Our mix guru shares his tips for keeping clients happy.
While it’s clearly important to discuss the processes and techniques of mixing, the task of managing a mixing project is often overlooked. Knowing your way around an EQ is obviously crucial to success, but if you don’t apply at least a little focus on project management then all your hard work can end up being for nothing. Here are some steps you can take to ensure a smooth mix process for you and your clients.
- Ask yourself if the project is a good musical fit for you. It’s very tempting to take any offer that comes your way, but the reputational damage of doing a bad job isn’t worth it. Remember, your reputation is all you have: it’s the currency that you use to get more work. If you don’t know any of the references that a prospective client mentions, you’re probably the wrong person for the job. Turn it down or, better still, recommend a friend who you think would be a good fit. This is a double win: your reputation as a pro is enhanced, and now your mate owes you a favour!
- Discuss your client’s influences. You need to be clear what you’re aiming for sonically. I recommend asking for a playlist of around 10 tracks which point you in the right direction (someone once sent me over 300 songs to reference... Quite a wide palette to choose from!). Ask for an accompanying email as well, with just a sentence on why each track is on the list, explaining what they like about it. This is a lesson from bitter experience: the time I worked hard to match the drum sound on one of the reference tracks, only to discover that the client hated that drum sound but loved the vocal reverb on it!
- Don’t assume. Just because you know your client’s previous releases, that doesn’t mean you know what they are looking for this time. Artists change and evolve, and as their mix engineer you need to help them along that journey as much as you can.
- Ask to hear the last rough mix. This is the final mix that the client bounced for themselves when they came to the end of the recording process. It gives you a good idea of where things should be, and which elements should be in focus in the track. There are two schools of thought on how to use the rough mix though. One school says that it’s a quick reference, relative levels are not to be taken too literally, and the client probably came to you because they like your sound — so go with your own interpretation. The other school of thought tries to start as close to the rough mix as possible, and then improves it from there (‘match and improve’). The client’s rough balance is the core of the mix in this second method. I know Big Name Mix Engineers who use both methods, so there is no right or wrong here. Personally, I’m pretty flexible depending on what I’m given as a rough mix. If it’s very detailed and sounds like a lot of time has been spent on it, then I’ll adopt the second approach and aim to ‘match and improve’. If it sounds like it was probably a quick bounce at the end of the day, then I’ll assume it’s to be taken as a loose reference and move ahead with a bit more autonomy and creativity. But be prepared for…
- Revisions. I know some people find the process of working with revisions challenging. I’m not sure why that it is, to be honest. If you are mixing a track then you’ll make dozens of creative decisions which you hope will fit in with a client’s vision, but ultimately may not. There’s only so much detail you can extract from conversations and playlists, and at some point, you just have to go for it and see how close to the target you land. If a client asks for a few changes to a mix, then all that means is that you’re not psychic. It doesn’t mean what you did was bad. Keep this in mind.
Don’t assume that just because you know your clients’ previous releases, you know what they are looking for this time.
It’s also worth remembering that while someone is paying you to work on their track, they’re The Boss for the day, so if they want something changed then get stuck in! If you don’t agree with the changes then talk about it — the odds are that it’s a communication issue and you’re not yet clear on what it is that they want. The process of interpreting your client’s notes into sonic changes is part of the skill of a sound engineer, so embrace the opportunity to become a better engineer with each revision! The double win with revisions is that not only will you have a happy client who wants to bring you more mixes, but because you now understand each other a little better, your psychic powers will be less called upon in the next session.
- Have a set rate or price per mix. This way you’re not thinking about pricing for each project, you can just concentrate on the work in hand. It also helps when people are talking about working with you to their friends (which hopefully they are). I’m not going to deny that flexibility is useful too, but it needs to be used cautiously.
If, for example, someone has a smaller budget but several tracks that they want you to mix, then perhaps a ‘bulk discount’ might make sense in this situation as not only are they bringing you a few tracks and so keeping your flow of work steady, but it’s also a little easier to mix four tracks from the same project than four tracks from different artists/producers. On the other hand, if you say your price is A, and someone offers you B (a lower amount) and you simply accept it, then this client will tell their friends that you were great to work with (hopefully!) and that you charge B per track. B is now your rate, not A anymore. Be prepared to stick to your guns, because it’s important to…
- Get paid. As a wise man once said, “Love is the reason, money is the way.” If you’re not getting paid to do the work you love, then you quickly have to stop doing it and find other work that pays your bills. A simple way to structure payment for mixing is 50 percent up front and 50 percent upon completion. A lot of mixers use a limiter across the final mix bus that is removed before the track is sent to mastering. Clients know that the references that are sent to them during the revisions process have this limiter on so can’t be used for mastering. When everyone is happy the second 50 percent is paid, and then a mix without the limiter is sent to the mastering engineer.
At the end of the day, you want to concentrate on the actual job of delivering a great mix. Putting some of the practices described above into place will help you to focus on your work, as well as giving your clients confidence in your professionalism and desire to get the best possible result for them. That’s another double win.
Dom Morley is a Grammy‑winning producer and mixer and the founder of The Mix Consultancy, a service offering help and advice to anyone who wants to improve their mixing skills.