When asked what makes music ‘appealing to the ear’, 99% of listeners will likely say something along the lines of: “the melody really caught my attention”. Or “I can relate to the lyrics at this specific time in my life”. Those with a musical ear may even allude to a specific instrument that stars in the composition. However, VERY few will reference the mix.
An ironic thought, as a strong mix is by far one of the easiest ways to give a marginally average song that three-dimensional depth that you expect from a chart-topping single. The flipside being that a bad mix pretty much does the opposite; for established artists especially, a poor mix can very easily scar their reputation, just as it can be the reason new bands never escape the underground.
Precisely why this element of post production is not something to gloss over. The likes of Nas, Beyonce & U2 all work with specific mix engineers for good reason! As for what that reason is, you’ll have to read on to find out, as we dissect why mixing & mastering is such an underrated artform, & reveal how the pros go about achieving a tight mix…
Why mixing & mastering is SO important (especially in the modern music scene)…
Face it – the modern music scene is crowded.
Crowded to the point that to stand out, the sound of an artist or band really needs to be something special & fresh – not just a dry recycled version of the norm. Precisely why mixing & mastering is for most artists, the secret ingredient that underpins their sound. An overarching style which binds all their music together – i.e. the reason it’s easy to spot a song by JayZ or TwentyOne Pilots within the first couple of bars.
And why, all comes back to space. Because while it’s one thing to team X number of instruments together & create a catchy arrangement, it’s another thing entirely to fuse them all together in harmony. Confused? Think of it like cooking; engineers don’t use the phrase “cooking up a beat” for no reason.
So while a producer is charged with sourcing & prepping the ingredients (i.e. finding the instruments & doing a basic arrangement), the mix engineer is the chef who takes those ingredients & turns them into a bunch of ecstatic flavours. A few duties of a mix engineer include…
- Cleaning up the vocals – Using tools such as de-essers & compression, a mix engineer can instantly improve the clarity of vocals & give them more vitality & warmth. Reducing vocal hiss by getting rid of excessive ‘s’ sounds is usually their first port of call. All tweaks that should help the vocals & instrumental merge together into one unified sound.
- Create a sense of space – The ultimate task of a mix engineer is to broaden the soundscape, so that every instrument in the composition has the space to play its own part. It’s this what transforms a song from 2D into 3D. Instrument placement is by far the easiest way to spot a well mixed track. Do it right, & each should have its place – & while some may be more prominent than others – none are overpowering. Results that all come back to the astute ear of a pro engineer & their ability to get the balance just right.
- Engaging the listener – Another major task of a mix engineer is to keep the listener engaged. Because when you consider the sheer amount of repetition that occurs in hit songs, aside from familiarity, there also needs to be some form of audio switch up to keep things fresh for the listener. And while there are various ways of doing this – musical interludes, bridges etc. – for engineers it’s really all about effects. Some of the most frequently used being: pan, fade & reverb.
Still unsure how to tell the difference between an unmixed track & one that’s been engineered by a pro? Plug in your headphones & immerse yourself in this video…
Mixing & mastering kit – what gear do the pros use?
Whenever you’re dealing with sound, the overall quality of the gear used as part of the setup, is of paramount importance. There’s no debate about that.
If anything, you could say that access to quality equipment is part of the reason behind a mix engineer’s success. The better the equipment, the easier it is to get an honest representation of what’s been recorded & in turn, achieve a solid mix. This especially applies when it comes to getting a mix to sound clean across all types of devices.
With that in mind, here’s 3 forms of studio gear that for every mix engineer must be a priority…
- Accurate studio monitors – Not to be confused with general speakers, studio monitors are professional-grade speakers, used by mix engineers to accurately reference the quality of their mix. Unlike conventional speakers, studio monitors are designed to be as honest as possible to the true recording – with studio monitors, there is no overly boosted low end & extremely enhanced highs… just the raw sound. Hence why many argue investing in good studio monitors can instantly give a mix engineer a head start.
- The right DAW – For an engineer, a Digital Audio Workstation is where everything happens. It’s the interface & recording CMS used to make adjustments to the mix. Hence why choosing the right DAW is one of the most crucial decisions any mix engineer can make. Make the wrong choice here & the art of mixing can quickly become twice as complex. Team that with how certain DAWs are only compatible with certain plugins + that each DAW has its own pricing model, & this choice is a pretty major one for any engineer – newbie or pro. A few of the most popular are Logic Pro, Ableton Live & Pro Tools.
- A broad plugin selection – With music production nowadays being very much a digital affair, plugins have pretty much replaced physical mixers, as the ‘must-have’ tool for any engineer who’s looking to work serious body & depth into their mix. Not to mention make it stand out. Much as with a physical mixer, plugins allow engineers to play around with various types of EQ, reverb & other forms of effects. Only being digital, they’re a lot more adjustable & offer far more scope in terms of sound.
Why do some mix engineers charge more £$€?
Yes, production credits & industry experience are a couple of major reasons, but… at the core, the reason certain engineers can demand such a premium, all comes back to their own style & how they produce.
Remember: virtually every engineer will interpret a song differently, so those who manage to do so in a way that proves to be popular amongst listeners, have (what is in effect) an extra layer of leverage. In other words, because of what they can add to the song, they come as greater value to the artist, especially when you consider just how ‘in-tune’ they can become after many years of collaboration. Something that many argue could even see mix engineers become a major part of an artist’s brand!
With that in mind, here’s 3 of the most popular mix engineers in the business today…
- Bob Clearrmountain – Bob is the mixing genius behind a lot of the pop classics we know & love. Throughout his time mixing, Bob has mixed tracks for David Bowie, Bruce Springsteen & the Rolling Stones. He’s even mixed for Tina Turner!
- Chris Lord-Alge – Since working with artists like Carly Simon & James Brown, Chris has gone on to mix music for some of the most influential bands in music history, including U2, Green Day & Foo Fighters.
- Tony Maserati – Over the course of his career, Tony has been nominated for 10 Grammys for his role behind the NY Hip Hop & RnB sound. During his time in the studio, he’s mixed hit records for the likes of Beyoncé, Biggie Smalls & Puff Daddy.