advice from a pro mixing engineer

Tips from a veteran mixing engineer

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Prepping for your final audio mix requires many of the same considerations as your recording. A Grammy winning mixing engineer gives us some key points to consider as you get ready for the mixing stage.

The Disc Makers Blog recently published two articles on preparing to record (“Preparing to record in a professional recording studio” and “Prepping for the recording studio, Part II“), offering real-world advice on what to do before you walk into a recording session. But what about after the session?

If you’re working with a professional mixing engineer to turn your raw, recorded tracks into a finished song, laying the groundwork for success ahead of time can make a huge difference, just like it can when you’re entering the recording studio to record your music in the first place.

Pick the right engineer

Given that digital files can easily be sent thousands of miles away with the click of a button, you can feasibly work with a mixing engineer in Japan, even if you live in New Mexico. Given that you can look beyond your local music community, as well as deep within it, how do you choose the right engineer?

Getting personal referrals from artists within your network can be a great way to start. Listen to sample tracks mixed by the engineers you’re considering and see what resonates with you and inspires you. Similarly, don’t hesitate to request a phone conversation or a coffee meeting to get a feel for the engineer’s personality. Remember, this is someone you will have to work with closely on a project that is very important to you, so choosing someone you can collaborate with goes a long way.

Do you love the mixing on certain tracks by Kendrick Lamar, Daft Punk, David Bowie, or that unknown indie band you heard last week? Do you feel that a similar touch would make your own music shine? See who mixed those projects and consider reaching out. Just because someone has an illustrious resume doesn’t necessarily mean he or she is out of reach for you and your project.

“Since we live in the age of social media, reaching out to Grammy Award-winning engineers isn’t such a big deal anymore,” says Mario J. McNulty, a New York-based mixing engineer and Grammy Award winner.

If you do plan to reach out to an A-list engineer with a pedigree, go in with open eyes. Legends in the field will often charge a solid chunk for their talents, and rightfully so, so have a clear budget in mind before you begin any discussions. Furthermore, just because a mixing engineer has several awards and platinum projects under his belt, it does not necessarily make him the best fit for your project. Even the most decorated engineer won’t make you happy if his or her vision for the music doesn’t gel with yours.

Whether you want to hire the most in-demand engineer in Los Angeles or that supremely talented up-and-coming mixer who lives in the building next to you, make sure you choose someone who will take you and your music seriously. “The artist has to do some musical evaluation,” McNulty says, “but also try to pick a mixer who is passionate about getting it right.”

Get organized

Before an engineer starts mixing, make sure everything is in order.

“A mixing engineer cannot be messing around looking for files or making edit fixes before a mix,” says McNulty. “It is way too time-consuming and, more importantly, it is not mixing. Those tasks should have been done beforehand by the engineer or producer who made the record.” In the case of many indie artists, this person can be the artist himself. Regardless of the responsible party, make sure the work gets done.

Simple housekeeping tasks like ensuring every audio file is correctly labelled and located where it should be is part of your prep work. Similarly, taking the time to double check edited sections of your tracks can help you isolate trouble spots before the mixing engineer gets to work.

Once you’ve proofed your session and are confident that it’s in good shape, put it in a clearly labelled folder on a portable hard drive to be delivered to your engineer, or put everything on a ZIP file ready for upload. The less time your engineer spends deciphering your file names or making rudimentary adjustments to your tracks, the more time he or she can spend making your tracks sound beautiful.

Make as many decisions as possible

When it comes to choosing whether to cut the final chorus of your dance anthem by two bars or tune a certain vocal line, nail things down as much as you can before the mixer gets his or her hands on the tracks.

“Sometimes, a discussion is had where the mixing engineer is part of choices like these,” says McNulty, “but it’s something that can take time away from the mixing itself. It can eat up half a day or more when you’re trying to make these choices and it can wear the engineer out before the mixing has even begun.”

That said, even if you’ve gone over your track with a magnifying glass and made every decision you can think of well before mixing day, sometimes you’ll hear things differently in the mix process and want to make changes. If something comes up that you want to tweak during the mix — a certain guitar part suddenly feels too busy or a distorted bass sound unexpectedly distracts from the lead vocals — speak up and make the fixes that you need.

If you are requesting unexpected changes mid-mix, be mindful of your engineer’s time and attention and don’t go overboard. And again, early preparation is key to a smooth mixing process. “If you think making changes like tuning could possibly be part of the process, make sure the mixer has time allotted for it,” says McNulty.

Give thorough direction

Before your mixing engineer ever opens a file, make sure he or she knows your expectations for the final track.

“There are thousands of ways to mix a song, endless, really,” McNulty says. “But if you don’t know what the direction should be, you could be mixing in the wrong way.

“Sometimes the artist just wants the mixer’s vision. That’s great, but make sure that it’s thoroughly discussed before you start. Nothing is worse than mixing a track to sound like a Top 40 hit and then the artist gets the first mix back and says that he or she wants something folky. That’s an extreme example, but you don’t want to have to start the mix over or, worse, lose the gig.”

To avoid any such problems and get on the same page artistically, communication is king. Tell your mixing engineer what your influences and inspiration for the song were, what the vibe and energy of the track are all about, and anything else that can give him or her a good artistic sense of how to proceed.

Providing solid reference mixes is also a great way to get your engineer on the right track. Do you want the chorus of your song to be dark and epic like old-school Garbage, but that break in the third verse to punch like the last few seconds of Green Day’s “American Idiot”? Do you want your instruments to have a vintage, Blue Note sound, while the vocals have a similar level of reverb and flavor to D’Angelo’s latest? Tell your mixer in as much detail as possible and provide copies of your reference recordings so the engineer can listen on the spot.

Consolidate your feedback

If there are four bandmates, two singers, or three producers and a label exec who all have to evaluate and comment on a mix, make sure that everyone’s feedback is put together, discussed, agreed upon, and delivered, in writing, to the mix engineer at the same time.

“The mixer cannot be taking notes from five members of a band when they haven’t all discussed it first themselves,” says McNulty. “You can end up chasing your tail for days.”

Don’t overstep

This one is simple — respect your engineer and don’t ask for things that are out of line. McNulty’s top two examples? Asking for endless recalls and tweaks of your mix and insisting that the engineer change his or her equipment setup. Avoiding both behaviors can go a long way towards keeping your engineer in the best place to give you the quality mixes you want.

Deal with time expectations and money up front

Getting all the scheduling and financial arrangements taken care of in advance will make for a smooth, stress-free mixing session. The first step is communicating clearly with your engineer about when you need the final product done, how many songs you want to have mixed, what the instrumentation and track count for each song is, and anything else that might impact the mixer’s work. Providing rough versions of the mixes can help, too. Based on that information, your engineer should be able to give you a good estimate of how long the process will take from first fade to final bounce, but be sure to build in sufficient time for reviews and revisions.

“Mixing usually isn’t a very fast process, so time is very important, and so is knowing what deadlines need to be met,” says McNulty. “Budget is always the topic that no one wants to talk about, and it can help if you have representation.” Regardless of whether you have a colleague or manager negotiating on your behalf or if you’re doing it all yourself, don’t be shy about asking about budget or cost of the mixing process if nobody brings it up, McNulty says.

Your mixing engineer is working hard to make your music sound beautiful — so even if you’re deep into the logistics and details of getting your album over the finish line, take a minute to step back and appreciate the overall awesomeness of the process.

Do you have any tips when it comes to preparing for a great mixing session? Share them in the comments below!

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