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July 5, 2016

Stuck In A Mix Part 1: Perspective

If you mix songs regularly, you may have found yourself sitting at your mixing position, listening to your masterpiece over and over again, wondering why on earth it’s not sounding like a masterpiece at all.

You did everything right. You used all of your badass plugins/hardware. You watched a couple Puremix videos about how to get the sound you wanted to get. You did not do anything too different from what you did for your last mix (which was a masterpiece). You crossed the T's and dotted the I's, you spent a lot of time on it especially today, you did not compress everything down to a crépe (look it up, very flat French pancake, delicious but not good for sound), you’ve been good, Santa would be proud, that 24 channel all discrete Neve will fit in your stocking this year…

So what is going on???? Why is your masterpiece not sounding like a masterpiece, especially in the car? Or the day after? Oh! The day after.

Sometimes you are so far down the rabbit hole that you no longer can tell what is what and it becomes impossible to pick out where the problem comes from. It’s very frustrating and generates a life threatening re-assessment of self worth, occasional screaming at your computer screen, and in extreme cases, abandonment of the project if favor of gleeful Facebook posting about ‘In da studio mixing, Yo!’ (accompanied with iPhone picture of the mix window of the dreaded session) or in case of true despair: Games Of Thrones binge watching. Yes. That bad.

What I find is that, like all hard to solve problems, this regrettable state of affair is always the result of a combination of several problems. And that if you address one of the underlying issues properly, then the rest will be easy to address.

The Number One Issue Is Usually Perspective

Let's address this today, we'll look at the rest of common stuck-in-a-mix issues next time.

Definition: You have officially lost perspective when you no longer know what "sounds good" sounds like, but you think you do, but you don’t really. There lies the problem and there lies the key. It's a bundle.

In short: If you are human and you have been mixing the same song for a long time, you probably lost perspective a long time ago and every decision you have made since then is based on a skewed perception of the way your mix sounds. That is what leads to the slow painful death of your mix. Let me give you an example:

Say you’ve been mixing for 3 hours with the drummer of the band sitting next to you. (You mixed for 3 hours before he showed up too, because he smells funny and you like to keep his sessions short) You probably had to raise the monitoring level to accommodate the drummer’s subtle request for ‘more juice, yo’. Fair. Gotta keep Animal happy.

So now you’re blasting yourself for three hours. Fun. You can take it. You are a pro. Yet, I bet you that about 1.5 hours into the process, that snare that sounded good when the drummer first showed up is now sounding a bit dull. You probably started to have that feeling a short while after you were able to (discreetly) bring the monitoring level down a little bit when the drummer went for a bathroom break (You are SO smart and sneaky). But that snare definitely feels dull now. Ask the drummer, he’ll agree. Pretty sure. So it seems like a good idea to add a couple ticks at 10K and maybe a couple ticks at 5K. For ‘air’. Nothing much. Ok now, the snare is good again. Much much better. What were you thinking before? Onward and upward.

Ah, but the vocals feel dull now. And the piano too. Just a bit. Nothing much.

You are screwed.

There is no going back.

Time for Game of Thrones. Or Facebook. You pick. Might as well get a head start.

That is the slippery slope.

You Must Try To Keep Your Perspective At All Times

That is your currency. Here are a few simple tricks to figure out if you still have some perspective left in you or not:

1. How long have you been working on that song today? More than 8 hours? You probably have no idea what you are doing anymore. Repetition breeds acclimatization. You are probably gleefully letting some gruesome mistakes go by while your head is self-nodding in approval.

2. How loud are you listening? Over 95 dB SPL? For more than an hour? You most likely have no idea what you are doing anymore. Especially if you decide to bring the level back down out of the shame of watching your SPL meter pegged whenever any music is playing. Your ears got used to high SPL, everything now feels dull and dark. Next stop Game of Thrones.

3. You don’t have an SPL meter near you desk AND a band member/client /cute girl is sitting next to you AND you have been working more than 2 hours? I GUARANTEE you you have no idea what you are doing anymore. Same principle as #2 but compounded with outside interference + cute girl.

The key here is not to trust your heart, but to trust your rational self (you have one of those right?). If any of these above scenarios are remotely true, you must KNOW you lost perspective even if it does not FEEL that way.

