I couldn’t help myself.

You may have noticed I’ve been growing quite the beard over the last month or so. I let it go on as long as I could, but it’s time to say goodbye for now.

Like most dudes, I couldn’t just shave it off without having a little fun, so I’ve been walking around the house today looking like this:

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Pam is THRILLED with it, by the way. :)

Why the heck am I sharing this with you? (Other than to give myself yet another thing to regret in my life?)

Because shaving a beard and mixing a song are really quite similar.

The Common Problem

As you can imagine, I’ve listened to a LOT of mixes from people over the years. Hundreds and hundreds at this point. (In fact, you can hire me to do a mix critique for you if you’re feeling adventurous.)

There are a few common themes I hear when I listen to these mixes (mostly from home studio folks just like you and me). First: the mix is only as good as the song, performance, recording, and arrangement. I’ve beaten this dead horse for years now. This is by far the biggest determining factor in how well a mix is going to turn out.

But there’s another common theme that I haven’t talked about as much. I notice it especially when I listen to a Mix Practice customer’s mix of one of my songs, or when I critique someone’s mix of a song we’re doing over at Dueling Mixes. These are all songs that I have mixed myself, so I already know what the raw tracks sounded like, and what kind of mix I was able to coax out of the tracks. I’m uniquely qualified to critique these mixes, because I’ve mixed the exact same song myself.

Many of these mixes are fantastic. When the mixes aren’t very good, I’ve noticed it’s usually for one of two reasons:

  1. They didn’t get the balance right. (Volume and panning)
  2. They added too much.

Problem #1 is easy enough to fix. You simply need to spend more time setting levels and panning, getting more comfortable and familiar with how loud the kick drum needs to be in relation to the rest of the mix, for example.

If you fix Problem #1, Problem #2 sometimes goes away, but not always. Let me explain.

Back to Facial Hair

When you first pull up a song to mix it, it’s a big, hairy beast, much like an overgrown beard.

After Pam has said, “Wow, you’re beard is really long,” about 40 times, I start to get the hint. Perhaps I don’t look as awesome as I think I do. Maybe I look better without a beard.

Mixes are the same way. Your primary job is to take things away from them, not add things to them. Just like I had to whip out the hedge trimmers and attack my face to get rid of this beard, so you’ve got to use tools like EQ and compression to take away the parts of the mix that don’t belong.

There’s nothing I can add to my face to improve it. (Ha!) But I can take away the extra beardage and end up looking better because of it. (My face actually looks thinner, which is a big win for this husky boy.)

In the same way, I’ve found that when I start adding a lot of things to the mix, the mix suffers. It goes something like this:

You can’t hear the drums, so you boost the highs on the overheads. Better. Now you can’t hear the kick drum, so you boost 50 Hz on the kick. Better. But now you can’t hear the “click” of the kick drum, so you boost 3k. Better. But now the vocal is getting lost, so you do a high shelf and boost a bunch of highs. Better. But now the electric guitars are getting lost, so you boost the upper mids. Now the bass is feeling thin, so you boost 150 Hz. Ah…now the keyboard parts are feeling thin and hard to hear, so you boost the lows AND the highs.

While you may think you’re helping the mix along the way, I’ve heard the end results of this process. It’s almost always BAD. The mix sounds hyped, there are tons of low frequencies and a crapload of high frequencies. It’s harsh. It’s hard to listen to. I’ve heard mixes where people have managed to take tracks that sound really good right out of the box and turn them into this sort of jumbled mess of frequencies. Why? Because they believed their job as a mixer was to ADD TO the mix.

When they try the opposite approach, things improve almost instantly. Things go much more smoothly when you approach mixing with a subtractive, minimalist mindset.

So should I never add anything?

Your next question is probably, “Does that mean I’m not supposed to ever actually add anything to my mix?”

Of course not.

But I encourage you to FIRST think about taking things away before you thinking about adding things in. Practice subtraction before addition. Some folks say that’s a boring way to approach mixing. And maybe it is. But I’ll take boring over exciting if it means I get a good mix at the end.

What do you think? Do you agree or disagree? I wanna know. Leave a comment below.

