I finally give you the "where do baby songs come from" talk...it's awkward - I take the song/child analogy further and, eventually, too far - I sneak in a stylized Led Zeppelin lyric to prove a point about mixing drums - I tell you a few things you already knew but it's because I care - I give you the key to a mix engineer's heart
You dreamed these songs up out of the ether.
It's late at night. You're noodling around absently on some instrument that probably needs to be cleaned.
All of a sudden, a couple million funny looking little neurons in that big wet brain of yours align just right and the perfect riff emanates from your instrument.
Whoa. You just know it. This is going to be a good one.
OK but then there's the hard work. The other parts of the song need to be fleshed out, your band mates need to learn it and be convinced of its potential, etc.,
Then you have to figure out how the hell to get it recorded.
By this point, your song and its siblings are like your children. And now you have to give them into the hands of a stranger.
A mysterious mix engineer who will develop them to their full potential. How do you do it? How do you pick the right engineer that will be worth your investment?
Here are some things to consider.
1. Services Offered
Maybe you (or your vocalist) really nailed the emotional "feel" on that one take but there was a note that was a little sharp and now it's killing you. It's all you hear when you listen to the song. You dread the point where it comes up. This is exactly the type of thing your mix engineer can fix - if the mix engineer you choose does pitch correction. When you're choosing the person to whom you will entrust the songs you birthed and nurtured to this point (#dramaqueen), you need to consider what you truly need, what's nice to have and what you can live without.
Listen to your song with a critical set of ears and make a list of all of the things you're not happy with (guitars sound too thin, drums need to have more "life", weird noises need to be edited out, the production needs some extra instrumentation to really fill out the space, the tracks are way too quiet, etc.,) Then think about how this list of things translates into services that mix engineers offer. Chances are, most of the stuff on your list will fall under the general "mixing" umbrella but there will be some outliers and these will be important when choosing your mixer.
Many mix engineers can work across genres and, in fact, enjoy doing so. However, you should listen through an engineer's portfolio to some extent just to see if you enjoy their general "vibe". How loud do they make their vocal tracks relative to the rest of the mix? Are the drums at the forefront of the mix ("if it keeps awn rainin...leveeeee's gonnn break") or are the drums more subdued? Which do you prefer for your tracks? Have they done songs in a genre adjacent to your indescribable genre? You know, the genre that you and your band came up with and no one else in the world fits into. Do you generally like the engineer's work and the artists they've worked with?
3. Responsiveness - Timeliness and Quality
This is huge - especially if you're going to be working with a mix engineer remotely. Reach out to them on Facebook, via email, or wherever else they seem to be available and see how long it takes them to get back to you. Ask some meaningful questions. Do you get a generic response back or do you get the feeling that they're really listening to you? Remember, you will eventually be giving critical mix feedback to this person and that is absolutely the wrong time to figure out they're actually bad listeners or treating you like a number. What questions do they ask you about your project? Are they trying to figure out your needs or just give you a price?
Obviously, right? Check the reviews they've been getting on Google, Facebook, Yelp, etc., This can tell you a few things. First, what are people saying? Are they generally happy with the quality and level of service? Second, do the people leaving reviews sound like you? Are they all French Chanson artists or are there some people in there who seem to share your general aesthetic.
Obviously again, yeah? Maybe I didn't need to write this blog post. You already seem to know all of this.
Price can be tricky. Many mix engineers will not publish a flat mixing rate. At first, this can seem like a turn-off but it's actually a good sign, in my opinion. The truth is that two songs that are 3:20 long can take RADICALLY different amounts of time to mix - depending on the track count, depending on the genre, depending on the quality of the recordings, depending on what the artists needs, etc., It's really difficult to estimate effort without any upfront discussion. In fact, if someone advertises a flat rate on their web site or they give you a flat rate WITHOUT any discussion, you should ask yourself: "how do they know that?". Are they just going to spend 8 hours on your mix no matter what the mix needs? Do they have a magic button that will mix it for them? Are they so efficient that they can confidently predict their effort without knowing project specifics? All of these are possible (um, except the magic button) and you shouldn't rule them out but it's worth considering during your discussions.
A mix engineer may ask you what your budget is for a project. If this is the case, and you've been getting a good vibe from conversations up to this point, you should try to give an honest estimate. Here's why. The secret is that most mixing engineers are mixing music because they love music. They almost certainly are (or were) musicians themselves. This may sound weird but if they like your stuff, they may be willing to give you a break on pricing and try to work closer to your budget. This is another reason why it's important to understand your potential engineer's portfolio: will your music appeal to them?
6. Revision Policy
This one you may not have thought about. There's going to be a point in the mixing process when the engineer sends you a "nearly finished" mix to review. That mix may be close to what you had in mind or it may be way off. In either case, you may want mix revisions. A good engineer will explain the revision policy upfront but if they don't, it's important to ask about it. How does the revision process work? How many free revisions do you get? How long will the revisions take to complete?
7. Project Turnaround Time
Are you in a hurry? Do you need to meet a label release date? Do you need an album completed in time for an upcoming tour? These are important considerations. Engineers book up calendar slots in advance. If you're in a hurry, they may not be able to work with you OR they may charge a premium to move their schedules around and fit your project in. On the other hand, if you're specifically NOT in a hurry, they may be able to give you a better deal in order to fill their calendar up in advance.
8. Other Services
What else can this person do for you? Do they do mastering? Do they offer any support for distribution? Can they guide you through the release process? Can they help you with your live sound? Do they know how to play the marimba and, coincidentally, the marimba is just what your death metal track needs to be complete? Don't hesitate to ask these types of questions upfront. Many engineers wear multiple hats or at least have a network of people they can reach out to for support.
Happy record making!