[Editor’s Note: This article was written by Award-Winning Producer Gary Gray.]
I’m very fortunate in counting among my personal mentors some of the greatest legends in the music industry; Phil Collins, Quincy Jones, and Phil Ramone. Without their help and guidance, I would not be where I am today.
I was very lucky to also partake in several apprenticeships. One lasted two years where I was exposed to an amazing amount of wisdom and hard-won knowledge — both musically and business-wise, while learning the ropes from members of the crew who worked with legendary artist Chick Corea. Chick has earned 51 Grammy Nominations and 25 Grammy Awards to date.
For anyone to not share the intense treasure trove of knowledge and experience I’ve acquired would be a sin.
Normally one thinks of a sin as a bad deed done. An action. Doing something wrong. Screwing up. Making a bad mistake. It’s an action-oriented activity that one does with their own two hands.
However, there is another type of sin which tends to hide in the shadows. It’s not easy to see. It can sometimes result in much more damage and trouble than a sin of commission.
It’s called a sin of omission.
A sin of omission is something that you SHOULD HAVE DONE that you DIDN’T DO. It tends to be somewhat invisible. Therefore, it’s harder to observe, and it’s harder for some people to wrap their head around. As I mentioned earlier, I myself would be guilty of a huge sin of omission if I didn’t share with you what I know and what I have been through which helped me arrive at a point where I do music full-time, make a living at it, and am able to balance my life in a sane way.
So, here we are, about to talk about the Seven Deadly Sins of Home Studio Mixing.
You may be somewhat surprised when you discover the list of “sins” I present in this article. Here you will discover both sins of commission, and those elusive but powerfully destructive sins of omission. This is not your typical “bullet point” article on home studio production.
So, for the next few minutes, I invite you to silence your cell phone, close your social media tabs, and join me for a potentially enlightening experience.
Just before we start in on Sin Number One, I would be remiss if I didn’t let you in on a secret. All of the sins below are strengthened and all become much more destructive to your career without a certain foundation in place. I can guarantee that you will conquer and overcome each of the seven sins below if you address one vital aspect of not only your career, but of your life: Life Coaching. This doesn’t mean you have to go out and get a Life Coach. It does mean that you’ll need to honestly look at your level of success across all of life and how your current life is balanced or not. Every individual has a “glass ceiling,” a level where they “hit their head,” a level they can’t seem to rise above in their career.
In my 30 years of mentoring and apprenticing students in the music industry, I have found that when a person engages in self-help, when a person addresses their vices honestly and cleans up their act, when a person lives with “clean hands” and is able to act responsibly in life — to themselves and others, the “glass ceiling” will shatter and the sky will become their limit. Not only will that person achieve their potential — they will blow it away. So, I strongly encourage you to take an honest look at how high or low your glass ceiling is – and why – and to shatter it.
SIN NUMBER ONE: MIXING WITH (FALSE) IDEAS
I’ve been mentoring students on the subject of music theory, sound design, the music business and music production for 30 years, during which time I have been and continue to be active in the industry composing, arranging, producing and engineering. Along the way I have completed several intense research projects and case studies. For example, I logged 5,800 hours on one research project alone. It took me more than two years to complete. The subject matter of that research project was this:
The Similarities and Differences Between Analog and Digital Recording, Mixing & Mastering.
Some of my findings were seemingly counterintuitive and cut across the grain of “popular” opinion and strongly held “beliefs” in the music industry.
Though startling to some, all of my findings are backed by empirical evidence and scores of successful students working in the music industry. I don’t ask you to agree with me. I am simply sharing the results of many scientific research projects I have conducted since 2006 in the field of sound, psychoacoustics, sonic illusions, music recording, music mixing, music mastering, and other related subjects.
Here are some of my findings:
- Analog recordings do NOT “sound better” than digital recordings.
- Digital technology can do anything Analog can do, and do it better.
- Analog technology can not do anything Digital technology can do.
- Statements of “fact” regarding the subject of mixing (whether true or false) are often taken to be true at face value, without the recipient of that information researching to find the actual truth.
- When a statement of “fact” regarding the subject of mixing is spoken or written and accepted as true (when in fact false), the recipient of that fact will “hear” that truth when mixing and/or mastering. (Not just think about it, but actually hear it, even when it isn’t there to be heard!). I call this phenomenon (which is a psychoacoustic and psychological illusion), The Mental McGurk Effect. (Believing — and literally hearing — a false idea about mixing).
The Visual McGurk effect is an illusion which occurs when there is a conflict between something one sees with their eyes, and a sound that one hears with their ears. This illusion occurs because the mind is attempting to resolve the conflict between sight and sound.
