The Tyranny of Details

March 14, 2005

Are your mixes pristine, transparent, and utterly boring? Is there no funk in your sonic fromage? No attitude? No atmosphere? No life?

Well, you’re probably obsessed with doing things right. Unfortunately, while striving for perfection is a marvelous pursuit in just about every other endeavor, it can suck completely in music, where classic recordings are often constructed from a bucketful of wrong that happens to coalesce into something raw and brilliant and true. This isn’t to say that you can’t produce an astounding work by slaving over the minute details of all 99 tracks swimming around your hard disk, but if you’re scrupulously dialing in each track one at a time, and you’re not totally awed by your final mix, it may be time to toss the polish-every-jewel concept and consider the wisdom of making a big old mess.

Let’s step into a time machine and visit the early days of recording. Back then, sessions were done pretty much live in rooms teeming with vibe. (Hollywood’s Gold Star Studios—where Phil Spector conceived his “Wall of Sound” productions—is a prime example.) Digital-audio workstations weren’t available, of course, so engineers typically envisioned their gig as documenting a whole work, rather than marshalling a collection of individual tracks to be tweaked and processed as separate elements. Today’s recordists, however, can fixate on a single track for hours, transforming it into a dazzling aural entity that exists in its own special universe. The problem is that most tracks don’t exist as well-preened loners—they sit in a stereo (or 5.1) field and interact with other audio signals. So that single guitar track you spent days getting “just right” is going to sound very different when you toss it back into the mix with the other guitars, drums, vocals, and so on. It may even tank the balance of the overall frequency spectrum (by being too fat, too punchy, or too bright), and obscure a vocal line or obliterate a keyboard part. And, even if there are few tonal conflicts, the fanatical tweaking may power wash any essence of feel from your mix, leaving you with a perfectly sterile production.

The easy solution is to simply STOP visualizing your mix as individual tracks. Producer/engineer Joe Chiccarelli (Frank Zappa, U2, George Thorogood, Bon Jovi, and others) taught me a cool trick for avoiding segmented mixing, which is to throw all the faders up into a representative rough mix and address EQ and processing tweaks without ever soloing a track. From this “audio collage” perspective, you’re forced to constantly assess the impact of the entire mix as a seductive force for future listeners. (And, hey, capturing a listener’s attention is what audio production is all about!) You can still adjust levels, dial in EQ, and add effects, but you’ll hear the results as they affect the song (not just a bunch of tracks), and the enhancements should be truly thrilling as the work starts to sound more and more like a real record. Beware—if you chicken out and solo a track, it may sound like crap by itself, but individual tones don’t matter if the complete mix explodes from your speakers like a supernova and conquers the psyche of an unsuspecting audience. On to victory!

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