Five Reasons For, Five Against
by Andy Stewart.
Some musicians just want to mix their own music. Are they crazy, are they kidding? Well, yes and no. But hang on a sec: nearly every engineer and producer I know started their career doing precisely this (myself included). So who’s crazier: the amateur or the pro?
Most of us ‘professionals’ started out wanting to mix our own music, thinking we’d do a far better job, and for far less, than a professional. But then we started mixing for other people because we loved it (or needed the cash), and now we’re the very professionals we once mocked and despised!
So it’s ludicrous to argue that so-called amateurs should stay out of the mixing game and leave this critical, life saving work to professional engineers. In truth, if we went down this road, pretty soon there’d be no professionals left. There’s hardly a paid engineer out there who didn’t start out mixing with only a tiny fraction of the knowledge they now possess. It didn’t stop them then, so why should it ever stop others diving in now?
Every day a new mix engineer is born for any number of reasons: economic necessity, mild curiosity, or a strongly held belief that they’d do a better job mixing their own artistic creations than anyone else could. Only a handful seeks out mixing with career in mind.
Regardless of your motivation, if you’re thinking of becoming the next person to pick up this crazy baton and run with it, here are five reasons for and against doing it yourself – even though it might eventually lead you to a career in audio mixing.
1: It’s Cheaper to Do It Yourself.
Yep, it is. But cheap is cheap. A Great Wall twin-cab ute is cheaper than a Toyota Hilux. It has four wheels that won’t fall off (straight away) and it looks fundamentally the same. But it drives badly, breaks like balsa wood and offers a vastly inferior driving experience (particularly if your heart was set on a Hilux). But hey, you might be lucky and get a good one…
Metaphorically, these same scenarios play out when you mix your own music. If you want to D.I.Y. your creations, the risk is that they may not sound all that great. If you want to lessen that risk, make your music shine and compare favourably up against international commercial releases, it often pays to get a professional engineer involved. But here’s the problem: ‘often’ doesn’t mean ‘every time, guaranteed’. Some mix engineers won’t do the job you hoped they would, and sometimes this frustration can lead you to the same thought I had 30-odd years ago: “Stuff this, I’m doing it myself!”
You might be a natural at mixing for all you know, and you certainly won’t find this out if you don’t try. If you’re determined (and curious) to have a crack, go for it. You may not achieve the ‘perfect’ outcome (which doesn’t exist anyway) but you’ll undoubtedly learn heaps along the way that will serve you in the future in ways you can’t yet see.
2: You Know What You Want
When you mix something yourself, there’s no interpreter required to explain the sound you’re after. One of the greatest frustrations many musicians suffer is feeling like they don’t speak the same language as the engineer. In some cases that, in itself, is enough to drive a musician down the path of the D.I.Y. mix engineer.
But there are lots of multilingual engineers around these days who speak Muso equally as well as Engineer, and a few pigeon languages in between. So if you come across one that doesn’t, my advice would be to look elsewhere and try again.
The problem with going it alone solely for this reason is that you may find yourself hemmed in by other language barriers – not least of which is your proficiency in mixing. You won’t need to explain what you want to someone else any more, but now you’re faced with the task of putting your vision into practice on your own, without a professional skill-set. Which problem would you rather have?
3: The Music & Mixing are All One Process
Arguably this is truer today than it has ever been. Some music projects are so inextricably tied to their software platform, sample libraries, loops, plug-in effects, and so on that handing it all over to someone else to ‘mix’ is naïve thinking at best.
When a project is deeply woven into the fabric of the software and hardware from which it’s derived, it’s often far better to leave it in this format, in the idiosyncratic hands of its creator, for mixing. The outcome might differ from what a ‘professional’ might otherwise derive from it, but in the end choosing which version is ‘better’ is highly subjective anyway. In this situation, trying your best at mixing yourself might be a worthwhile exercise. Just get someone you know and trust to listen to your mixes when you’re satisfied you’ve done your best. If it’s a friend who’s experienced at mixing, that might be the best of both worlds.
4: It’s Not An Ambitious Project
For some music projects, the professional touch can seem like overkill, beyond the modest ambitions of your latest bedroom noodling. In some of these cases an engineer might tend only to pick apart an artistic work until it’s virtually threadbare, finding fault in it from a ‘professional’s perspective’ that really doesn’t apply in this instance.