To put it another way: Your brain while mixing is like your elected officials or your ex-girlfriend, after a while it’s bound to start lying to you. You just have to be aware of it and act accordingly. That is the secret.

Here's a good thing to print above your fancy computer monitor:

If you have been mixing for a while, you no longer work in absolutes. After a couple hours everything becomes relative.

And here are a few ideas on how to use this precious self knowledge to maximize a mixing project:

1. Pay Attention To The Time You Start Your Mix And Know Your Limits

I know that my expiration date on mixing is roughly 12 hours for example. After that it’s time to turn it into a party and/or do a save-as for safe backtracking. You can also take breaks. It helps. Make sure you turn the volume down before you leave for your break. If you come back and start working at the same level you were at when you left, you wasted your break time.

Side note: If you'd like to lengthen the amount of time you can mix without losing your mind:

Watch your monitoring level like a hawk. Period.

To this effect I tend to ask clients to come later in the day so I have plenty of time mixing at reasonable levels before the unavoidable rise in SPL. (Most people I work with travel to my studio while listening to Spotify on their Apple earbuds on level ‘stun’ in the NYC subway. So they are practically deaf by the time they show up in my room and levels creep up rapidly)

2. Use Familiar References

There is no need to reference your work in progress to whatever song the singer sent you because you would be comparing your mix to their unknown mix, which does not guarantee quality. If the ref they sent you is bright and squished then your mix will end up bright and squished because you won’t know that it is bright and squished since you don't know it and remember, there is no absolutes to be relied upon. Also, eventually someone will ref to your bright and squished mix, and that's how music starts sounding worse and worse. It's the audio equivalent of cousins marrying cousins over and over again. It won't do much good for the community. Might as well take a break, Season 4 of you know what is waiting for you on Netflix. Waste no time.

In contrast, a familiar reference track will give you a true idea of what you are doing dynamically, spectrally and spatially. You should have several reference tracks actually. In different styles. It’s hard to reference to classic rock if you mixing a hip hop track. Especially with the client in the room. (Can be fun to watch sometimes though)

The other amazing thing about a familiar reference track is that it'll tell you right away how your ears are doing independently of your mix progress. If your ears are gone it will sound odd and different from what you are used to. It'll force you to reconsider that bold +5dB @ 3kHz shelf because ‘the mix could use a little shine’. You will KNOW that you have lost perspective. Truly familiar reference tracks help create a more absolute mixing environment for you to evolve in. Practical. Innit?

So, build yourself a library of tracks that you listen to EVERYWHERE to learn their true impact and actual sound. Start now, it takes forever to be truly 100% sure that you know what a song truly sounds like independently of the playback system. And listen to them often.

3. Use Two Monitoring Systems

Your main speakers and in addition either a small Auratone-like speaker or some headphones. The key is for them to be very different.

When you know you're going down the slippery slope (after a quick check with your rational self and a glance at your SPL meter), switch to the small speaker, lower the level and stay there for a while. The radical change in sound will prevent you from craving the high levels, let you restart your engine and regain a couple perspective points. Plus you get to hear what your stuff would sound like on some 60s car system or on the kitchen timer/radio/can-opener gadget of any self respecting mother of three somewhere deep in Minnesota. Useful information indeed.

Headphones are helpful too since that's what most people listen to music on these days. Unfortunately you don't get the perspective points because you'll probably play the headphones too loud. Without the reduced audio bandwidth it's hard to wean oneself off a high SPL diet.

Headphone are good for morning after pre-recall on-phone checkup in any case.

4. Don't Press Send Just Yet 

Lastly, If you have the slightest shadow of a doubt, don’t deliver the track the day you mix it. Deliver in it the morning after a quick check for stupid mistakes. It’s amazing what happens the morning after. You have fresh perspective because sleep does that. And you can act fast because your mix is almost there (hopefully). There is no greater perspective-reset button than sleep. Even if you are super righteous about levels, breaks, refs, mix times and cute girls the best way to make sure you are not screwing up is to put 12 hours between the time you print and the time you send.

Ok. So. It's the morning after, your perspective is back, your mix is still not happening.

What to do?

Good question. Thanks for asking.

Let's talk about that next time.

Fab Dupont. (Article delivered the morning after)

Part 2! Fab offers simple to follow solutions to work your way back out of a sucky mix - Stuck In A Mix Part 2: Solutions For A Troubled Mix