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4 Steps for Unpacking the Producer’s Rough Mix

If you have been mixing for more than a week, you’ve probably had this experience.

You get a new record to mix and a producer’s reference mix along with it. The reference mix isn’t particularly good — it’s not well balanced, there’s a lot of weird frequency things going on, the imaging is narrow without much front-to-back depth, and the drums aren’t exactly kickin’. You think, cool, shouldn’t be hard — similar balances, improve on the technical stuff, maybe throw in a whistle and bell every now and again. Piece of cake.

You do the mix. It’s the standard fair, some things are easy, some things are challenging, but even by about half way through you are doing jumping jacks on the producer’s reference. First draft, final automation pass, and you have a strong mix that absolutely trounces the producer’s reference. It’s clear, wide, punchy, smooth.

You send it to the producer and you get this comment: “This isn’t really doing it for me. Please listen to my reference and adjust accordingly.”

And part of you thinks “What?… I did listen to your reference — it sucked, and there’s no comparison.” And another part of you goes, “What the hell did I miss?”

We put ourselves into this divisive stance: “either the mix I did blew the reference out of the water and the producer just has demo-itis, or I totally failed and I’m not the right engineer for this job.”

The reality of the situation is usually a hybrid of both. On the one hand, the technical aspects of the mix are more likely better in our versions. That’s really why we were hired in the first place: to get that stuff done. The stuff that the producer doesn’t really know how to do. However, we probably failed at reading the intentions of the producer’s reference, and superimposed our own general aesthetic onto the mix.

In the above hypothetical, the only solution is to go back and consistently A/B between the reference and your mix until you get something that seems similar. In my experience, the client is usually cool with the second draft, but I know deep in my heart that the mix doesn’t have the right “soul.” Getting the direction going from the get-go and spending the whole mix working toward those intentions always provides a much more inspired sound.

So what can we do to properly unpack the producer’s rough mix, and ensure we set out on the right path from the beginning?

1. Find what you love about the producer’s rough, rather than what you don’t like.

As mix engineers our job is to be very critical. We find everything we don’t like and we fix it. Unfortunately, if all you listen for is what you don’t like (particularly in regards to a producer’s reference), you’re going to miss the core of the producer’s intentions. After all, what we don’t like IS THE MIX! That’s why we were hired, of course we’re probably not going to like how the producer handled it. It’s too easy to hear what we don’t like. If you focus on what you do like about the producer’s rough, you find something much more valuable. Think about it this way: if the drums are weak, the balances are weird, the image is weird, the record has no depth, and it’s just otherwise amateurish — the things that still work even in that crappy mix are the things that really really work.

2. Figure out the key elements.

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This is a mix between genre aesthetic and the producer’s intentions. Listen to the record and find the “leads.” Vocals is a given. With the groove it’s usually drums, but often the bass, and sometimes a rhythm guitar or keyboard. Figure out what’s most important to be heard and make sure those elements shine. Everything else should work towards supporting the leads. Understanding genre can go a long way here — just be wary that occasionally the producer will do something that is not customary.

3. Find the contrast.

Composition has two major elements: Theme & Variation. Analogously we want: what’s important, and how it changes. The things that are consistent pull the listener in. The things that change provide excitement.

4. Find the sprinkles.

Lastly, every record is unique. Find the things that give the record it’s personality. Sometimes it’s the unique sound of a lead instrument. Often there are little moments that are just very signature of the song. Identifying those things and bringing them out isn’t necessarily what makes or breaks the record (it can be though).

But it’s kind of like, if you nail steps 1, 2, and 3, you’re giving the producer an ice cream cone. If you nail this step, you’re giving the producer an ice cream cone with sprinkles. This step can be very tough though, because sometimes the producer didn’t necessarily put all of the sprinkles there. Sometimes you have to make them up yourself by dubbing in an instrument, or using some unique effects. Producer’s tend to love it or hate it when they hear that stuff — so be discriminating about when to provide your own sprinkles, and exactly what those sprinkles are.

As mix engineers we tend to obsess over how a record is sounding. But when a producer creates a reference, that person is focused on what the record is doing. Don’t focus on “sounding” when you start unpacking the reference. Focus on what things are “doing.” And then make a list: What do you love? What are the key elements? What kind of contrast is happening? What is giving this song its personality? You and the producer will live happily ever after.

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Matthew Weiss

Matthew Weiss

Matthew Weiss is the recordist and mixer for multi-platinum artist Akon, and boasts a Grammy nomination for Jazz & Spellemann Award for Best Rock album. Matthew has mixed for a host of star musicians including Akon, SisQo, Ozuna, Sonny Digital, Uri Caine, Dizzee Rascal, Arrested Development and 9th Wonder. Get in touch: Weiss-Sound.com

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