The mind will always resolve a conflict between sound and sight in favor of sight. Always.
In other words, when there is a conflict between a sight and a sound, you will always “hear what you see,” instead of hearing what you hear! An example of the Visual McGurk effect is showing someone a video of bacon cooking on a stove, but playing a soundtrack of falling rain. The person will NOT hear rain falling, they will hear bacon cooking.
This is a new twist on the saying, “Seeing is believing.”
So, let’s get back to the Mental McGurk Effect and understand how it can affect your ability to mix. Let’s take the first three findings of my research above and REVERSE them so that they are now FALSE:
- False: Analog recordings sound better than digital recordings.
- False: Analog technology can do anything digital can do, and do it better.
- False: Digital technology can not do anything Analog technology can do.
If you ever read or heard the statements above, and believed them to be true (especially if they were written or spoken by an “authority”), chances are, you experienced their accompanying sonic illusions. Most likely, you literally heard what you were told about the sound in front of you, rather than hearing the actual sound in front of you. This is the Mental McGurk Effect in action.
And herein lies the FIRST DEADLY SIN: MIXING WITH IDEAS.
I constantly tell my students, “Don’t Mix Ideas, Mix The Music In Front of You.”
Here’s a real-life example. Some “authority” (or not) listens to your music and tells you that your mixing troubles come from the fact that you are not using this certain compressor plug-in on your stereo buss out that “all Grammy Award-Winning engineers” use on their stereo buss out.
So now, if you haven’t done your own research, and if you BELIEVE this false idea – that not using this particular plug-in on your stereo buss out is the reason for your mixing woes, then a fascinating sonic illusion will kick in when you DO use this plug-in. Your mixes will “sound better.” And, conversely, when you DON’T us the plug-in, your mixes will “sound worse.” The idea becomes a (false) reality. The idea becomes an illusion. The problem is this: the illusion, as do all illusions, seems REAL. It sounds REAL.
You will therefore read forums filled with people SWEARING to the fact that this plug-in, or that microphone, or this set of speakers, or that interface sounds BETTER than others, and is the answer to your mixing problems. Now, if your gear is broken, that’s one thing – you need to replace it with something that works. But if it’s working, chances are, you DON’T need to replace a thing.
The truth about gear and plug-ins is this: it is extremely RARE (if ever) that a piece of gear or a plug-in will fix your mixing woes.
It is not about the canoe – it’s the Indian. It’s not about the car – it’s the driver.
If you mix with a (false) IDEA rather than mix the music in front of you, you will not be able to hear your mix objectively. This will result in more confusions, less objectivity, even more confusions, even less objectivity; and eventually – lowered confidence. When a mixing engineer has a lowered level of confidence, guess what? They are more prone to mixing with IDEAS. It’s a downward spiral. But there’s another problem now – how do you know if an idea is true or false?
Spreading false information about music production, knowingly or unknowingly, is very damaging to musicians, producers and engineers, because spiritually, their CONFIDENCE takes a blow. And when you weaken someone’s confidence in their ear and in their ability to apply common sense to their craft, you are killing artists.
The shield against such a weapon is becoming a soldier of research yourself.
HOW TO RESEARCH
Example: Here’s a great way to quickly accomplish a scientifically controlled research study of interfaces.
Someone tells you interface X sounds better than interface Y. They feed you this IDEA.
Solution: Record a singer singing a song using interface X. Immediately record that same singer singing the same song using interface Y. Use similar interface settings while recording. Use the same singer, same mic in the same position. Record each take on a separate track in your DAW.
After recording, volume match the two vocal tracks in your DAW. Place the separate tracks directly on top of each other in your DAW. Highlight them both. Set your DAW to “snap to grid” and cut through both tracks every 5 seconds on the grid. Create a “Checkerboard” pattern by muting alternating 5 second segments on both tracks, so that only one is playing at a time. Export that “Checkerboard A/B Mix.”
Listen to that “Checkerboard A/B Mix” in your car, listen to it on your phone, listen to it on your laptop, listen to it in your studio. Listen to it.
I think you will be amazed when you find out FOR REAL that most IDEAS that people try to sell you about “very definite differences” between various pieces of gear (and plug-ins, and DAWs, etc.,) are a total crock. B.S. (I won’t swear here). Most of the time, there is absolutely NO notable difference!
When you learn the truth, your confidence will soar. When your confidence soars, your ears get sharper. You will be able to hear more precisely, more objectively. Confusions will go away. Anxieties will leave. Clarity and calm will prevail.
