THE ART AND SCIENCE OF MIXING

I recently received an email about mixing music. “How did you learn to mix music? And is it art or is it science?” The answer to the second question could fill a large college text book. But I’ll try to convey a quick overview.

How I learned about mixing:
Early in my career there were no schools that offered courses in mixing or sound production. If your primary focus was more about becoming an audio engineer, you could become an intern at a commercial recording studio (for no pay) and learn the craft from the studio owners and staff. Since that was not my primary focus, I read every book and trade paper on the subject and spent countless hours experimenting. I continue to learn with every new track I compose and produce. I also try my best to keep up with the latest software, technologies and audio trends.

Today, there are many colleges and universities that teach audio production in classrooms filled with the latest technology. Most also touch on the business side of investing in equipment and how to turn that investment into a profit. If you want to learn the basic art and science of mixing, these courses will save you a lot of time getting up to speed.

Technology vs. Art:
Mixing is a very technically oriented skill that requires a lot of knowledge. Knowing the technical side will allow you to craft a mix that will translate to almost any playback system and be transparent to the listener. By transparent, I mean that the mix should never upstage the music. A bad mix can be pretty obvious and detracts from the listener’s enjoyment of the music.

Have you ever heard music that just doesn’t sound right on whatever system you’re playing it on? The high frequencies are overbearing, the vocals are muffled or the low frequencies just sound like mud. Most likely, the mixing engineer didn’t take into account that the music was going to be played on a variety of different playback systems.

Or have you ever heard a piece of music where, all of a sudden, the solo instrument becomes overbearingly loud compared to the rest of the track? Loving that solo is no excuse for killing the rest of the song. You need to find a way to incorporate the solo seamlessly into the music so that it is a part of the whole musical thought.

Another aspect of the mixing process focuses on the style of music and its intended audience. Mixing a :30 second commercial for television is very different from recording/producing an orchestral soundtrack. And in my current job, I mix my music for slot machines that will be placed in very noisy casino environments alongside other machines that are vying for players’ attention. My colleague at IGT refers to this as “composing with a sledgehammer.” While you are imparting a particular feeling that supports the theme of the game, you are also constrained by what will actually be effective in that type of environment.

These are just a few points that illustrate that mixing is both an art and a science and can be very complex.

The Visual Analogy:
You can think of color correction in films being to visuals what an audio mix is to sound. In color correction, the viewer should be enjoying the story you are telling, not be confused or distracted by the background color changing from scene to scene. The same holds true with an audio mix. The mix should tell the story without detracting from the listening experience.

The Road Map:
There are technical questions that need to be asked before you decide on what direction to take a music mix. There are also subjective, artistic questions that come into play. Once you know your basic requirements, you will be much better prepared to make decisions about things like the relative mix between instruments, EQ, compression/limiting, effects processing, etc. Creating a final master recording requires that you know every audio tool at your disposal and how that will affect the final product.

This is the control room at Studio X in Seattle, WA where we recorded the live tracks for the “Rise Of Legends” soundtrack.

One Comment to “THE ART AND SCIENCE OF MIXING”

  1. A fantastic, new’ish book on the subject is Mike Senior’s ‘Mixing Secrets for the small studio”! Highly recommend. Bobby Owsinski and Bob Katz are also great authors for anyone wanting to learn the ins-and-outs of audio and mixing (and some general mastering techniques).

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