Wrong WayI was emailing a potential client the other day. He had a few questions about having me master his upcoming album.

As we emailed back and forth, he asked for some mixing advice as well. We were talking about using a high-pass filter on vocals to clear up the muddiness, and he said he sometimes rolled off everything below 400 Hz on vocals.

Then he asked the question. “Is that wrong?”

Those of you that immediately said Yes in your minds, you’re wrong. You’re completely missing the point.

Mixing, along with every other creative, musical thing you do, is a subjective process. There are no right or wrong moves.

What struck me about his question “Is that wrong?” is that he had just said in the previous sentence that the vocal doesn’t sound right unless he rolls off that much low end. There’s your answer. If it sounds right, then it IS right.

Most of us are making music to be heard by someone else. Chances are that someone else isn’t an engineer. He’s not going to hear that vocal and say, “Gee, he rolled off way too much low end.” He’s going to either like the vocal sound or not.

If you do all of your mixes “by the book,” regardless of whether it sounds good to you, then your mixes will sound bad. That guy who listens to it won’t be able to tell where you put your EQs and compressors, but he WILL be able to tell if it sounds bad.

I normally hate moral relativism and the whole “if it feels good, do it” mindset, but music is the exception. All the great musicians throughout history routinely broke the rules.

When I took music theory in college, we learned all about how to properly structure a 4-part vocal harmony. No parallel fifths. The leading tone always resolves up. Every note had to be explained.

Learning that rigid structure helped me better understand the “rules” and also how and why I break them.

So what about that 400 Hz HPF? Well, apparently anything less than that and vocals were too muddy and lacked clarity. Sounds like the right choice to me.

Next time you’re faced with a musical decision, rather than asking Is that wrong?, ask yourself if it makes the song better. There’s your answer.

Photo by Elana CXLIV