Mixing an album can be more challenging than working on songs individually — but it can also be the most satisfying achievement for an engineer.
In today’s age of downloads, streaming and randomised playlists, you’d be forgiven for questioning the relevance of the album format. But most artists I speak to still value it very highly, and the resurgence of vinyl as a listening format suggests that plenty of listeners still feel the same way. All of which is great, because I still regard producing albums as the pinnacle of what I do, and it gives me a huge amount of satisfaction. Happily, as I write this article, I’m about to embark on a lot of mixing work. Three albums’ worth, to be precise.
However, album production poses particular challenges for a mix engineer. It can be very difficult to estimate in advance how long it will take to mix any given song; sometimes I can knock out a good mix in a couple of hours, but sometimes, one I’d thought would be easy takes me two days to get right. That uncertainty is multiplied when you’re mixing an album of 10 or more tracks, and can make it quite daunting, even if you have plenty of mixing experience.
For me, producing an album always used to follow a similar pattern. I’d get completely engrossed in the first song or two, and invest a lot of emotional energy in getting them sounding as good as I could, often taking a few days to do so. I’d then send the results to the artist, hoping they’d agree with my ‘vision’. Fortunately, they usually did — but at that point it would dawn on me that I now had to deliver another nine or 10 songs to the same standard! Approaching each track in the same way as the first would usually demand way more of my time than the budget allowed.
So if, like me, you rely on this sort of work to pay the bills — and especially if production budgets are, let’s say, ‘modest’ — or if you’re working to deadlines dictated by release dates, or even if you’re just frustrated that your projects never seem to end… you need to figure out how to work efficiently, while still keeping the whole process enjoyable and motivating for yourself, and of course striving to deliver the best possible end result. I’ve thought about all this a great deal in recent years, as I continue to try to improve the way I work, and in this article I’ll explain some of my own approaches that I hope you’ll also find useful.
There are several things to think about before you even get started with the mixing, and much depends on what your role was in the earlier stages of the project. My own job often includes being both tracking and mix engineer. Sometimes I’m closely involved with production decisions, and often I just wear the hat of a critical engineer who offers opinions when necessary. But in none of these scenarios can I blame anyone but myself for any problems with the technical side of the...
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