When is it time to stop mixing and start mastering? (Part 1)

“When is it time to stop mixing and start mastering?” – James Maxted via Facebook.

This is the first part of a three part article. View part 2 here; view part 3 here.

I think the simplest way to answer this is to reframe the question as when is a mix finished?

There are plenty of occasions when the answer is as simple as
“Do you like it?”
“Yes, I love it.”
“Then it’s finished then.”

OK, that’s overly simplistic, but it does highlight one of the most important aspects for me: the mix is getting an emotional reaction. It’s a really important point that I will come back to later because, even though in many ways mixing is a science, it is to serve an art form. Please try to keep that in mind throughout the process.

Make technical decisions
for artistic reasons.

Not because someone said we should be using a certain plugin; not because you sacrificed a new car for that new piece of hardware and you’re damn well going to use it; and, definitely, not because “this is what I always do”.

Before we get into the more technical stuff, here are a few broader questions that I consider healthy to ask yourself when you think you may have completed a mix:

Is there anything left to remove?

I’m deliberately phrasing it as such rather than “is there anything left to add”. Sometimes inspiration does come during a mix and you or the artist find yourself adding a synth pad or an extra guitar flourish. But nine times out of ten, tracks have had the kitchen sink thrown at them and part of the mix process is stripping out all but the essential elements. Ask yourself, does that tambourine part really need to be all the way through or would it better serve the song by just appearing in the second chorus to give it a lift?

Is there anything left to fix (or not)?

If you’re lucky there was nothing to fix at all, though that is seldom the case. I think what I’m really getting at here is how much to fix things. This is a tricky line to walk as there are many factors at play, including genre, the standard of the musicianship, the expectations of the client, and the purpose of the final mix. You’ll have to just judge it. What I will say is that with the editing power of modern software, it is very easy to go over the top and remove too much feel and the human element. I mean, if it’s the kind of pop track that is striving for Radio One, then go ahead: chop it up, tune it, quantize it, remove all sign of human flaws. (Was that a dig at modern pop music John? Yes. Yes it was.) But if it’s a blues artist, recording in the old tradition of some rickety old parlour guitar and thumping their size 9 boots on the floorboards, think very carefully before you reach for the editing tools. Sometimes if I notice a small issue early on, I leave it for a while and see if it’s still bothering me later. If you’re going to tune or move something, make sure it’s not just because you can. I highly recommend working out your own system for non-destructive editing, so that if at this point you feel as though you’ve gone too far, you can always retrace your steps and undo things.

Are you going round in circles?

If you are, dig down into exactly why. Are you procrastinating? Deep down you know that percussion part isn’t tight enough, but you’re putting off tackling an edit because it’s obviously going to be a mission. (I appreciate what I’ve just said previously about letting things sit for a while, but here I’m talking about those parts that you’ve always known are a problem.)

Maybe you’re going in circles because there’s just nothing left to do. Perhaps the mix has come as far as it’s going to. You had really high hopes for it and you want it to be more, but the quality in the source material just isn’t there. Recently I bashed my head against the wall for days trying to squeeze minute improvements on a track. I think I lost perspective a bit because it was a friend’s EP and hopes were high, but now listening back, it just wasn’t a very good recording; cheap drums in a crappy room with poorly placed mics. A poor workman blames his tools and all that, but you can only work with what you’ve been given.

And finally, we have the classic: Everyone in the band wants things at different volumes and they’re still under the delusion that the recording process is best served by a democracy. I don’t limit revisions on mixes because I want to make the product as good as it can be, however, making sure there is a clearly defined person to go to for executive decisions before you start is strongly advised.

If you’re mixing tracks for other people it’s all about being accommodating and flexible, whilst also helping them help you by keeping the decision process moving. It’s really tricky but it will help prevent going around in circles.

Once you’re satisfied with your answers, let’s approach some more technical points in part 2.

This is the first part of a three part article. View part 2 here; view part 3 here.