all of them. If you haven’t had the opportunity to read through them I would suggest doing so. It’s not just the obvious knowledge you’ll gain but also the subtle messages that seep into your subconscious that actually help the most.

Below is a list of the common characteristics that I have found in speaking with each talented engineer. I’ve also included quotes which highlights their thoughts on the subject.

They Have Pleasing Personalities

This trait is not actually something that was said by the engineers that I interviewed but it was more of an observation on my part.

Each engineer’s personality was similar where they were not only very pleasant but they also seemed like they had the ability to serve and do so willingly. You could just tell that if you sent them a project and you wanted your ideas to be translated into audio that they would make sure they respected your creativity and took into consideration all suggestions.

This is a very admirable trait to have not only as an engineer but also as a human being. We live in a society that’s very self focused and promotes narcism every where you turn so the ability to turn that off and completely give yourself to another person and their ideas, is a gift.

They’re Music Fans

I have yet to talk to a professional engineer who said they didn’t like a genre or style of music, it just hasn’t happened. They are all fans of music first and engineers second. They want to listen to many genres because they understand that their growth lies outside the genres they already know.

You don’t necessarily have to work on all genres but having a healthy respect for different genres will only benefit your mixes.

Ali Staton“I buy a lot of music and I still buy CD’s even though everyone is streaming and downloading. The list of records that inspired me and continues to inspire me is pretty long [Laughs].”

– Ali Staton

Chris Bell“I liked the drums from Led Zeppelin and I liked The Beatles but really I was listening to all kinds of music back then to tell you the truth. As far as one record in particular, I don’t know, I mean I was big into vinyl back then. I had a weekly spending habit of going to the record store and buying records so I was listening to a lot of different music. I’ve listened to so many records that it’s hard to pin point one thing but maybe Led Zeppelin II.”

– Chris Bell

Ghislain“I grew up in a household where my dad was a crazy music buff so I heard anything from Frank Sinatra to MC Hammer [laughs]. My dad’s a sucker for whatever’s popular and obviously when you’re a kid you kind of just listen anything that’s being played.

Now I mainly listen to whatever’s on the radio to be honest, just to see what’s happening as far as musical trends and styles. It could be hip hop, crazy techno, country and even the folk stuff that’s becoming pretty popular nowadays. If it’s new and happening, I want to hear it.”

– Ghislain Brind’Amour

They Work Off Feelings and Emotions

This one seems to be a reoccurring theme. It’s hard not to have a conversation with a competent engineer without them mentioning that they are trying to extract the emotion from a record. Almost as if the technical equipment just disappears and something inside of them drives them to the finished product.

As a new engineer this might be tricky to understand because you are still going through the motions of learning what all of the technical equipment actually does to the sound. With enough practise you too can eliminate as much of your technical mind as possible and tap into the creative part.

Ariel Borujow“I always go with how I’m feeling so there’s always been this emotional attachment to it for me. As much as I’m technically trying to get to the clients overall vision, I’m still putting my feeling into that record with whatever that may be.”

– Ariel Borujow

Mark Needham“Every song is also an art piece, so you have to listen to it to see how it makes you feel, and try and enhance that feeling. I feel the most important thing, besides my ears, is how something makes me feel.”

– Mark Needham

Chris Carter“I always trust what I feel in my heart. I know they say trust your ears but really at the end I trust what’s in my heart and if it makes me feel something when I listen to a record. When it gets to the end of the mix, I need to feel the emotion from within me and If I don’t feel that emotion then I need to figure out what the fuck I need to do to make it happen [laughs].”

– Chris Carter

They Have the Ability to Adapt to New Technology

One thing that you quickly learn about creating music is that the technology is constantly changing. The up and coming generation is always quick to adopt the newest technology where some of the music veterans fall behind.

The engineers that seem to stay relevant or on top (most of them anyways) are the ones that adopt the new technology and find a way to incorporate it into their work flow.

A lot of guys have moved in the box or are making a move into the box. That means you shouldn’t ever feel limited by the technology you have because we live in a time where a professional mix can be done on a laptop.

Adam Barber“Well since I’ve been mixing in the box now for several years I don’t mind digital at all. Plus the way digital is, it allows you to work easier and faster. I love digital, I definitely wouldn’t trade it back in for analog.”

– Adam Barber

Mark Needham“We removed the hybrid set up about a year and a half ago and went full digital, it’s all in the box at this point. I have a couple Dolby vocal processors that are still analog. I’m summing through an analog mixer, I have Dual Raven Consoles that I’m using and I have one of the new Avid F6 Fader sections, however everything is basically digital.”

– Mark Needham

Chris Bell“I could definitely see myself working in the box at some point but I would probably still use a summing bus. The Neve summing bus I have, has an A/D convertor in it which actually sounds really frigging good. I was really surprised, and to me it sounds better than a lot of these boxes that cost like 3-4 thousand dollars.”

