Things Not In The Mix

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“Pay attention. Focus on your surroundings, physical and psychological. Notice something that bothers you, that concerns you, that will not let you be, which you could fix, that you would fix. You can find such somethings by asking yourself (as if you genuinely want to know) three questions: ‘What is it that is bothering me?’ ‘Is that something I could fix?’ and ‘Would I actually be willing to fix it?’ If you find that the answer is ‘no’, to any of all of the questions, then look elsewhere. Aim lower. Search until you find something that bothers you, that you could fix, that you would fix, and then fix it. That might be enough for the day.”

-Jordan B. Peterson, 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos (2018), p. 108.

On a bright and cold spring morning at ten-thirty I was listening through some mixes for a new recording—maybe not quite released by the time you read this. I had been editing and mixing the music for almost two months and things were coming together. I’m getting better, I think, at hearing things in my mixes and knowing what to listen for. I can tell when a part is a micro-second early or late, a bit too loud or soft, or a few cents out of tune. I can spot a boxy or strident or thin or boomy timbre in need of EQ. I can hear a too obvious (or not obvious enough) reverb tail, and I trust my sense that the overall mix is dull and needs more high frequency “air”, or alternately, that the mix is a shade harsh. My mix listening skills come from experience identifying problems—problems like Why does this sound so thin?—and then experimenting with ways to fix, or at least improve the problems. Sometimes the piece itself is the problem: the music no longer compels and so I put it aside forever.

But as I was listening through the mixes it occurred to me that it’s things not in the mix that are most problematic. Here’s a fact: when you listen to music you’re also listening to your own interaction with it. This idea came to me from Thomas Clifton, who says in his phenomenology of music, Music as Heard that musical description involves folding ourselves into the mix by “observing the self observing the music” (Clifton 1983, 22). When we listen we’re listening to both the sounds and to ourselves engaging with them. So there I was at ten-thirty in the morning, four minutes into this piece, and my mind was wandering from the sounds towards other things. I wasn’t sure where the problem was though. Was there (a) a problem with the musical structure (the mix was coming along ok), (b) a problem with me, or (c) a problem with the time of day? What I found destabilizing and therefore fascinating is that the music’s potential to sound good or not partly depended on things outside of itself. No one tells you about that in those YouTube mixing tutorials.

I sat there for a while, continuing to work while holding onto this insight and playing with it. Four minutes into the piece I could hear the section in two ways: it sounded either almost boring or beautifully patient, taking its time before unfolding its next gesture. I wondered if the crisp weather and morning hour had anything to do with how I was hearing the sounds: Would things sound different late at night? I’ve tested this idea too, spending time with the mixes between 12-1am. Sometimes I’ll open a file and play it for a few minutes to see how it resonates differently than it does in the morning. The challenge at night is to maintain the clarity of your daytime self despite everything in the room feeling different (plus I have a mood light on the desk to keep things groovy). Also, at night there aren’t any street noise sounds competing for my attention which allows the music to reveal itself more. Late at night, that same music that sounded almost boring and beautifully patient in the morning now sounds dreamy. Just as it’s music’s nature to welcome simultaneous competing associations, we need to recognize that our listening experience is a subjective thing, sensitive to all kinds of influences.

In light of this, I have a few strategies for negotiating the complexities of mixing. First, I alternately work in very brief (a few minutes) or long (an hour or more) sessions. Brief sessions are enough time to do technical things like smoothing out volumes or my favorite, deleting parts. Brief sessions are taking a bird’s eye view, noticing something from a distance, and quickly fixing it. Long sessions are for going in on a granular level, like repeatedly playing a two-bar loop and scrutinizing individual notes as if the success of the piece depended on them. (It does—music is fractal-like with its large-scale structures mirrored in its small ones.). I enjoy long sessions this because it’s like editing prose. With repetition you start hearing (or reading) how much everything is a little off and in need of your help: while the broad gestures were there, your execution wasn’t nearly vivid enough. (Make it POP!) The repetition in long sessions opens up worlds inside the music that you can micromanage so that when you pan out again, the whole will cohere better. A second strategy for mixing is to work after exercising. The reason for this has to do with brain state: for an hour or two I’m noticeably un-judgmental, which is an even state from which to come at the music. If the piece still sounds almost boring to me in this head space, then we have a problem. For that hour or two I also find myself noticing the emotional effects of sounds. For instance, a high gong note panned over the left side of the stereo field is a ringing pitch, but it’s also like a distant echo, maybe a kind of longing. That’s the kind of insight that arises when my critical listening is dialed down, when I grasp and accept the work the music is trying to do, and when I give it the benefit of not doubting its intentions: Oh, ok, I see what you’re trying say. A final way I negotiate the complexities of mixing is that I try not to get too attached to the project. This is difficult because it’s my music and I have a stake in its game and could be hurt by its failure to sound good, or its failure to be appreciated by anyone (including myself down the line), and so on. Even as I’ve labored on these tracks for a year, mixing is a process of extricating myself from their future fates. Mixing is a final pep talk with the team before the match, keeping everyone focused: I can help from the sidelines, but you’re the ones playing. Give it your best and good luck.  

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