The Mental Side of Listening & Mixing Like a Pro
Updated: May 9
Just because you know where the buttons and knobs are, and what they do, doesn’t mean you know how to mix. The secret lies in your mind's ability to recognize, learn and store a huge library of good, bad and unusual sounds. The collected and archived, personal sound library is the mental gateway to the audio mixing craft.
Like many of the sage voices in the industry, I too have several decades of experience working in and around pro sound. The overview of my career looks like this: classically trained music student, professional musician, studio engineer, studio owner, studio designer, technical writer, studio trade magazine editor, acoustician, fixed install systems designer, AV system sales, AV system installer, live sound mixer, live sound trainer, and contracting/integration management. Those are the big and obvious hats I've been paid to wear over the years. As designers and integrators, one of the challenges we regularly face is "training" sound operators on their new systems. A few years ago I realized the following, and have been using these ideas and processes to successfully teach the novice, and some not so novice sound engineers how to think about sound and mixing. Ok, here we go … Step One
Most people are passive listeners. Sound “happens” to them and they pay little or no attention to it other than to possibly notice it’s there, or that it is too loud or soft. To become a good mix "artist" (yep, there is a healthy dose of artistry that comes into play) you need to immediately become an "active" listener.
Active listening means that whenever possible you pay attention to all sound that you come in contact with. Examples are: movie sound tracks, TV sound, music and voice on the radio, environmental sound, concert sound, industrial sounds, bizarre sounds, and all other every-day sounds you are exposed to. Be curious. Be critical.
Put useful or important sound into context relative to the surrounding activities and environment. If you are at a sporting venue, is the intelligibility good? Why or why not? In the beginning, you won't be able to figure out the why of everything, but you've got to start somewhere. This should become a lifelong habit. Step Two
The best sound mixers in the world have a huge "library of sound" in their heads. You need to begin to capture this concept by building your own library.
During our training sessions, I'll ask the class to raise their hand if they can "hear" a real common musical sound in their mind's ear. I usually start with a trumpet or piano. Then I'll move to a few more common instrument sounds like a saxophone, or violin. This is really just a warm up, because I'll then start to drill deeper into my library.
Can you hear a French horn? An oboe? How about an oboe vs. an English horn? How about a female alto vs. soprano vocal? How about an acoustic guitar with nylon strings vs. steel strings? A steel string acoustic with heavy gauge strings vs. light gauge stings? A stiff pick vs. a light pick on said guitar? A Martin vs. a Taylor?
We could go on for hours. I think the concept is established. The collected and archived, personal sound library is the mental gateway to the audio mixing craft. Step Three
The next key ingredient is to begin collecting reference recordings. These should be relevant to the types of presentations or performances you are being asked to work on. This collection should contain the very highest quality recordings you can find.
What’s good you ask? For me it’s a musical recording with extraordinarily good production values, musicality, frequency response, tonality, clarity and space. It also has to be something that I can stand to listen to over, and over, and over.
I have searched through tens of thousands of recordings (Rhapsody, Zune, Spotify, etc.) to find my collection, which currently numbers about 35 tracks of varying musical styles. It only takes me a few seconds to tell if a track has something sonically-special to offer.
Once you compile a few really good recordings, I suggest you listen to these tracks over and over on the best, flattest, playback speakers or headphones you have access to. For me it’s Fostex T20RP headphones. (Selecting reference monitors is a whole 'nother article.)
If it's a contemporary band track, you need to carefully study the mix to understand where the engineer placed each and every drum track, vs. the bass and guitars, vs. the keys and horns, vs. the background vocals, vs. the lead vocals, etc. Again, be critical and curious.
Try to capture in your mind what is working and what is not. What is the tonal relationship of every instrument and voice? Does each voice and instrument sound natural? If not, why? Is something intentionally distorted or oddly processed? What sounds or instruments are conflicting? Why? What are the panning and volume relationships?
When you start finding recordings that you wished you had your name on, you are on the right track.
So what do we do with this library? Well, over time, the library will contain the really good, the average, the ugly, and the unusual. The best mixers are constantly comparing what they are hearing in real time to the desired or required sounds in their library. Then, assuming they have a sound system and room that are functioning reasonably well, they begin to use their experience and available electronic tools to adjust the sound that is coming through the mix console so it matches the various sounds in their mental library, and that they think are appropriate for the gig.
This library concept works on individual instruments as well as the overall mix. It also works just as well in the studio as it does for live mixing. And, when fully developed, it all happens semi- or subconsciously. But, don’t get discouraged if In the beginning there’s a lot of trial and error. We all have learned from our mistakes. This overall process is not unlike what a chef or painter will use to create their work. The chef has a selection of raw ingredients and a pantry full of spices and condiments that may be used and blended to create an excellent recipe (mix). Even if he has never made the recipe, he can mentally taste the end result and the influence that each ingredient has on the overall flavor and texture of the recipe.
The painter does the same with their color pallet; knowing what colors to combine and what to lay down first in order to build the foundation of color (tonality) that will eventually lead to the finished picture. The chef and painter can consistently taste and visualize in their minds the end result that all the individual parts play in the finished product. So too can you with sound. Step Five
After all is said and done, sound mixing is highly subjective. In my opinion you need to mix to meet your own personal tastes and expectations, but with these caveats: Your mix should be aligned with your sound library, which must also have common ground with the general public and/or the paying customer. Simple, no?
If you are consistently getting praise and thanks for the work you are doing, you are doing many things right. If you are consistently getting complaints, you aren't, and you still have a lot of work to do to refine your craft.
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