This is a guest post by Mark Dowdell.
[Editor’s note: This guest post is a part of Dynamic Range Day 2012. Electronic music is one of the most unnecessarily compressed genres out there, but it doesn’t have to be that way. Any mix that’s allowed to breathe will sound better, especially electronic music filled with alternative sounds, pads and patches. If you are an electronic music producer, take Mark’s advice and start approaching your mix from a different perspective.]
The more I create, the more I learn the beauty of a lean mix and even leaner composition. When I had just started out using Ableton to arrange, compose and mix my music, I had this romantic view of how my work would immediately blow everyone away.
Sculpting the Block of Marble
I was enamored with loading my tracks full of instruments – to the point that nothing more could possibly fit. Looking back, I’ve come to realize just how convoluted my mixes were. No wonder no one was listening! They had no idea what to pay attention to.
The levels were all out of whack, the bass was muddy, the snare was lifeless… the tracks had little direction and tasted like cardboard. I “knew” I needed to make sure pieces were in their proper place, but wasn’t sure of how to go about it.
So I went back to the drawing board and did the unthinkable… research. I learned where my bass was falling in the mix with a spectral analyzer and carved out a perch for it to sit. I warmed up my snare with a saturator, moving it to a more prominent position. I adjusted the levels to hone in on one instrument at a time. By chipping away at the mix slowly, the way that a sculpter uncovers a statue in a block of marble, I found steadily better results beneath the surface.
In addition, I realized the beauty of dynamic range. By reducing the amount of compression I had initially added, contours began to emerge that hadn’t been there before. Textures sounded clearer and the drums punchier. Sure, the track was a bit quieter, but with new details, what did it matter?
How Much is Too Much?
But only so much tweaking could bring life back to them. After having a few years to fine tune my music creation process, I’ve found that there are only so many passes I can make to one mix before I force myself to call it a day.
Like Björgvin recently wrote – “Billy Jean” by Michael Jackson was mixed a total of 91 times before one was chosen… and they chose the second mix!
By going back into my tracks, I was able to recognize the negative patterns in my mixing and composition processes and preempt them in subsequent mixes. It’s a constant learning process to find that sweet spot, as any producer can attest to. But it’s now clear to me that rather than just “knowing” that I should selectively remove pieces that don’t fit, that doesn’t mean I was aware of it.
You only become aware of it when you’ve experienced it, and the only way to experience it is through practice, practice, and more practice. Did I mention practice?
Mark Dowdell is an electronic musician and producer who specializes in making music sound like something it isn’t. He also runs the music filtration site Bandcamp’s Best, which provides concise reviews of the best albums hosted on Bandcamp. You can find him on Facebook & Twitter.
Image by: Akbar Simonse