In every mix, I find myself smack dab in a horrible realization: I believe my handiwork to be the shoddiest, most terrible job ever performed. I am a fraud in this moment, and you would not be able to convince me otherwise.
But that hardly changes the fact of a deadline: it’s there, looming around the corner, and I don’t like making the client wait just because I’m locked in an existential dilemma. So over the years, I’ve developed a grab-bag of techniques to get myself over the hump. Some of these are practical, and others are more psychological. I hope they can be of some help.
When you’re sitting in your own flop sweat, squinting your eyes at the DAW, feeling a little queasy, and hating everything coming out of your speakers, your first move should be to hit the save button. Your second move is to walk away.
You would be doing harm, at this moment, to go forward. It doesn’t matter when the deadline is, you’re now in the place of diminishing returns. Don’t fight your limitations here, instead go with the flow and stop making decisions.
If you don’t follow this advice, you might find yourself making things far worse under the strain of lost perceptions; more than once “my day after” began with a prolonged search through session backups until I found a file approximating where I’d been before succumbing to temporary mix insanity. Don’t fall into that trap: when you’re up against a deadline, that’s another time drain you can’t afford.
Take a break and go outside
When you’ve reached your boiling point, a good silent break here goes a long way. I recommend a walk outside, if you live in an area that can accommodate a stroll. See, we engineers hunker down all day, forgetting what it means to be a part of the world. A taste of fresh air can do wonders, stretching the legs, getting the blood moving and so on. Don’t plug in earbuds and try to avoid noisy areas. Some quietude I desired.
In my own practice, I find a good long walk has an almost calibrating effect on my ears as well as my body. I begin to hear everything around me with clarity that I didn’t notice from the speakers even five minutes prior. If I’m working on a post-production project, I often find myself tracking the panning of a moving car behind me, thinking about how I’d create the effect with a channel strip and some plug-ins. This gets me excited, which makes me feel ready to work—even inspired to do so.
Yes, it’s a bit of psychological trickery, but as you’ll see with some of our more heady suggestions, psychological trickery can be the best defense against blown deadlines.
After you decide to take a break, bounce the mix right where it is. After your break is complete, try listening to the mix in a different venue—I prefer a trusted pair of headphones as I walk around my apartment, but a different set of monitors, or even a different mix position, can work. Have a notepad or electronic equivalent in hand and write down everything you don’t like about a mix.
Here’s a list of what one of my most recent note-taking sessions looked like:
After this exercise, you’ll have find you’ll have the basis of an actionable plan. Even if your notes are as general as “everything is too brittle in the pre-chorus,” that gives you a place to start working out which elements are too brittle.
After a good break, sit down in your usual mix position and play a level-matched reference track before returning to your mix. Listen to only ten to fifteen seconds of the reference’s climax. Then immediately check the climax of your own work.
This should help you discern exactly what isn’t working in comparison to the commercial mix. With a notepad in hand, you’ll be fit to jot down some ideas of what to fix.
I find this technique refocuses my brain and gives me the courage to implement bold moves, like cutting some element I truly like (but isn’t working), or boosting a frequency beyond the boundaries of good taste (say a high-shelf I wouldn’t dreamed of on my own, but in comparison to the reference, seems appropriate).
When I’m not sure I’m at my breaking point, I use this technique to judge whether it’s time to take a quit for a moment: I listen to music I don’t like, or a mix I believe to be inferior. This just might give me a confidence boost—a simple, “well at least my mix doesn’t sound like that!” shot-in-the-arm.
However, if I’m listening to an odious mix and find myself muttering it still sounds better than my own, I know for certain it’s time to take a pause.
Some engineers like to work with a panoply of plugs on their master fader. If that’s you, than pay good heed: when coming back to a frustrating mix, try taking everything off the stereo bus—every compressor, equalizer, tape saturator, and harmonic distortion generator. Switch it off and see what happens. You might find the mix instantly feels more dynamic, alive, wide, and expansive.
Quite often, seductive sounds can become grating over time; when we return with fresh ears, they’re not as seductive. Sure, bypassing your master bus’ processing may mess with the punch a compressor adds, or reveal a bunch of low-mid bloat, but at the same time, you’ll hear the sound of the tracks working together in a different manner—one which refocuses your perspective.
This may serve to give you a hint as to what’s working and what’s not. You may find yourself with a new angle on why that kick isn’t sitting right, or why the backup vocals are taking up too much space. Thus recalibrated, you can begin to attack the problems anew.
By all means, put your plug-ins back on—but you might not want to. And you might want to do so more conservatively. Either way, you’ll have a better feel for the balance.
A lot of times we can blur up individual tracks with more processing than need be. When I’ve noted I don’t like a vocal, guitar, or other element, my first move is to check how many plug-ins I’ve got stacked upon it.
Is it more than three? If it’s a module-based plug, am I running all of the modules at once? That’s my first indicator that I might be doing too much. So I bypass everything and listen, instantiating one plug-in or module after the other until I can identify the moment it all goes wrong. Think of this as troubleshooting your mix elements.
After I’ve made notes of what works and doesn’t, I prefer to work with groups of instruments rather the whole mix. So, if I know there’s a problem with bass and kick-drum interaction, I might solo the drums and bass, and once that’s attended to, I might solo the bass and all of the rest of the musical elements. Here, the vocal will be muted, just for now. By this point in the mix, I’ve already got a feel for its innate qualities, and how they will jive against other parts of the arrangement.
I find this approach gives me a lot of the benefits of soloing an instrument—hearing it in close up and whatnot—but without the drawbacks, namely losing perspective on the rest of the mix. Plus, if you’re working on an element in your harmonic instruments, and it all falls apart when the drums come back in, that tells you where your next problem lies. In these critical phases of a mix, I like to think of the work before me like triage.
This psychological tip was suggested to me a few years ago by a colleague, and I have to say it works wonders. When I’m no longer sure if I like the mix, I quickly bounce what I have and drop it into a playlist. Then, I take a break, so that my ears are cleared. Next, I head to the kitchen to do dishes, because there are always dishes.
While distracting myself, I play the playlist through my clock-radio or earbuds, set to random, and try to forget my mix is in there. When it comes on, yes, I’ll always know it’s my mix, but the context of so many reference tracks—heard while focusing on a different, mundane task—changes how I listen. It allows me to pull out from the narrow focus of mixing an hear the bigger picture.
You don’t have to wash dishes while doing this, of course. Any kind of busy work will do.
Friend and fellow contributor Phil Nichols would never tell you this, because he’s quite modest, but he actually used to teach audio engineering at a respected recording conservatory before moving to New York City. Over the time I’ve known him, I’ve come to trust his ears as a second opinion when I’m really at the far end of the telescope.
So at some point in a troublesome mix, I’ll usually shoot it over to him for feedback; it’s always constructive, helpful, and encouraging. Find your own instructor of audio engineering—the person need not be a professor or teacher, but someone whose ears you trust. The person should be kind and honest, not someone who makes you feel bad, but encourages you to do better.
Here’s a doozy for you: don’t doubt yourself just because you doubt yourself. I’ve interviewed many GRAMMY-winning engineers who talk themselves down from high mental-ledges on a regular basis.
You may need to evince confidence in this game, sure, but don’t let private moments of self doubt keep you from moving forward in your career; it’s all too easy for that to happen, and it does you no good.
I’m hoping that sharing these tips will help you out of that mire, like they continue to help me—but more importantly, it is my aim to convince you that the mire isn’t a bad place to inhabit in the first place: from these doubtful plateaus, we often achieve greater heights as engineers.