Somewhere in ’08 I realized that the old system of having five band mates fight for the 3.5 space on the couch while I over thought snare drum compression wasn’t the best system. There were numerous downsides to this. The band really only needed to be there for creative decisions. They didn’t need to be there while I notched holes for various instruments or took care of the more technical end of the mix.
Mixing For Zombies
After six hours of them struggling to find the will to live or struggling to beat whatever PSP game happened to be in their hands, they were then suddenly expected to have an opinion on the mix. “So! What do you think?”
The feedback was sometimes valuable, but often times it was clear that they hadn’t been flexing that perspective-maintaining muscle that most of us have been honing and toning for years. Most of them were coming out of a lethargic state that maybe only those with a “free day” from the Soviet labor prisons must have faced. Even if they were A-list mixers, it’s hard to be useful eight seconds out of a coma.
Note: This is one reason why I’ve always intended for my some-year super studio to ample things to do in the party room/lobby thing. Get those people out of the control room so they can be at least resemble human beings when I do need a listen.
Mixing Without Your 18 Inches
I never really liked feeling out a mix with someone breathing down my neck. Seriously, when I’ve got a few amps in the control room and all my outboard gear I often do feel their breath going down my spine. If that’s not disturbing, I don’t know what is. It’s not a big deal for bands who’ve seen me naked and didn’t request a refund. It’s less desirable with clients who maybe don’t have a squeaky clean criminal record.
Fighting The Car Stereo First
No matter how good the monitoring setup is it’s never easy to get a mix to kill in the truck. I’m assuming the 30dB swings induced by deplorable acoustics, off-axis speakers that cracked six years ago, and EQ settings on the stereo that maybe only Helen Keller would have approved of lead to a mix that never sounds ideal in the truck. Even the big boys struggle with that one. Obviously, not every band member has their car stereo set like Jack Nicholson. (Just a hunch.) Even good car stereos are inherently going to push, pull, bend, rip, and tear a mix to shreds faster than anything else. That’s what happens when frequency response looks a lot like a seismograph reading on a busy day.
It’s unfortunate that the first place they hear a mix is in the car. This doesn’t mean your mix should kick MAJOR ass in the car. It just means you’ve got to fight the Level 8 boss in Level 2. I’d much prefer they hear the mix on their home stereos, Ipods, and alarm clocks before they fight the big guy. This is more of a psychological strategy more than anything.
I like to mix naked. Alright, that’s a lie. I’d spill coffee on my man stuff and those emotional wounds would take too long to heal. I do like to mix when I like to mix. If I wake up at 3am and can’t sleep – I’m not sure why I typed “if” – then I like being able to do my thing.
There Goes Spontaneity
I’ve also grown to love the 30 Minute Mix. This is my quick, dirty Blitzkrieg strategy I use to make sure I’m not thinking too much in a mix. I love just popping in, giving it hell, and then getting out. This doesn’t finish a mix, but it keeps me from spending six hours on a mix that sucks anyway. I’ll still have to go back in and finish, but there’s something about the 30 minute mix that fits my personality type. This type of mixing is not really an option when the band is present. You can’t really use the brainstorming side and you can’t take wild changes. Even something as mundane as an EQ sweep will cause someone to go, “Hey, what was that?”.
You Can’t Cage These Monkeys
You can’t implement classroom rules in a mix session. You can’t tell a band “No Talking” and “No Having Fun”. That’s a big reason they are there. Their day job at the plant is NOT fun and that’s why they joined the band in the first place and that’s probably why they want to record music. (Hint: The FUN element can not be underestimated. I cover this in depth in my upcoming book Surviving And Thriving In This BS Recording Studio Business) The problem is you will most certainly face constant distractions when attempting to work.
Selling Your Soul To The Customer
More importantly, somewhere in my late 20s I realized that I needed to balance my life a little bit and I need at least 1-2 nights a week with the ol’ lady or the old nasty fun supply gets cut off, which turns me into a raging lunatic. So scheduling a band five nights a week has proved to be rather unhealthy to me in all arenas.
I shifted my mixing methods to email. This means I finish a mix, upload it, and send the band boss an email. They listen on all their respective stereos and get back to me.
All the big problems are solved.
- I can mix when it works best for my schedule.
- I can actually balance my life a bit in terms of work/play/family.
- I avoid the distractions of having five guys in the control room.
- They get a chance to listen to the mix on a billion stereos to find the troubled areas without going facing the Boss 8 monster in the truck first.
- They don’t have to sit through three hours of sibilance fighting and 2dB automation swings.
- They can listen with a fresh set of ears.
Everything is great, right…….WRONG.
There are some major hangups to this method that cost me a long, full day of work this week.
