A Single Peacock Feather
Whatever you think of Neil Strauss’s The Game, his concept of “peacocking” has a corollary in the “game” of mixing. In his somewhat amoral take on dating advice, he writes about adding a clashing, somewhat bold element to your clothing—something to distinguish you from the other people at the bar.
An exciting, fully fleshed-out mix can be thought of in a similar vein, as every song has at least one element, turn of phrase, or bit of playing that stands out from its surroundings. It might not stand out because it’s technically better—it might actually be worse. But it will carry a lot more soul. When you find this element, grab onto it for dear life and use it to its full advantage, so that it enlivens the proceedings.
If you’re looking for examples of this, they include the peculiar burr in Thom Yorke’s voice on the last chorus of “And It Rained All Night.” For a more poppy example, examine the slightly out-of-tune quality of Alicia Keys on the song “No One”—the deliberate flattening of the notes add to the yearning flavor of the tune. A good instrumental exemplar would be the drumming on Black Sabbath’s seminal hit “Sweet Leaf.” There is no reason that pocket should seem as tight as it does, given the push-and-pull of Bill Ward’s playing. But it’s the grooviest part of the song, and as a result, the anchor of the track (at least, in my estimation; your opinion of course may differ).
Game plan: In the book Mixing with your Mind, Michael Paul Stavrou gives an interesting tip—he tells you to put the faders up at the beginning of a mix one at a time, in solo, and to calibrate the signal-level in a manner he lays out. I’m not going to recount it in full, because you should read his book yourself. But I’ll say one benefit of this technique is that it helps you to zero in on the standout player. So, give that a shot. If the element is repetitious, build your mix around it. If it happens only once, give it space.
A Feeling of Openness
Listen back to one of your old demos, or a rough mix you’ve received from a client, and you may notice the following: at some point in the arrangement and mix, there’ll be so much going on that the elements will begin to lose balance as they approach the digital or analog ceiling (because yes, demos and rough mixes can be quite loud). A crowdedness will begin to cloud the proceedings, as though the mix were a bar packed with too many people. Suddenly the drums, which sounded fine in earlier sections, feel quieter, less powerful, and made distorted by the sheer pile-on. The result is a mix that doesn’t feel open, that doesn’t breathe, and isn’t fun to listen to.
A polished record, on the other hand, often aims to retain a feeling of openness, balance, and clarity, even as the mix swells to grab you in its densest sections. The pop productions of today are good examples of this: even in their most intense, climactic moments, they approach the ceiling, tease it, and yet maintain the width, depth, and openness that are hallmarks of pleasurable mixes.
So how do we do this?
Game plan: after you have your static mix, start the nitty-gritty of the mixing process at the climax of the song, or at least, the part with the most amount of stuff going on. Get this section to the appropriate breaking point, to where the excitement-to-openness ratio is perfect. Then, take a five-minute break. Keep this break silent.
When you come back to the mix, check out the climax of your level-matched reference for a couple of seconds—no more—and flip back to your mix. How does it stack up?
If you like what you hear, move on to the rest of the song, starting at the top of the tune. If not, keep working on this vital section. This has the added benefit of making much of the rest of the mixing process easier: you’ve already handled the grunt work, now it’s a matter of pairing things down for quieter verses, or rebalancing timbres for different sections.
This will be hammered home in a subsequent bullet point, but a zealous use of automation on a granular level will elevate the quality of the mix beyond the demo stages. This automation can apply to level boosts, so that second verses come down in intensity, while final chorus rises to the heights it craves. Automation can also be used to widen or narrow groups of instruments at key moments (check out, for example, the use of mono-to-stereo strings on Cracker’s classic album, The Golden Age). You can automate EQ moves, or fade delays and reverbs back into the ether so they disappear appropriately.
Indeed, much can be done to avoid the oft-static feeling of a demo by means of automating; you can send the drums to a parallel compression bus for a pre-chorus, or mute all the reverbs in time with a dramatic hit to emphasize the resulting silence (think here of Nine Inch Nails’ “Capital G,” Gomez’s “Notice,” or Twenty One Pilots’ “Heathens”).
Game plan: Toward the end of your mix, listen back to what you’ve done, pen and paper in hand, and write down any automation moves you believe may help. Go back and write those moves into the mix. See if they do the trick.
Bells and Whistles
Recently I had a client in the studio, an excellent punk rocker from CBGBs’ glory days. He came to see me in part because he wasn’t satisfied with his previous studio. Over the course of our time together, he had me re-master two of his back-catalogue recordings. In fact, comparing two of these two mixes back-to-back gave me the very idea for this article.
Sure, one of the songs could be mastered to be “sonically pleasant.” It could be made less brittle, could be elevated in level at the appropriate time to give it a lift, or rebalanced to a certain extent for clarity. But what I could not do—because this was no multitrack—was change the overall static feeling of the song, the sense of parts moving in their own little world instead of cohering to sell the narrative of the song.
The other song was eye-opening, for here was a mix with dynamism. Here was a mix with risk! Sure, that background vocal-throw in the second verse poked out too much, but so what? It livened up the song, as did the verb introduced on the guitar in the second chorus, the delay throw on the repeated refrain, and other individuated bells and whistles that allowed the mix to come alive.
The takeaway? To the extent to which they’re tasteful, bells and whistles (delay throws, section-specific reverb, aggravated panning decisions, etc.) can inject a sense of movement into your mix—movement that a demo might lack.
Game plan: In the middle of your mix, after the EQ and compression has been put in place, listen to the whole tune, and think of any interesting bit of trickery you can accomplish. Write these down on a piece of paper, save the session as a new file (this is important—you want the ability to backtrack) and go about implementing your ideas.
I’ll tell you right now, many of these ideas will not work. But if even one of them sells the vibe, it’s worth it to have tried them all.
A Constant Sense of Flow and Movement
If I had to put my money behind the biggest differentiator between demos and full blown mixes, it would be this: the constant sense of flow and movement. But what in blazes does that mean?
If you’re a musician, think of your first experience on the other side of the glass, the time you spent with your band putting the demo together, and what you wanted out of the final mixing process. Sure, your demo had all the parts, but it lacked something, right? It felt flat—the parts seemed in search of a larger whole. You wanted to feel the same journey of a truly great song, the same rush of arriving at the final chorus. You knew your song was capable; it had a great hook and a mean beat! The problem was, by the third chorus, it all felt stagnant.
So what did you do? You looked for a professional to bring it the rest of the way.
As the mixing engineer, yes, you must provide balance. But you must also offer a journey for the listener. The flow from one section to another must be honored, so that the song’s quintessence is elicited, made explicit, made relatable, and ultimately, tied into the listener’s emotions forever.
Every one of the details we’ve listed heretofore contribute to this goal, from solid editing decisions, to proper tonal balance, to the creation of an open soundstage. For this last tip, I’m sorry (and happy) to say that there’s no hard and fast way to get there. Some engineers like to introduce a new timbre or element every thirty seconds; some like to play their outboard mixer as an instrument on the final bounce, breathing and riding life into the parts. Some like to keep their options open, tailoring their approach to the particular song.
Your Last, Conclusive Game Plan
All paths up the mountain are valid. The important thing is to be aware of this journey, and to work towards it. Not necessarily right away, because you have hard work to tackle first—the edits, the balancing, the tonal sculpting, and all the rest of the nuts and bolts.
But don’t let too much time go by before you start paying attention to the journey of the song. Ultimately, it’s the journey of the song that you’re working so hard on—it’s this journey that sells your mix, and separates it from a demo.