The Five Levels of Mix Quality
The meaning of the word “good” is one of my odd and recurring fascinations. What makes a “good” mix?
Music is a subjective field with many general principles but very few hard and fast rules.
The arts are inherently up for interpretation, so “good” to one person may be “bad” to another. I could cite examples of this, except there’s so many I feel that there’s really no need.
So I often repose the question to myself: what makes a “good” mix? After all, that’s what I get paid for right? To make “good”/”great”/”unfrickin’ real” mixes.
Keeping in true-to-blog format, here’s a list of what I feel makes for levels of “goodness” in a mix.
Level 1: Getting the Sound “Out of the Way”
At the most fundamental level, recordings are ultimately adulterated forms of a musical performance.
The fact is that nothing really equates to the sound in the room, and when we start putting microphones in between the performance and the two measly speakers that are attempting to regurgitate that performance, it’s going to fall flat.
Couple that with any deficiencies of the recording space, equipment, or (hey, hey) tracking engineer — or lack thereof — and we soon find that the record pales in comparison.
Level 1 is the recognition that mixing is a necessary evil — someone has to compensate for all of this and “get the sound out of the way.” Because it’s really hard to enjoy a performance when the guitar sounds like it’s under a blanket and the vocal sounds like the singer was chewing on the microphone in a space that sounds like a space-cavern and coffin at the same time.
No matter how good the performance is, bad sound is going to interfere with the listener’s experience.
Level 2: Making the Sound “Larger Than Life”
Once the sound is out of the way the most important job is done.
But now we get to view mixing as a creative medium.
While a recording will never have the power and impact of a live performance, the actual sound performance can do things that can’t happen in nature. And that’s a beautiful thing.
Records, like film, have grown into their own art because of the manipulation that can occur. We can create a sound that is “larger than life.”
This comes in many forms: giving the sound a greater space, elements that are more vivid than we would hear them even with the best of sound systems, shaping sounds to have stronger perceived impact than they normally would, etc.
Level 3: Enhancing the Musicality
This is the level that separates aspiring engineers from inspired engineers.
The ability to “help the music along” is often lost on the bands and artists who need it the most — but for the vetted artists, bands, producers who hear and feel musicality — this is the real litmus test.
The engineer hears the basic mix and begins to interpret the musical intentions.
There’s a myriad of means in which musicality is expressed, interpreted, and subsequently helped along — and a great deal of it is instinct — but when you hear it, you hear it.
All I can say is a great deal of this process involves automation — bringing key elements out at the right moments.
Level 4: Understanding the “Bigger Picture”
Music does not exist in a box.
Having an appreciation for the culture of people creating and listening to the music is paramount.
This doesn’t mean strictly playing to the aesthetic of the audience, but also knowing how to manipulate their expectations. This means not only understanding what the listener wants, but also why, and what the effects of altering their expectations may be.
Level 5: Doing Everything to Serve the Song
The mixer’s role is generally understood to be the tailoring of elements within the production.
However, the mixing phase is still a production phase, and as such, there is still time for adding, removing or changing the vision of elements.
I have done everything from adding crazy effects, muting instruments, replacing drums, overdubbing guitars, and even adding vocals onto records. The cornerstone to all of this is doing so in good taste.
The other important consideration is that the mixer sometimes must sacrifice their own importance. The things which “feel” the best aren’t necessarily the things that “sound” the best.
Putting things out of balance, leaving them muddy or thin, overly reverberant or awkwardly dry, can all go towards the main goal: the success of the song. The most successful songs are the ones that are the most compelling to the listener, and that doesn’t always mean perfection.
There are two points I’d like to make about this article.
First, all five of these “levels” are correlated. They’re not in fact separate stages or concepts, but more like degrees of mastery.
To this day I’m still refining my skills in levels 1 and 2, even though my main goals are mastery of levels 3, 4 and 5.
My second point is that I didn’t choose these levels randomly. I put them in order of primary importance and difficulty of mastery.
The vast majority of mixes I hear do not have proper negotiation of levels 1 and 2 — far be it from 3, 4, or 5.
It takes a great deal of study, practice, and discipline master the art of mixing, so don’t ever be afraid to revisit the foundation during your journey.