Pro Audio Files

The Pros and Cons of Doing a Free Trial Mix

A potential client and three engineers walk into a bar. The potential client says I want one of you to mix my record, but I don’t know which one. One of the engineers says, “well, I’ll do it for no cost up front and if you like it, you can pay and hire me.”

The other engineers say, “I’m better than these other guys so I’ll do a mix for no cost up front because I’m confident you’ll pay and hire me.”

All three engineers do the mix and the potential client walks out of the bar. Get it?

Yeah, I don’t get it either.

The Trial Mix

Let’s break down the ideology behind the “trial mix.”

The idea is that the client needs confidence in you, and that by displaying what you can do with their record you will earn said confidence. Of course the client realizes that if he can get multiple engineers to do this, he will get to see who’s the best engineer for the job. Engineers compete, the best one wins, it’s the theory behind capitalism and all.

Here’s the caveat. Capitalism runs on two ideas. Competition is one. Incentive is the other.

You might say that the incentive is getting paid for the mix and possibly landing an extended project. However, in this particular case the competition actually cuts into the incentive. Here’s what I mean.

Let’s say hypothetically I charge $1000 for a mix. If I’m used to spending ten hours on a mix, then my time is $100/hr.

Now, let’s say I go head to head against three to five other engineers hypothetically (not hypothetically) and I’m damn good, I might win out 50% of the time.

Now before you say “if you’re so good, why do you only win half the time,” consider that it’s myself against three to five other people collectively, and what determines the winner is largely subjective. If my win rate is 50% and my value is $1000, then my return on every trial mix is $500.

Valuation

The problem arises when it comes to my own value.

If my return on a trial mix is $500, and my value is $100/hr, that means if I spend any more than five hours on this mix (or half the time I would normally spend on the mix for the purpose of this hypothetical) then I’m devaluing myself.

Of course, if I spend half the time I normally would on a mix, then I’m devaluing my results! This is indeed a paradox, in order to not devalue my worth I have to devalue my results, and in order to not devalue my results I have to devalue my worth!

Under what circumstances can I resolve this problem? Or, are there situations where trial mixes are a good idea?

I’m generally of the stance that the problems with trial mixes can’t really be resolved. However, there are people who will espouse that trial mixes can be a good idea, and they do make a compelling case. But since they’re not here, I’m going to make my case!

Stack The Deck

The first way one might resolve the paradox stated above is by stacking the deck.

If I were to take on a trial mix in a record where I felt I was an overwhelming favorite to do the best work, then suddenly the value difference becomes a lot less of an issue.

In other words, if I take on a record where I can confidently say I’m going to beat out everyone else 80% of the time, then I’m taking on much less of a loss. And if there’s incentive for future work, that loss becomes more and more negligible.

My counterargument to this is if you are confidently an 80% favorite in a competitive mix, the client should just wise up and hire you from the get go!

If the whole point of the trial mix is to prove one’s worth, you’ve got nothing to prove if you are an overwhelming pick for the gig.

The Time

The second way to do this is by only doing trial mixes where you estimate five hours of work (in this hypothetical).

This way you are not devaluing your work or your worth.

Of course, your return here is $250 on these mixes, so you have to consider the bigger picture.

If you are culling a much larger fee regularly, is it really worth your time to be doing mixes that are worth a quarter of what you normally get paid? Maybe if you hit a slow spot in terms of business. Otherwise it’s hard to make a compelling argument.

Investment

The only compelling reason I can think to do a trial mix is as an investment.

If I know I’m effectively taking a loss by doing a trial mix I have to make up for it in some other way. There either needs to be tons of future work involved, or something I can add to my reel to help advertise my work outside of that particular client — or simply the reward of personal growth because I need the experience.

Conclusion

To sum it all up, my feeling is this: If you’re looking at doing trial mixes for the value of it, you’re barking up the wrong tree.

If you’re looking at doing trial mixes as an investment it can be worth it, but you want to minimize your losses and maximize your potential before doing it. That is, take trial mixes where you can display the results publicly, take records only if you feel strongly you can nail it, and take records where you feel you can effectively do it in a minimal amount of time.

So, do you do trial mixes for potential clients?

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Matthew Weiss

Matthew Weiss

Matthew Weiss is a Grammy nominated and Spellemann Award winning audio engineer from Philadelphia. Matthew has mixed songs for Snoop, Sonny Digital, Gorilla Zoe, Uri Caine, Dizzee Rascal, Arrested Development, 9th Wonder, !llmind & more. Get in touch: Weiss-Sound.com.


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  • Awesome post Matthew! You hit your head on the nail! I can understand if you’re tempted to do free work to prove you’re value when you’re in your early stages in your career. But I suggest that you try to avoid it as soon as you can because it’s very rarely worth it. I think that you’ve pinpointed the the problem with it in this post. IMO If someone doesn’t think that I’m the one to hire by listening to my previous work I frankly tell my clients that I’m probably not the right person for the job if they already have doubts about my ability that I have to prove myself.

  • robertgmartin

    Hi Matthew, great thoughts in the above article. I agree with most of what you said. I provide a service and I believe I am as good, if not better than the competition. “If” I do a trial mix, then I will always make clear that I can use the material as a reference for future clients. I would have them sign something to that effect. Additionally I can see the benefit of a trial mix would be for gaining valuable experience for the new mix-engineer etc. So as a general practice, if this is your livelihood, I wouldn’t normally do it. If you want experience and exposure, it may be a good way to meet that goal.

    Keep up the great work.

    Regards,

    Robert

  • Agruv

    In my experience, trial mixes have either not converted into actual business or have taken a longer than expected time to convert. However, I am not downplaying the potential for new business and say give it a shot.

  • stan69

    I recently did two trial mixes for a production company who were looking for someone to produce an ‘up & coming’ Top 40 artist with ‘management & label interest’ … they were also looking for producers generally for their roster, so I took it on just for the experience and exposure really. Interestingly, they only wanted a verse and chorus of each tune to illustrate production skills, an entirely different challenge as without the all important journey of the song to think about it’s hard to know how far to go (kitchen sink, or minimalist so there is somewhere to go – even though there is nowhere to go… I went for kitchen sink…) Great post!

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