The Perfect Mix

Is it possible to get The Perfect Mix? On any platform where ingredients are involved it’s pretty much impossible to measure, guess or calculate any one thing against another to achieve the perfect mix. In the same way you could ask, should you ever be bothered, is there the perfect cake, desert, main course? Or could a song or instrumental ever achieve the heady heights of being perfect. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not arguing against excellence or trying to achieve the best possible results. But most things here remain subjective.

I’d spent most of my musical career being apprehensive of both the mixing and mastering process. Always believing that there were bound to be engineers and producers out there who were far more qualified, with a better understanding of studio gear and what it took to get the best finished product, I’d left it pretty much up to them. An album, film, commercial, TV theme, I knew my place. I would write and hopefully get the music to a point where the clients would approve and be happy but then decide to hand it over to another more experienced knob twiddler who wouldn’t be scared of loudness, compression, distortion or being told it still required further work until it was cooked and ready to serve.

I remember working with one very dedicated engineer who was responsible for all of my mixes. When asked to edit between various takes recorded on tape, he ended up visibly shaking and sweating whilst wielding the razor blade to commit to this almost irreversible task. There were at times so many technically difficult tasks to undertake where you really only got one chance to capture the final take during the mix stage that it was all hands-on deck. Extra-long pencils to apply to more than a few faders, riding knobs and faders live as the track was being reduced from multitrack to stereo and long stretches where you simply couldn’t breathe, the tension was so tangible, during those all-important three minutes to get it as perfect as possible.

I had another TV documentary series where, once completed, I sent it to the client over in America. As usual the shortage of budget meant that I had to do most of it solo but then squeezed out a few more shillings to have my engineer for one day to add the necessary fairy dust. It sounded pretty good as it left me so I sent it and waited. “Yeah, it’s OK, but sounds like library music!” (And your point is?) I wish I’d said out loud. “Tell me, what are you listening to it on?” I tentatively asked. “Oh, I used the Dictaphone on my desk!”. Give me strength, and please find the attached invoice!

I suppose the point is that there are no rules. There are pointers of course and advice given by those more experienced. But  in a world where every day a new piece of gear emerges that promises to declutter, enhance, add magic, clarity, retune vocals, tweak the bass and the treble, enable broadcast ready mixes it’s really time to jam those breaks on and strip back. It’s a cliché and often overused but ‘Use Your Ears!’. Prime rule number one.

Record what you want and no more. Have a very clear idea about the song or project and stick to that. Like London buses. There’ll always be another one or several for you to work on coming up behind.

Don’t work by committee.  Instead, personally commit yourself and make decisions.

One thing I like doing is to offer a step-by-step process to a client. Send the project as it develops and suggest ideas accepting theirs as you go along. That way when it comes to the final mix you have led them gently along the way with no real drastic surprises. Unless of course you do want to surprise them!

So, back to the perfect mix. It doesn’t exist but certainly you can get quite close if you’re careful, don’t use every plugin toy in your cupboard and be kind to your hearing. The joy of hearing one you’ve done on air and it sounding good is a fun and rewarding thing. Sometimes it can stop you in your tracks wherever you are and you desperately want to turn to anyone close by and say:” I did that!”

At Topline I don’t think we have a perfect mix anywhere; but we do have some exceedingly close ones which certainly at the time of mixing ticked a few of the boxes. Find, play and enjoy and do let me know if you think you could do a perfect mix ‘cos I’d love to hear it.