Mixing for the first time listener
As a professional mix engineer I spend a lot of time mixing other people’s songs. These songs are like their children, so it is of the utmost importance that I respect their vision as an artist and song writer, because at the end of the day, I am providing a service to my clients and I want to keep them happy and returning customers of my business. But just as mixing a song is an art form in and of itself, allowing your song to be mixed is an art form too. You see, the reason why most artists, producers, managers and record labels seek the help of professional mixing and mastering engineers is that we can bring a fresh set of ears and skills to the table. We strive to truly listen to the song as a “first time listener” and hopefully serve up a mix that hits the real first time listener (the potential fan) like a million bucks, leaving them begging for more. Let’s face it, if the listener doesn’t get even a tiny hint of what your trying to sell on that first listen, subsequent listens don’t matter, because there won’t be any.
But let’s back up a little to this “artist’s child” parallel. If a song is like the artist’s child, I’m sure you’ve experienced many examples where, despite their best intentions, parents just aren’t living in reality when it comes to their kids. In most cases, when it comes time to finally mix the song, the artist or producer have familiarized themselves with the elements of the song at such an intimate level that the objectivity of a first time listener has completely disappeared. While many seasoned professionals recognize this plight and call upon mix and mastering engineers specifically because of it, I find that some of my less experienced clients become the first listener’s, and ultimately there own, worst enemy during mixing. By focussing on the micro elements, or “shiny objects” that they have personally attached themselves to, it often causes them to lose site of the big picture. This lack of objectivity can ultimately lead to mixing decisions that ostracize every listener but themselves.
Some call this phenomena (disease?) “demo-itis,” referring to the irrational clingy-ness an artist has to the demo mix, which generally has the last element recorded turned up the most (be it that fifteenth synth line, an over zealous layering of background vocals, a lead “run,” etc). Because this was the last idea to get added, it has the tendency to stick in the artist’s mind as the “best” idea, even if only subconsciously. But many times, this “best” idea ends up being the worst idea, the one that train wrecks the song into a crowded mess of arrangement vanity, destroying the core message and confusing the first time listener.
For example, say you’re at a party and you are stuck between the middle of two different conversations taking place. Each conversation is taking place at the same relative volume level but you find it hard to pay attention to both conversations simultaneously, so you use the magical powers of the human auditory system to tune into one of the conversations and tune out the other. While it is pretty cool that we can “hone in” or focus on elements that we desire, you can’t help but wonder if that other conversation was more interesting or more important, and in some cases your ear drifts back and forth between the two, just in case something interesting is happening. Of course, if you could record both conversations and play them each back 200 times, you could probably listen to both simultaneously and know exactly what was going on at any given time. Furthermore, if you were the architect of each of those conversations, you could probably recite them verbatim without hearing them back.
Now think about how this example relates to the first time listener of a song. Because the listener is presented with a variety of elements to focus on, if the presentation of the elements doesn’t guide them towards the most interesting or important components and hold their attention there, they may be left at best, a bit uninspired or at worst, confused and turned off to the whole thing. In other words, they might think, “geez, the conversations at this party are boring, I’m leaving,” when they really just weren’t tuned into the right conversation. It is the job of the mixer to work with the producer and song writer to find and best present the song’s most interesting “conversation,” so that the first time listener has no trouble grasping the core concept. If we can sell that core idea in the first listen and hold their attention, the listener is sure to come back time and again to enjoy the various other conversations and components the song has to offer.
Now at this point, you might be thinking that I don’t value or appreciate the vision of the song writer or producer, and that their thoughts regarding the presentation of the song should be sacred and always “right,” regardless of what the first time listener thinks. Hey, it is “their art” isn’t it? Who is this big shot, “first time listener” to say that the song or mix isn’t good? Don’t get me wrong, there are times, places and genres of music where respecting the ultimate vision of the artist, regardless of whether or not it polarizes a listener is respectable, and I absolutely love making those kind of records, I really do. But 95% of my clients come to me as a mixer with the primary goal of making the song a commercially viable piece of art, with specific statements like, “make this thing a hit” or “make it knock and ready for the club.”
While I will admit that there are historical examples of records that, despite their best efforts to ostracize the average listener, have still been wildly successful commercially. I guarantee you that those are the exception, rather than the rule. To that you say, “Brian, it’s not all about making money, we have to respect the art.” And what I am saying is, you’re right, it’s not all about money, the art is important too. But when the client who is fighting me on a wild background vocal that just needs to get muted is the same client who is demanding that I give their mix the best chance at commercial success, I am stuck between a rock and hard place. It’s like the parent who swears that “they want their child to be happy ” but insists that they attend an ivy league school, when in reality they would be happier and better suited to a trade school.
I want to clarify that mixing for the first time listener doesn’t necessarily mean dumbing the song down to a single layer or the lowest common denominator. I love songs that can be peeled back like the layers of an onion, finding buried treasure with each additional listen (Beatles anyone?). I also love songs that take several listenings to appreciate. Some of my favorite records took upwards of ten listens to even “sort of like.” All I am suggesting is to keep your priorities in check and the big picture in mind. Just like there is nothing wrong with art for art’s sake, or records that take 20 listens to “get,” there is also nothing wrong with staging a song for commercial success, or writing/producing/mixing to please a non music-junky audience with a shorter attention span. At the end of the day, I am all about serving the goals of my clients, even if that client needs a little help staying out of their own way.
But what if you’re an artist or producer mixing and finishing your own work, without the help of a third party mixer? The same ideologies apply, it will just be a little harder to find that objective headspace of a first time listener. When I mix music that I have also written and recorded, I find that taking a clean break from the material gives me the best chance at bringing an objective ear to the project. Because it is vital to my trade as a mixer, I have spent the better part of a decade learning how to listen for the first time, every time, even after dozens of playbacks. Let’s face it, practicing big picture objectivity is not only helpful during mixing, but in all parts of the production process. To accomplish this, I like to think of my ears like a camera lens that can go from super wide angle, big picture listening, to telephoto 100x zoomed-in precision on tiny little elements. When working on your own material start to finish, be prepared to seek objective feedback from non-biased third parties (e.g. not your best friend or your mom) and take the feedback you receive to heart, without getting defensive or making excuses. Think about your goals, both creatively as well as commercially and question how the two may compliment or conflict each other, and don’t be afraid to reference other artist’s work as a guide in either direction.
Ultimately, you may be the type of person who enjoys playing the long game, investing in the music you listen to and create over many subsequent listens. Or maybe you love the instant gratification of the latest pop hit, that rush you get from hearing a sugary hook that sounds like it was purpose built to infect your ears instantly. If you’re like me, you love and seek both levels of appreciation in a song, as well as everything in between. Either way, the best approach to preserving artistic vision, while simultaneously maintaining that “first time listener” objectivity, is found in a mutual respect and balance between the intentions of the artist, the commercial goals they wish to achieve, and the goal of the mixer to best serve the song. This is why I say there is just as much art to having your music mixed as there is in actually mixing it. “Help me help you.” I promise not to inject my own personal agenda and serve the best interests of the song and your greater goals as an artist, if you promise to stay out of your own way and allow others to help you out.