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6 Things I Wish I Knew When I Started Mixing Professionally

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Though I wear a few hats in my day to day life, my primary occupation is mixing. If you ask me what I do, I’ll tell you that my true passion is production — but making my car payments on time is mostly supported by mixing other people’s music.

That description really doesn’t do justice to my relationship to mixing, though. I do find it to be creatively fulfilling, and I’m happy to be involved in a really satisfying part of the production process for the artists I work with. It’s incredibly rewarding to hand a song back to someone sounding better than they gave it to me, and to see them reacting to their own music as if they’re hearing it in a new way.

Right now, I’d say that my work is mostly that kind of satisfaction and very few headaches, but that was not always the case. I’ve learned a few lessons the hard way, some maybe more than once. If I could have skipped out on that process I would have, but I’ll settle for the next best thing: sharing a few nuggets here.

1. It Isn’t the Mixer’s Job to “Fix” Anything

A common occurrence for me over the first couple years I was really focused specifically on mixing was something like this: I’d get a session from a client, hear all sorts of things that I felt could be better and go to town on changing them. When the client heard my mix, they’d take issue with some of the choices I’d made and ask me to walk them back.

Was I wrong to be hearing the weak points in these productions? Unless my memory is really failing me, I’m pretty sure I wasn’t. Where I did go wrong, though, is in how I went about addressing those weak points.

I’d hear a snare sound and think it was awful: not enough weight, too dry. I’d set about molding it into something that I thought was better: more sustain and some cool, vibey reverb. More often than not, when I went bold in my mix choices, clients would ask me to tone them down.

When I hear that same lackluster snare sound now, I start by hearing what there is to like about it. I process the track to emphasize those good qualities, and I make (usually subtle) changes that help it play its role in the mix more effectively. Whether the client’s choices jive with my taste is beside the point. I’m there to help them realize their vision. When I stopped trying to swim against the current, I found that there was actually a lot I could do to help my clients’ music succeed on its own terms.

After some years of doing this, I mix faster and my clients are happier and happier with the first draft mixes I send them. Learning not to “fix” problems that the artist doesn’t agree are problems is central to that. In truth, most music makers are more attached to their rough mixes than they think or will tell you they are. They’ll appreciate it if you see the good in what they bring you rather than trying to upsell them on something “better.”

2. Be Extra Clear About Your Rates, and Charge a Deposit

This is an ugly lesson that perhaps some people don’t need to be taught. I had been lucky enough to work pretty much exclusively with artists who I know are reasonable people for a very long time. I could count on getting paid in a timely fashion without any friction or haggling. People were satisfied with my work, and they paid me my rates. I was confident I could trust people without having to be a shark about getting paid.

I’m sure you can see where this is going. That trust erodes very, very quickly when somebody decides to stiff you. Sure enough, my streak of affable, easy-going clients was eventually broken by somebody who decided, after the fact, that my time wasn’t worth what I had quoted to them. Oops, silly me.

When I take on a new client now, I go out of my way to make sure they understand what they are and are not getting for their money. And I charge half up front.

A lot of people reading this probably have more sense than I did before I got burned. If you’re one of the people whose outlook is more like mine used to be, please just take my word for it: this is a lesson worth skipping if you can.

3. Communication Really Is Most of the Job

You can easily extend my last point about communication regarding rates to apply to communication in general. Do I really think that good communication is most of the job of audio engineering? Oh, I don’t know, you do have to be able to make recorded music sound pretty good.

But “good” alone isn’t good enough, and truth be told, “great” might not be either. Different ears hear “good” and “great” differently. People, as we’ve seen, make bad choices and get very attached to them.

Artists and producers hiring out a mix engineer often have unreasonable expectations. They’ll ask for some element of their track to sound like a reference they play for you, but musically the parts will be completely different. A tone that works in one context is not guaranteed to work in another. Mix engineers live and breathe this reality all the time, but the average producer doesn’t necessarily, especially those who are newer to making music.

I often describe mixing as a type of negotiation. The bass and the kick have to negotiate space in the low end; the lead vocal has to negotiate space with the piano. The artist or producer has certain expectations of the final sound of a song, and those expectations may or may not be easily fulfilled with the song as it is. When I dial in effects, I am negotiating with the song to convince it to be more like what the client wants it to be.

