This is a question I get often from artists and it’s one I love because it means they are open to having their mixes done with a little more creativity than the standard old mix and master. My response usually is “it depends”. It depends on what I hear when I hear your song and how much leeway I perceive you’re giving me to be creative (because some artists get really mad if you tinker with their vision and rightfully so). Once I have that established these are the things I ask myself:
1. What world does this song live in?
This is much deeper than just simply identifying genre since in 2016 there is basically no such thing as genre (there’s only good music and bad music if you ask me!). This is all about figuring out the scope of the song and what are the conventions for this style and what are the counter conventions for this style. For example, rap songs for a long time didn’t have a heaping table spoon of reverb applied to the vocals, now it’s pretty acceptable for rap vocals to be doubled dipped in reverb plugin juice. As the old saying goes, “You must know the rules in order to break the rules”.
2. What’s missing from this song?
When I’m mixing a song I listen for the negative space, in other words for what’s missing. I listen to see how can I make this more interesting and/or more exciting from a listener’s perspective. In other words, what could make this better? For example, this could be as simple as adding a well timed delay between a large space in the vocal, say right before the chorus.
3. What flaws do I need to hide?
I don’t care if you’re Michael Jackson or Adele every song before it’s mixed has some glarring flaws that need to be addressed by a good audio engineer. What I find works best is instead of trying to outright hide the flaws in a song, its sometimes better to deal with them in a creative way. For example, the part in the verse where the rapper goes off beat, instead of trying to chop up the verse so it’s on beat (and it’s probably not going to sound good if you actually do that) instead mute the beat. Since there’s no beat, the listerner wont notice that the rapper is not on rhythm for a bar or so. It’s almost like a magician doing a slight of hand trick, instead the trick is all audiotory.
4. What flaws do I need to keep?
Conversely, it’s also important to know which flaws to keep in the recording, particularly the vocal performance. It’s funny to think about now but when I started mixing music I wasn’t sure if I should completely cut all breaths or leave them. It was actually something that would really stress me because some artists would have them completely cut and some would leave them in. It wasn’t until I realized that breathing is what makes us human (duh!) and that hearing a breath in between vocal lines actually helps further the human connection between artist and listener (Obviously if they’re distracting lower them). Plus, I heard Kanye keeps in all his breaths and so when in doubt do as Kanye.
5. Does this help enhance the artist’s vision and is this even part of the artist’s vision?
I find that when were working with both beginners and experienced artists it helps to have an idea of what their artistic vision is (many surprisingly have no vision). This is important because it helps establish what’s appropriate and what isn’t appropriate. For example, say I’m mixing a song for DMX (he’s a really aggressive rapper from the late 90’s) and I do something to the mix that a Drake song would have (say a high pass filter). This would probably not be a good idea since until recently DMX hates everything about Drake including Drake’s face. So basically if you’re mixing an artist you want to have a good idea of what their influences are and not try to impose influences on them that they maybe completely against. Having said that, I also try to push artists toward what could be.
6. Can I (gently) push this mix into a new direction thereby giving it a new dimension previously unforseen by the artist?
This is another thing I’ve learned to do and it’s show the artist what their song could be and I usually do it without telling them first. Because things can be easily changed back, it’s better I find to just “wow” the artist. When I hear a song with potential, my mouth gets wattery because I know I can transform that mix into something the artist totally did not expect. For me that is the real art (and real joy) of mixing and mastering professionaly.
What do you think?
As you can see being an audio engineer is about finding the balance between what the artist wants and what the artist needs. In the comments let me know if you’re an artist do you like it when your audio engineer gets creative with the mix or not? For the audio engineers reading this, do you get creative when your mixing and what are some principles you follow?