Fair enough. Although I don’t generally agree that a piece of music in the hands of a sensitive professional can’t be improved to its general benefit, there are certainly situations where ‘improvement’ often simply sounds ‘slicker’, and that often winds up sounding out of character with the music itself.
5: D.I.Y.’ing Might Lead to a Career in Mixing
The good news here (or is it bad news?) is that, if you find yourself taking to this mixing caper like a duck to water, you might be able to forge a career in it.
Is that a good thing? I’m probably not the person to answer that question. You’ll need to answer that one yourself, but if you love it, sure. Why not?
There are lots of great aspects to the job. It offers you a relative amount of freedom in your working lifestyle. You meet interesting people along the way, and if you’re lucky you’ll end up working on something people will remember fondly for the rest of your life. You’ll contribute to the artistic fabric of society in ways that enrich us all, and you’ll hopefully enjoy the ride.
Just don’t expect to be highly paid.
1: Professional Mixes Launch Music Careers
I say this all the time – although I’m inevitably biased, being a professional mix engineer myself – but great mixes can launch music careers. Bad mixes don’t.
If you’re ambitious for your music to penetrate into the frenetic world around us, frankly it needs all the help it can get. Every advantage you can take you must take, and this includes great mixing.
Trip on this (or any other) hurdle and chances are you’re less likely to succeed in getting your music out there. If you want a career specifically as a performing artist, you need to make that your single purpose. D.I.Y.ing the process to include your own mixing is a potentially fraught enterprise.
Put another way, name all the Top 100 albums of the last 50 years in Australia or the US, and of those, how many were mixed at home by the artist? The percentage is miniscule. Of course, it’s not the only measure of why these albums were successful. But if the artists had mixed these now-famous albums themselves at home, would our music history books look the same? Probably not.
2: It’s Not As Easy As It Looks
If you’re a musician determined to mix stuff yourself, in the end, it’s your choice. Just don’t kid yourself: there are risks involved, and far more to this mixing caper than you might think.
I’ve been mixing for over 30 years and one thing that’s remained consistent throughout is that I’ve never stopped learning better techniques, and never felt like I’ve ‘known it all’ – not even close. I’ve developed new insights into achieving certain sounds with every album I’ve made, and improved my skills with hardware and software all the way down the line.
When I listen to mixes made by the countless numbers of ‘enthusiastic’ non-professionals I meet, two thing always strike me: they’re inconsistent (some are great, some terrible) and there are always changes you could make that would improve them, oftentimes massively.
I’ve seen too many albums thrown on the scrapheap courtesy of D.I.Y. mixing to widely condone it, and I’ve never been given the task of remixing an album where the client didn’t love the outcome.
3: Do You Want a Career in Music as a Performer or Engineer?
Too many musicians wind up recording and mixing other people’s music, at the eventual loss of their own musical output.
If you’re determined to make it as a musician – even if you can mix things yourself – there’s a certain truth to the idea that you should stick to performing, and leave the mixing to someone else you can trust. It’s time-consuming work, and when you only have a finite amount of it, maybe your time is better spent song writing or practicing your instrument.
4: Mixing Is Not Solely About Artistic Preference
Not all mixing choices relate back to the artistic side of the musical coin, and this is one of the greatest traps amateurs fall for. Many of the mixing decisions made by a professional around volume, tone, depth, width and so on, are based on technical questions, not just artistic ones. They take into account things like the way a sound translates across thousands of different audio systems (the big one), how the mix works in mono versus stereo, at high volumes or soft, in noisy environments or audiophile listening rooms.
It’s not just about how something sounds in front of you in your own private space that matters in the end. Knowing what your music will sound like everywhere else is the real trick.
5: D.I.Y.’ing Might Lead to a Career in Mixing
The bad news here (or is it good news?) is that, if you find yourself taking to mixing like a duck to water, you might be able to forge a career in it.
Andy Stewart owns and operates The Mill, on Victoria’s Bass Coast near Phillip Island: a highly credentialed mixing and mastering facility that’s produced countless albums and singles. He’s happy to respond to any pleas for recording or mixing help… contact him at: firstname.lastname@example.org
This article first appeared in the October 2018 edition of CX Magazine – in print and online. CX Magazine is Australia and New Zealand’s only publication dedicated to entertainment technology news and issues. Read all editions for free or search our archive www.cxnetwork.com.au
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