Pro Audio Files

Train Your Ears Become a Member

3 Epiphanies That Made Me a Happier Sound Engineer

Article Content

Work satisfaction and happiness often go hand-in-hand. Regardless of whether determining self-worth based on the success of your career is right or not, it’s undeniable that it can have a huge impact on your everyday ability to enjoy life and feel fulfilled.

Today, I’d like to talk about three key conclusions I’ve come to during my career in audio. These conclusions have allowed me to maintain a healthier work life and prevent work problems from “getting to me” as easily.

NOTE: The order of these conclusions are important, as each realization eventually led to the next one.

1. It’s the Ear, Not the Gear!

It’s all about your ears, not the gear that you use!

Although a rather cliché and often incredibly unhelpful reply to a lot of newcomer sound engineering questions asked on the internet, this is a conclusion that most engineers come to eventually in their careers.

When first starting out, we’re bombarded with recommendations and ads for countless expensive plugins, hardware units, microphones and instruments that are the key to sounding like X famous engineer or musician. In reality, the real magic is often in the way said tools are used, not in the tools themselves (although some are definitely better than others).

Think of it this way: A 1959 Les Paul may be one of the best sounding guitars of all time, but placed in untrained hands it’ll sound no different than a $50 knock-off you picked up from the pawn shop.

When I look back over the long list of software and gear purchases I’ve made throughout the duration of my career, I can honestly say without exaggeration that 90% of it was unnecessary. If I was given a re-do today, I could build an absolutely killer studio with all that wasted money based on what I now know to be truly important.

All this being the case, here are my tips on the subject so that you don’t make the same mistakes I did:

Invest in Solid Foundations First

When I walk into a new studio, the first questions I ask are: “what does the room sound like?” and “what does the room sound like?” The first is in the context of recording, and the second is in the context of monitoring.

When you break it down, a good mix at its core is highly dependent on two things (aside from the quality of the song and musicians of course): recording things accurately so that you’re not having to “fix” several issues with your recordings, and monitoring things accurately so that you can make the right mixing decisions when you’re done recording.

If the recording space doesn’t sound good to begin with and is drastically skewing your recordings in an unpleasant sonic direction, or if the sound coming from your speakers is echoing around the room uncontrollably and cancelling out completely in certain frequency ranges, then what’s the point in owning a $10,000 microphone or speaker system?

The truth is, in a well treated room, even inexpensive microphones and speakers can end up sounding like a million bucks. So before you go out and buy any expensive vintage gear, why not invest a couple hundred dollars in building some basic rockwool panels and bass traps for your space and placing them strategically to reduce reflections and frequency build-ups?

You’ll be surprised at just how much your raw recordings will improve straight off the bat, and how little you actually have to do in the mix to get them sounding decent when you’re not constantly fighting against the coloration of your inaccurate monitoring!

Video Thumbnail

Bobby Owsinski – Improve the Sound of Your Room

Work satisfaction and happiness often go hand-in-hand. Regardless of whether determining self-worth based on the success of your career is right or not, it’s undeniable that it can have a huge impact on your everyday ability to enjoy life and feel fulfilled. Today, I’d like to talk about three key c

An Experienced Ear Can Do a Lot with Very Little

One of my all-time favorite mixers, Andy Wallace (Nirvana, Rage Against The Machine, Linkin Park), uses no outboard EQ, compressors or gates, and simply relies almost entirely on what’s built into his SSL console. Sure, an SSL console is a luxury not many can afford, but you can honestly achieve the same results in-the-box using pretty much any of the amazing SSL console channel strip emulation plugins available on the market nowadays, so no excuses!

Reducing the amount of “stuff” you use during mixing doesn’t just save you money, it also saves you from all the time wasted on simply deciding which of your dozens of 1176 emulations will work best on that shaker track, or whether you should just scrap the 1176 idea you’ve been faffing about with for the last half hour and do a shootout with some of your Fairchild emulations instead. Sigh.

My point is, once you can listen to a sound, determine what’s wrong and make a quick gut decision on what needs to be done with it, you should be able to use pretty much any tool to get the job done within minutes or even seconds if you’re really familiar with said tool!

Like Andy Wallace, when you take all of the tool-based decision-making out of the equation by limiting your options and your entire mix is built on a series of fast, simple, musical gut-reactions with minimal overthinking of inconsequential details, then the resulting mix is often also “simply musical.”

Long story short, if you spend enough time learning and training your ears, you’ll eventually get the point where the tools don’t really matter all that much, and you’re free to just be creative and have fun with mixing while most likely also seeing better results much quicker — so get with the learning!

2. Perfection is Subjective!

“The perfect mix.”

A lot of engineers have reference material they deem to be “perfect” — mixes which give you goosebumps, accentuate the emotion and lyrics of the song, inspire you and just really hit all the right notes.

ADVERTISEMENT

For me and my tastes, albums like Def Leppard’s “Hysteria,” Daft Punk’s “Random Access Memories” and Alison Krauss’ “Paper Airplane” (R.I.P Mike Shipley) are perfect productions with perfect mixes which match the material flawlessly.

