Several years ago, my friend Dave posted a tweet about a few of the things he did during a service. It went something like this: “Push up the snare for the open. Duck the hat down for the verse. Push the guitar for the bridge. Drums up for the breakdown. It’s called mixing.” I’m paraphrasing and don’t remember any of the exact phrases except for the end one, "It’s called mixing." I’m probably going to sound like an old guy here, but I sometimes fear we are losing the art of mixing. I see a lot of younger guys spending a lot of time tweaking all the plugins in the virtual rack instead of building and maintaining a great mix. In my day, I may not have walked uphill both ways to school in the snow, but we did actually have to plug in our plugins. And we were lucky if we had a couple of them.
More than Effects
Mixing is so much more than stacking up virtual vintage compressors, EQs and tubes on every channel. Sure, those things are nice and I enjoy having a virtual rack full of compressors of many variations available when I mix. But those things are the icing on the cake, not the cake itself. If we don’t get things like gain structure and overall musical blend right from the start, plugins only make a bad situation worse. Expecting our plugins to mix for us is a little bit like expecting FinalCut Pro to edit a video for us.
More than Set and Forget
I’ve watched more than one sound guy push the faders up, make some minor adjustments to the gain and EQ then stand there with their hands on the wrist rest, watching the service. They totally missed opportunities to add some dimension by pushing up the guitar between vocal phrases, or highlight a cool bass riff, or pop the drums out during a bridge. I’ve heard the lead vocal go from too quiet to too loud because they wouldn’t touch the fader. That’s not mixing; that’s guarding the console.
More than The Sound Guy
I’ve long said that the guy or gal behind the mixer is every bit a part of the band. We can enhance the arrangement, add dynamics and make a mediocre band sound pretty good. By carefully crafting a mix then staying with it as the song unfolds, we have the opportunity to play our instrument in concert with the band. This is just one reason why sound engineers should know the music. When you know what’s coming up, you can prepare for it and make it better. Even when mixing unfamiliar material, having a working knowledge of music theory is most helpful.
I got to thinking about this a few weeks ago when I found myself mixing for the Night of Illumination event in Nashville. Brady Toops was the artist, and while I’ve heard his music before, I’m not very familiar. The system was an old JBL club series PA and a Yamaha MG24. Not the best system I’ve worked on. With no compression and nothing but on-board effects, it was a lot of work. But it was fun! And by all accounts, it sounded great. Brady and his guitar player are great musicians, and starting with good source material is always welcome. And while the input count was low, I rarely stopped moving my hands.
Without compressors, I had to resort to an ancient technique—manually riding the vocal. I also rode both guitars and pushed the foot actuated tambourine thing up and down as needed. It was honestly some of the most fun I’ve had mixing in a long while.
It’s easy to get into a mode where we rely on all our fancy digital tools to do most of the work for us. But I challenge you to turn off the plugins and just mix for a few weekends. Or at least pull up some tracks and try it. Getting back to the basics of building and maintaining a solid mix without assists will make you a better engineer. Then the plugins really do become the icing on the cake.