I remember when I first started mixing, I would use EQ and compression on almost every track. At the time I was still learning how to use EQ and compression, so maybe it was fresh in my mind and I wanted to use this knowledge, but I basically decided that EQ and compression were professional mixing tools so they must be good to use at any chance I could. In my mind it seemed that more frequency and dynamics processing would make the song sound better and more polished. The sad fact is that I paid very little attention to what the song actually needed and most of my attention went toward trying to solve a problem that wasn't even there. Furthermore, my attention went toward processing individual tracks of the song instead of the meaningful, creative, and emotional aspects of the song. The more mixing techniques I learned, the more I would throw on a set of plugins and use those particular techniques. But more is not always better. It’s almost as if I needed to convince myself that I was doing something substantial to the song and that the song was being incrementally upgraded with every added plugin or technique.
At the very beginning of my mixing career, I knew very little about mixing and knew very little about the tools (EQ, compression, FX, etc.). My ignorance was alive and well, and it was evident just by listening to my mixes. I was still humble and could recognize my skills were lacking and that I needed to learn more. So I made sure to learn as much as I could about mixing philosophy and mixing techniques. I also made a point of learning as much as I could about the DAW’s, EQ, compression, FX, hardware, the differences between analog and digital, and so on. This was certainly a smart and strategic decision because I learned a hell of a lot over the years. The more I learned, the better my mixes were sounding. Once I learned how a compressor worked, I was much better able to mix big punchy drums, to control dynamic vocals with precision, and to solidify a wall of guitars into a cohesive unit. These were tangible improvements from my hard work and dedication to learning my craft. But I still wasn’t quite satisfied with my mixes, there was something missing. I was cultivating technique but not style. And in effect I was unintentionally mixing in a surgical and sterile way instead of mixing in a bold and meaningful way.
Another major learning point was when I began experimenting with subtractive EQ'ing. I remember one time I was mixing a hip-hop track and I was trying to get the vocal to cut into the track while maintaining power and dynamics. I boosted some mid and high frequencies, swept some frequencies out, compressed the vocal as best as I could, but I wasn’t satisfied. And then I got heavy handed and scooped out a healthy dose of low frequencies, somewhere between 200Hz – 400Hz. Suddenly the vocals were much more articulate, the top end opened up nicely and no longer needed a high boost. Furthermore, the compressor had to do noticeably less work to tame the range in dynamics. It was at this point that I truly internalized the power of subtractive EQ'ing. When you begin by getting rid of frequencies that are not important and frequencies that are clashing with other elements of the song, you need to do far less boosting in other frequencies and you need to do less processing on that very same track and less processing on other tracks in general. That’s the key, start by subtracting frequencies and boost later if needed or desired. When you EQ in this way, your mix will “fall into place” and sound like one cohesive unit.
At this point I had come a long way, I now had a tried and true method of cleaning up tracks first with subtractive EQ'ing, I would need less additional EQ'ing to get the tracks to cut in the mix, I would need less harsh compression settings to get a more consistent dynamic range, the overall balance of my mixes were improving, the FX I was adding to the song were cutting through better, and so on. My mixes were starting to sound professional. But there was still something missing. I had technical skills but I was not putting much soul and character into my mixes. My new goal was to make more bold and meaningful mixing decisions that would amplify the emotion behind the song.
When I say make bold mixing decisions I mean being experimental and to try some heavy handed mixing moves. For instance, make the vocal sound like it’s coming out of a megaphone for the verse sections and see if it suits the song. What’s your immediate emotional response to it? Does it just sound cliche, or does it actually make the song more interesting by creating emotional contrast? Completely squash the drums. Does it suck the life out of the song, or does it add a butt load of character to it? Add a dramatic slap back delay to the lead vocal or lead guitar. Does it just distract the listener and make the lead element unintelligible, or does it add a whole new level of vintage vibe that would greatly satisfy the listener? Whenever I hear bold and heavy handed mixing moves that are done well, with just the right amount of character and flair, I get all warm and fuzzy inside. The boldness doesn’t even have to be plugin based mixing decisions. Boldness in general, like during the writing stage of the song, or the production stage, or the level of boldness in the music video is downright awesome in my books.
Here are some great examples:
“Tom Waits – Going Out West.” The song is very simple, but every aspect of it adds something to the song. The clean guitar is twangy, some delay & reverb, the distorted guitar is all kinds of fuzzy and full, the vocal is raspy, the percussion is raw and dirty too. The music video is also incredibly simple. It’s just a black and white Tom Waits playing a guitar in a cloud of smoke while wearing a silly hat and some kind of goggles. It’s so simple but it suits the song incredibly well. It’s fucking incredible. All the creative elements of the song and the video are meaningful, and I absolutely love it.
Talk about boldness. Here’s a song and music video that will knock you on your ass:
“Tobacco – Streaker.” It’s so raw and intense. It’s bold as hell. It might be too crazy for some people, but not for me. It’s like a huge mixing pot of weirdness, animosity, horror film, acid trip, rock and roll, and you name it. It’s pretty badass if you ask me. The drums are over processed, the vocals have crazy distorted effects on it, the synth leads are huge and pushed to the absolute limit, and all of these feed off of one another creating a really memorable experience. And likewise, the music video absolutely suits the song and pushes it to a whole other level.
Here’s another one:
“Tame Impala – Elephant.” This song is a good demonstration of being bold and doing it right. There’s a lot of character put into to the song writing, the recording, the mixing, and even the music video. The guitars are really fuzzy and the bass has a Black Sabbath vibe, the drums are processed quite like a 70's drum kit with some pumpiness on the room mics, the vocals are processed like the Beatles, and the synths add lots of vibe too. There's still plenty of subtlety but all the vibes are there and everything works great together.
Here’s another example of being bold:
“Timber Timbre – Hot Dreams.” It has a lot of character, and there’s shameless commitment to this character. They’re not trying to sell a #1 top 40. This is all about delivering an experience to the listener. The aesthetic choices are all meaningful. The drums are soft, the guitar and keys are full but sit behind the vocal, which is quite naked with some tasteful delay and reverb. Every element helps to set the mood, and likewise, the music video accentuates what is already delivered in the music.
Another example of boldness and creative choices that suit the project very well:
“Beach House – Wishes.” The music video is comical while the song itself is not, but yet the video still suits the song incredibly well, the creative choices in the production and mixing are meaningful and add character more than anything else. The vocals are soft but upfront, the guitars and drums are also soft but supportive. There's quite a bit of reverb on everything which give the whole song a lush spacious feeling, especially when the bigger vocal section and drum roll and organs come in.
There is a high degree of boldness in all of these songs and the music videos merely amplify their existing boldness. But boldness is still only one part of the puzzle. There’s also a great deal of care and professional deliberation throughout. No doubt the musicians, the producers, the recording/mixing/mastering engineers all have put their best foot forward to create a great piece of music. My best guess is that there was a lot of deliberation all throughout, the goal was to achieve a very specific aesthetic and character that is seemingly sculpted from top to bottom. There is meaning behind the boldness. And that’s what I’m hoping to convey here. Be bold AND meaningful when mixing. In fact, I’m going to extend that statement: Be bold AND meaningful in all your creative outlets and in all aspects of your life in general. Although let’s get real, you don’t have to be bold in everything or at all times. Just don’t be afraid to push the creative envelope, and push it hard if you want. And remember to do it with style! That’s my creative philosophy.