We recently held a guest masterclass and open house at our studio complex in Los Angeles with George Wiederkehr, a composer/multi-instrumentalist with 15-years of experience as a producer/engineer, and Matt Lara, a Certified Native Instruments Product Specialist. The workshop in question had a specific focus on the 10 Secrets of Mixing and now, for those of you who were unable to attend, we can reveal exactly what was covered in a guest blog post from George Wiederkehr himself. Without further ado, jump into the 10 Secrets of Mixing below.
We’ve all encountered the question at some point: If you could go back in time and talk to yourself from ten years ago, and had to give yourself any piece of advice, what would it be? More on topic, let’s say that advice had to be music or career-related. What then? Could you narrow it down to one single piece of advice?
I couldn’t. I’m too verbose. Had I the opportunity to talk to myself as a younger, starry-eyed rookie producer and engineer, navigating through blind intuition the complex, half-technical and half-artistic landscape that is music production, I’d have a lot of trouble narrowing it down. There’s so much to talk about, so many hats the modern musician has to wear. What would I say? How would I weigh out which bit of advice would have the biggest impact?
Well, luckily, I didn’t have to narrow it down to one, so I’ve narrowed it down to ten instead. Ten ‘Secrets of Mixing’. They’re not really secrets, if I’m honest, but ten ‘Pieces of General Advice About Mixing’ doesn’t quite have the same ring to it.
1. The goal is an effective mix, one which best represents the intention of the artist and the song
What really is your job as a mixer, audio engineer, or producer? Is it to make the song sound as good as possible? Maybe, in some cases. But, what’s ‘good’ even supposed to sound like? What if you have a punk band come in, who wants to sound deliberately homemade and garagey/low quality? ‘Good’, in this case, maybe isn’t the right sound. What if a Rolling Stones cover band came to you for mixing work? Would you want them to sound as polished and 2019 as possible? Probably not.
So, ‘good’ might not be the goal here. Perhaps, instead, the goal is ‘right’. Get into the minds of your clients, or dive into the music’s unique origin story, whether conceived from your own artistry or from another’s. Understand where the music came from, what it’s supposed to feel like. What’s the story behind it? Was the music based on a life experience? A picture? A place? What were the reference tracks? Did other music influence the creation of this music? Many film and game composers will dive headfirst into concept art, footage, photos, and scripts before even writing a single note of music. Why should producers or engineers approach it any differently?
2. There is no magic bullet: Engineering is a game of details
Don’t get me wrong, a good bit of analog hardware is a pretty cool thing, but even your super duper awesome discrete reel to reel tape machine is still just a single link in the chain. Those super-high-tech ultra-accurately modeled plugins you spent a boatload on and are torturing your CPU with certainly can sound cool, but they’re not going to make or break your mix either. That ultra-expensive 70’s Neve that you paid a spare kidney to rent out and had to hire a wizened analog exorcist to ward off all the technical goblins before it functioned anywhere close to correctly sure did sound cool during your tracking session, but that’s not going to inevitably and effortlessly make your album sound great.
It’s not perhaps the most fun bit of advice to be given, but there is simply no magic bullet. There’s no magic plugin or piece of outboard gear that will make everything suddenly sound amazing, no single workflow technique, no magic acoustic treatment panel, no ultra-obscure boutique guitar amp cobbled together from old suitcases and Vietnam war radio parts, nothing like that. Engineering is not a game of ‘finding the secret ingredient’, it is a game of details. Engineering is doing countless subtle, minute changes, making subtle corrections to miking position, changing your strings before the session, choosing the right miking distance, the right mic, setting your amp up with the controls in the sweet spot, practicing and warming up, getting a good night of sleep the night before, compressing just right, with the attack and release just right, setting the Q on that EQ just right, making sure you’ve got plenty of your favorite coffee on hand, finding the right patch on that synth, the right chord in that progression, the right rhythmic feel for that particular instrument in that particular passage, the right combination of samples at the right volume levels, and the list goes on. It’s a thousand tiny details, and if they’re all working towards the same musical goal, it leads to one big result: A great sounding song.
