On Listening to First Mixes

Man lying back with foot on old boom box

I’m pretty lucky to have a lot of generous, talented, kind people in my circle of friends. Some are so kind that they share with me insights into how they approach elements of their business, and in the process, show me how I’m doing those things WRONG. (Thanks, Daniel. #wireandvice #learning #makinrekkids)

In this case, it’s on advising clients how to listen to their first mixes.

The old process involved lots of conversations. Mainly about style, sometimes about reference songs, all of it long before the recording process began, which is all fine and good. But I had also been asking my artists to provide me with something like this:

“It’s time to nitpick the mixes! Please provide a list of suggested mix edits in this format:

“The Example Song Title”

Intro – Please increase volume of cymbal swell at intro. :35 – The word “songs” sounds too quiet, and I can’t hear the “s” on the end of the word. Please make louder. 1:05 – Harmonies are too loud, please bring them down. 2:15 – Bridge ukulele sounds out of tune. Can we fix that? 3:00 – I’d like the drums to drop out just before the final down-beat.”

While every artist should have the opportunity to remedy anything in a mix that they can’t live with (or without), and while I still ask clients to compile this sort of list, starting the conversation this way is a huge mistake. Why? It sets a good mix up to fail. I’ve just told the artist to focus on the bad rather than the good.

At first glance this might look like a mix engineer cop-out. This is all just part of critical listening, isn’t it? Shouldn’t you (we) be eager to have your (our) work critiqued? Well, sure. But you can’t forget the purpose of hiring someone to Produce and/or Mix for you. Our job is to add our creative input to the final product. And this is the part I used to just gloss over. Our job, most importantly, is to make the listener FEEL what the artist wanted them to feel.

This is where I’m going to get hate mail. Keep in mind, I’m the last guy to poo-poo anything related to Paul McCartney, but a good example of what some might call a poorly mixed record is “Band on the Run” by Wings. And it’s one of my all-time favorites! Why? Because it speaks to me on an emotional level. Some people rip on Metallica’s “And Justice for All” for the same issue, but it’s an immediately recognizable sound that takes me back to my formative years and I absolutely adore it. The point is, while a sonically appealing and vibrant mix is incredibly important, what’s equally (or arguably more) important is its emotional impact. Or put another way, the listener should never focus on fine-tuning before they’ve considered the big picture.

These days, I advise my clients to start by clearing their minds and forgetting everything they are expecting to hear. Then, song by song, listen for how each makes you feel. If it hits the mark… sweet! NOW you can go back and focus on the fine-tuning. If not, send that mix engineer back to the studio to give it another try. And don’t worry, most mixers worth their salt welcome the opportunity to get a mix right.

If you have other methods that work well for you, feel free to post them in the comments below! And as always, thank you for your friendship, your interest, and your art.




Owen Sartori is a 35-year veteran in the music industry as a musician, songwriter, and producer. Currently, he is a co-owner of F5 SoundHouse in Minneapolis, MN and helps mentor, produce and write with/for artists wherever he is needed.

For more, visit f5soundhouse.com.