Recording a song or album can be a long process. When that process is nearing it’s end, it can be good to have a reality check. To get critical and ask some tough questions: Is this really finished? Have I gotten the most out of this recording or performance? Is this this song working on a technical level? And on a musical level?
It’s not that easy to figure out as it may seem, knowing if you have to push the envelope further. A classic example is Bruce Swedien making 91 mixes of ‘Billie Jean’, with producer Quincy Jones famously saying in the end: “Let’s go back and listen to mix number two”. With mix number two selling 65 million copies in the end. There are countless stories of artists and producers ‘going too far’, and in the end going back to a demo or previously discarded mix or recording.
The mixing session for Thriller, with Bruce Swedien in the middle, Quincy Jones on the right, and Ed Cherney (at the time Swedien’s assistant) on the left
The technical level
Of course there a few tricks to finding out how your mix or production is coming along technically. Over time, engineers and producers develop their own favourites. I’ll give you some quick tips to check if there aren’t any major problems with your production on a technical level.
- Reference tracks are a very common and quick way to do this. Knowing when in your production process to rely on your reference mixes, and when to go your own way is an art in and of itself however. You can go too far with using references, to the point where you’re just copying ideas and not creating your own style. Personally, I only use them when communicating about sounds and music (and very occasionally at the end of a mix). Sound and Sound wrote a short article about working with reference tracks.
- In regard to mixing, checking your mix in different listening environments and on different systems is also very common. Headphones (very different stereo image, depth perception and spatial awareness), and smaller speakers such as Auratones (Quincy Jones apparently calls them ‘the truth speakers’), or speakers like the famous NS-10’s are good choices. Listening to (often) hyped systems such as car stereo systems, or cheaper hi-fi equipment, can help you in finding undiscovered problems in your mix.
- Another good way of getting some perspective is letting the work rest for a bit. When both recording and mixing a production, I always like to allow some time between recording and mixing. When mixing, this is also a great tool if there’s time: it allows you to listen to the mix with ‘fresher ears’ so you hear the big picture more clearly.
Quincy Jones praising the Auratones in a classy 70s/80s advertisement
The musical level
Having the technical side of things worked out, is of course great. But working with music is about so much more than that. Knowing when a recording, or a mix is working on a musical level, is a lot harder to check. It’s a skill that takes time to develop. One of my personal mixing heroes, producer Dave Fridmann, has his own ‘glass of milk’ test. I heard about in the Working Class Audio podcast, where he explains how he uses it:
“I always call it the glass of milk test. Say there’s a boombox going in the kitchen. You go from the living room to the kitchen to get a glass of milk and you’re gonna come back. Now, anything happens in that song, while I’m getting a glass of milk and then exiting the room, that makes me stop and go ‘Holy cow, what the hell was that’? That’s what I’m always looking for. (…) Which is incredibly hard to do, making anything come out of the speakers that anyone would even notice. And the standard, in my opinion, (…) just keeps going up and up and up. What’s coming out of the speakers keeps getting crazier and crazier, which is great! It’s really exciting to me, because that just means I can do almost anything.”
What Dave is saying is that a song has to be exciting to listen to, to draw you in. Finding out what this is in your production can be hard sometimes. For some songs, it’s not gonna be there from the start. For others, it’ll be pretty apparent right away and you just have to try your best not to mess it up. Sometimes it’s making radical choices or changes. Sometimes it’s how certain aspects are working together, such as the band’s performance, the sounds that have been chosen, the song structure, mixing choices, automation, recording techniques etc. etc.
Dave Fridmann at his Tarbox Road Studios, looking smug because he’s one of the best mixing engineers in the world
Distancing yourself from the equipment
Billy Bush, mixer for bands such as Fink and The Naked & Famous, did an interview with Sound on Sound about mixing a few songs for Jake Bugg. In it, he talks about how he mixes from two different points of view: the first being a ‘householding’ point of view, the second being a ’emotional’ point of view. You can consider these points of view the same as being ‘technical’ versus ‘musical’.
“I’d listen to the session and I’d listen to the rough mix and I’d then try to get the session to sound like the rough mix. This process involved housekeeping things like getting the kick drum and other details to sound right, and dialling in effects, and so on. Once the session sounded like the rough mix, I’d switch gears and tried to approach the song from an emotional point of view. What is the song making me feel while I listen to it? Does it excite me? I’d ask myself whether there was anything about it that was not making me feel connected enough to the track. I’d listen to any spot where my attention would be wavering from the song, where I would feel easily distracted. If this happened at any point, I’d look at what I could do to make something happen that would draw your attention back to the song.”
Personally I find this a really interesting way to look at recording and mixing. More often than not, the minds of the engineer/producer can be occupied with technical stuff. Stuff that matters for us, and helps us to achieve our goal: but stuff that doesn’t matter to the listener or the client. The listener and the majority of the clients you work with will care more about the musicality of the matter and how everything is working together to create that.
Something that’s always in the back of my mind when trying to get some perspective is something Bruce Swedien said:
“No one ever left the record store humming the control console. Or the tape machine. Or in fact any piece of recording equipment. One time I was recording in Europe, and some wise-acre said: “Yeah, and they didn’t leave the record store humming the engineer either!”
If you’re not able to mentally distance yourself from the technical side of things: let someone else do it for you! Ask someone you know who doesn’t have a clue about how recording or music production works (parents or siblings always do well in these types of situations), what they think. If they think it’s great: great! If they think there’s too much going on, or they just don’t ‘get’ the musical ideas, work with that. Make it simple but effective.