[Editor’s Note: This article is the first in a two-part series written by Gary Gray.]
When I first started learning how to mix, I was told time and time again that I needed to work on making my mixes sound great in every sound system. To this day, I still see this goal being sought by many artists, producers and engineers. I also see it being taught widely. However, if you stand back and look at what that goal attempts to accomplish, you may discover something very interesting.
“But my favorite recordings DO sound great in every system!”
I often hear the above reaction to my statement, “Attempting to get your mixes to sound great in every system actually defies common sense.” And then I often hear something like this as well, “Listen to Bohemian Rhapsody, one of my favorite recordings of all time. I don’t know how they did it, but the mix DOES sound amazing in EVERY system I play it in!”
My response? “I appreciate your enthusiasm! Now, let’s take a closer listen and see what’s up.”
We play the track first in a great system. The mix does sound amazing. Then we play it in a laptop and much of the bass is gone. We play it through a smartphone and the highs are super accentuated and the lows are now all gone.
So why does this person continue to assert the notion that this mix, and all of his favorite mixes, sound great in every system?
Based on 30 years of working as a live/studio musician, (as well as producer/engineer and mentor), I’ve noticed something very powerful about music. Not about sound – about music.
One surefire way to make your mix sound impressive is to mix an impressive song or composition, especially with impressive performers and singers. The power of the song or composition and the performers alone creates a listening experience that transcends the sound of the recording.
A great song or instrumental composition presented by great performers will create such an emotional impact on a listener, that the listener will “hear” a great mix no matter the playback medium (phone, laptop, tv, studio, etc.). I call this the “fading radio” phenomenon.
It goes like this: You’re listening to the radio in your car. You’re driving out of town. As you get further from home, the radio station signal gets weaker and weaker and the sound of static gets more and more prominent. But you’re listening to one of your favorite recordings. Do you turn off the radio station just because of the increasing static during one of your favorite tracks? No! You keep listening. Some people keep listening, singing along, until there is almost no song and almost all static!
You see the main driving force here? It’s The Music and The Performance – not the presentation.
Chasing Your Tail
Let’s look at what is widely taught currently, and has been for years. “Here’s how to make your mix sound great in every system. Do 1, 2, 3, 4 & 5 and you should be good to go.” Here’s an actual example (and there are plenty out there!) that I found with a cursory search:
“You hear a record mixed by a badass mixing engineer and mastered by a ninja warrior [mastering engineer] — and it sounds good everywhere. Is it magic? Nope. Turns out they have taken measures and learned techniques in making sure that’s how a record plays back. And I’m about to tell you how to do it!”
So, I continue reading to find out how to do it.
I’m given five ways to achieve the goal of making my mix sound great in every system. The instructions include things like improve my room, get better speakers, learn my system better, narrow down frequency ranges while mixing, listen carefully to all playback systems to figure out which frequency bands to subtract.
This approach is not uncommon. In fact there are way more than five techniques out there purportedly designed to help you make your mixes sound great in every system.
Here’s the main problem: How can I get my mix to sound great in every system when every system isn’t great?
Attempting to do that is like trying to paint a painting that’s going to look great to every viewer, regardless of the color of sunglasses the viewer is wearing.
Think about that for a moment.
Here’s my painting:
And here’s what my painting looks like if someone is wearing purple sunglasses (this would be like listening to my mix through a second different system):
And here’s what my painting looks like if someone is wearing yellow sunglasses (this would be like listening to my mix through a third system):
You see what’s happening here? If I were a painter, and I was reading an article or was watching a tutorial that was trying to teach me how to make my painting look great through any color of sunglasses, I would end up chasing my tail, and end up confused and frustrated! And my painting would probably end up looking worse! And guess what? That’s how I felt, and that’s what happened after about three years of mixing. I called those my “trial & terror” years.
My teacher would say, “OK, your painting looks good so far. Now, let’s see what it would look like if someone were wearing purple sunglasses. OK, put these purple sunglasses on. Now, take your paint brush and with your purple sunglasses on, I want you to adjust it so it looks great. OK, good. Now, put these yellow sunglasses on, and make your painting look great in these sunglasses. Good. Now take off your sunglasses and make sure your painting still looks great.”
