Anyone who has worked on enough records knows that it’s not the tools that make a great mix, but the way that they’re used. And in a day and age where great-sounding gear has become something of a commodity – an assumed baseline rather than a unique and unusual selling point – the benefits of experience have perhaps become more valuable than ever.
Today, the most meaningful contribution a great mixer has to offer is often his or her choices, ears, experience, and perhaps most importantly, perspective. But if you ask even the most celebrated pros, maintaining that perspective isn’t always easy. Many of them have developed little mind games and quirky rituals that help to restore their focus.
Sometimes, it’s the little things that can take a mix from good to great. But they may not always be the little things that you expect.
Distract Yourself to Hear What Really Matters
Earlier this year, famed recordist Steve Albini [Nirvana, Pixies, The Breeders] told Reddit:
“When I first started making records I would sit in front of the console concentrating on the music every second. I found out the hard way that I tended to fiddle with things unnecessarily and records ended up sounding tweaked and weird. I developed a couple of techniques to avoid this, to keep me from messing with things while still paying attention enough to catch problems.”
“For a long time I would read, but it had to be really dry, un-interesting stuff. The magazine The Economist was perfect, as were things like technical manuals and parts catalogs. I had a stack of them by the console. It can’t be anything interesting or with a storyline like fiction because then you can get engrossed and stop paying attention to the session. It has to be really dull, basically, so you are looking for an excuse to put it down and do something else.”
“This has proven to be a really good threshold, so that if anything sounds weird or someone says something you immediately give it your full attention and your concentration hasn’t been ruined by staring at the speakers and straining all day.”
Not all of us have the cajones to read a newspaper in the middle of a tracking session, but Albini isn’t alone in this approach. Producer Fab Dupont [Santigold, Jennifer Lopez, Bebel Gilberto] tells us that he often reads while mixing on his own.
“If I get stuck, I like to just go sit elsewhere in the room and do something else while the track keeps running in loop,” Dupont says. “Usually I read the French news on my laptop and it allows me to switch to the other language side of my brain and hear the track in a different headspace.”
“If you think about it, we hear more music than we listen to music these days, and doing this often gives me great perspective on the track. After a few headlines – and thankfully usually just before I hit the sports section – something will strike me and give me new inspiration.”
Fans of the acclaimed TV show Mad Men may be reminded of Don Draper sitting silently in his office nursing a scotch, when his boss walks in and, showing that he’s well aware that this is just part of his star creative director’s process, remarks “I can never get used to the fact that most of the time it looks like you’re doing nothing.”
But you can also do this without the isolation – and without the scotch, too. Joel Hamilton [Blakroc, Tom Waits, Dub Trio] integrates the people around him into his distraction.
“I actually learned that there is a psychological term for the way I work,” he tells us. “It’s called ’Distraction/Focus‘ and I do it all the time.”
“I leave the mix at a conversational level, and let it play in the ‘background’ while I tell idiotic stories or rant about some obscure compressor I love and why, or just chat with someone in the room. Then I hear little things that stand out because my brain is occupied on the conversation, but really I am hearing the little things – smaller things than I hear when I am ‘staring at the speakers’ and really listening.
“I’ll do that all the time: Listen like it is someone else’s record for a while, just having a conversation – And then stop mid-sentence and move a fader down or up or whatever… and then go back to chatting.”
Stop Working and Get More Done
Sometimes you need more than just distraction while listening. Hard-working professionals know that their break time is just as important as their work time.
“Mixing digital has created the issue of no downtime for your ears,” says Bob Power, who has produced, recorded and mixed for iconic hip-hop and R&B artists like Erykah Badu, A Tribe Called Quest, D’Angelo, Macy Gray, India Ari, Meshell Ndegeocello and De La Soul.
“While the ability to loop playback has made many things much easier – like EQing a tom – the lack of rewind time doesn’t give one’s ears much of a rest. I tend to take more short breaks now than I used to. Having my dog with me in my studio helps with this – she needs walks.”
He’s not the only one who’s realized that sometimes, to stop working allows you to get more done. We also talked to Bob Clearmountain, an avowed napper who’s famous for mixing groundbreaking records for The Clash, INXS, Bryan Adams and Bruce Springsteen, and is still arguably one of the busiest mixers working today.
For him, stopping in the middle of the day to turn off the song, lay down on the couch and shut his eyes keeps him going and helps him get more work done.
But don’t just take it from Clearmountain. Winston Churchill was a napper, and he credits the practice for helping him to get Great Britain through World War II:
“You must sleep some time between lunch and dinner, and no half-way measures. Take off your clothes and get into bed. That’s what I always do. Don’t think you will be doing less work because you sleep during the day. That’s a foolish notion held by people who have no imagination. You will be able to accomplish more. You get two days in one – well, at least one and a half, I’m sure. When the war started, I had to sleep during the day because that was the only way I could cope with my responsibilities.”
We may never have to help lead a war-torn nation whose cities were being bombed into oblivion by the Nazis, but hey – It’s nice to know the stuff works.
We also may not always be able to take it as far as Churchill, especially when we’re in the room with our clients (“Hey – Do you guys mind? I’m gonna pull out the sofa and slip into my jammies.”) But the point is a good one.
Stop Mixing and Start Listening
I’ve often said that I do my best mixing when I’m not mixing. It’s nice to know that some of my favorite mixers agree. In a way, this habit is the reverse of, and a counter-balance to, the “distraction” method.
“When I’m fairly far along in the mix, upon returning from a longer break, I listen once through with no stops and write everything down that’s bugging me on a sheet of paper,” Bob Power tells me.