How do you know when a mix is finished?

Have you ever felt like a mix session would never end? As if you could forever be making minor adjustments to levels, EQ or effects settings? Do you sometimes find yourself unable to decide over a 0.5dB level change for a channel? Do you wonder if anyone will notice, whether it even matters?

Creative direction

One of the biggest reasons people get lost in the mix is a lack of creative direction.

The term ‘Creative direction’ might sound obtuse, but it’s really quite simple. Creative direction is the vision for the song. It is the idea (or set of ideas) that set the direction for all the creative decisions in the production process. It can be defined in terms of adjectives (such as dark, dry, urgent, mysterious, etc), or it can be defined in terms of musical reference points (such as “Beatles-esque vocal harmonies with Lady Gaga instrumentation and a lead singer like Thom Yorke”).

Without creative direction, all you’ve got guiding you is ‘does it sound cool?’. And if you’re in this hole, it’s no wonder you’ll never finish. There’s always another cool sound around the corner. There always another way to make anything sound cooler.

Exploring tools

Another reason people take forever to finish a mix is that they waste too much time exploring their tools. Here’s a bad analogy:

Your toilet is broken.

One plumber has a truck filled with tools, and feels the need to try every tool for every task – just to see which tool might work the best.

Another plumber has a smaller toolbox filled with a few hand-picked items that are versatile. This plumber also knows every tool in the toolbox extremely well and knows exactly which tool to use for each task.

Which plumber would you choose to fix your broken toilet?

Of course, there’s a time and place for exploring your tools. But this isn’t when you’re trying to Get Things Done. You need to separate ‘work’ from ‘play’. Exploration time is important, but it’s just as important to do it in a (mind)space separate from actual projects and productivity. That way you free yourself from the expectation of making any progress on project work, and your project work isn’t bogged down by exploration.

Adjust once

Do you ever find yourself setting and EQ for a channel, then coming back to it over and over again? Or maybe it’s a compressor. Or reverb. If you keep coming back to revise your settings, it means you didn’t get it right the first time. And you probably didn’t get it right the first time because you didn’t understand what settings would be needed to make the track work in the mix.

Unfortunately, there’s no easy fix to this. Not even a change in attitude. All it takes is experience. The more mixes you do, the better you’ll be at predicting what you need to do on each channel in order to put the mix together.

It might help to think of mixing as having a conversation with the music. Like any conversation, the more you listen the more effective your own words (mix settings) will be. The more you talk (adjust settings), the greater the risk that your words will be irrelevant to the other person (the music).

-Kim.

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  1. Great post (as always)…..This is me in a nutshell……

    “And you probably didn’t get it right the first time because you didn’t understand what settings would be needed to make the track work in the mix.

    Unfortunately, there’s no easy fix to this. Not even a change in attitude. All it takes is experience. The more mixes you do, the better you’ll be at predicting what you need to do on each channel in order to put the mix together.”

    But I’ll take it one step further. I find the more I read and learn, I become more like that plumber with all the potential tools, but I’m so new at this, I forget what tools I have??? I read all these cool tips, how to’s, and then when it comes to mixing, I simply forget some of them. Then I later think “oh man, I should have done that EQ thing on the vocals, or I didn’t try to compress the snare!!”

    Maybe I need a mixing journal……a “don’t forget” book…..

    thanks,
    Ian

  2. @Ian Hudson
    All it takes is experience. The more mixes you do, the more you’ll develop a set of tools and workflow that help you achieve your sound. You can put together your own list of tasks – your own ‘Don’t Forget’ book.

    -Kim.

    • Devin
    • January 29th, 2011

    Ian I can relate to what you say about forgetting what tools you have but like Kim says after more experience, your ears will begin to tell you what you’re missing. Don’t be hard on yourself but do try every effect and parameter you have in your toolbox. After time you will know how they sound and what they do even before applying / turning that knob. Experience experience is all it is. It’s great reading other producers tips for inspiration but theres no easy way around it.. it all comes down to your own hands on experience and what you make of your own tools in your toolbox. After all we all have slightly different tastes in music and it’s that solo work that we all put in to become great in our own way.

  3. @Devin
    Agreed!

    -Kim.

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