  • Christopher Burke

    I find I make the same mistake both ways around. I write mainly instrumentals cos I sing like a dog with lharyngitis. I can’t hear the lead sound, so I turn down the backing a bit. Then I can’t hear the different backing sounds with clarity, so I cut bits of those to leave them all clear. So far not bad – then I hit the BEEG one. I want to use a different sound as the lead sound for a few bars – like, say, the guitar which has been accompanying now takes the spotlight for its solo. BUT – I’ve EQ’d it to be an ACCOMPANYING sound for the first chunk of the song so it don’t sound so good by itself because it was just fitting in with the other sounds. So I change the other sounds down a bit…. When I listen to the mix in mono/stereo I find it’s Death by a Thousand Cuts! So I slap GAIN on the whole thing and discover EACH BIT of it works (ish!) but the mix as a whole sounds like it was assembled from four different jigsaw puzzles. So I start boosting bits to even things out – and usually end up exactly back where I started from at the beginning of the mix, only now it’s 4 hours later!

    I don’t think it’s cutting OR boosting. I think it’s knowing WHEN to cut and WHEN to boost. Anyone got any tips – PLEASE – with cherries and whipped cream, on how to tell WHEN to cut/boost – and how to get an instrument so it sounds OK in the mix but also will still sound OK if it’s going to do a solo bit (is the answer always two instances of the instrument, mixed differently?) Re: Sai Natarajan – what I find with reverb is the dreaded Ripple Effect. Chuck a handful of pebbles in a pond and the ripples from each will dissect all the others, causing a mess of waves. Chuck one rock in and the ripples will spread out, symmetric and beautiful. The reverb on one sound, I’ve discovered, gives the sounds around it the IMPRESSION of being reverbed a little bit. So you don’t have to use as much as you think, cos it’s cumulative! WHEN to cut/boost tips would be greatly appreciated….!!
    Chris

  • Alfred

    Absolutely agree Joe!

  • Carl

    “When you first pull up a song to mix it, it’s a big, hairy beast”…well, actually my mixes used to become a three eyed, tentacle waving spider monsters, with a (laser-)shark head – so I m just fine with hairy beasts that turn into something more,…um let s say civilized 😉
    Great stuff Joe!

  • andrewc

    I agree and yet one thing I’m beginning to see is for every do – there is an expert saying don’t, for example, I just watched a video of Fab Dupont, and he was boosting all over the place, I had to catch my breath at how he boosted something on almost every track, and yes I know the next comment will be, when your Fab that’s fine but for everyone else, ect ect ect. point is the rules seem to go with the mixer.

  • Sai Natarajan

    Great analogy, and I definitely have to agree with your point. But quick question: do using things like reverb count as ‘adding to the mix’? (I’m an orchestral musician, so reverb is incredibly important here)

  • http://www.nimbitmusic.com/deliciousfood/#deliciousfood Delicous Food

    Funky analogy, Joe ! You’re damn right !

  • Bryan Hoogenboom

    LEMME! I absolutely agree. Starting subtractive is like base-relief sculpture. It’s harder to find where to cut to help the mix, but one move can cure a lot if ills. “…the Ace of Spades…”

  • Jerry

    100% agreed! LIke you just mentioned, if the song we are mixing is catchy, (well written with good lyrics and melodies) it’s well arranged, well performed, and it was recorded right at the source. I think spending between 30 – 60 mins paying close attention to the volume and panning should get you 70 – 80% of the way there. and by adding subtraction EQ when checked in MONO the rest is history!

    • Jef Matthys

      I agree with you Jerry. Since one month I’m a dueling mixes member. The way I mix changed a lot. I’m cutting more than I boost. I listen and ask myself, it needs compression? Rather than throwing on everything a compressor, because I thought I had to. taking my time to set levels and panning. BTW its more fun. This is like a win, win situation. Thanks Joe for you’re support. Thanks Jerry to share your comment.

      • Jerry

        Yup, there’s nothing wrong boosting the EQ but in my opinion it’s wiser if we always try to cut first. And in mixing sometime less is actually more! The key is to use our ears!