The usual problem with text-based communication is it’s quantized. It gets rounded to be either 0% or 100%. So what does it mean when a person says, “I think the mix is alright”? It CAN mean he thinks the mix is ALLLLLLRIIIIGHT (think Tony The Tiger) with a big, fat smiley face in the end. It can mean that he is 100% satisfied and we should move on to the next mix. It can mean that the mix is “just alright” and there’s nothing about it that really excites him. That can’t happen. Immediately we find ourselves requiring literary skills to express ourselves. Good luck with that on the band front.
I had a band who were very particular but wanted me to have some fun with distorting and gating drums and generally breaking a lot of rules. Okie dokie. To rephrase it, they had very high standards but they wanted me to play. This is already tricky because there’s a very fine line between “weird and cool” and “weird and stupid”.
Based on the emails, I was under the impression that they 100% hated what I had done, but they wanted me to keep sending them mixes. For me to play the guessing game mix after mix would have been a total waste of time and it basically was. I got rather frustrated. This was a rough phase where a whole lot of stuff went wrong all at once in my life. My less-than-optimistic mindset get the impression that they were sitting around going, “This is terrible!”
When they finally made it in for mixing (this client is a farmer and has ZERO time in the **** months) it turns out that my brain was WAY off and my mixes were way on. I was so pessimistic about the situation that I insisted we start all over. It was a 10 hour day of mixing because I wanted a fresh shot at it.
The next day they told me they liked the old mix better. A lot better. In fact, they only had tiny little issues with that old mix….the one I was under the impression they HATED. Besides the normal 1-2dB tweaks here, more tom attack overall, and bringing up some shaker I buried, my instincts were very close.
If I hadn’t relied so heavily on ASSUMPTOIN of what some of this email communication meant I would have had a clear enough head to see that mix all the way through.
Email communication is great. When they say, “The vocals are a bit low” I know what they mean. If they wish the kick wasn’t so boomy, I know what they mean. When they start saying “Can you make the snare drum crazier?” we’ve moved into a new realm where the English language fails. Text-based communication fails. Oral-communication fails. The only real solution is to bring them back in to the studio where you can figure it out by grunting, showing you mp3s, etc. The second I ask, “What the hell are they talking about?” on the email, it’s time to ditch the email-based mixing critiques. They are ready for a non-zombie session.
Having the band bouncing around your control room until they pass out is not the ideal way for you to make them happy. Relying on a bunch of gray-area text to give you specific mixing tasks is equally unproductive. The happy median is to do a hybrid.
Get the mix rocking as best you can, shoot ‘em an email, and let them get back to you. The second you have no idea what they are talking about, schedule a mixing session.
dwhalen8 – 12-20-2011, 01:47 PM Edit Reply
I generally track, kick the band out and mix by myself until everyone in the band approves the mix. After that, we schedule one more day where everyone comes in and we put on the final touches.
EnSkorSang – 12-20-2011, 03:34 PM Edit Reply
Funny blog. I’d cut out emails all together if they cause problems. The band comes in for tracking, you arrange then for them to come back 1 week later or whatever to listen to the mixes, fix any issues or maybe even re-track something that didnt work in retrospect. It means they come back fresh and ready to listen and you get…real life interaction. You also know that the first time they hear the mix will be on a good system – they are hearing it as you hear it. Could be problematic if the first time a band member hears a mix its on a laptop and he comes back saying ‘the bass is too quiet’. So you turn it up, a different band member listens on his stereo and says ‘the bass is too high’…
u2redlight – 12-20-2011, 04:32 PM Edit Reply
blueman – 12-20-2011, 05:08 PM Edit Reply
This was a fun read! I enjoy your writing style Thanks for sharing Brandon!!
Yuri – 12-20-2011, 05:22 PM Edit Reply
I usually work that way too.
Also one thing I like to do is to give the band some options, like:
Mix1: what I first had in mind
Mix2: vocals a bit louder
Mix3: some weird effect at 1:33
So if they like one of them more I don’t even need to go back to the project.
MisterTrent – 12-20-2011, 05:36 PM Edit Reply
Great post. You can also meet them halfway by having them call you to clarify as opposed to just booking a session if they get vague- questions like “you say do something crazy with the snare- can you scat sing what you want that to sound like?” “is it time based like delay or more of a filtering thing?” those kind of questions go a long way.
Silver – 12-20-2011, 06:19 PM Edit Reply
AS ever Brandon You saying what you want. However in your own inimitable style Lol. I love this Site. There are really REAL people here.
Merry Xmas one and all Happy New Year and may your mixes get better lol
bholst – 12-20-2011, 08:26 PM Edit Reply
So many friends, family, work peers, people in general seem to only want to communicate by email and text messages with me that it drives me nuts, and it’s for the very same reason that you mentioned here. If I had a nickle for every time I sent somebody a text and they replied back asking why I was pissed or whatever and it simply wasn’t the case. lol. Anyway, although I find myself on this forum a lot, text based communication certainly isn’t my favorite method, so I know what you mean.
Barefootsteve – 12-21-2011, 06:29 AM Edit Reply
Brandon, you are the leader in writing style. Years ago I read mix mag. Now I read your stuff!
