Updated: Jun 27, 2021
Today’s blog post covers a hard question some artists might face at some point. If you only had a limited amount of money would your mastering budget would be better spent on hiring a professional mixing engineer instead of mastering?
Here’s the thing: you can pay more per song for top level mastering that I charge to spend an entire day mixing a song, which is total insanity. My feeling is the mix is the area where there is the absolute most to gain and biggest bang for your buck, and it depends entirely on who does the mix and if they can achieve your goals. Of course...I'd actually beg you to hire both as they are both worth it! Let's dive in.
The mystery mastering magic
When I was an up and coming engineer and first started to do label work, it meant that for the first time the tracks I’d worked on were going to be mastered by a real mastering engineer in a real mastering studio! The excitement this gave me, you can only imagine. At the level I’d been working at, it wasn’t commonplace then, software “kinda master it yourself” tools like Ozone for example didn’t exist, online mastering services were very new and it really WAS a mysterious black art.
My first disappointment was how LITTLE was done at the mastering stage, which on one hand was a compliment to my mixing skills, but also a slight disappointment as even after mastering I realised my label quality mixes still weren’t honestly as good as the people I really admired so had a LONG way to go. Professional mastering did not make my tracks magically amazing. And so it has been ever since - chasing the goal of delivering mixes that were as near to perfect as possible. Ever heard an unmastered CLA mix? It sounds the same as a mastered CLA mix, but quieter.
Don’t get me wrong, I am the first person that will tell you PLEASE get your music mastered professionally, it’s worth it and the extra 10% of quality you might obtain but honestly the mix is where the magic happens. The mastering is the final polish, and if you don’t have the budget, I know where I’d put my money if I had only one choice.
The case for professional mastering grows stronger when we are talking about making sure a whole album mixed at different times sits well together, if the individual mixes are already great and all you need really is the final quality assurance and preparing the delivery mediums which was the original purpose of the very idea of mastering before it became a cure all. It's also helpful to ensure translation and sanity check the EQ. It really can give you that last bit of quality, is essential if you really want the best and isn't just about making things loud. To wrap up as someone said - record like there is no mixing, mix like there is no mastering, and please master if you can afford it!
Still with me? Let’s cover a few other topics in the same area while we are here.
Is it preferable to have a different audio engineer take care of the mixing process to the person who did the tracking?
Perhaps surprisingly I am going to say there is nothing wrong with the person that tracked a record mixing it. If they recorded it super well, it’s half mixed anyway. One of my mentors was a hotshot dance remixer in his day, and got some tracks the legendary recording engineer and mixer Bob Clearmountain had recorded. He told me he pushed the faders up, and as he did - there it was, sounding like a mix and he almost felt guilty to work on it and get praised as it sounded so good. Mixing however is a very subjective art, and you don’t just become a mixing engineer worthy of the name overnight like a thousand people on Fiverr would like to have you believe - you worked your way up, you watched, you learned and you practised. This means that someone like me who did that, put in the 10,000 hours, proved they could make successful records and now focuses every day on ONE task - online mixing - is probably going to blow most people out of the water. And is happy to do a trial to prove it!
What are the most common issues you find with artist’s mixes?
There are typically a few things I find weird with artists mixes:
The low end is weird as they don’t have a great mix room, or use headphones.
The vocals are too low/too wet as they are shy and not EQ’d very well.
As they track the song, lots of the detail or even the most important elements get lost as the next, newest most interesting track was recorded. This finds its way into a less than ideal, lifeless mix.
There is too much processing. If someone sends me a session the first thing I do is turn 90% of the processing OFF and invariably the tones improve immediately.
Not enough space in the mix
It sounds quite good - until you put it next to a REAL record. And really that’s the only thing which really matters!
People say a fresh perspective is a significant benefit of using a mastering engineer, and the same could be said of mix engineers. How do you keep perspective when mixing?
Every mixing engineer is different in approach, and there is a huge value in not being unsure of what feels right, and fresh ears having a take on something that has been a labour of love in the recording studio.
The key in my opinion as a mixer is to never forget it is the artists music and to be respectful of what they are trying to do; figure that out and then make a supercharged version of THAT beyond what they could achieve themselves - not what your audio geek ego wants. Get them to where THEY want to be, and use your skills to make that achievable, in style. Yes, there are technical aspects, and also weird nerd out ideas (like applying period appropriate treatment to a retro track, for example) but it’s all about achieving the goal. The ARTISTS goal!
Is it best to mix your own material or do you let someone else do the final mix?
I can (and recently did) fix my dishwasher but that was only because I couldn’t get someone to come fix it and ended up bleeding all over the sharp metal those things are made of inside. I’ve heard all kinds of reasons, some valid and some purely ego based. I can totally see something being so unique, so specific that maybe the artist is the best person to do it. But honestly, not usually! On the other side of the fence regarding mixing it yourself an artist saying “I’ll take the quality hit as long as I know I did it all myself” being a very weird one. I mean, if your music could sound better, and you know it, that’s just strange especially if it’s not hard to achieve! There’s so much average music released that the only way to make it through the noice is to be exceptional, and that means in songs, performance AND sound that sits well along with the big boys and girls.
I hope today's article was useful. If you need a hand and feel professional online mixing could help your next project, or need bad advice on that dishwasher repair - feel free to reach out to me here at mixed by adam