+ Producers, Synth Heads and Sci-Fi Nerds, our new course with synthwave pioneer, Com Truise: Mid-Fi Synthwave Slow-Motion Funk, is out now!
Mixing audio can be tough work. It’s at the nexus of the technical, the creative, and the commercial.
The satisfaction you get from a job well done and another invoice paid is often worth all the extra effort, just as long as you can avoid these common pitfalls. Let’s talk about some of the most common setbacks an engineer or producer (such as yourself) may run into when mixing client work.
1. A Bad Business Agreement
The first thing to nail is a good agreement that will keep you happy and patient if the mix gets complicated. This is creative work, where progress is not always predictable, linear, or timely.
Make sure you get paid what you are worth. What is a fair price for you that covers all the time it will take you get that very final client sign-off?
This is admittedly a hard thing to predict with accuracy, but a reasonable estimate is better than no attempt when thinking through your fee and timelines. Another approach is to charge by the hour; this has some advantages but in some circles it’s conventional to play flat rates adjusted to the size of the project. Don’t be afraid to talk details. How many revisions are included in a given price, for example?
What you want to avoid is underselling yourself. It’s a competitive market and there will always be pressure to cut your fee, seeking instead an expanded profile and network. It’s better, however, to take a long-term approach, built on good agreements that give you and the client time and latitude to create something excellent. Don’t be afraid to turn down a job that feels too big for the budget or deadline.
+ Read more on Flypaper: “5 Reasons You Don’t Want the Record Deal of Your Dreams.”
2. Skipping Mix Prep Day
Try to keep the creative and technical parts of the work separate. Chris Lord-Alge, the legendary rock producer, once recommended that the first thing to do upon getting the multitracks is to set them up properly. This should be done entirely before the “real” mixing starts.
It’s not merely labelling, color-coding, and fitting to a template (if you have one). It’s also a chance to listen through and diagnose any technical issues with the material. I think it’s usually worth checking the gain staging of each track to make sure my volume faders will relate to each other fairly consistently and logically, and I’ll be hitting the headroom I want. It’s also an opportunity to organize your session and the tracks themselves, into a logical workspace that reflects the music’s arrangement and creative intention. This can only make your decision-making easier.
This can be dull work but if you do it thoroughly, you’re going to get into the flow much more easily when mixing. Every technical issue resolved ahead of time is one less to interrupt you when you’re making musical choices.
3. Not Discussing and Setting Mix Goals
If an artist is making music and wants you to mix it, it’s almost certain that they have at least some strong preferences about mixing and audio presentation.
Take responsibility for finding out these preferences before work commences, and think about how you will approach them. It’s good to know the characteristics of a mix that the client thinks are non-negotiable, desired, neutral, etc. For example, does the client want it to sound vintage or modern? Do they love effects, very dry sounds, or something in between?
Not all artists are used to considering what they want specifically for their own music, other than a “good mix.” Among other things opening up the conversation helps them become aware of the role they play in identifying and reaching their own musical goals in a mix process.
Try to have in your head a sense of when mixes will be done: “when the vocal is present, and the band sounds thick and organic,” “when the low end of the beat is really big, and the rest sounds lush and atmospheric.” Any mix references from the artist you can get are almost always useful.
Don’t assume your default moves are right for every artist. As a general rule, I think it’s good to try and prioritize your client’s preferences over your own. You’ll push yourself to do new things, and while your name is going on the mix, they will have to stand by the decisions more than you.
4. Overdoing It
Strange to say, but one of the biggest issues with mixing is trying too much, too fast, and not checking in with the client.
Try to take breaks during the process to refresh your ears. If you find that you’re stacking on plugins but not increasing satisfaction with your own work, then that might be a good indication to both take a break, and consider if the music really needs the amount of processing you are throwing on it.
It’s a cliché, but experienced engineers will often talk about how the best work feels fast, and doesn’t require as many mix moves as it sounds like it had. Where you can, try to occupy this zone. If it’s late in the day and maybe you feel surrounded by problem frequencies and unbalanced dynamics, perhaps try revisiting the material tomorrow morning with fresh brain and fresh coffee. It will feel more like a piece of good music with a nice mix, than a difficult task you have been working on all day.
Not every client will be suited to this following approach, but generally it’s better to send mixes more often, and be unafraid to ask for their opinion about aspects of the mix that you are unsure about. Maybe they actually like the mix more than you do, which is good because now you know you’re closer than you thought. If you are way off on something, better to know sooner than build the mix around a choice that doesn’t suit the artist.
5. Thinking About Mastering in the Wrong Way
A recent client gave me references and instructions to replicate the highly compressed rock sound of the late ’90s and early ’00s, when the loudness war was peaking. The way this era’s mixes glued big kick drums to massive bass guitar lows, while awash with slashy, breathy cymbals and fuzzy rhythm guitars was the sound he wanted.
I knew that a significant part of that sound was in the mastering. We talked that through, agreed on a mastering engineer he would contact, and for the first couple of bounces I would send him my mix, plus a volume matched “B” mix with some heavy but quick-and-dirty limiting on it. This was to show the kind of thing we could ask the mastering engineer to do. But after the first couple of songs on the EP were done, he said he didn’t need the B mix anymore. The mastering engineer subsequently smashed it out of the park. The client was stoked, and had learned something to boot.
Here’s a handy piece of advice from pro audio engineer Joe Lambert. This video appears in Soundfly’s premium online course, Faders Up I: Modern Mix Techniques.
In light of this, I think it’s better to take the opportunity to educate the client about the different goals of mixing a song and mastering a song, and make the effort to demonstrate that in the process, than throw a fake mastering chain on your mixes that only the client hears. You don’t care about that chain, but your client is literally listening through it! Madness.
It’s also professional courtesy; if the client is intending to have the music mastered, they can only truly judge the quality of that engineer’s work if they’re familiar with how your work actually sounds.
6. Sleeping on Backups and Data Management.
Who is going to take responsibility for the files when the mix is finished? This is a boring part of the process — and annoying to do once you’re relieved to finish a big project — but it’s important.
Have a good file management and backup system yourself. Know how much space you have and realistically how long you can hold onto a client’s project. Since you can’t guarantee that you’ll always use or have the same plugins, think about what you’ll do to pull that mix up again if required. You’ll be kicking yourself if the song is in consideration for a big sync deal but you can’t make stems, because all your old plugins are greyed out or key audio is missing from the session folder.
To be really thorough, create three forms of backup:
- The DAW session folder with a working session file,
- Prints of stems/subgroups,
- And finally prints individual mix tracks.
This final version will be DAW-independent and future-proof as long as WAV files can be read. As a bonus, include a text file with tempos, time signatures and any other useful information for future work.
It’s time-consuming but many clients appreciate having the data accessible and available. OGG files provide a handy, convertible and lossless format for storing that is far more effective than WAV or AIFF. You will save many literal gigabytes of storage space.
Give these files to the client and encourage them to store them safely.
Don’t stop here!
Continue learning with hundreds of lessons on songwriting, mixing, recording and production, composing, beat making, and more on Soundfly, with artist-led courses by Kimbra, Com Truise, Jlin, Kiefer, and the new Ryan Lott: Designing Sample-Based Instruments.