My response would be something like this: “Ahhhhh!! I’m chasing my tail!!”
If you did try and get a painter to work that way, they would not be going to you for advice in the future. And yet, that’s the equivalent of what is widely taught to musical artists, producers and engineers.
Why do some musical artists, producers and engineers follow advice that does not follow common sense? The answer lies in the fact that we are dealing with an invisible, subjective art form. Painting is something you can look at objectively and see it and share what you see with little question or interpretation as to what you are seeing right in front of you with your own two eyes. Sight is something that is not open to as much opinion and interpretation as is the invisibility of sound.
So, if trying to make your mixes sound great in every system is not a goal that makes sense, what is?
Consistently Creating Industry Standard Recordings
That’s a goal that makes sense.
OK. How do I do that?
Disclaimer: Several years ago I decided to no longer renew contracts with music production related sponsors. Along with composing, producing and engineering — mentoring is something I spend a lot of time doing. I consider mentoring an activity with a very high level of responsibility. In the past, I found myself, while mentoring or doing podcasts or doing interviews or writing articles, “leaning” one way or another based on my relationships with sponsors.
Since ending off all sponsorships, I’ve been able to go straight to the bottom line truth about various aspects of music production, based on thousands of hours of unbiased research, without veering along the way in order to accommodate relationships with sponsors. This turned out to be one of the smartest moves I ever made as a mentor. From that point forward, an even higher percentage of my students have found lasting success in the music industry.
As I describe it, there are [albeit not necessarily knowingly or on purpose] “brainwashers” and “myth-makers” passing along untrue and unworkable information to indie musicians, producers and engineers. Much of it falls under the categories of “You need this gear/plug-in or your mixes are gonna suck” or, “If you want pro-sounding mixes, you need to follow this exact formula.”
As covered in my online masterclass The Lucrative Home Studio, you’ll find that upgrading your ear, not your gear as a priority will allow you to rise up the ranks much quicker and much higher in the music industry. And following formulas blindly, without doing your own research, experimentation and listening will turn you into more of a robot than a confident artist and technician.
Since music is an invisible subjective art form, open more to opinions than many other disciplines, musicians are prone to believing “authorities” without question. When this is the case, it’s sometimes hard to “unbrainwash” a student.
The good news is this: not only is it possible to teach the truth, but I’ve found ways to do so which are quite effective. The two main sources of “myth-making” and “brainwashing” come from incompetent or malicious salespeople (a very small percentage of our community), and those who are status-driven without the time to do, or interest in doing, proper research.
This article is based on 5,800 hours of research into the differences and similarities between digital and analog recording, mixing and mastering which I conducted at Springs Theatre Studio in Tampa, Florida.
Again, why would a painter immediately walk away from a very similar approach to their art that musicians readily accept and attempt? As I pointed out, music and sound are invisible subjective art forms. Therefore any statement made by someone teaching or mentoring holds an enormous amount of weight and comes with a huge amount of responsibility.
Over this past weekend, I was asked to join a panel of experts in the industry for a ‘Music in Film & TV Summit’. The panel was made up of people who create incredible recordings. Those in attendance, as often is the case, heard some conflicting information. Not just different points of view, I’m talking about conflicting information.
The problem is this, not everyone who can do can teach effectively. A number of my students were in the audience. I was pleased to see the look on my students’ faces when certain “myths” were authoritatively claimed from the stage from some of the panelists. It’s not because I’m an “authority” or because my students believe everything I say. It’s because the number one thing I teach my students is to become the best researchers they can. To become the best artists and craftsmen they can. To not rely on any “authority,” and to become the number one authority on their music.
Great artists and craftsmen roll up their sleeves and study carefully and do all the work necessary in order to create a sense of confidence that no one can crack. That no one can budge. That no one can diminish. They don’t “microwave” their studies, their careers and their lives. That takes a lot of blood, sweat, tears and hours experimenting. The secret is having workable philosophies and materials to study, and the right teachers and mentors to guide you.
