Whisky is becoming the theme linking these blog entries. It’s nearly 1am and though I’m planning on going to bed soon, I’ve got a little remaining of the wee dram I poured myself earlier, so I might as well start this. Last week I said I was going to talk through a specific mix, I’ve changed my mind; that’d be boring.
Most of the terrible mixes I’ve ever heard in my life have been my own. Nobody can just sit down and mix something that sounds great, it takes a long time to develop your ears, brain and heart to be able to plunge yourself through a wall of sound and start tinkering in a way that, when you drag yourself back out of the ocean of noise, looks pretty good from a distance. The hardest thing is being able to zone your perspective in and out, to deal with the tiniest facet of the mix while also listening to the whole sound as it lurches from verse to chorus etc.
Ears, Brain and Heart.
There are no such things as “golden ears”. Unless you’re deaf, you can hear everything I can hear when I’m mixing. That little rattle of the snare that shouldn’t be there, that weird ringing sound on the backing vocals, the way the guitars are too loud in the verse and too quiet in the chorus, you can hear it too. But you might not know what you’re hearing. You’ll just know something doesn’t sound right, that the mix sounds weak. But you can train your ears to take sounds apart, to identify the components that make them – that the murky rattle is from the snare, that the ringing sound is a room resonance at a certain frequency that you can cut out.
Mixing is the hardest my brain has ever worked. It’s totally draining. A mixing session is never finished, only abandoned, and some of my sessions go on for 7 hours or more without a break. It’s like a full day’s work except I’m concentrating! They say you’re better off taking 5 minutes to get a drink and refresh yourself, but when I’m in the room, in the sounds, I don’t want to stop. It’s all in my head; I’ll lose it if I don’t keep it there. There’s so much to remember, the mix becomes like a taxi driver’s mental road map – the bits of takes you want to bring forward, the bits you want to bury, the fact you want the backing vocals to lean towards the left of the mix to counter the tambourine that comes in halfway through the second bridge, the reverb that’s adding ambience EXCEPT for 15 seconds in the solo because you want it to stand out stark naked in that section… once you forget the details, the mix becomes cloudy, you don’t know where things are happening, why something sounds the way it does, and the whole thing runs away from you.
The Heart. It keeps my blood flowing, but we’re talking heart in the old school artsy sense – emotions, feeling. Mixing can too easily become a technical endeavour, a soulless process of making sure everything can be heard. But mixing is fucking art, man. As much art as songwriting, as performing, as painting, and much much more than interpretive dance. The mix has to move you. If you’re not jiggling in your seat, occasionally realising something awesome is happening right in front of you in the air between the speakers, give up; you’re juggling shit. What you’re doing is totally magical. You’re manipulating vibrations in the air, making the atoms around you dance with some higher purpose. You are to the music as God is to the universe. Whether or not you think God exists as some entity is totally irrelevant here, you’re him and your creation is noise.
It’s your ears that tell you where you are, your heart that tells you where you need to go, and your brain that figures out how to get there. I have some very clever friends who have tried to work out why music evolved when it doesn’t help us at all in the game of survival and reproduction. I don’t know, but empathy plays a big part in it – communication, understanding, society. It’s almost telepathy. Music is a cry. Maybe a cry for help, for understanding, for action, but if you write from your heart, then people will hear who you are. It’s no accident that we empathise with musicians we enjoy, that we use phrases like “sings with soul” or “wears his heart on his sleeve”. We understand them because they’ve taken who they are, and written it right into your brain, made your synapses fire just the way they want them to, to get you to understand. Sometimes, when music hits you totally, the hairs on your neck stand up and the shiver goes down your spine, I think you become the person who wrote it.
This is the power of music.