Study Hall

Can You Do Justice With The Mix Of A Song If You Don’t Know It’s Meaning?

You can't mix a song until you learn to honor the song. You can't honor a song until you leave your agenda at the door and really, honestly listen to it. j. hall talks about finding the meaning of a song as being one of the keys to great mixing.

A few years ago, while bouncing around from studio to studio mixing various projects, I noticed something with the various other people working in the other rooms of these facilities: some mix engineers just don’t listen anymore.

I’m not talking about listening to the client, I’m talking about listening to the song.

There was a point in my life where music had to fit a certain criteria for it to be “good”. The criteria were hardly anything artistic, other then loud, aggressive, and discordant.

As I grew older and became an engineer, I never gave much thought to other genres or styles of music. I was basically a close-minded Ebenezer Scrooge about music.

Looking back on this time period of my life, I can now see that I even lacked the skill or desire to listen to a song appropriately.

Not caring about such trivial matters as “the meaning of a song”, I set out on my path to become an engineer. Along the way I landed a gig working for a once-famous band.

Being young and naïve, I thought little of the band’s musical statement and more about just doing the work. I completed the project, a cover song for a small film’s soundtrack, with speed and ease.

Little did I know that I was soon to embark on a life changing adventure.

A few days after, the guitar player calls me and wants to get a few beers and hang out. So there I sit, young, stupid, and across the table from the local hero. We put down a few beers and I proceed to get another gig. (“Hey, this guy likes me, and I’m about to mix a full-length record.”)

I showed up at the studio the next day to begin the project, and over the course of the next week, I proceeded to ruin a man’s dream. It wasn’t until months later that I really realized how badly I had destroyed that record.

The strange thing is that we became best friends (I’ll call this guy Rick). We were practically inseparable. This relationship is what would change my life forever.

Rick is a truly inspired musician, with an ability to connect to music in a way I had never seen before. He can truly communicate an emotion through music, and he could pick up on one in an instant.

This was something I thought I was good at – but nope.

Rick and I would spend hours in the studio listening to all sorts of music. He would force me to verbally break a song down. Explain the core idea, discuss what would motivate a person to write a song like that, and so on.

I became a sponge, and couldn’t wait to get to the studio so we could talk about music. I had always thought my high school years were going to be the best musical exploration time in my life, but this was like a drug. I was a slave to it.

All of the sudden there was someone else who felt the same way about music that I did. However, Rick was far more open-minded about it.

I began to identify with certain songs that I’d always considered garbage. I found myself loving songs that I’d never listened to before because they were “too mainstream.”

Looking back on all this, I could easily call it Mr. Miyagi’s school of “How to Listen to Music.” I can only assume that everything Rick did was intentional, and he genuinely wanted to “save” me from being a terrible engineer.

One afternoon he asked me if I would be interested in mixing an E.P. of his main band’s songs. I jumped at the chance, but was a bit nervous considering our last outing wasn’t so good.

We discussed it and I confessed to having doubts about doing the songs justice. He just laughed and said, “let’s get to work.”

I think every engineer has one session that is a major turning point in their life, where things start to fall into place, where your confidence of running a session, as opposed to it running you, emerged.

This session was my turning point.

I had never heard the seven songs I was about to mix. As each came up for the first time I found myself sitting back and listening, taking in every drum hit, every guitar note, every vocal articulation. I listened to each a few times, moving the faders around and getting a feel for the tracks.

After I felt like I had the idea I would turn to Rick and discuss my thoughts with him. We would talk about the song and how we thought the mix could help it. Only after we figured out direction would we begin.

When the E.P. was finished, we sat around the studio, drinking a beer, and Rick said something to me that has forever changed my attitude toward artists and bands:

“As an engineer, you hold an artist’s hopes a dreams in your hand. Everything they have ever wished for, everything they have ever wanted to be is right there. No matter how great the band really is doesn’t matter a bit. What does matter is that true feelings and emotions can be found inside every song. It’s your job to serve the song and the band. You are a music lover, not a specific genre promoter. Love the music for everything it is, for everything it isn’t, and everything it can be.”

Next time you hear two bars of a song you don’t like, stop for a minute, open your mind, put your opinions aside and just listen.

Let it hit you in the chest before you pass judgment. Let it bounce off of you and then take a look at what is right in front of you. Pick through the surface value of what you just heard to find its motivation.

Art, by design, is meant to speak to us in various different ways. We have to be willing to listen.

You can’t mix a song until you learn to honor the song. You can’t honor a song until you leave your agenda at the door and listen.

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