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The Mental Side Of Mixing: The Benefits Of Exposing Our Minds To A Vast Library Of Sounds

Our mind’s ability to recognize, learn and store good, bad and unusual sounds is the mental gateway to the audio mixing craft.

By Michael Fay November 14, 2018

Step Three

The next key ingredient is to begin collecting reference recordings. These should be relevant to the types of presentations or performances you’re being asked to work on. This collection should contain the very highest quality recordings you can find.

The question: what’s good? For me it’s a musical recording with extraordinarily good production values, musicality, frequency response, tonality, clarity and space. It also has to be something that I can stand to listen to over and over and over.

I’ve searched through tens of thousands of recordings (Rhapsody, Zune, Spotify, etc.) to develop my collection, which currently numbers about 45 tracks of varying musical styles. It only takes me a few seconds to tell if a track has something sonically special to offer.

After compiling a few really good recording tracks, listen to them over and over on the flattest playback loudspeakers or headphones you have access to. For me, it’s Fostex T20RP headphones. (Selecting reference monitors is a whole ‘nother article.)

If it’s a contemporary band track,carefully study the mix to understand where the engineer placed each and every drum track, versus the bass and guitars, versus the keys and horns, versus the background vocals, versus the lead vocals, etc. Again, be critical and curious.

Try to capture in your mind what is working and what is not. What is the tonal relationship of every instrument and voice? Does each voice and instrument sound natural? If not, why? Is something intentionally distorted or oddly processed? What sounds or instruments are conflicting? Why? What are the panning and volume relationships?

When you start finding recordings that you wish your name was on, you’re on the right track (pardon the pun).

Step Four

What do we do with this library? Over time, it will contain the really good, the average, the ugly, and the unusual. The best sound mixers are constantly comparing what they’re hearing in real time to the desired or required sounds in their libraries.

Then, assuming they have a sound system and room that are functioning reasonably well, they begin to use their experience and available electronic tools to adjust the sound that is coming through the mixing console so that it matches the various sounds in their mental library — and that they think are appropriate for the gig.

This library concept works on individual instruments as well as the overall mix. It also works just as well in the studio as it does for live mixing. And, when fully developed, it all happens semi- or subconsciously. But, don’t get discouraged if in the beginning there’s a lot of trial and error. We’ve all learned from our mistakes.

The overall process is not unlike what a chef or painter will use to create their work.

The chef has a selection of raw ingredients and a pantry full of spices and condiments that may be used and blended to create an excellent recipe (mix). Even if he’s never made the recipe, he can mentally taste the end result and the influence that each ingredient has on the overall flavor and texture of the recipe.

The painter does the same with a color pallet; knowing what colors to combine and what to lay down first in order to build the foundation of color (tonality) that will eventually lead to the finished picture. The chef and painter can consistently taste and visualize in their minds the end result that all of the individual parts play in the finished product. So too can you with sound.

Step Five

Sound mixing is highly subjective. In my opinion we need to mix to meet our personal tastes and expectations, but with these caveats: our mixes should be aligned with our personal sound library, which must also have common ground with the general public and/or the paying customer. Simple, no?

If you’re consistently getting praise and thanks for the work you’re doing, then you’re doing many things right. But if you’re consistently getting complaints, you aren’t, and there’s still a lot of work to do to refine your craft.

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About Michael

Michael Fay
Michael Fay

Michael Fay is owner/principal at GraceNote Design Studio, an audio, video and acoustic design consultancy; a sustaining member and graduate of multiple SynAudCon workshops; a member of AVIXA and the Acoustical Society of America; an SDVoE Design Partner; former Integration Division general manager and senior design consultant with Sound Image; and former editor of Recording Engineer/Producer magazine.


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