Recently I was responding to an email from a loyal Modern Mixing subscriber who has been following the site for a long time now. He was telling me how his material still didn’t have that professional sound even though he was discovering a lot of great information on the subject of mixing.
As we were exchanging emails I realized that there were a lot of signs that were telling me he was stuck in a learning loop. This isn’t just unique to him, I actually see this quite a bit in new or inexperienced mix engineers and I was even stuck for a long time myself.
Here, let me ask you a few questions. This might help determine whether you are in the loop:
This is just a small sample of questions but if you answered yes to at least two then you are most likely in the learning loop
It’s quite simple really: It means that you spend most of your time looking for tools or trying to learn how to mix by any means other than practice.
You are probably paralyzed by the amount of information that you are gathering and are trying to piece it all together.
It’s okay though, I have been there and I want to get you out of it as soon as possible.
So how do we do it?
You’re probably thinking, “Wait, this makes absolutely no sense, don’t you sell tutorials?”
With that said, I think tutorials , articles and even some type of formal education can all be VERY helpful to demystify the process of mixing but it can not truly help you understand it. To really understand it you have to get your hands dirty and connect the dots on your own – at least at some point.
The problem with the constant need to consume tutorials is that you are going to cause information overload. You are storing all this information in your brain without even knowing what any of it is going to do for you. So you automatically assume that everything you see is something that you are going to need. Not true!
By turning off the tutorials we are activating the problem/solution portions of our brain giving us the ability to develop patterns on our own. We then discover what is truly important to the mixing process but more importantly, our own process. More on this later.
Just remember that mixing isn’t about tips and tricks, it’s about the music and understanding how to present it to the listener.
One of the key components to getting great mixes is to truly understand the process. I’m not just talking about what all the knobs and faders do but truly understand how to nake a song talk to the listener. The only way to do that is to understand the process.
So remember, as audio engineers we aren’t striving to learn technique; we are actually striving to understand the process.
The only way to understand it (fully) is through self discovery by practice and trial & error.
This is a little bit of a conundrum because how can you teach yourself to do something that you don’t know how to do?
Well, I never said it would be easy and there will be some growing pains (here’s some tips to relieve them).
Think of it this way. Let’s say you were given some wood, nails, a hammer and you were told to build a shed without instructions. You’ve seen a shed before so you kind of know what it looks like but you’ve never built one.
So now you peak over at a neighbor’s shed to try and copy their design, hammer away and start building it up.
It might take you months to complete but eventually you will get there. Through all the struggle and pain of trying to figure it out, you essentially create a process.
Each time you build a new shed, you will have a foundation to start from and improve on. Eventually what used to take you 2 months to do, now only takes a couple of weeks.
That’s exactly like mixing.
Initially it’s hard and painful to figure out, but with enough practice and time in front of your computer or mixing board, you will figure it out.
Assuming you know and understand the basic fundamentals (which are important) we can move on. If you don’t know the fundamentals, than read my post on mixing for beginners here or go check out my premium tutorials.
The best way to practice is really as simple as A/Bing. You take a record that sounds like the song you are working on and then bring it into your mixing session. You then use that as a guide to help you build your sonic landscape.
In general you don’t really want to use other people’s records as a gauge to how your records sound because it only skews your judgement calls.
BUT… And I emphasize a big BUT here.
It is good to use references as you are learning and also when crossing genres.
At some point you have to develop your skills and that means that you need to butcher some music in the process. I’ve done it and so have many other engineers. It’s just part of the learning experience.
Using other people’s records is the best way to learn because you already have a respect for the song you are referencing and it was mixed by a pro (someone who knows what they are doing). Consider them your mentor but instead of them telling you what to do, you have to listen and figure it out for yourself.
The reference will give you an already good understanding of the frequency spectrum and where things should sit. Also, if you listen close enough it should give you tips on how things should be balanced (very important).
Remember music is all about sound and emotion.
How does it make me feel when I listen to it?
You can’t tap into these emotions by watching videos and reading books, it’s just not possible. So learn as much of the technique as possible through those tutorials but once you have a basic understanding, throw away the books. Use your gut instincts and other records you like to help you build your sound.