– Chris Bell

Lu Diaz“Recently I’m in the box 100% and I love it – it’s very convenient. For me it was just very hard to let go of the console until I was completely sure that I could do a record inside the box. I think Pro Tools is a great piece of software, the Waves Plugins and all the plugins have gotten us to a point where we can do it. So I’m comfortably there now.”

– Lu Diaz

They’re Perpetual Learners

There’s a quote I heard somewhere and I wish I knew the reference but it goes something like this “If you aren’t growing than you’re dying”. This especially true when it comes to mixing.

You see mixing is a never ending learning experience. You don’t just wake up one day and decide that you’ve learned how to mix because you’re always learning how to mix and you’re always learning how to make your mixes better.

I have yet to talk to an engineer who says they know it all. Actually, the more decorated the engineer was, the more humble they were, go figure.

Chris Carter“But overall I just try to be a sponge and soak stuff up from everybody; you can be a superstar or nobody. I think that you can learn from anyone. There could be a kid down the street who has no clue what he or she is doing and makes really horrible recordings but then they do that one good thing. I’ll be like hey show me what you did, I want to learn from you [laughs]. I don’t really care who it is, I just try to listen to records. There’s so many records that I don’t know who worked on because I don’t read the credits any more but I just know what I like what I hear.”

– Chris Carter

Ariel Borujow“I’m just obsessed with sound. I still study everything and I even learn from my interns.

I got a lot of kids that come out of school and they think they’ve already figured it out and I’m like “No” [Laughs]. I’m 37 years old and I have not stopped learning. One of my assistants just taught me something the other day. He sent me a mix and I was like “That’s cool what did you do?”

– Ariel Borujow

They’re Willing to Share Information

Another trait that wasn’t really said but observed, was their ability to share information so freely. A lot of times the conversations went beyond the interview because the engineer was just so happy to talk about their techniques to someone.

Not one engineer that I talked to danced around any of my questions and most of them actually went beyond and gave me more than I expected.

So if you are mixing and are having those “aha” moments, don’t be afraid to share them with your peers. Remember that all of the top engineers give their secrets away without hesitation because the more you give, the more you receive.

They Promote Quality Recording and Sound Selection

Every engineer worth their weight will tell you that getting good quality sounds from the start is key to how the overall mix is going to sound. If you start with great sounds then you should be able to easily get a good mix and if you start with terrible sounds then it won’t be so easy.

I would also mention that you don’t need a million dollar studio to capture great sounds. You just need to be able to hear what sounds good and what sounds bad. From there you can make adjustments during the recording process to compensate. If you are just choosing samples then your job is actually that much easier, you just choose the best sounds.

Chris Bell“I don’t mind mixing other peoples stuff and I do a lot of it but man, I’m telling you, it’s so much easier when I’ve recorded the session because I’m already planning ahead. When we’re working, I get a rough mix going and that can be really close to the finished product because all the sounds are already there. I make sure that we get all the sounds just like I would while I’m mixing it.”

– Chris Bell

Ethan Mates“If you want to record at home and you don’t want to pay for a studio, that’s great and more power to you but all you have to really focus on is getting a clean signal to tape [Pro Tools].

I’m generally fine with the stuff I get from people as long as the chain is clean. You know where you don’t hear the washing machine going on in the back and there’s no digital distortion then that’s all I ask. But it’s definitely a bummer when you get stuff with Pro Tools distortion and tonnes of compressors not being set properly. Then you have to spend hours and hours trying to undo that, it’s crazy.”

– Ethan Mates

They Work in Well Treated Rooms

I talk about this all the time but it seriously changed my mixes over night. I finally could hear what was going on between the speakers.

There are guys out there who can crank out mixes in environments that are not very desirable but they are the few. All the best engineers understand and respect the fact that they need to be in a room that has been acoustically treated. Stack the odds in your favour and get your room treated.

Chris Carter“The one thing I would say contributes the most is my room. The room that I have now is so frigging accurate and it just makes everything so much easier. I have complete confidence in what you’re hearing.”

– Chris Carter

Ethan Mates“The room is acoustically treated and was built by Jacques Lacroix. He works with Vincent Van Haaff who has designed a million famous studios -Jacques is his contractor. Since he’s been working with him for like 20 years he knows a lot about it himself. So for people like me who don’t have 2 million dollars to spend on a set of plans for their studio, we will just go with Jacques directly and he takes the smaller clients.”

– Ethan Mates

Ariel Borujow“When we went into the room to set up the acoustics it was really done for mixing even though we have a live room and beautiful booth. The focus was really to make it sound good for mixing. We actually went with GIK Panels. We spoke with the owner Glenn, and gave him a blueprint of the studio. He walked us through it and made suggestions on what we should do to make it sound better and now the room sounds absolutely phenomenal. It’s a world of a difference compared to my old room at Stadium Red.”