The thing is, my “perfect” isn’t always going to line up with my customer’s “perfect.”

As much as I’m inspired by, and aspire to always produce pristine, clear, “perfect” sounding mixes along the lines of my all-time favorites, sometimes the people you work with will just have a different idea of what “perfect” means, and in certain cases even hate what you love.

Maybe you’re working with a garage-rock band who loves the raw energy of Nirvana’s “In Utero” for instance, or a rapper who loves the distorted, lo-fi sound on Ghostmane’s “Mercury.”

So what are you gonna do when it turns out a customer you’ve agreed to work with has a totally different vision to yours? Here’s some quick advice on the subject that I learned the hard way:

It’s Their Music.

I’ve burned bridges in the past by simply being too precious of my mixes of other peoples’ songs. At the end of the day, you’re being paid to help them produce the music they wrote into a final product that they’re satisfied with.

Happy Customers = More Work.

Often times something as simple as obliging a few small and objectively “silly” requests a customer may have can mean the difference between a satisfied customer who’s likely to return and recommend you to others, and an unsatisfied customer who’ll try someone else for their next single. By all means, if you think something is a bad idea you should voice your opinion, but don’t push for something you want at the cost of a good customer!

Nobody’s Forcing You…

Hey, if you really don’t feel like you’re the right guy/gal for a particular job, you don’t have to say yes in the first place. Some engineers and producers are known and loved for “their sound”, and make a killing out of doing things by their own rules!

Conclusion — Learn to Let Go!

The moment I started caring more about what my customers wanted their songs to be and less about what I wanted their songs to be, my overall stress levels went down and the amount of repeat business I was getting went up. Give it a go!

3. Frequent Completion is the Key to Success (and Happiness)!

Given the fact that “perfection” is subjective, doesn’t that mean that it’s unattainable?!?

Perfection is a funny thing. Technically, you could say that the difference between “perfect” and “imperfect” is 1%, 0.1%, or even less. The problem is, making that tiny final jump between 99% and 100% can often take as long (if not longer) than the 0-99% and even then you’d only be reaching a subjective “personal perfection.”

When I was first getting into audio as a young engineer, I’d compare my mixes to those of my heroes, often resulting in me being frustrated while mixing and re-mixing my songs dozens of times — before ultimately giving up for good and moving onto the next new project.

This cycle repeated itself for a few years. As I learned more, that final 1% kept on getting bigger and bigger and so did my self-doubt. I wasn’t willing to release anything unless it sounded just like something Chris Lord Alge, Andrew Scheps or Randy Staub would have done, so nothing was ever “finished.” This is terribly dramatic, I know, but it kind of was dramatic at the time for a young guy who bet everything on “making it” in the music business.

Eventually, I got my first paying client. There was an agreed upon deadline, and I kidded myself into thinking “it’ll be different this time” as I accepted the down payment for the project.

The deadline came and went, excuses were made, and eventually after simply giving up and handing in my mixes a week or two late after failing to reach “perfection,” to my great surprise everyone involved in the project loved them! There were a few tiny revisions of course, which I was obviously very unjustifiably reluctant to apply since “I always knew best!” Facepalm.

My initial reaction was probably something along the lines of “They like them?!? Nah… They just don’t know what they’re talking about.” Regardless, it felt really good to have finally completed something and been appreciated for what I had done with their songs. I wanted MORE.

One project led to the next, and with each song, my mix times went down, my confidence went up and my ability to let things go improved.

Skipping ahead 10 years to today. I’ve worked on several Top 10 charting hits with A-list artists in my country, and often mix/master 5+ songs per week. My mixes still aren’t perfect. They probably never will be. But they’re a heck of a lot better than they were 10 years ago, my clients are happy and I’ve made a good career out of doing something I’m truly passionate about.

Conclusion

I guess the main idea of this story is that 99% is REALLY GOOD. 90% is REALLY GOOD. Even 80% or 70% is GREAT! You’ve gotta start somewhere, and unless you learn to move on and learn from your mistakes, you’ll never grow and make up those last % of quality.

TLDR: Stop blaming your lack of gear! Start caring about your customers’ wishes! Prioritize progress over perfection!

Thomas Brett

Thomas Brett

Thomas Brett is a producer, engineer and professional writer currently working for PDND Music, a successful record label & recording studio based in Istanbul, Turkey. Thomas has worked with well known Turkish pop artists such as Soner Sarıkabadayı, Beyza Durmaz and Alper Erözer. Learn more and get in touch at thomasbrettmixing.com

FREE Masterclass: Low-End Mixing Secrets

Downloaded Over 19,455 times!

Discover how to make your kick and bass hit hard by cutting (NOT boosting) the right frequencies! Plus, more counterintuitive ways to get fuller yet controlled low-end in your mix. Download this 40-minute workshop by Matthew Weiss, now for FREE!

Powered by ConvertKit