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We mixers know all too well that mixes can be like black holes. If you keep a safe distance, you can generally preserve a healthy perspective and escape unscathed. But many of us allow ourselves to get sucked way in without even realizing it’s happening.
Before we know it, we’re coming up on day 3, we’re no longer having fun and we can’t even tell what we’re listening for anymore. We’ve spent the majority of our time making minor changes that in no way significantly affect the emotional delivery of the song. So what went wrong?
As creative beings, we know that pure, genuine inspiration is a fleeting phenomenon that—despite our best efforts—cannot always be summoned at our convenience. But who’s to say we can’t cultivate an environment that’s conducive to harnessing and sustaining inspiration?
To that end, self-awareness is key. It is crucial to keep tabs on yourself at all times. If we make a conscious effort to check in and monitor our level of productivity throughout the day, we will be sure to get much more out of the time we invest into our mixes.
THE PEAKS AND VALLEYS OF PRODUCTIVITY
It may take you several days or even weeks of trying to mix at different times of the day in order to really get a grasp on when you function best.
You may find that starting a mix first thing in the morning before the emails, texts and phone calls start rolling in gives you just the peace and quiet you need to really move through the bulk of your tracks. Some mixers need a few hours to allow their ears to “warm up” to the world. Some of us find we work best when the day is split up into two or three smaller blocks.
On the other hand, some of us are marathon mixers that have no issues slugging through a 12 hour session. The key is to tune into your workflow, learn the peaks and valleys of your productivity and create your mixing schedule based on that. It may take some time to get it dialed in, but you’ll know when it’s right.
SIR, STEP AWAY FROM THE FADERS!
If you find that when approaching hour 6 of non-stop mixing it’s taking you 30 minutes to EQ the tambourine, the first step in mixing more efficiently is to become cognizant of the fact that it’s taking you 30 minutes to EQ the tambourine.
If you find this happening, it probably means it’s time for a break. Take the dog for a walk, hit the gym, run that errand you’ve been meaning to take care of. Ironically, taking a break can often save you a lot more time than it costs. Knowing when to give yourself some space can make it possible to do in 3 minutes what may have otherwise taken you 30 without that break.
Being able to identify the point at which you are reaching diminishing returns can save you some serious hours of spinning your wheels and keep you motivated. It’s paramount to never lose sight of what it’s all about in the first place: The song. And re-printing your mix 3 times because you can’t decide if the shaker track should live at -19dB or -19.5dB is never going to make the song any better.
SET TIME RESTRICTIONS
…But not unrealistic ones. If you know that it normally takes you around 30 minutes to get your rhythm section poppin’, set a timer for 30 minutes. If it’s not quite there yet, set another timer for 5 minutes. You can spend that extra 5 minutes tweaking in broad strokes before moving on to getting that piano or guitar to sit just right. The rhythm section will still be there later, awaiting further micro-tweakage. It’s important to keep all things moving toward completion and to avoid going down the rabbit hole and losing sight of the big picture.
THE RIGHT KIND OF DISTRACTIONS
Some top-tier mix engineers are known to keep mundane reading material (such as instruction manuals and other arbitrary literature) at their disposal to intentionally stay only partially tuned into playback.
Our brains can play funny tricks on our ears, and sometimes our heads are buried far too deep into our speakers to know what’s really happening. Creating that one degree of removal can help expose things we otherwise may have never noticed, and help us discover whether we’re paying attention to the right things.
So, keep a window open if you’ve got one, or spin that “Planet Earth” DVD in the background. Perhaps while you’re pondering the enormity of the ocean’s abyssal plain you’ll realize that one harmony pops just a bit too much or that kick drum needs a little less 60Hz.
THE PROPER FUEL
Proper nutrition can go a long, long way not only for the body, but the mind as well. Nobody functions at full capacity when they’re hangry. Having a healthy snack to avoid the inevitable late-afternoon crash can be the difference between getting your first pass printed, or going home and having no mix to check on your other systems. Small portions of protein and fiber rich snacks, along with lots of water (drink until your pee is clear!) can help you debunk the notion that America runs on Dunkin’. Sure, coffee can help, but it’s better as a kickstart to your morning than as a crutch to combat crashing later on.
THE RULES WERE MEANT TO BE BROKEN
If you know your vocals usually get a pretty nice boost at around 5k but for some reason it’s just not working this time around, don’t waste time trying to force the square peg into the round hole. Slash and burn, baby! If it’s not working after a few minutes, stay self-aware and start thinking outside the box. Maybe adding a nice tint of harmonic distortion will get it to cut the way your 5k boost usually does.
Having rules of thumb is helpful, but dogma isn’t. Visceral emotion should always override any approaches a textbook may have set forth. Let’s not forget that us mixers are in the business of conveying emotion. Chances are the reason you started mixing in the first place is because music moves you, so be sure to always favor emotion over reason, and remember to trust your gut.