– Ariel Borujow

They Focus on Balance

Have you ever listened to a professional record and thought “wow the sounds don’t seem to fit together?” Probably not. That’s because the pros have mastered the art of balancing.

The funny thing is that the balance is something that can be done many different ways and it is a constant process through out the entire record.

The balance is the one thing that every pro engineer knows how to do well but it is usually a thing of instinct and not conscious thought. The only way to get to the instinct level is to practise.

Ali Staton“I try to focus more on the artistic process, the instinct, the feel and the spontaneity of achieving what you want from a balance. I want to keep the excitement of that so I spend less time on the technical stuff like going through plug-ins and trying a million EQ’s just because I can.”

– Ali Staton

Mark Needham“With a rock song, I start by bringing up the drums to get a general drum sound. Then I start working my way quickly through the whole session getting rough levels up. At that point, I can get a general representation of the song, and then I can go back and adjust things. I know some other people who mix will always start with the main guitar or the vocal, and build stuff around that, but for me it’s faster to go through all the instruments to get a general sound of what I’m looking for. I keep jumping back and forth.”

– Mark Needham

Unne“Balance is actually something that I feel like I’m constantly getting better at. I was not that great at it if you go back a few years [Laughs], I mean it takes time. Ultimately, setting the right levels are very much musical decisions.”

– Unne Liljeblad

They Monitor at Low Levels

We all love to crank our speakers to feel the vibe of the song, heck I have to crank it every so often so I know where my bass is living. That said, most of the pros that I have talked to have all matured to a point where they know and understand appropriate listening levels.

There are many benefits to monitoring at low levels but the main two are to help curb ear fatigue and to be able to properly make mixing decisions. Basically it’s easier to hear slight amounts of compression or EQ at lower listening levels.

Ali Staton“I don’t listen loud only because I can’t; it just tires me out to have to listen loud all day. Every now and then I’ll give it a blast at full volume just to make sure that I’ve still got the energy in the low end and the crack in the mid range but I’d say 80% of the time, I’m listening very quietly.”

– Ali Staton

Mark Needham“Today, I listen at moderate levels and I work really soft. When I first started in this business, I was notorious for having the loudest control room on the street [Laughs]. It’s so hard to get your bass accurate at high levels because the louder something gets the more apparent bass it has. So, monitoring at high levels is an easy way to burn your ears out, and also have bass heavy mixes.”

– Mark Needham

Chris Bell“Well you have to be really careful about your listening levels. If you know you’re going to be in a room for 10 hours mixing than you better take breaks and not jam it at ear bleeding levels. But honestly I’m guilty of that sometimes.”

– Chris Bell

They Use Automation

Maybe it was ignorance, maybe it was laziness or maybe a bit of both but it took me way too long to get onto the automation band wagon. I even heard other engineers talk about it but it was as if I didn’t want to hear it.

Once I actually took the leap and start trying to incorporate it into my mixes, they have never sounded better. The thing that’s actually quite cool about automation is that the more you use it, the more your ears want to hear it. You’ll start hearing automation all over the place and you will then act accordingly.

If there is one thing that I’ve learned about professional mixing engineers is that they all use automation in some form or another. Some mixes may not require a lot of it but they are always ready to pull out the automation if the song calls for it.

Ali Staton“Everything that I do is automation. Pretty much every channel is automated. I mean I’ll use compressors for color or to hold a signal and sometimes I’ll use them in serial. On a vocal I might have two compressors but a big part of what I’m do is riding faders between sections to create a lift or feel.”

– Ali Staton

Ariel Borujow“Automation gives the song life. Thats something that you realize after years of mixing. I may raise the master fader up .5dB-1dB in the chorus just to make it exciting.”

– Ariel Borujow

Mark Needham“The most typical automation move I perform on every mix is a master fader ride. For example, when I want the chorus to ‘blow up’ a little more, I’ll pull the verse down a dB and when the song gets to the chorus, I’ll have it jump back up to 0dB. If the chorus gets louder, it sounds bigger.”

– Mark Needham

Chris Carter“There’s the kind of automation for a lead vocal so that you make sure it’s always at that right level. If certain words are too low you gotta ride them up. You could also automate a delay throw to come in on certain words.

But then there’s also automation for creative purposes. For example you might have a big cymbal crash that rings for a few seconds before anything comes in and you may want that crash to slowly go from stereo to mono.”

– Chris Carter

That’s It

I literally could have added more but these characteristics are the ones that I noticed the most.

You have to keep in mind that all of these Characteristics are easily learn-able if you really want to learn them. The hardest to learn is probably how to develop a pleasing personality, although it is still possible. Again, it comes down to how much you want it.

For a lot of engineers, it’s a lot of hard work and trial and error. You need to do things wrong a lot of times before you understand the better way of doing something, But remember, it is a constant learning process, you’re never actually good, instead you’re always getting good.