At the risk of wildly misquoting the marvellous Rich Hall, “there’s a fine line between ‘TO LET’ and ‘TOILET’ in London”; and I’ve recently started to feel that there’s an even finer line between Mixing and Mastering.
“Mixing Engineer” is a lot easier to live with; people send me multi-tracks and I mix them together and return 2-tracks. I’m comfortable to lose the ‘ “ ‘ marks there.
A highlight of a day for me is to open-up a new set of project files. If a mixing job has a rough mix included I’ll ignore it for the moment, get the track files loaded into Cubase, set up a very quick levels-only mix then loop the playback of the piece as I do my colour coding and track sorting and routing set-up. I absolutely love that first run-through; you only get to hear something for the first time once and for me it’s the time to fall in-love with a piece of music before the work starts. Mixing’s actually quite simple. It’s most certainly not easy, but it is simple; you hack, trim, balance and generally bugger around with parts until they feel like they belong together, then you season to taste and you’re done. The problem is; what do you done after you’re done? On the one level, you pass the baby back to the parent and move on to the next thing-to-do.
Here’s my problem. I “master” too (yup, that’s still “mastering” with ‘ “ ‘ marks, but it still counts). In fact, totally against my expectations, I do more mastering work than mixing. When I receive tracks to master I’ll give them an initial listen through and make a set of notes the old fashioned way with pencil and paper. Typically I’ll end-up with a list of things that I feel can be tweaked (OK – I mean improved). Sometimes tracks sound over-compressed and/or limited and I’ll get back to the client and check if this is deliberate (surprisingly often it isn’t and the mixer has given them an additional set of tracks with a quick and dirty brickwall so they can hear it loud, and this has been sent in error) and typically request a copy without any master buss compression – unless that compression has been mixed into. Many times, at the level that I work at, the mixes will have what sounds like a monitoring bias to them, lots or little low end, or they’ll be very heavy in the mids or a bit toppy, and they often sound as though the mixer ran out of time or enthusiasm before the job was quite finished. I’ll quite happily add broad eq to balance tonality and a little fine eq to bring-out or recess certain parts, I’ll perhaps use the odd band of frequency specific compression and do some automation if it seems necessary, heck I’ve even added a little tempo synched echo and modulation to a part before now (but don’t tell anyone), and finally, often but not by any means always, a little limiting.
And that “problem”?
Well, my problem is that when I mix I do pretty much the same thing, right up-to but not including the loudness processing. Obviously there are no absolute rules, but when I mix I’m mixing for a final release product. I don’t consider myself to be doing “a bit of the job”; I’m making something that’s as finished as I can make it. I often (not quite always) like the sound of a gentle dB or two of compression on the master buss, so that everything that goes to the outputs gets to play a little with everything else. I may even stick a dB or two of linear phase eq on the 2 buss rather than adjust twenty individual tracks. None of this is done to make the mix louder – it’s all about the sound. Hand me over to a good Mastering Engineer and I’d like to think that they can take what I’ve done and make it the same but more betterer.
So, in a nutshell, when I’m mastering your work I want the absolute freedom to hack about what you’ve done as I see fit, and when I’m mixing I want you to leave my work as unchanged as possible if you don’t mind. If there’s a line there Mixer-Me isn’t interested in seeing it, and Mastering Me doesn’t care about it.
I'd like to think that I’m artistically conflicted, but my wife tells me that I’m just an awkward git. Oh well.