Jake’s Mixing Philosophy // What Does a Mix Engineer Do?

Mixing is arguably the most difficult part of the recording process, and is one of my absolute favourite things in the world. Bringing together a collection of tracks to become a cohesive, euphonic, massive, beautiful monster is satisfying beyond belief. The process is long and detailed, and each element must be considered in the context of the whole mix, not just as an individual instrument.

For those who aren’t familiar with the intricacies of mixing, it is the process of balancing multiple sound sources into one unified sound, in which all its constituent components are clear and defined, ready for the radio. Like any skill, it takes thousands of hours to master.

In my opinion, mixing must be approached from both musical and technical perspectives if sonic perfection is to be achieved. The range of possibilities of where a sound can go is vast, so a mixer must first use their musicality and instincts to judge what the artist’s creative intention is for each layer, and then their ears and technical skills to take the sound to exactly where it needs to be.

I find mixing the most enjoyable when I let a song ‘mix itself’. I listen to the raw tracks, and imagine them as if they were a final master. Each element of the mix should have a clear purpose to me, so I mix each layer to where it cries out to be, rather than forcing it to be something it isn’t. Songs tend together much more seamlessly this way, and I find they give me an instinctive notion of whether or not a snare needs more transient, a guitar needs more sizzle, or that lead vocal needs 1db more reverb on that last note of the prechorus etc. Of course, if an artist has a different idea on what an element should be then I embrace this and reimagine the song with the new perspective, until the artist is 100% happy.

For the nerds, I am a ‘top down’ mixer. My process starts with mix prep and routing, a quick fader balance, and then applying broad stroke EQ, compression and saturation to the master bus. This instantly puts me in the mindset of mixing one sound coming out of two speakers, as opposed to mixing 100 individual tracks. It also creates that gorgeous, cohesive ‘glued’ sound. From there I process the sub groups (drum bus, vocal bus etc), before moving on to the individual channels. At this point, individual tracks generally have the required brightness and saturation so usually only need subtle, careful treatment to get them to their final state. As the individual tracks are processed, ambience is added through delays and reverbs, faders are automated to fly all over the place to create dynamic and drama throughout the song, and tiny details are honed in on until the first mix is ready to send off for notes from the client.

EQ and fader balance are indisputably the two most important elements of a mix. If your instrument balance is off, your mix sucks. Similarly, if the overall frequency spectrum isn’t beautifully scratching every sonic itch, then your mix won’t have any emotional impact and it won’t translate across various speaker systems. I like my mixes to be as balanced as I can get them: nice and bright, but not harsh; a thick, rich bass, but not muddy; a colourful and clear midrange, but not sounding like somebody choking on a pickle. I like to do this by giving each element its own ‘frequency real estate’ to avoid instruments masking each other, and making sure instruments are EQ’d to fit in relation to one other (ie, if your vocals and guitars are super dark, then an overly bright and pokey snare will rip your ears off). I treat each song as its own beast, and love the process of creating the overall shape and EQ curve for each song as it needs it.

I absolutely love compressors. I obsessively listen, tweak and shootout various compressors to feel how they react with various sources. This has given me a skillset that unfortunately doesn’t tend to do me much good at parties, but it really helps with giving each instrument its own place within a mix, and creating an overall dynamic, rich sound. Compressors, when used properly, are like an instrument: how we push a source into them and tweak the parameters can bend a sound in the most musical way, and will really add the professionalism and polish that we all chase. Of course, a compressor used wrong can and will ruin a sound, so they must be used with caution! I love opto compressors on vocals, 1176 style FET comps on aggressive sounds (like drums), VCA comps on busses (especially the master bus!), and Vari-Mu comps on just about anything. I’m yet to try compression on food, but I’m sure I’d love it.

If you’ve read this far, thanks for humouring my more nerdy side, but you should probably reevaluate your life decisions as you’re not getting these 5 minutes back. You should spend your time writing songs and refining your craft, and leave the mixing to the cave dwellers like me! I look forward to turning your tracks into big, deep, soulful beasts.

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