Mixing for the Forest (Not the Trees)

engineer in studio

engineer in studio

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We’ve all heard the old adage: “can’t see the forest for the trees,” reminding us to not become so engrossed in every little detail of something that we lose sight of the overall picture. This bit of wisdom also applies when we are mixing tracks, as well. Often we become so entangled in all the specific settings for each track in our mix that we forget our ultimate goal is to mix a song.

There are, of course, many different ways to mix a song and an infinite number of strategies people use. (You can dig into some of those strategies in Soundfly’s online course series, Faders Up I: Modern Mix Techniques and Faders Up II: Advanced Mix Techniques.) It’s always an excellent idea to turn to experienced professionals for insights and advice on how to get the best sound from your mixes.

The danger lies in focusing so tightly on the minutiae of specific details that you ruin a mix through excessive attention to those details, at the expense of the overall blend and balance of a musical piece. Just as you you want  We can think of seeing the big picture the same as hearing the big sound.

Let’s consider one example.

I’ve heard from a number of people over the years that they learned it’s good practice to set your rhythm guitar levels to match the volume of the snare drum. In general, this seems like good advice. Both instruments help carry the rhythm of the song, and can play off each other with different strum/beat timings in interesting ways if they have equal presence in the mix.

But, does that mean that we should always set a rhythm guitar and snare drum to the same level in every song? Shouldn’t consideration first be given to their relation to all the instruments in the song, the genre of the song, and the feeling intended?

Perhaps we have a song that is meant to be very guitar heavy, and any percussion in it is simply as a background element keeping time. Or maybe we have a large number of rhythm instruments, and guitar is just one of them, so setting the guitar at the level of the snare could possibly drown out those other instruments.

In other words, an excellent recommendation only serves us well after we’ve first considered its usefulness in the context of the whole song.

Another example is how we EQ vocals in a mix.

Many audio engineers, even those of us who are very experienced, have our favorite EQ presets for different vocals. We’ve painstakingly fine-tuned these presets over many years so that we have a selection of settings that best compliment the different applications where we use them. They’re in our toolbox of tricks that we turn to every time. Even so, we would all tell you that we almost never use them exactly as-is.

Every voice, every situation, has its own special requirements that guide some adjustments to those “perfected” EQ presets. But, those tweaks are always made with the full song sound in mind, rather than the specific voice in mind. After all, an EQ setting that fine-tunes a voice to sound beautifully defined and melodic by itself may not give us the right balance of sound to blend properly with the other voices and instruments present in the song.

That definition and melody could appear grating and harsh, or dull and lost, when placed together with every other track in the mix.

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So how do you avoid getting “lost in the trees” when mixing?

One helpful tip is to say to yourself every time you make any detailed adjustment to one track in a mix that your goal is not to make it perfect, but simply make it a little better than it was before the adjustment. This can help you stop yourself before you go too far down the rabbit hole of fine-tuning a sound. Then, once you’ve made the track a little better, you check how it sounds within the entire mix.

If you haven’t yet completed making adjustments to the other tracks within the song, use the same trick with each of them as well — adjust them until they sound better than they were before, but don’t try to perfect them. When you hear the song all together, sit back and imagine you are the listener this song is intended for, not the hyper-critical audio engineer or perfectionist composer.

How will they perceive it? Is anything missing or standing out too much? If so, pick the appropriate elements and go back and repeat the process, using expert advice to help guide you on how to make the necessary adjustments to get the sound you’re wanting to hear. But, every time you make those adjustments to a single track, follow this same process again.

Little by little, those individual details will give way to a balanced and blended whole picture.

In summation, remember that as critical as it may seem to a caretaker in the woods to ensure every single tree looks perfect, if your goal is to create a beautiful forest then that should be your primary concern above and beyond any desire to perfect all the individual trees.

In the same way, if you give reasonable attention to the details within your mix, but always with an ear to how those details enhance the overall combined full sound of your song, you’re sure to produce the best music in the end.

Don’t stop here!

Continue learning with hundreds more lessons on mixing, home recording, electronic production, beat making, and so much more, with Soundfly’s in-depth online courses, like Modern Pop Vocal ProductionAdvanced Synths & Patch Designand Faders Up: Modern Mix Techniques (to name a few).

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