(And thus, stop ending up with a million “final” tracks.)
We’ve all been there; sitting at our computer at 4 A.M., our bloodshot eyes staring down a stack of files that looks something like this:
How do we stop this from happening?
Say it with me: TAKE. REGULAR. BREAKS.
Every audio engineer knows this scenario all too well:
I get it. You’ve been mixing all day, trying to reach a deadline (or maybe you’re just obsessed). You’ve finally put the finishing touches on the song. The vocals are sitting perfectly atop the mix, the bass is thumping along nicely, and your guitars are panned to perfection. You bounce it, send it to your client or bandmates, and head off to bed.
Fast forward: The next morning. You grab your cup of coffee, sit down, and of course the first thing you do is listen to the song you worked so hard on yesterday. Uh oh! Although you would have sworn it sounded perfect the night before, now the vocals are far too loud and you hear some kind of unpleasant distortion or clipping a certain part of the song. How could you have made such glaring mistakes?!
It’s real and it’s a major issue for any of us who rely on fine-tuned ears to make a living. The two best tips I can give you for improving your mix, aside from the recording/tracking process itself, is this:
- Take breaks at least every two hours, and make them at least 30 minutes if not more.
- Change your control room volume while mixing.
- Never submit a mix until you’ve had it “completely finished” for at least 48 hours
The first rule you must follow, no matter what: Take regular breaks.
When our ears are exposed to noise for prolonged periods, they become strained and begin to lose sensitivity. This results in the loss of our ability to hear precious tonal frequencies or even cause us to hear certain timbres differently than we’d hear them otherwise. We lose clarity. Think of it this way: If your eyes are strained and your vision becomes blurry, you might think an old projection HDTV screen might not look very different than a brand new 4K UHD TV. But imagine how different those pictures would look with crystal-clear vision. Now imagine you’re a television or film producer and submit something in that old projection TV resolution. Ouch!
I’ll end my pounding of rule one into your brain with a Beach Boys anecdote: During the recording of vocals for Pet Sounds, Mike Love began referring to Brian Wilson as “Dog Ears” because he could hear imperfections in takes that everyone else thought were perfect. If you’re mixing for hours on end with only short breaks, you might as well call yourself “Dogshit Ears” because what you’re hearing at that moment is going to sound nothing like it will when you listen the next morning!
Rule number two is a handy trick to work around rule number one (to a certain degree). While there’s no replacement for taking breaks, mixing at a lower volume for a while can help you understand how your levels are going to sit while giving your ears a bit of rest. I like doing this when I’m setting automation levels for vocals. I usually throw the monitors into mono and then lower everything down so I can hear the vocals and drums, and just a bit of guitar. With the volume low, it’s easier to tell that a vocal part is too loud compared to when everything is at full-volume.
I know that in many cases the third rule of taking a 48-hour break just isn’t possible. I ran into this just a few days ago, trying to meet our submission deadline for the new Decade Defector special Halloween EP, Dead Man’s Rhodes. We only had one or two chances to fix anything we noticed after-the-fact and then that was it. Unfortunately I’ve already noticed a few things I’d like to change! And I didn’t notice them until a day or two had passed. If at all possible, it’s important to leave the project, work on something else for a while, and then come back to it. I promise you’ll notice things you missed or would like to do differently! Be careful not to take this to an obsessive degree. At the end of the day, well at the end of one specific day, you’re going to have to stamp it as finished and release the thing!
One more thing I’ll mention is that it’s a good idea to wait to send samples to clients until you’ve taken at least an hourlong break and listened again. It can be a bit embarrassing, not to mention unprofessional, to send over a mix and then notice a glaring mistake afterwards.
Of course it’s wishful thinking that we’ll ever be able to rid ourselves of those endless numbers on the end of our “final” mixes, but I guarantee that following these tips will make the numbers much smaller!