This article originally appeared on The Recording Revolution.
Every time I crack open the latest issue of Sound on Sound or watch an interview with a top mix engineer sitting in his studio surrounded by racks of outboard gear, I’m reminded of one thing: Mixing is elevated above all other aspects of the song creation process.
Everyone is talking about “magic” plugins, summing mixers, and secret side-chain tricks. I get it. Mixing is a complex art form and it can make or break a good recording. That’s why I create some of the best mixing resources on the planet. (You can get started with this free guide.)
But perhaps we elevate it too much.
Every mixer is simply doing the same thing
Just the other day, I caught this post in one of the Facebook audio groups I follow. Notice the nature of his question:
His initial question is telling:
Who is the most innovative mixing engineer today?
He then shares an interesting observation that he’s made after watching tons of tutorials from major mix engineers:
I just realized that everyone is doing pretty much the same thing. 1176 on drums, LA2A or blue 1176 on vocals, little balances here and there, HP filter on the tracks…But none of the huge icons could transform an “okay” arrangement/recording into a “wow” kind of mix.
Notice his subtle disappointment.
All the “big dogs” are just doing the “basics” in his mind. Some strategic balancing, some EQ, and compression moves. Nothing really transformative. As if mixing is supposed to be a transformative process. (Spoiler alert: It’s not.)
He then brings up the exception to his findings:
Except CLA (Chris Lord-Alge). He is a genius
This is hilarious to me. Out of all the big mix engineers he likes (and I’m a big CLA fan myself) he considers Chris to be innovative?!
CLA is one of the most consistent and predictable mixers I know. And that’s not a bad thing!
He mixes fast and doesn’t look back. He mixes with power and punch. He knows the rock genre and he delivers time and time again.
But he’s hardly innovative.
However, the poster wraps with a simple question that I think gets to the heart of the matter: Is the mixing workflow where innovation happens? Or somewhere else?
We’re getting warmer!
Where the magic truly happens
As someone who loves audio and song creation, and who teaches recording and mixing for a living, I have a lot of opinions on this subject.
I was about to leave a comment with my answer when one of my buddies, the talented multi-platinum engineer Kenny Gioia, did it for me:
Boom! I couldn’t have said it more simply or completely as that.
Mixing, while important, is not the place to be innovative. The place to push the boundaries and go buck wild with every ounce of creativity you have is way sooner than that.
It starts back in the songwriting phase. Simply write a better song! Write a more innovative song! Write something truly new and original!
But it doesn’t stop there. Then craft a fresh and compelling arrangement of that great song.
I say it a lot, but good arranging is good mixing. Add to that amazing song and arrangement, some super cool sounds and tones in the production/recording phase and you, my friend, have a track that will not only sound amazing in the end, but will virtually mix itself.
Don’t put all your eggs in the wrong basket
Look, I love mixing. That’s why I talk about it a lot here. I also believe it’s a really critical part of the song creation process. But it’s only one of six steps in crafting radio-ready songs. There is so much work that needs to be done before you get to mixing to get the results you want.
Kenny is absolutely right. Innovation is great. Just don’t wait till the mixing phase to do it.
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Graham Cochrane is the founder of The Recording Revolution and a freelance recording and mix engineer living in Tampa, Florida. As a lifelong singer/songwriter and musician, his passion for recording and mixing has grown from the bedroom studio, to university (where he studied audio production), to multi-million dollar studios, to Fortune 500 software companies, and all the while freelancing for artists and bands worldwide.