mixing in the dark

Computer recording has made it incredibly easy to edit recordings due to the large display and countless display options. But, are you trading your ears for your eyes?
Back in the day, editing had to be done physically by splicing tape. Frank Zappa was renowned for his precision and skill when editing tape. It was said that he could remove a breath from a vocal take. That may not sound so impressive now, but to physically cut it out of a tape with a razor blade took enormous skill. Zappa even pioneered a technique he called ‘Xenochrony’, which involved cutting a guitar solo out of a live recording and splicing it into a studio recording. Engineers who worked alongside Zappa said that he had a mind like a steel trap and could instantly pick a certain recording of a certain guitar solo out of hundreds of tape canisters in the store room to use on an album take. Now, of course, you can blow up a take on your giant screen and pick out a single glitch in the audio with ease. This is a fantastic advancement in recording, but it goes hand in hand with something I find to be very problematic – visual mixing. 

What most of you will do without realising is watch the music rather than listen to it. Imagine yourself mixing right now – your eyes are glued to the screen aren’t they? You know where the build is and what’s coming after it because you’re watching it slowly creep across the screen. You may be listening intently to individual elements in order to make corrections, but you won’t be listening to the song as a whole and how the sections of the song meld together.
I recently took a mix of mine from my home studio to my commercial studio to mix it on a console to try to breathe some life into it (not that it sounded dead at all, but I wanted that organic console sound). I was immediately taken aback by how un-ready it was for mixing (I’m aware that un-ready isn’t a word). I listened in astonishment as I couldn’t believe that I hadn’t noticed how weird the mix was. I soon realised that I was sat watching the audio clips move across the screen, only paying attention to individual elements at any one time, and didn’t have any idea how the builds and changes were working simply because I expected them. Needless to say, when I went home, I addressed this madness.

This is what I want you to do. Bring up a track you have mixed, turn off the monitor (or if you’re using a laptop…I don’t know, throw a t-shirt over it), and listen. It may help for you to close your eyes as you’ll still be looking for things to focus on rather than the music (staring at a speaker is a dead give away). Have a notepad and a pen ready and write down anything you think needs changing. I guarantee that you’ll be at least a little surprised by how much of the track you have been completely ignorant to due to your ever seeing eyes.
This is why I think there’s so much magic in recordings from the 60s and 70s. With a couple of speakers and a mixing console, you’re going to sit in that dimly lit room and listen to the music. When you have a massive screen in front of you with the song splayed out across it, you’re not listening as much as you think you are. I guess a fair analogy (god, I love my analogies) is sticking a CD on in the car, or whilst your doing something else, verses putting a record on for the one reason of sitting there and listening to it. I mean, how many times have you bought a new album and kept hearing new parts you hadn’t noticed before? It’s like taking a magazine to the movies.

Treat your music the way music should be treated – it’s a listening experience. Listen to it.

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