If you’ve followed me for a while, you know I’m not a huge automation guy. I don’t like to “ride the fader” on every track in a session. I see the benefits of automation, and I certainly use it from time to time, but it’s not something I rely on heavily.

Part of it is simply laziness. (You can call it “minimalism” if that makes you feel better.) I tend to approach mixing with a sort of “Name That Tune” mindset. How few moves can I use to get a great mix? But it’s not efficiency for efficiency’s sake. In my experience minimalism ends up saving time AND being the best thing for the mix. My minimalist mixes sound great.

What does minimalism look like in action? It looks like getting a great-sounding mix with only the faders and pan knobs before ever reaching for an EQ or compressor. Minimalism keeps me from pulling up every track in solo and EQ-ing it to death. It forces me to think more about the big picture, to always have my eyes on the end game rather than getting bogged down in the details.

Details are important, to be sure. Sometimes you need to EQ a track to death. Sometimes you need to automate every vocal line to get it to sit on top of the mix just right.

Sometimes.

“You Can’t Automate Art”

I was texting back and forth with my buddy Pete Woj the other night. (If you haven’t already, check out Pete’s website MixBetterNow.com.) We were talking about some of those “automatic” plugins out there. You’ve probably heard of them. They have mysterious names, and they only have a handful of knobs, each of which has a completely arbitrary name like “Impact” or “Warmth.”

Can you get a great mix with these? I’m sure you can. But what bothers me about those plugins is that they paint a less-than-honest picture of what it means to make great mixes, to create great music, to make good art. As Pete and I were rapping about this, I texted him this:

We live in a push-button culture. And that’s AWESOME when it comes to toasting bagels or doing taxes online, but you can’t automate art…You can get more efficient, sure. Instagram filters make everyone think they’re a photographer, and that’s awesome, but they can’t THEN act like they’re a real photographer and not learn PHOTOGRAPHY.

Don’t Write Me Off as a Grumpy Old Fart

Stick with me. I’m not one of those disgruntled old farts who believes everything has to be “like it used to be.” I really do think things like Instagram filters are awesome. They help average people create pictures that look way better than they would on their own.

But to create truly fabulous images on Instagram, you need to have an eye for photography. You don’t have to understand shutter speed and F-stop or whatever. But you DO have to have a good eye. A good eye trumps everything. “Composition” in the photography world is everything.

Few people would disagree with me on this. We recognize a good picture when we see one. We know that the picture was already good before the person slapped a filter on there. It’s not that hard to understand.

It’s not the same in the music world, unfortunately. People will see a video of Dave Pensado using X plugin to make his vocals pop. The vocal will indeed sound amazing. They then go out and buy the plugin, and their vocals don’t sound amazing. They don’t understand why.

There are two MASSIVE factors at play here, factors that people blatantly ignore, to their detriment.

Factor #1 – Dave is working with stellar vocalists and stellar vocal recordings. If you’ve never mixed incredibly well-performed and well-recorded vocals, it’s understandable why you wouldn’t quite get this. There’s a reason I say “Get It Right At The Source” annoyingly often. It’s the number one most important thing. Here’s the straight truth: If you copy Dave’s setting, using the exact same plugin, and your vocal track sounds like garbage, it’s because your vocal track sounds like garbage. And no plugin in the world will fix that. The art itself is bad. Fix the art before changing out the tools.

Factor #2 – Dave Pensado has about two more decades of experience than you do. That plays out in his being able to hear what the vocal needs in a mix. Then he just uses whatever tool is in front of him to make that happen. The tool is fairly irrelevant, as long as you put it in the master’s hand.

Completely Random Section

My daddy used to sing this song when I was a kid. Have you ever heard it? It fits really well with the vibe of this article. Here are some of the lyrics:

TOUCH OF THE MASTER’S HAND
written by John Kramp / Myra Brooks Welch
Copyright © Universal Music Publishing Group, Capitol Christian Music Group

Well it was battered and scarred,
And the auctioneer felt it was hardly worth his while,
To waste much time on the old violin but he held it up with a smile,
Well it sure ain’t much but its all we got left I guess we ought to sell it to,
Oh, now who’ll start the bid on this old violin?
Just one more and well be through.

And then he cried, “One give me one dollar,
Who’ll make it two? Only two dollars, who’ll make it three?
Three dollars twice now that’s a good price,
Now who’s gonna bid for me?
Raise up your hand now don’t wait any longer; the auction’s about to end,
Who’s got four, just one dollar more, to bid on this old violin?”

Well the air was hot and the people stood around as the sun was setting low,
From the back of the crowd a gray haired man,
Came forward and picked up the bow,
He wiped the dust from the old violin, then he tightened up the strings,
Then he played out a melody pure and sweet, sweeter than the angels sing,
And then the music stopped and the auctioneer,
With a voice that was quiet and low, he said, “Now what am I bid
For this old violin?” and he held it up with a bow.

And then he cried out, “One give me one thousand,
Who’ll make it two? Only two thousand who’ll make it three?
Three thousand twice you know that’s a good price,
Come on, who’s gonna to bid for me?”
And the people cried out, “What made the change? We don’t understand.”
Then the auctioneer stopped, and he said with a smile,
“It was the touch of the Master’s hand.”

For Love of the Tools

I love gear. I love the feeling of coming home with a new guitar pedal, or trying a new microphone for the first time. I get it, I really do.

There has never been a better time to make music. Music technology has evolved to a point where it’s accessible to almost everyone. The problem is that people tend to focus more on the technology part and less on the music part. They obsessively learn how to use the tools without giving any attention to improving their art. They stock up on fancy paints and brushes but never actually PAINT anything.

Like I said, I love the tools, but only to the extent that they help me make music. When I become more obsessed with the pedalboard than with playing my guitar, I know it’s time to re-calibrate FAST. I’m moving off track into dangerous territory.

Let’s get back to the ART, shall we?

Let’s focus less on tools and even techniques, and more on becoming prolific artists.

If THAT’s your focus, the rest of the the pieces of the puzzle will magically fall in place.

QUESTION FOR YOU: What does this article stir up in you? What’s your gut reaction? What does it make you want to do? Leave a comment below.

Joe Gilder
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