3. The Poorly Tracked Record
One of the hardest records to mix is the one where everything was poorly recorded.
The first step to tackle this mix is to have a frank discussion with the producer. If everything is badly recorded the producer needs to know that a hi-fi studio sound is not an option — but an interesting and stylized lo-fi record is.
From there, you actually have a lot of freedom. You don’t need to deeply concern yourself with the sonic integrity of the record and therefore you can really let your creativity guide you.
While you mix, think about the end listener’s experience. If things get a little muddy, but the lead elements are clear enough — it’s ok. On the other hand, if something is harsh or piercing and lasts longer than a moment, odds are that’s not ok.
Sometimes distortion is your best friend. If something is thin sounding, distortion can bump up some artificial harmonics that can make the sound thicker. Also, if something is already distorted coming in, adding a more definitive distortion can make it sound deliberate (and therefore acceptable).
If something was recorded with a lot of room sound in it — instead of trying to minimize the room sound, maximize it and make it part of the sound. Remember that “good” is an emotional quality, not a sonic quality!
4. The Pristinely Tracked Record
One of the trickiest mixes is the one where everything was recorded extremely well. Simply setting the levels gets the record 90 percent of the way there. That last 10 percent can feel like performing a restoration on an original Da Vinci. It’s a game of subtlety. It’s a game of staying results-oriented rather than getting caught up in your own process.
For me, the big key here is a psychological one. Trust me when I say this and you will thank me: no one cares what you do in a mix. People only care how the end results sound.
It takes maturity to know when to leave something alone. It takes experience to know when just one EQ move is exactly what it takes to get three sounds to fit together perfectly. Mixing is competitive, but it’s a competition won through showing respect for the song, not by doing as much processing to the audio as possible.
From that point, remember that setting levels and finding pan positions is an art form. One that is undervalued incidentally.
After that, choosing appropriate reverb-and/or-delay (if needed) is next in line. In fact, with a great recording, setting up a brilliant ambience will really help you win the hearts and minds of the artist and producer. Use EQ and compression only where absolutely needed, or for effect, and it is that simple. A couple right moves is much more powerful than a bunch of not-exactly-right moves.
Those are the four mixes that will give you a hard time. And you will run into them again, and again, and again. Throughout your whole career.
They are daunting at first, but each one of them presents an opportunity to really show your stuff as an engineer (in different ways). Look at these challenging mixes as an opportunity and you will have some very loyal and happy clients!
Matthew Weiss engineers from his private facility in Philadelphia, PA. A list of clients and credits are available at Weiss-Sound.com. He’s also the creator of the new Mixing Rap Vocals tutorial series.
Be sure to visit The Pro Audio Files for more great recording content. To comment or ask questions about this article, go here.