Recently I had an experience I’ve had before. I was working on mixing down a song we did a few years ago, and I just couldn’t get it working. I do this stuff for fun now that I have more free time, and I enjoy playing with different techniques in the studio that I wouldn’t be able to do live. I had been working on the mix for quite a while, and it wasn’t happening. I rendered it out, sent it through my mastering process then went and listened in a few spaces. Nope. Not working.
Back in the studio, I kept picking at it, but it wasn’t getting better. Finally, I took the nuclear option. I saved the file, renamed it and started over. I pulled out all the plugins, muted all parallel processing and pulled all the faders to off. I began to re-build the mix from scratch, doing only as much processing as I absolutely needed. Within an hour, it was sounding pretty dang good. Another hour later and I was really digging it. A test mix down revealed a few things to tweak, but overall, it was finally where I wanted it.
The first time I saw this done live was about 10 years ago. I was at church, working with a guy on the sound team. He had been a touring engineer in a past life, and generally knew what he was going. But that day, the mix wasn’t working. We both tied to fix it, but we just couldn’t get it there. Finally, in what I saw as an act of desperation, he just pulled all the faders to off. “That’s it,” he said, “I’m starting over.”
For the next few minutes, he rebuilt the mix channel by channel. And when he was done, we looked at each other and nodded. It was working. I’m not entirely sure what changed; the board didn’t look that different from where it was before he killed the mix. But it was different enough.
Sometimes, we can get ourselves off in deep weeds and lose sight of what we’re trying to do. And, like being lost in a field of deep weeds, we can keep going, but never get to our destination because we can’t see it. There is so much noise happening in our minds at that point that nothing works right. Pulling all the faders down is like having a giant brush hog come in and mow the field. Finally, we can see where we’re going.
Clear the Decks
When you clear the faders, you can re-start the mixing process. This is like re-booting your computer. You get a fresh start at the mix. Now, you can start from the rhythm section as I often do, or start with the vocals. I’m not sure one way is right or better than the other. Maybe try both and see what works better for you. I tend to think in terms of a foundation of drums and bass, layer in guitars and keys, then put vocals on top. But others prefer to work the other way.
The funny thing about this process is that most of the time, you won’t be able to tell what was wrong with the mix before. But it will be obvious to all that it is better.
As a word of caution, if your band is on wedges and not in-ears, you may want to warn them before you do this. If you pull down the house during a song, the sudden loss of volume from the house may freak them out. And while it probably goes without saying, do this during rehearsal, not the service.