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Three Simple (sort of) Steps to a Clear, Powerful Mix

hey I wrote a cool song – hey I ruined it with a bad mix – going out of town while a bad mix is waiting inside your home – avoiding responsibility for mediocrity by blaming a perfectly reasonable technique – the wisdom available to those who have filled a jar with trash – three steps to rescue the mix


I was recently mixing a song that I really liked a lot – which made me nervous before I even started.

It was a song that I produced and the unmixed demo version had really grown me (RED FLAG). I liked the sounds I was getting when I was writing it, I liked the arrangement and I was just generally pleased with how it was coming along. Tracking was finished, editing and session prep were in the bag.

"OK" I whispered. “just dooon’t ruin it…just let it mix itself…nice and easy…like cool...summer....ummm...pie (?)”……..

”ah crap I ruined it!”

I’m actually writing this the day after I ruined the mix. I’m on an airplane. I’m leaving town for 4 days – during which I will have to think about the mix I ruined. But I’m actually a bit encouraged because I understand where I went wrong and when I get back I’m going to start fresh and fix it.

So, there’s a mix technique that I liked a lot when I first heard about it. I can’t remember where I heard about it but the concept was basically this:

  • Your raw instincts on where things should sit in the mix are most likely the right instincts

  • You only get a short period of time to exercise those raw instincts before the snow blindness sets in

  • You should use those raw instincts to get initial balances and pans set up quickly and you should do this very early in the mix

The practical way to do this is to (after all the editing and session setup portions are complete), loop the song for ~15 minutes and just mix it as if you were mixing a live band. Don’t hit stop, don’t worry about little details, just get the faders, pans and basic EQ decisions set up quickly.

I actually do like this technique and I think I will continue using it in certain situations. That said, it really let me down on this particular track. The track I was mixing is production-heavy. There are a LOT of tracks and I found myself frantically adjusting things and slapping on EQs and trying to find out whether that one sound that was too loud was coming from the guitar part or the midi-driven synth part that matches the guitar part.

At the end of 40 minutes I had the audio equivalent of mud in an old blender. Then I started moving around the mix trying to fix things that I had broken through more processing (RED FLAG). Oh, this vocal is a little dull add an EQ. This synth isn’t cutting through, add some distortion to the mids on a parallel track....and so on.

The session kept ballooning. After 1.5 hours, I quit. Dang. I ruined a perfectly good song.

Thinking about it today, I understand what my approach needs to be. It’s basically that old allegory about fitting a bunch of debris into a jar. You have the following objects:

  • A jar (like for pickles or cool, fresh-squeezed summer lemonade to go with that summer pie)

  • A bunch of golf balls

  • A bunch of driveway gravel (or regular gravel, I guess)

  • A bunch of sand

Your goal is to fit the latter three items into the jar. Why is this your goal? Audio lord only knows. Maybe you’re in one of those Saw movie scenarios and, frankly, the producers are just out of ideas. Anyway, you probably know the rest of this…there’s only one way to do it: you need to put the golf balls in first. That way, when you put the gravel in, it will fill up the spaces between the golf balls and when you put the sand in, the sand (which is the finest) will fill into all of the remaining crevices.

What this little allegory means is that you need to put the important things in first. And this is what my approach will be on this mix and on future production-rich mixes.

In fact, what I’m going to do is remove all processing from all tracks and mute all of the tracks.

The jar is empty grasshopper…

I’m then going to unmute the most important elements (the kick, the snare, the bassy synth, the main vocal and the main vocal doubles) and get these key pieces to just sound as good as they can while looping the hook of the song.

Next will be the gravel. I’ll unmute the vocal harmonies, the guitars, and the cymbals and mix them in such away that the golf ball tracks don't lose any of their desired effect.

Finally, the sand. Vocal adlibs, sound effects, obligatory ambiance, etc.,

I’m willing to go out on a sturdy limb and say that I will end up with significantly less processing and a significantly clearer and more powerful mix.

I will continue using the “live mix” method as well but more likely for smaller productions which more closely resemble a “live” feel.

So here is the new three-step technique I encourage you to try:

  1. The Golf Ball Mix

  2. The Gravel Mix

  3. The Sand Mix


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