Just because someone knows where the buttons and knobs are, and what they do, doesn’t mean that person knows how to mix. The secret lies in our mind’s ability to recognize, learn and store a huge library of good, bad and unusual sounds. The collected and archived, personal sound library is the mental gateway to the audio mixing craft.
Like many of the learned voices in the industry, I too have several decades of experience working in and around professional sound. The overview of my career looks like this: classically trained music student, professional musician, studio engineer, studio owner, studio designer, technical writer, studio trade magazine editor, acoustician, fixed install systems designer, AV system sales, AV system installer, live sound mixer, live sound trainer, and contracting/integration management. Those are the big and obvious hats I’ve been paid to wear over the years.
As designers and integrators, one of the challenges we regularly face is “training” sound operators on their new systems. A few years ago I realized the following, and have been using these ideas and processes to successfully teach the novice, and some not so novice sound engineers how to think about sound and mixing. OK, here we go…
Most people are passive listeners. Sound “happens” to them and they pay little or no attention to it other than to possibly notice it’s there, or that it is too loud or soft. To become a good mix “artist” (yep, there is a healthy dose of artistry that comes into play) you need to immediately become an “active” listener.
Active listening means that whenever possible, pay attention to all sound that you come in contact with. Examples: movie soundtracks, TV sound, music and voice on the radio, environmental sound, concert sound, industrial sounds, bizarre sounds, and all other everyday sounds you’re exposed to. Be curious. Be critical.
Put useful or important sound into context relative to the surrounding activities and environment. If you’re at a sporting venue, is the intelligibility good? Why or why not? In the beginning, you won’t be able to figure out the why of everything, but you’ve got to start somewhere. This should become a lifelong habit.
The best sound mixers in the world have a huge “library of sound” in their heads. Begin to capture this concept by building your own library.
During training sessions, I ask students to raise their hands if they can “hear” a real common musical sound in their mind’s ear. I usually start with a trumpet or piano, and then move to a few more common instrument sounds like a saxophone or violin. This is really just a warm up, because I then start to drill deeper into my library.
Can you hear a French horn? An oboe? How about an oboe versus an English horn? How about a female alto versus soprano vocal? How about an acoustic guitar with nylon strings versus steel strings? A steel string acoustic with heavy gauge strings versus light gauge stings? A stiff pick versus a light pick on said guitar? A Martin versus a Taylor?
I could go on for hours, but I think the concept is established. The collected and archived personal sound library is the mental gateway to the audio mixing craft.