I’m amazed when I compare Glyn Johns’s early mixes of Let It Be with Phil Spector’s final release. The music and performances are the same, but the mixes couldn’t sound more different. Shouldn’t these men, both professionals practicing a time-honoured craft, have created similar mixes with the same material?
Of course, no two listeners hear music the same way – a truism easily proven by arguing with Linkin Park fans about what constitutes good rock – and mixing engineers themselves must contend with this subjectivity in our senses. But it often appears that music production lacks any rules; that mixing engineers essentially just follow their whims behind the console.
No “rules,” just “rule”
Indeed, most so-called “rules of mixing” are no more than guidelines. For example, “boost EQ in wide bands,” and “use a slower attack when compressing drums.” Both are great tips, but hardly true in all situations.
However, one overarching principle does apply in every mix, to every song, and to every mixing engineer. I think of it as the Rule of Mixing:
Though it may at first appear trite, this rule simply and powerfully covers the fundamental practices of mixing. A good mix supports the song, presents only what the listener needs to hear, and leaves out unnecessary distractions. Good mixing, in turn, requires keeping the rule in mind at all times to accomplish these goals.
Some of the rule’s most important implications:
Have a plan
How can you reliably judge which effects and fader moves to keep? In short, by knowing before you start mixing what you want to achieve. Mix with a clear plan in mind for the song, and every change that doesn’t get you closer to this goal is simply not needed.
Don’t use effects “just because”
If you routinely, automatically high-pass guitar tracks, or compress the kick drum and bass guitar, you’re probably violating the Rule of Mixing. Decide before adding one of these effects whether it’s really needed this time. Worded another way: Just because something worked on your last 5 mixes doesn’t mean it’s right for this song.
“Improved” can mean many things
Note that the rule doesn’t say “only do that which improves the sound” (with emphasis on sound.) Sometimes, in order to improve the end result, you need to destroy the sound, for example by adding distortion, or creating a lo-fi mix. This is perfectly OK, if that’s what the song requires.
Mixing starts long before you move the first fader
Taken to its logical extreme, the Rule of Mixing implies that in a perfect world, a mix would require no changes. Just bring the faders up, and you’re done. While that’s obviously impractical, it’s still a great thought to keep in mind when recording. The closer a recorded sound comes to the required final result, the easier it will be to adhere to the Rule of Mixing. This suggests, and not by accident, that you should form your mixing plan even before you start recording!
An important corollary to the Rule of Mixing holds that the simpler of two identical-sounding signal chains is always preferable. If you add a plugin but don’t hear a difference, the plugin doesn’t belong in your mix. Whether the effect was too subtle to detect, or your ears simply can’t hear any change, the end result is the same: If you can’t confirm that the change is an improvement, then it’s not needed.
It’s easy to bloat a track with plugins designed to add character or warmth or depth – stereo enhancers, tube and tape simulators, harmonic distorters. But while these tools serve a purpose, their use should always be secondary to your main goal: Improving the song.
Be honest with yourself
More than anything, the Rule of Mixing keeps mixing engineers honest with ourselves. Music is subjective, for listeners and creators alike. But with the constant awareness that every change we make must improve the end result, we force ourselves to think of the mix as a bigger picture.
Phil Spector and Glyn Johns got different end results because they approached their respective mixes with different plans. But both mixes sound great, and emphasize The Beatles’ songwriting, a sure sign that both engineers followed the Rule of Mixing.
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