The Truth = Confidence = Awesome Mixes.
And you will absolutely become a better mixing engineer.
SIN NUMBER TWO: MIXING WITH YOUR EYES OPEN
As covered in Sin Number One, the McGurk Effect is a deadly disease for any mixing engineer (The McGurk Effect = the mind “hearing” what it sees). This disease enters the mind through the eyes. The only way to stop this disease is to close your eyes. Literally.
I myself make the vast majority of my mixing adjustments with my eyes closed, and I teach my students to do the same. And I, and all my students over the past 30 years can attest to the fact that this one mixing technique is life-changing for any mixer and will immediately give you much better mixes.
Once you try it, you will find that many adjustments carried out in any given mix can be done with your eyes closed. You can also pick up inexpensive faders and knob controllers that can be assigned to almost anything in your DAW so that you have a hands-on tactile slider or knob to adjust while your eyes are closed, rather than the sometimes hit and miss “blind” adjustments made with a mouse. Coupled with proper A/B’ing while mixing (See Sin Number Four Below), you will rise above the ranks of amateur mixers forever.
Not only does closing your eyes help you while you’re mixing, but as the result of over 500 hours of extensive research on the McGurk effect, I discovered what I call the “Lingering McGurk Effect” which strongly affects you AFTER your mix is done! It is truly fascinating.
The Lingering McGurk Effect
You know all those nicely colored and organized tracks in your session? You know all those wave forms you stare at? Those colors and shapes are making visual mental impressions in your mind that affect what you think you are hearing in real-time — creating sonic illusions that don’t exist while you are mixing. With your eyes open, you will hear things while mixing that literally are not there.
However, once you are done mixing, guess what? I discovered that these visual mental impressions FOLLOW you and your mix. When you go to your car to listen to your mix, those visual mental impressions will haunt your ears.
Example – remember that mix where you struggled and struggled and struggled with the vocal production? You couldn’t get the chorus vocals to pop and still sound natural? And for hours, you stared at those tracks, those wave forms, those colors, those shapes. And the outline of those wave forms, those colors and those shapes created sonic illusions in your mind and in your ears that you may not have been aware existed.
AND THEN when you export your mix and listen to it in the car, you will still SEE those wave forms, those colors and those shapes in your mind, and your mind will once again “hear” what it sees!
But — and here’s the good news — when you keep your eyes closed while mixing, you will NOT be haunted by the McGurk Effect, you will be hearing your mix objectively with no sonic illusions attached. And your objectivity and confidence will follow you and your mix to your car when you listen to it there.
SIN NUMBER THREE: BELIEVING MYTHS ABOUT YOUR ROOM
I just received an email from an indie musician home studio owner who was asking me for advice after he was given conflicting information about what product to buy from two salespeople trying to sell him sound treatment for his home studio (isolation pads for his speakers).
This was my reply:
“The following is my opinion based on over 1,000 hours of research into sound treatment and isolation technologies:
The sound treatment industry is a multimillion-dollar fraud. Very simple actions that cost nothing can be done in any studio that can improve a recording, mixing or mastering environment. And many of the “improvements” that sound treatment salespeople claim occur by buying and using their products, do not in fact occur.
Towards the end of my research, I met with the CEO of one of the top sound treatment companies in the U.S., who also owns a Military Grade Soundproofing Company. “Soundproofing is a real industry and the sound treatment industry is a fraud according to my research,” I stated, “What do you think?” I asked.
“Can you close my office door?” he asked. (I did) “You’re right,” he said, “It’s hard to sleep at night when I think about my sound treatment company, but people buy that sh*t like crazy. Let’s talk about soundproofing. That’s a real industry. You can go ahead and open the door now.”
I could go on for pages and pages on this subject. I will tell you this: I make a 6-figure income from my music production business (recording, mixing and mastering). I have no isolation pads under my speakers. I have no sound treatment in my room. (My room IS soundproofed so that I can work at any time of the day or night). Every month I hear from the Head of Licensing for The Disney Music Group and 20th Century Studios, words to this effect, “Gary, you nailed another project. This sounds amazing! We just got several more major licensing placements because of your excellent work. Thank you!”
Here is a sample of a recent track that I recorded, mixed and mastered in my 12 x 12 bedroom studio with no sound treatment or isolation. My speakers sit directly on a glass table:
Now, if you want to get some sound treatment for your studio so it “looks professional” to high paying clients who would otherwise not use your services, and which results in a financial return on your investment because of it, go for it! Otherwise, I say skip it. Purchasing expensive, unnecessary items which results in a good return on your investment falls under the category that I call “Smoke & Mirrors.” Sometimes it’s a wise business choice. But only if you actually end up with a good return on your investment. (See Sin Number Six Below)
My research led to this mantra that I apply and teach to students all over the world, “Use your ear, not your gear, as a priority when you mix and master.”
