The 1 thing all great mixes have in common.

This won't come as a shock to some of you, but my passion is in Christian music.  Yes I am a Christian, and yes my passion for music overflows into my walk with Christ; or rather my walk with Christ overflows into my passion for music.  Seems fitting, God put that passion there to begin with.

One thing I always end up doing at any church my wife and I walk in to is check out the sound system.  I'm always talking to the sound guy/gal and checking out the gear.  After explaining what I do, they always get really excited and can't wait to show me all the cool toys.  Then the praise team comes up, we find seats, and the music starts.  I'm not gonna lie, most of the churches we go into don't have good sound.  Don't get me wrong, I have been in a few that the sound was phenomenal, but only a few in my area.

The funny thing about it is that the churches that seem to have the best audio don't tend to have a ton of gear.  A mixer, 1-2 effects, maybe a couple compressors and that's it.  Yes they have speakers and amps pushing them, but as far as mixing gear is concerned, that's it.  They make the most of what they have.

While the rest of the churches I've seen are a mix; they either have a ton of gear and claim that the issue is some piece of equipment is bad (which I hear a lot).  Or they have a mixer and speakers and that's it.  You can get an alright sound with a mixer and speakers, but not a "professional" sound like you can get by adding some minor effects and compression.

The one thing that all great mixes have in common is a sound engineer who's deliberate and hard working.

Yep, the one thing that can make a great mix is you.  It's not a bunch of fancy gear.  It's not the computer your sitting at.  It's simply you.

Now obviously having a good microphone helps.  Bad audio in = bad audio out.  But if you have a decent recording, then the thing holding you back from a great mix is really you.  I'm not saying you are a problem, or that you should move on to a different career or hobby.  I'm saying that if you want a good mix, you are going to have to make it good.  There's no secret tool that magically takes audio from basement mix to Abbey Roads mix.

Live sound and recorded sound have a lot in common.  They use basically the same tools, use the same musicians and instruments, and they are both difficult yet fun.  However, the 2 major differences are time and environment.

Time

In a short sided view, the recording mixer seems to have a major benefit here as they have all the time in the world.  But in actuality, the live sound engineer has the edge here.  Why?  It's called pressure.  There isn't a choice to put things off, and there isn't the choice of fixing it tomorrow.  When it's go time, it's go time.  This makes the sound guy work hard and work deliberately towards a certain desired end result.  They can't spend 3 days EQing a vocal, it's gotta be done in 3 minutes.  They can't take 2 hours perfecting a mix, it has to be ready in 20 minutes.

In the studio, it's easy to takes things slow and get a little lazy - especially if it's your music.  What's the rush? That's a bad decision, get to work and work hard on it.  But have fun with it, it's music.

Environment

This one agains seems to go to live sound.  When you mix live audio, you don't care what the mix will sound like in a car or on a home stereo system.  People are all in the same room as you at the same time as you.  It only has to sound good then and there.  However, that can be really tricky.  And I see a lot of basic mistakes done in churches all the time.  For example, just because things sound great at rehearsal right before service, doesn't mean it's going to sound great when the room is full of people.  The human body absorbs sound, and having hundreds of bodies in a room tends to change things.

When you're mixing recorded music in your studio, what sounds good in your studio might not sound good somewhere else.  In fact, this is probably the most frustrating part about mixing.  Getting a mix to sound good in your studio, on multiple headphones, in multiple cars, on home theater systems....  This is why it's so important to mix on an extremely flat pair of studio monitors or headphones.  Even then it's a challenge.  Tip: consistently compare your mix to sample tracks of other songs (professionally mixed and master songs).

Part of what you hear in a mix is the room that you are in.  So compare your tracks to professional tracks to get an idea of how they compare.  Also, listen to them on different speakers in different rooms, and buildings, and cars... (and headphones).

Have a plan.

Before starting to mix a song, detail out a plan of action.  Try to set time limits, goals, and what you want the end result to be.  If you set the end result goal to be a radio ready song, then work hard for it, and compare it to songs that are actually on the radio.  Time limits seem weird, but really they can be extremely helpful.  People tend to work better when the pressure's on.

Is it done?

You tell me, is it?  It's usually a good idea to take a break, rest your ears and check it out again. It's also a good idea to have another set of ears critique it, constructively.  Make a list of things that stand out as problems.  Go back and work on them one by one.  Then take a break, come back and do it again.  And do this when listening to the track on different speakers.  Tip: when making your list, listen to the WHOLE song taking notes.  DO NOT fix on the go!  Wait until it's done and you have a list, then go back and make the changes.  Otherwise, you may fix a problem while making another one or two.

Most importantly, have a good time.  Yes, mixing can seem like work.  But if you love the end result, the work is worth and and becomes more like training than work.  Go and make some music, and make it something you love.

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