FilmInstituteIs there a point at which you can say this mix is finished and how do you decide when that is? If there’s ever an elusive mixing question it’s that.
However, it's important not to think about mixing in this way. This is because mixing is purely an art form, and like just about every other piece of art in the world it’s subjective. Abbey Road engineer John Barrett, who has worked at the studios for over 14 years and mixed projects that include Jonny Greenwood’s Phantom Thread and The Rolling Stones’ On Air, gives us his take on on the elusive mixing question.
How Do You Know When Your Mix Is Finished?I don’t think I’ve ever really finished a mix. I’ve just run out of time! I’m saying that to make a point, but it’s one of those things where you can go down a rabbit hole. However, there’s usually a moment when it all falls into place and you feel happy with the mix. The main difference between in-the-box mixing and working on an analogue console is the way you start and approach the mix. When you’re on faders, it seems far more tactile and you’re more likely to do things intuitively.
I remember when I started doing my mixes in the box, I was a lot more reluctant to be radical early on. You can start looking at EQ curves rather than just feeling it. I think that if you can approach an in-the-box mix as you would mixing on an analogue console, you’re going to get a decent balance straight away.
The other thing about in-the-box mixing is that you can come back to it at a later stage with a clearer head and revise things that you may have missed. With an old-school analogue mix, you rarely have the time to go back and recall it, so it means that you’re committed – which is a good thing – but it also means you don’t get that flexibility to come back at a later stage with fresh ears.
“The most powerful tool in the mixer is the fader”We know that fresh ears are among your best friends. You can be mixing away for hours and you walk out of the room for 20 minutes and get a coffee. Then, when you come back, you do the most productive hour of the mix, because you have a new perspective.
The other thing is that when you’re mixing on a console, you tend not to solo things as much as you do in the box. I don’t know why that would be, but that’s a real danger, to solo things. You can get your drums sounding great in solo, then you put the bass in and it competes.
Getting a static balance and trying to approach it more like an analogue mix is crucial. Maybe you could start by putting a channel strip plug-in on every single channel and setting up your DAW like a console. Then set up a few utility reverbs and delays rather than putting a reverb plug-in on each track. It’s all about approach.
I’ve been fortunate because I started off working in the box and then came to Abbey Road and got my hands on a desk and enjoyed doing that. Then I’ve gone back and it means that I can get those colours that I would do on an analogue desk, but in the box. You can hybridise your workflow and start thinking of it more as if it was a desk mix.