3. Know your tools, inside and out, forward and backward
Tools can’t make a bad craftsman good, but they can make a good craftsman great. And fast. More importantly, they’ll make you a heck of a lot faster. Know every key command of your DAW, every tool your software is capable of. Know how to slice, stretch, cut, fade, slip, memorize and practice the motions in your hands as if they were chords to your favorite song, and you were hired to play that song at the Super Bowl. Learn what your mics sound like, on as many sources and paired with as many preamps as you can. Learn how they sound different in omni, or further away, or closer up. Learn what difference those mysterious ‘impedance’ settings on your mic preamp do to the sound. Learn to recognize a good sounding room. Learn when to use a slow compressor, and when to use a fast one. Learn when a ribbon is a better choice than a condenser. Learn when to use a FM synth instead of a subtractive synth. Learn music theory, for God sakes, learn music theory. Learn it all. These things are your proverbial toolbelt, and it’s a lot easier (and a lot faster) for an architect or craftsman to build a lovely looking structure if they’re not limited to just a hammer and nails.
4. Use reference tracks. Become intimately familiar with your speakers
Have you ever been outside on a bright day, wearing your favorite pair of sunglasses, and after an hour or two, taken them off to find that everything looks unusually blue? It’s not that the world’s actually blue, but rather, your eyes got used to one thing, and normalized it. Our ears, being as biologically unique and easily fooled as the rest of our senses, work the same way. If you spend all day mixing on a rather dark sounding system, most of the other music out there is going to sound quite bright. If you spend twelve hours testing out crash cymbals at your local Guitar Center, God help them, you’d have been so blasted with high frequencies that the rest of the world might sound a bit muffled and dark in comparison. You may have felt something similar after a loud concert.
Except, it’s more nuanced than this. And, it’s made no better by the fact that every system sounds different, and your ears will give you a different impression each day, you’ll hear differently if you’re tired or fresh in the morning, and every room will give you a different impression as well. How do you manage with all these variables? Reference. Reference as much as you can. Listen to good music on well-mixed albums, and listen to the widest variety of things you can. Know your system, know every tonal quirk it has, know your ears and your tendencies. If you’re in an unfamiliar studio space, listen to those same mixes on their speakers, and get to know those too. Before mixing, most of all, listen to a reference album. Don’t just ‘glance’ at it, inundate your ears with the reference album, listen to it for 15 minutes, at the very least, and only then, go back to what you were working on. It’ll be like “taking the sunglasses off”, and the contrast between what your ears became used to, and your project that you’re hoping to nudge in that same tonal direction, will be night and day. References don’t change, they’re steady, so they’re the only foundation we have to the non-stop variables that affect our listening experience.
5. Test the mix on every system you can, in every scenario possible
While it is quite useful to know one system well, different systems will all tell you different things and reveal different problems. There’s a reason why the NS10’s are everywhere: It’s not because they’re good speakers (trust me, they’re not), but they have such an enormous heap of midrange that it is impossible to ignore any congestion or conflicts happening there. That midrange, incidentally, is the most important bit. A car stereo isn’t a good listening system either. You have drivers pointed at your knees, tweeters pointed at god-knows-what, a sub somewhere in the nether regions of your car’s trunk, and a handful of speakers in other parts of the car. It’s a mess. But, it’ll definitely highlight different mistakes in your mix that your monitors didn’t. When you’ve made your rounds, and listened on every system you can, keep a list of the problems you noticed, and see if you can go back and hear them on your other systems. If so, you’ve got a nice roadmap laid out for you.
Next week we’ll be back with the last 5 secrets of mixing from George Wiederkehr but for now, be sure to test out the ones covered today. If you can’t wait for our next instalment of mixing tips you can always check out our feature on 10 Mixing Mistakes Everyone Makes and How to Avoid Them and be sure to check out our courses for more.
Thinking of joining us at PBLA? We offer a plethora of courses in music production and DJing including our newest and most extensive Music Production & Sound Design Master Diploma programme as well as our DJ/Producer Certificate, Music Production & Sound Design Diploma, Mixing & Mastering Award, Music Production & Composition Award and more. For additional information, contact a course advisor or, if you’re in the USA, give us a call on 323 282 7660. If you’re calling internationally, use the number +44 20 7729 4884.
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** Editors note: Things have moved on significantly since this article was published 🙂 Please head to our blog homepage for the very latest masterclasses at Point Blank.