SIN NUMBER FOUR: NOT UNDERSTANDING THE TRUTH ABOUT A/B’ING AND/OR NOT A/B’ING AT ALL.
While mixing and mastering, I always use the Mute Automation Checkerboard A/B workflow system that I developed, which has allowed me (and every mixing engineer who uses it) to become prolific at cranking out masterpiece quality recordings 100% of the time, even under the pressure of heavy deadlines. I invented this workflow system as a result of over 10,000 hours of research. It’s revolutionary, and those who use it swear by it.
For details covering the philosophy, set-up and execution of this workflow, which you can start using right now, read this TuneCore Article.
SIN NUMBER FIVE: NOT ADAPTING TO A REMOTE WORKFLOW SYSTEM WHICH CAN BE QUITE LUCRATIVE.
Even after the current pandemic, remote workflow systems, when set-up and managed well, will create multiple sources of lucrative income for any home studio owner.
Not adapting to this new paradigm is a sure-fire way to cut out potential cashflow for you and your family.
Learn how to set up a revolutionary remote workflow system here.
SIN NUMBER SIX: WASTING MONEY ON PLUG-INS, PROGRAMS AND GEAR THAT ARE TRUTHFULLY NOT NECESSARY.
There ARE situations where acquiring unnecessary expensive gear is a smart business decision; but this would only be warranted if you have a long-term guaranteed financially qualified client base that demands what I call “Smoke & Mirror Gear” in order to do business with you.
Otherwise, you can easily be led down a dangerous path of poverty if you believe everything you are told by unscrupulous sales people. To help you make the smartest choices for your home studio, read this article on the good, the bad and the ugly concerning “Smoke & Mirror Gear.”
SIN NUMBER SEVEN: CHASING UNWORKABLE MASTERING LOUDNESS “STANDARDS.”
Spotify, Apple Music, SoundCloud, Amazon Music, Pandora, Tidal, Deezer, etc, have issued new and updated “loudness standards” over the last few years for people uploading music on their platforms. The problem with these standards is two-fold.
One: The way these standards were arrived at, the manner in which these standards are taught to the average home studio owner, and the application and execution of adhering to these new standards all share one common denominator: They are as complex as they are unworkable. For instance. Spotify describes in detail the technology of LUFS (Loudness Units Full Scale) while educating those people uploading music onto its platform. The funny (or not so funny) thing is, Spotify does NOT use the technology of LUFS to measure the incoming tracks for loudness!
After I completed several hundred hours of research into “mastering for streaming” and LUFS, I concluded that following these new suggested standards are senseless. I also followed a basic tenet of research which states, if it’s complicated, it contains lies. Truths are simple. Truths are workable 100% of the time.
To learn a very simple approach to mastering your tracks for streaming (or any medium), check out this very thorough two part article, covering the history of the loudness wars and how to correctly master your tracks for any medium.
After completing my research, I heard Andrew Scheps (legendary Grammy Award-Winning mixing engineer [Adele, Red Hot Chilli Peppers, Ziggy Marley]) state, “They talk about long term levels with LUFS and things and it doesn’t really measure anything that’s particularly relevant. I basically ignore all of that. To try and adhere to that is ridiculous. I don’t pay any attention to it.”
I have found that when people don’t do their own personal research, they will oftentimes believe what they are told (even when false) and can, in many instances, find themselves stuck in confusing, chaotic and frustrating rabbit holes.
I myself went through a LOT of that when I started out. I call those years my “Trial and Terror” phase. By researching personally, I was able to grow wisdom and cultivate true confidence within myself. True confidence breeds success and happiness. And that’s what I want for you.
Gary Gray is the author of The Home Studio Bible. Out of his (small one bedroom) home studio, he’s completed (including recording, mixing and mastering) 14 major projects for The Disney Music Group and 20th Century Fox (and continues to do so), as well as other clients, such as CBS Daytime Television, A&E, Megatrax, EMI Production Music London, etc. Gary works in all genres across various DAWS and operating systems, on both Macs and PCs. He also mentors serious students of music production and the business of music.
Gary Gray is also a Voting Member of the Grammy Recording Academy; a Two-Time Telly Award-Winning Producer, Arranger, Mixing and Mastering Engineer and The Author of The Home Studio Bible.
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