Why Mixing and Mastering Engineers Never Go Out of Style

It was around the fifth year of producing that I started to feel more comfortable with my tracks. My arrangements began to sound more dynamic, and less “loopy”. I was spending a fair amount of time on little details to ensure a more sophisticated production approach.  Even the singers I was working with were extremely good at what they did. I felt that I had finally achieved a level of success that might actually be comparable to many Top 40 producers. However, the inevitable moment would always occur where I’d quickly be brought back down to size.

It usually went something like this…

I’d work diligently on a track for 2 to 3 weeks. As I mentioned earlier, editing fills and arrangements is very time-consuming.  Vocal tracking alone was a two session process because I wanted singers do as many renditions as possible. After that it took a few more days just to go through all the vocal takes in order to get the best comp. Lastly, I’d tweak some automation on the plugins and do a mix on the entire track. Then I’d bounce the track down to a stereo mix, and finally throw a limiter on it to get the levels nice and hot.

I couldn’t help but be proud of all that hard work and always liked to showcase my music. The way I went about doing it was usually by slipping it into a CD player during a friend’s party. There were two reasons why I preferred to do it that way. Firstly, your friends are not likely to deny your request to include your track in their party mix. Secondly, nobody else in the room is aware that your song is in the playlist, so you can kind of get an “organic” response. In other words, nobody is sitting there getting ready to be overly critical when the thing comes on.

At any rate, once the track would start playing I’d quickly go into panic mode and start looking for the nearest exit. It was the same old story every time…

  • The mix levels were way too low when compared to the songs in the playlist (all of which were Top 40 radio songs)
  • The bass frequencies were almost non-existent (especially when the party host had a woofer setup on their home stereo system)
  • My tracks were almost always lacking dynamic range (i.e. I had squashed the stereo mix way too much with a limiter in order to try to maximize the volume output)

Now you may be thinking to yourself, “Why didn’t this guy reference his mix against some other professional mixes for comparison?”   My answer to that is – I did! As a matter of fact, I always referenced my mixes before the final mixdown. And guess what? It still never got me there.

Here’s the bottom line, folks. If you’re a producer that has spent the majority of your time focusing on getting great at production, then chances are pretty good that your mixing prowess is amateurish… at best.

And here’s why…

Understanding things like frequency response, stereo imaging, db ratios, etc. is an art form, as well as a technical discipline. And never mind the fact that these guys sit in sound/vibration isolated rooms, with $5K+ pieces of hardware at their disposal, and the best studio monitors money can buy. But it’s not even about all that. Mixing and mastering engineers spend as much time perfecting their craft, as we producers spend perfecting ours. Why would we ever think that the quality of our mixes is anywhere near the quality of theirs? It’s a rather foolish assumption.

Think about it this way. If you just spent the last year figuring out the right way to swing your drum grooves, and the type of kit sounds to use in order to get your “signature sound” – what makes you think that you can mix as well as the guy that just clocked in 365 days behind a mixing console? Eventually I learned the hard way that, if your project is important enough to you, the last place you want to be trimming your budget is in the mixing and mastering department.

Gene Ometrik - has been producing music for over 20 years. He has been involved in music placements for National TV ad campaigns, as well as indie label start ups. He currently hosts an audio production channel on Youtube.