Mixing Engineers have to know their tech as musicians have to know their scales. The tech is just the means to an end.
I taught trumpet lessons for many years early in my career. I used to tell students that the goal of practicing technique is so the trumpet will disappear and you will be simply “playing” music not the trumpet. Just as we are able to speak without thinking about all the complexities of physically producing the spoken word we should be able to express musical thought through our instrument without having to think about the instrument.
Same thing with mixing. Studying the technical aspects and integrating them into your thought process allows you to “mix” creatively. The DAW should disappear. At its heart mixing is an Art not a Science. But the only way to not get bogged down in the tech is to learn it and integrate it. You hear people say, “Andrew’s got golden ears.” What they are saying is that over thousands of hours of mixing Andrew has developed a very acute and detailed awareness of what a mix sounds like. The experienced mixing engineer does in fact hear things that less experienced mixers and music listeners don’t hear. It has nothing to do with the scientific. It has to do with artful and creative listening with specific intent repeated thousands of times.
There are many different methods or blueprints for the order in which creating a good mix is performed. They all have strengths and weaknesses. The best mixers have their blueprint but always alter it to serve the song. Mixing is part improvisation – part adapting to the unique sonic situation – part recognizing what is needed to improve the sound of the song.
Anyone that has learned to paint or draw quickly realizes that what there is to learn is not really how to paint or draw. That’s not the hard part. The hard part is learning to “see“. You notice that a field of yellow grass is not just yellow. It has maroon, pink, brown, black, lavender. It is in fact a very complex mix of colors. You notice how light wraps around a tree trunk at dusk much differently than it does at noon. You learn to “see“. Mixing is very much the same after you get good at running your DAW. There is a point where you are not fishing around for how to do this or do that, and you are hearing what is needed, implementing it. You have learned to “hear“. You are hearing that it isn’t the bass that is the problem it is the low end of the guitar. You are now creatively mixing. And again the only way you can get in that zone is to not be having to look up how to adjust clip-gain, or how to setup compression, or worse yet browsing through 100 different plug-ins looking for the answer.
What people pay a mixing engineer for is not their technique but their ability to recognize what is needed to improve, balance, and enhance the sound, energy, and vibe of the song. They are paying for their creativity and their artistry.
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Art Davis Studios