Why it is so important to mix in context
Mixing and mastering have a lot of technical and theoretical aspects, and it’s not uncommon to get caught up in doing everything correctly and by the book. While knowing the rules and norms are very important in order to achieve your desired result, they are not always the answer.
Music is a very complex concept, and every song and every recording is different in various ways. There are so many factors at play that there simply can’t be rules and concepts that work every single time.
So in this post, I will go through the importance of always working in context and understanding that knowing when to use different tools is just as important as knowing the tools themselves.
Knowing your tools
Before understanding when to use your tools, it is crucial to understand the tools themselves. All tools in mixing are based around the four fundamentals of audio.
Understanding the fundamentals of audio will make it easier to fully understand the functions and intentions of the different tools in your DAW, and it might help you realize that all you truly need to make great-sounding mixes are just 5 plug-ins.
If you understand what every knob does, how they work in relation to each other, and how they affect the audio, the possibilities are virtually endless and you’ll have a much greater chance of achieving the sound you want without scrolling through thousands of presets and trying out hundreds of different plug-ins.
Having a good overview of your DAW and its capabilities will also make things easier. The possibilities today are enormous, and your DAW probably has a lot of different features you might not be aware of. Features that make editing simpler, mixing faster, and that generally give you a smoother workflow.
When you’ve come to know your tools fairly well, it’s time to start thinking about the context you’re gonna apply your tools in.
What kind of song are you working on? Is it sad or happy, slow or fast? What’s typical for the genre you’re mixing? Is the bass the most prominent element or is the focus more on the guitar and/or vocals? What kind of room should the song be in? A big, concert-like room, or a small bedroom-like room?
These are great questions to keep in the back of your head at all times because your goal as a mixing engineer is to enhance the idea and intention behind the song. The concepts of oversaturating and hard-compressing everything might work perfectly well in a trap song, but it won’t necessarily work in your favor if you’re mixing a singer/songwriter song.
Context also means to mix and work with audio in relation to each other. You might know that it’s a safe bet to low-cut everything under 200 hz except the kick and bass, but it might also be that keeping some of those frequencies in the synths or guitars of a song will add warmth and depth, and give a much bigger sense of fullness than blindly following the “rules” of equalizing. Avoiding mixing in solo will usually give you a better idea of what processing serves the actual mix best.
When to apply different tools
After understanding your tools and being aware of the importance of context, the questions about when and how to apply different tools start to arise.
A general rule of thumb, in my humble opinion, is to apply tools and techniques that enhance the groove and energy of the song.
Enhancing the groove and energy does not necessarily mean boosting things with compression and saturation. It does not mean low-cutting everything except the bass and kick. Enhancing the groove can many times mean attenuating unwanted frequencies and lowering the levels of some elements. It can mean using volume automation on your vocals or it can mean to compress the hell out of your drums.
The important thing is to make sure that whatever processing you are applying, has the purpose of enhancing and improving the song and the message it is trying to send. If all your meters are blasting and your spectrum analyzer looks like a deformed dog, but the song sounds as good as any song out there, and the artistic intention behind it is intact, you’ve done your job as a mixing engineer.
The characteristics of any great song out there is not how technically perfect the mix is. Technical perfection doesn’t hurt and is a good and important attribute. But technical perfection alone does not make a great mix. The characteristics of great songs are songs that tell a story and resonate with people.
To sum it up
So when mixing, the question shouldn’t be “how can I make this mix perfect?”. The question should be “how can I treat this mix in such a way that it enhances and transmits the story of the song across all listening platforms and playback systems?”
Achieving that requires technical knowledge to make sure your mix is working as you want it on a technical level (mono vs stereo, clipping, frequency response on different playback systems, and so on). But it also requires the mindset of working in context, of understanding that the tools are there to serve the song, the song is not there to serve the tools.
About Gerhard Tinius
Gerhard Tinius is a groovy producer, mixer, and audio engineer from Norway. He is working as a mixer and audio/mastering engineer while releasing his own music under his name Tinius. Gerhard also writes his own (almost) daily blog about music-making and the creative process in general. Read it here.
Audio Production, Blog, Music Mixing