The Quirky Habits of Great Mixers

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Bob Power

“Then, I go down the list, fixing things one by one. This helps avoid some of the ‘forest for the trees’ issues that often happen deep into a mix, while still allowing me to actually get things done.”

This is a common approach I’ve heard from many accomplished mixers. Some of the best ones learn it early. Zach McNees, who is barely in his thirties, cut his teeth assisting on sessions for Björk, Anti-Flag and John Legend, and has since mixed for notable indie bands like Enter The Haggis, who cleared an impressive $55,000 in their recent Kickstarter campaign.

“I always print my mixes and review them on my old iPod,” he says. “I’m just so used to the converter in that thing and my Sony 7506’s that I will sit down at the end of mixing a song or an album and listen through thoroughly and take lots of notes. I will usually try to listen outside the apartment too while walking on the street, and on the subway.”

My headphones are different, but this is one of my favorite ways to work as well. Many of the best mixers will tell you that sometimes when you get your hands off the faders and physically step away from the mix, you can suddenly listen more deeply, more fully, and hear things clearly that you might miss when you’re “zoomed in” to the mix.

Bob Clearmountain says that he likes to listen to a full pass away from the console, on the couch in the back of his room, before he prints. He also mentions that some studio designs don’t account for this approach and foolishly hide their couch behind an island gear rack or in a place where it acts as a bass trap. When he designed his mixing space, Clearmountain was sure to make it so that the couch also sat in a trustworthy sweet-spot.

Once notes are collected away from the mix, it’s easy to make a checklist, go through the changes, and then step away from the mix once again to hear the big picture.

Bonus Tip 1: Listen Low, Listen Everywhere

There are some great side benefits to stepping away from the console too.

Bob Power says, “I find it helpful to listen to a mix off-axis of the speakers, or from elsewhere in the room, as this will sometimes show you balance issues or vocal rides that you can’t hear as well in front of the speakers. The low end tends to divert our attention from some things.”

Zach McNees adds: “I tend to switch over to my headphones at a certain point in the mix and spend a couple hours working there. So much of the public listens to albums on headphones these days. And in general, I adhere to the Chris Lord-Alge notion that if you can make a mix sound amazing at low volumes, it will almost always sound amazing cranked up.”

Listening on a variety of speakers and monitoring at low volumes is so commonly advised that we’re just not sure it qualifies as “quirky” to most audio professionals. But Geoff Sanoff, one of the hosts of the Input\Output podcast, and chief engineer at Stratosphere Sound, has tried some novel approaches to get a sense for what mixes will sound like on consumer systems.

He advocates using Rogue Ameoba’s Airfoil program to stream your mix directly to an iPad or smartphone and listen to your sounds on their built-in speaker. This is a growing platform for audio, and although it may be one he laments, it’s also a platform he likes to be prepared for.

Bonus Tip 2: Mix Standing Up?

Okay. This is one that hasn’t caught on – Yet. But who knows?

The Dub-Reggae pioneer Lee “Scratch” Perry had his console mounted high up off the ground, its legs stacked on bricks, so that he could mix standing up and dance to his mixes as he worked on them.

Lee “Scratch” Perry in his studio. Photo by David Burnett

Since he’s known for his adventurous use of rhythmic effects that he would change and morph in real-time, there’s a good chance that moving to the music helped him mix better and stay in tune and in time with the song. Perry’s mixes were performances in the truest sense of the word. And in a world with ever-greater automation, maybe standing up can give us a “leg up”, so to speak, on keeping things organic.

But there may be more to it than that. Today, doctors are beginning to say that “sitting is the new smoking,” and have shown that our increasingly sedentary lifestyles are doing much to shorten our lifespans and our quality-of-life as well.

I talked to Bob Clearmountain about this and he said he’s been curious about this idea for some time. For now, his first step will be to raise his desk slightly, as he’s found that stooping down in his chair can be a pain in the back.

None of the mixers I’ve talked to have tried turning over to standing desks yet, but there’s a chance that in the future, we may break our shackles and get off our butts. Standing desks are already a growing trend for other types of creative professionals and office workers who can design their own workspaces. There’s a precedent for it in mixing as well: How often do you see a live sound guy sitting down?

I can’t say if this one will catch on – But call me quirky, because I’m going to try it. This month, I put my old desk in a closest and changed my home rig over to a standing setup. We’ll see how it works, and who knows? Maybe someday I’ll come back with a quirky tip of my own.

Justin Colletti is a Brooklyn recording engineer and studio journalist. He is a regular contributor to SonicScoop and edits the music blog Trust Me, I’m A Scientist.

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8 Comments on The Quirky Habits of Great Mixers

  1. Ira
    September 6, 2012 at 3:59 pm (5 years ago)

    cool article Justin! I posted a link on my Forum,
    I’ve been enjoying the newsletters, keep up the good work

  2. Daniel Meyer
    September 7, 2012 at 8:44 am (5 years ago)

    Beautiful article.
    I mix standing up and sitting on the floor.
    Laptops. 🙂

  3. Royalston
    October 7, 2012 at 9:39 pm (5 years ago)

    One of the most relevant and useful articles I’ve read on mixing in years. Thanks!

  4. Gregg Mervine
    April 23, 2013 at 10:19 am (5 years ago)

    I began using a stand-up desk last month. It’s awesome. I can move around as I work, I don’t slump over and then reach for things from a contorted position, I move a bit to the music and feel more energetic, and, when I need to break, I sit down in a couch or recline in a hammock, read the news, make a phone call or something. it’s much better than before, when I’d work sitting down, get lethargic (not tired), and, to take a break, I’d stand up, stretch, smoke a cigarette on the veranda, and then come back to sitting.

  5. Louis Sherman
    August 22, 2013 at 11:41 am (5 years ago)

    I have been using a standing desk for mixing since day 1 and I have to say that there is nothing more freeing than being able to “dance” the mix or at least move about and shift your focus a bit, it also helps with the client as they can come over and lean on the desk and chat about the details both standing as if at a bar. Very nice and positive set up! Highly recommended!

    September 10, 2013 at 10:05 am (4 years ago)

    I can’t mix sitting down. I can’t reach all the knobs lol. I also feel like I can’t put energy into a mix while sitting down. My problem is mixing in the box where all my controls are sitting. But you’ll see me with my butt slightly off the seat trying to bring the energy forward. A relaxing mix though, and half the time I’m on the back couch just listening.

  7. Heavy Empty
    May 29, 2014 at 5:45 pm (4 years ago)

    are you still using the standing desk? i’ve converted to it recently and fell in love. I sit so much during the day anyway, and then there is sleeping, so…thinking standing while I work is going to be healthier in the long run. Just curious if you’re still on it Justin! Thanks for the great articles. Really enjoy reading them.

  8. Lenny Blandino
    September 30, 2016 at 10:05 am (1 year ago)

    Great article Justin! Standing up is good, especially after a lot of Italian food! 🙂