How to Consistently Create Industry Standard Recordings
I absolutely DO check my recordings in several systems, but the way I do follows what I call Hidden Simple Wisdom. Which is a more concentrated form of common sense, partly because it’s not necessarily common.
The Triangle of Hidden Simple Wisdom for Musicians
Here is my recommended recipe for consistently creating industry standard recordings, using The Triangle of Hidden Simple Wisdom.
1. You, The Human Factor and Your Audience.
“You.” The first thing to address is you. This includes your ability to hear (which I cover extensively with music production ear training exercises in The Lucrative home Studio). I’m going to share one of those exercises in Part Two of this article.
Once you have sharpened your ear, you will know what to listen for, and will know without a doubt what industry standard production sounds like.
“You” includes your education and experience with music and sound. It includes the basic building blocks of music: music theory. You’ll notice that I include music theory at the top of the triangle under the heading “You.” I don’t list it under “Scientific Tools,” though some place it in that category. Music Theory, when internalized to the point where it’s second nature, where it’s a part of you, will help you build an unshakeable stronghold of confidence in everything you do.
The ‘Human Factor’. This is how you present yourself and interact with others in the industry. Learning all about ‘Scientific Tools’ and even applying yourself as an artist is often times only 2/3rds of the full formula for success. The ‘Human Factor’ includes your willingness and ability to help another human being, to be a great team player, to maintain concise, helpful and positive communication while dealing with others.
This includes, believe it or not, life-coaching. I found that if a person does not address life-coaching with a mentor or coach or even alone with oneself, the full potential of that person being met is not likely to happen. Life is brutal enough without the decision to create some form of success in the music industry. If a person doesn’t have a strong foundation personally, the storms encountered can be formidable set-backs.
Your Audience. I call your audience the last and most important plug-in in your mixing chain. If you don’t understand that plug-in and how it reacts and what makes it operate smoothly and what makes it distort, you’re likely in for a rough ride. There’s certainly nothing wrong with creating art for yourself and without any thought whatsoever regarding your audience. There is a place for that for sure. But the subject at hand, and the main focus of this article is creating art that reaches people, that moves people, that people can relate to and feel and be moved by.
2. Scientific Tools
This corner of the triangle deals with your D.A.W. and knowing it like the back of your hand. It also includes knowing a standard of quality control used in many other industries, known as “The Scientific Method,” and how a revolutionary approach to A/B’ing which I’ve developed follows this method exactly. This plays a huge role in getting rid of second-guessing and will assist you to stop the roller-coaster ride of feeling confident one day, and like you can’t do anything right the next.
In part two of this series, I’ll be covering the “Scientific Method” very thoroughly, along with specific details regarding what tools you can use, what approaches and workflows you can try and what sequences you can follow in order to consistently create industry standard recordings.
3. Artistic Experimentation
It’s easy to lose sight of why we are doing what we are doing in the first place! To create art! To relish in the creativity and journey of the artist inside of every one of us. Just knowing your tools and the science behind what we do is not enough. In fact, it’s only a portion of what it takes to make great art. Research and experimentation are the hallmarks of all great artists.
One fascinating thing about ‘Artistic Experimentation’ is that it cannot be taught. It must be learned. It is a very personal thing. Trying to teach someone “how to do their art” kills the artistic drive and passion in the artist. Unfortunately, some universities do just that. I have several students that come to me to be “rehabilitated” after years of being told how to do their art!
So, with the above philosophy understood, and the basic building blocks of consistently creating industry standard recordings, let’s roll up our sleeves and look at how exactly that goal can be accomplished.
(Stay tuned for Part Two of this series where Gary discusses specific techniques you can use to ensure your mixes achieve consistent industry standard production quality, from a unique and ear-opening perspective!)
Gary Gray is the teacher behind the Lucrative Home Studio online course. He’s an award winning composer, producer, and engineer, and has produced multiple projects for 20th Century Fox, Disney, Hollywood Records, A&E, EMI, CBS and many others in his home studio.