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Mixing: Where to start? - Just throw the faders up at random!?

You may be an expert mix engineer, but even the best mix engineers can't imagine all of the possibilities contained within a multitrack recording. Random chance may offer better solutions than ever could be planned.


A common question I am asked is, "With which instrument should I start mixing?"

I can think of at least four good answers to this, and possibly a fifth. I have already covered the vocal, drums and the most important instrument. In the final two days of this working week, I will cover options that may surprise you just a little.

The process of becoming a really good mix engineer is a long one, involving learning one's craft and making a lot of mixes. Over time, you will develop techniques and solutions that can achieve the perfect mix of any multitrack recording sent your way.

But what is 'perfect'? A mix can be described as perfect it it satisfies all of the criteria by which a mix can be judged. It 'ticks all of the boxes' in other words.

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But remember the old cliche of 'think outside the box' - just because a mix is perfect doesn't mean that it is good enough, or as good as it possibly ever could be.

Music is a developing art form. The people who listen to and buy music like to hear their favorite tracks, and new songs that sound similar to songs they know already.

But most of all, people like novelty. Humans beings always have, and always will - up to the point just before our species becomes extinct (think about that!).

So a mix that satisfies all currently-known criteria might be a perfect mix. But if it doesn't contain the all-important element of novelty, it might not be as good as it could be.

Novelty might come in the form of unusual processing techniques, or simply new ways of combining sounds. Think about how you always pan the kick drum, bass instrument and lead vocal center. There are good reasons to do this, but you're thinking well inside the box.

So although you may audition a multitrack recording and form in your 'mind's ear' a sound that you might aim to achieve, that sound might be the sound of yesterday rather than the sound of tomorrow.

One quick method of finding new ways to introduce novel sound combinations into your mix is to harness the power of random chance. So instead of carefully constructing the mix from the ground up, you just throw up the faders to random positions and start from there.

On old-style analog mixing consoles this was easy - just a few flicks of the fingers and the faders were effectively randomized. On a DAW, your 'randomness' is bound to have a degree of intent. Or you could use a random number generator to select fader levels.

Of course, you will not view random fader levels, or other random settings, as the end point of your work. What you will do is listen for sound combinations that are interesting;that you might not have arrived at through a conscious thought process. How the bass guitar interacts with the floor tom just before the chorus - that kind of thing.

Or you might choose to listen out for what sounds good in your random mix, then construct your finished mix around that.

All of this relates very closely to Quincy Jones's comment of allowing God to walk through the room. Worshiping at the altar of the god of random chance can often be a good way to start a mix.

By David Mellor Thursday March 8, 2012