Mixing, very roughly described by someone far from having expertise in the matter, is the process of balancing the levels and shapes of the sounds in your mix so that together they create a cohesive and living whole. On the face of it, it doesn’t seem all that complicated: if a part is too soft, turn it up; if a part is too loud, turn it down. If you have just two sounds in your mix—say a banjo and an accordion—mixing the two sounds together could be straightforward considering that these instruments are different from one another (one has a plucky and brittle tone, while the other has a sustained and nasal tone) and their sounds have room to get along since there aren’t any other similar timbres in the mix. By the way, I would love to hear some music for banjo and accordion.
But even with just a banjo and an accordion, you might have to shape their sounds a bit to get them to get along just so. Maybe the banjo needs to be brighter to find an audible place against the droning accordion chords, or maybe the accordion needs to be warmed up to better support the banjo’s delicate plucks. All of a sudden, even a two-sound mix becomes complicated in terms of how you want it to play out over time:
Do you want the instruments to be the same size, sonically-speaking,
or will you exaggerate one or the other for contrast?
Are both instruments panned in the center, or off on different sides?
Or do do they move from here to there over the time of the music?
Are there solos or featured sections when one instrument needs to jump out a bit more
while the other plays a supporting role?
Or maybe there are almost-hidden details in the timbres of each instrument
that you want to foreground for special effect or the mood that only they can convey?
Adding to the difficulty of creating a cohesive and living mix is the challenge of hearing your music analytically, not just emotionally. Specifically, mixing well is difficult because it requires you to
hear what is actually sounding and can be heard
rather than what you hope is sounding and can be heard.
To return to the banjo and the accordion, say you’re listening to a section where the banjo takes a plucky solo and the accordion plays some enchanting chords underneath. It’s precisely because it’s a great moment in the music that highlights the call and response between the two sounds that you could fail to hear a problem with the mix. Maybe the accordion’s sound gets thin in the higher register, maybe the fast banjo runs need a little boost to keep them articulate, or maybe the dynamics of one musician get out of control. (The banjoist was really rippin’.) Mixing demands keeping a level head—and level dynamic levels—in the midst of whatever musical enchantment may be pulling at your attention so you can attend to imbalances. Perhaps it’s analogous to the focus required in the famous Invisible Gorilla psychology experiment. The experiment plays a video of two teams and the viewer is asked to count the number of times one team passes a basketball around. At one point in the video, someone in a gorilla suit walks into the frame and then leaves. The experiment measures our selective attention—known as inattentional blindness—by testing whether or not we notice the gorilla while we’re busy counting the team passes. Mixing music can be just like this: despite all the musical passing going on, we need to notice the presence of possible gorillas in the mix.
The opposite of a good idea can also be a good idea.
Don’t design for average.
It doesn’t pay to be logical if everyone else is being logical.
The nature of our attention affects the nature of our experience.
A flower is simply a weed with an advertising budget.
The problem with logic is that it kills off magic.
A good guess which stands up to observation is still science. So is a lucky accident.
Test counterintuitive things only because no one else will.
Solving problems using rationality is like playing golf with only one club.
Dare to be trivial.
If there were a logical answer, we would have found it.
“It’s what you don’t hear, more than what you hear, that makes something clear.
It’s the absence of junk.” – Steve Duda
In music production, I’m often busied with everything I can hear, rather than everything I can’t hear. I get carried away—in mostly productive ways—with the details of what’s sounding in the mix:
Is that part clear?
Is that noise too loud?
Is that effect audible in just the right way?
I make what feels like endless adjustments to the sounds in relation to one another, bringing this sound up and that one down, or that one up and keeping this one as is. I make these adjustments in cycles of adjustments over hours, days, and weeks, moving around the mixes in deliberate passes, but also sometimes jumping from one part to another, putting out sonic fires. Ever so slowly I’m bringing each of the hundreds of elements in each track into better alignment. As far as refining what can already be heard, this method works, as long as you have enough time to get the mix’s relations as close to ideal as you can tolerate.
The problem with this approach though, is that it proceeds from what’s sounding, rather than from what isn’t sounding. Put another way: sometimes you don’t know what you aren’t hearing until you begin muting most of what you are.
At this point in the production process, since I have ample material to work with, my task is not to expand on it anymore but rather compress it by making it do more of what it can with less of what it is.
Recently I was listening to a breakdown section in one of the pieces, busying myself with making some ever smaller adjustments to one of the bass parts:
I’ll just up the level of the white noise on it to bring it out a bit…
The bass was sounding better, but something about the moment was becoming irritating—as if I had too much of a good thing, or I had lost track of what was important. The bass wasn’t the only sound in this section: there was also a drum part, some hi hat pulsations, a pad floating in and out, and the marimbas. Actually, there was quite a bit going on—and that was precisely the problem. I wanted the music to do more with less. And then, I had two thoughts:
How about I just mute the bass completely?
And also the drums?
I muted the parts and suddenly the section was more interesting—it was better in every possible way.
I didn’t want to believe that the section sounded better with less, in part because of the sunk cost-induced feeling of having worked on something that I was now eliminating. So just to make sure, I listened a second time with the parts back in, then a third time with them out again.
It’s unmistakably better without bass and drums.
I was re-learning muting’s timeless lesson:
when you mute a part,
another formerly half-hidden part jumps to the foreground.
To my ears at least, the effect of this tiny adjustment on the music was immense. I wondered if there were places in all of the tracks where I have too much material, sections that could benefit from being pared down via muting, music production’s pre-emptive shh. Next week I’ll look for things to mute, compressing the music so it can do more of what it can with less of what it is. Then I wrote in my notebook, all caps:
A mix talks with the music, asking it how it wants to be heard.
A mix dances with the music, leading it around the stereo dance floor.
A mix emphasizes the important sounds right now.
A mix exaggerates, boosting tiny into huge,
compressing loud into soft.
A mix generates ambiance.
A mix balances multiple sounds,
each becoming at its own speed—
one sound quickly changing over here,
another slowly changing over there.
A mix unifies and coheres contrasting timbres,
or stratifies and disentangles similar ones.
A mix sharpens musical center points and edges.
A mix positions foreground and background.
A mix distorts and blurs.
A mix answers a question:
How do we hear everything at once?