Sometimes, though, the client’s goals for a song are simply incompatible. No, that lead vocal can’t be quite as dark as they had it in the rough version and still cut through the busy arrangement the way they say they want it to.

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Being able to deliver that kind of message gracefully and talking the client through their other options is crucial. No matter how sharp your mixing skills are, you will inevitably encounter a request that just can’t be fulfilled the way the client wants it to be. Getting good at explaining why is a much more attainable goal than learning to do the impossible in a mix.

4. Saving Time Isn’t the Same as Cutting Corners

I resisted the idea of using templates for mixes for an embarrassingly long time. I often felt like it was somehow “cheating” to reuse settings from another session. I wanted to approach each piece of music as a unique event and to give it the attention it deserved.

Guess what? No song is a unique event. Everybody, currently or in the past, making music was influenced in some way by music and musicians that came before them. More importantly, no song is a unique event within a specific artist’s body of work. If you’re mixing a longer release like an EP or LP, chances are strong that at least a couple of those songs were recorded in similar conditions, using similar instruments or sounds and in the same space.

You can absolutely reuse effect settings in similar situations from one mix to the next, with a couple caveats. The “in similar situations” part of that last sentence is pretty important. The effect chain for an 808 kick is just not going to behave the same on a 22” 70s Gretsch recorded with an RE20. The music itself also dictates some of the terms for how processing will work (like syncing a compressor release to the tempo of a song), as do the performances themselves.

These are relatively small considerations, though. If I’m working on a larger project, you’d better believe I reuse settings from one song to the next, as often as it makes sense to. Why shouldn’t I? If a client likes a sound on one song, there’s no reason to think they won’t like it on a similar one. If I can get to a result they like faster, who’s going to be mad about that?

5. A Comfortable Workstation Is Worth Every Penny

This lesson is one I was literally taught in school, by a professor. I’m very sorry to say it didn’t really stick with me until I was at a point where sitting at a desk 8-12 hours a day was causing me to have chronic pain.

I know, it sucks. Spending money on a desk and chair is far less exciting than spending it on studio gear or cool plugins. Still, I think most people who have any kind of career in music will agree with some version of the point I’m about to make: successful music-making very much requires playing “the long game.”

“The long game” in this instance can be interpreted a couple ways. A 12-14 hour session is a long work day. If you’re uncomfortable for a portion of it, I promise you’re not doing your best work. By the same token, losing a few hours every day to being uncomfortable where you work is going to add up. You won’t get as much done, and you won’t be as excited to start work every day.

If I could travel in time to find my younger self hunching over a precariously positioned laptop in a practice space, I’d smack him across his face and drive him to a furniture store. If what I’m saying here resonates at all, trust me when I say that an investment in your comfort at work is one you will absolutely never regret.

6. Getting Your Room Sounding Right Is Really, Really, Really Important

If you’ve read my other articles, you’ve seen me harp on this point. Ignore this suggestion at your own peril: you will struggle to improve the quality of your mixes if your room is causing issues.

I’ve set up my mix space, taken it down, set it up again, rinsed and repeated several times in different locations. At a few distinct points, moving my setup came along with a serious effort to improve the balance and clarity of what I was hearing from my monitors. And every time I did, it was accompanied by an immediate and noticeable improvement in the quality of my work. Every time.

If you aren’t certain if your monitors are positioned ideally, or if your room is treated correctly, there’s a good chance that they aren’t and it isn’t. There is a lot of information freely available about optimizing a space for mixing (even an imperfect one) so there’s really no excuse not to look into how you might improve yours.

As I write this, I’m planning another upgrade for my own mix room. It’s more involved and thorough than any of the steps I’ve taken in the past. I can’t wait to hear the difference it makes in my work.

Bonus: Solid State Hard Drives, All the Way

This last point is a bit too short to deserve a number, but it makes the list nonetheless. Here goes:

I’ve had two hard drives crash on me over the years. Both were spinning mechanical disk drives. Neither time was I happy paying for data recovery. You won’t be either.

Now Do This…

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Danny Echevarria

Danny Echevarria

Danny Echevarria is a producer and audio engineer born, raised, and based in Los Angeles. When he isn't tightening his mixes or sawing a fiddle on the honky tonk stages of the greater LA area, he can be found chasing ever-elusive fresh mountain air. Get in touch at dandestiny.com.

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