I still mix on an analog console. The best situation for me is to have the band arrive nearer the end of the mix session and with fresh ears, give an opinion. then we try a one off CD on the living room stereo….then they go to their car(s) and listen. If tweeks are needed we just tweek and repeat.
2dogs – 12-21-2011, 08:29 AM Edit Reply
Well slap my ass and call me rusty, I’m not alone to have lived through this. I recently completed an 850 hour project where all communications were email based because the band travelled 900 miles to record their EP in my studio over a 7 day all out assault. The email thing has its uses obviously but what I now insist on is Skype video chat. Its face to face feedback where you can see expressions and have a quick discussion with a whole lot of understanding versus misunderstandings. Even if I were to buy the webcam for them it’d be worth it to avoid the conflicts, frustrations and countless hours lost. As for sharing the mixdowns I set up a Dropbox for all my clients where I upload WAV files. They’re big, yes, but they hear the best possible audio in their crappy laptop speakers. I also provide them with guidance on multiple listening scenarios and the type of feedback I’m looking for so that we have a common ground of understanding. The other thing I insist on for bands, is for them to designate one person to talk for the band. The devil is in the details as we know and if it saves you grief just insist on it. We all learn the hard way, but there is no reason to keep working aimlessly. I hope this was helpful for someone, because as The Man Brandon says, your sex life IS important
Pablo – 12-21-2011, 09:17 AM Edit Reply
Great article Brandon – This one and the last post on charging rates hit the nail on the head. I find mixing with anybody in the control room irritating. Hence I usually mix into the wee wee hours of the night. When you are trying to sort out some little frequency thing, say on the toms, and the keyboard player comes in and says ” the bass is too loud” or “I can’t hear the violin” Grrrrr……
brandondrury – 12-22-2011, 12:47 AM Edit Reply
The email thing has its uses obviously but what I now insist on is Skype video chat.
Wow! Awesome idea. I don’t know why I didn’t think of that. I’ll be stealing that one for sure.
paul999 – 12-22-2011, 01:25 AM Edit Reply
I like the skype idea as well. I go from email to phone to mix session if communication fails. I find I can get 90% done by email. I always do a follow up call unless they are phone phobic like Brandon is;-)
bobbybovine – 12-22-2011, 08:50 AM Edit Reply
This type of Blog is invaluable for someone like me who is still learning and not doing this for money yet! Brandon, this type of information is what is going to save me months if not years of frustration trying to figure out the best way to deal with these situations that I haven’t had to deal with or even think about. The video chat is a fantastic idea too. It would definitely cut down on bullshit that wastes your time.
the evil – 12-25-2011, 12:14 PM Edit Reply
I do something really similar, maybe i expect too much out of the musicians… aftert the recording session i kick everyone out…. i too like to mix naked and at 3am… then i basically finish the mix and send them one, either hand a cd to them or email it. i ask them to take notes on any changes and i schedule a day when thay can come in and do a listen and fix session if its more than a raise this here type of thing, but always do a final mix session with the boss. so far this has worked really well for me.
Theateer – 12-31-2011, 12:10 AM Edit Reply
HAHA Brandon, that was a fun read!!! I could picture you reading… snare more crazy… and I could see your face in my head… like mine would look in that situation. Just like… um… really?!! I never would have thought of that idea… /giggle
I think for fun… I’d just have to trigger in some sample or something crazy as hell… something no one would ever sample over a snare. Not in their right mind anyway lol.
brandondrury – 01-03-2012, 05:20 PM Edit Reply
maybe i expect too much out of the musicians.
That’s the first step to making mega recordings with others being “in control”….which is the definition of being a paid engineer.
I think for fun… I’d just have to trigger in some sample or something crazy as hell… something no one would ever sample over a snare. Not in their right mind anyway lol.
I used a “snore” sound of a person recording one time. The band didn’t understand when I seriously wanted to use it.
dudermn – 01-05-2012, 03:47 AM Edit Reply
Have you tried handing the band a cd/dvd ? And meet with bands/artists for beer to do the transaction and post-listening review?
nkujankuja – 01-19-2012, 05:02 PM Edit Reply
Hey Brandon you are saving me a lot of time and frastration here. i thought i was the only person who is doing this and because i am new in music recording. i thought other producers they just nail it at first time.
i always call a friend that has a recording studio to listen and i would fix those errors before calling the band to come and listen and he does the same when he is having a project.
Celso Ahnert – 01-25-2012, 11:04 AM Edit Reply
Well, in my case the e-mail based mixing is a “MUST BE DONE” as I’m now temporarily living 1200 miles from my bandmates.
It’s worked well up to now, but the problem of “what do you mean with that?” sometimes bothers me and I have to get to the phone and ask the guys.
I’ll try Skype, it’s a very good idea, but nothing works better than a band meeting for mixing, and of course a few cold beers.
TokyoMind – 04-05-2012, 03:07 AM Edit Reply
Cool, Very Helpful to Us.