Freelance audio engineering life usually comes in waves in terms of the quantity of work. There are days where it seems like everyone and their mother is calling to mix their show, but we can also experience periods of time where we’re not working gigs and you might have some time on your hands.
During those times, however, there are still things we can do to stay in top mixing shape for the next show. Here are some suggestions that have proven to work well for me.
We talk quite a bit about the technical aspects of our work – the gear and setup, the endless quest for the perfect tools that make us all giddy inside. But when we mix, most of the work is done before we actually turn a knob, press a switch or raise a fader.
All those actions require us to make a choice, and all those choices are informed by what we hear. The ability to listen to sonic information critically and holistically at the same time is something that we should train constantly. And the best part is that it’s doesn’t require any special gear – try to guess the frequency of the fire truck siren passing by, listen to a wall clock and note the beats per minute to keep delay tempo references sharp.
Further, listen to the music you like and try and figure out how each element of the mix supports the final sound. The more details you notice, the better your skills will get.
What I try to do is listen in three dimensions: vertical (top to bottom), which is all the frequency information of the piece (EQ settings of each element and of the entire song); horizontal, which are the pan settings (how the elements are distributed in the stereo field); and depth, which are the levels and spatial elements that determine what’s brought to the front and what’s pushed to the back.
This is also exactly how I listen to the sonic information when mixing live. Determining how to place an element in the mix according to those coordinates helps inform me of what I have to do to get it placed there.
For the best transfer of results, try listening with the same headphones used when mixing live. Getting to know them intimately will provide another reference point, and you’ll be able to “check your really loud.
If you want to get more scientific about it, I recommend using tools that help check the accuracy of your listening abilities, using this additional data to hone them even more. Useful tools for this can be found at SoundGym. Even the free stuff is very informative, but a full subscription to all that’s available can lead to listening skills at a whole new level – train for placement in the stereo field, EQ cuts and boosts, differences in level, compression and other elements of the mix.
There are also sites that offer ear training according to the 31 bands of a graphic EQ by listening to source material with boosts and cuts applied. Whatever you choose to do, just do it regularly. It’s the best way to keep in shape.
Professional audio is constantly evolving, with new protocols, products, upgrades and updates coming out regularly. While touring or when slammed with projects, it’s really difficult to keep up with everything being launched and presented. Therefore, taking down time to learn about new gear, watch presentations on new protocols and systems, and watching/reading reviews is essential to “staying in the game” and being on top of things.
It’s also the perfect opportunity to sign up for a relevant course and/or see a lecture. There are a bunch of options available in this regard that not only provide new knowledge but are also a great way to network and expand your contact list with people in the industry. You never know where meeting someone might take your career onto a new path.
In addition, determine your weak spots that could use a quick brush up and/or if there’s a field of audio that you’d like to dive in and learn about. Also consider subscribing to podcasts or other channels that offer relevant content about your field(s) of interest.