But that hardly changes the fact of a deadline: it's there, looming around the corner, and I don't like making the client wait just because I'm locked in an existential dilemma. So through the years, I've developed a grab-bag of techniques to obtain myself over the hump. Some of these are practical, and others are far more psychological. I am hoping they can be of some help.
1. Immediately Stop What You Are DoingWhen you're sitting is likely to flop sweat, squinting your eyes at the DAW, feeling a little queasy, and hating everything coming out of your speakers, your first move ought to be hitting the save button. Your next move is to walk away.
You would be doing harm, now, to go forward. It doesn't matter once the deadline is, you're now in the spot of diminishing returns. Don't fight your limitations here, instead go with the flow and stop making decisions.
If that you do not follow this advice, you might find yourself making things far worse under the stress of lost perceptions; over and over again “my day after” began with a prolonged search through session backups until I discovered a file approximating where I'd been before succumbing to temporary mix insanity. Don't fall into that trap: when you're up against a deadline, that's another time drain you can't afford.
Have a break and go outside
When you've reached your boiling point, a great silent break here goes an extended way. I would recommend a walk outside, if your home is in a place that may accommodate a stroll. See, we engineers hunker down all day, forgetting what this means to be always a part of the world. A taste of outdoors may do wonders, stretching the legs, having the blood moving and so on. Don't plug in earbuds and stay away from noisy areas. Some quietude I desired.
In my own practice, I locate a good long walk has a nearly calibrating influence on my ears in addition to my body. I begin to know everything around me with clarity that I didn't notice from the speakers even five minutes prior. If I'm focusing on a post-production project, I often find myself tracking the panning of a moving car behind me, contemplating how I'd create the result with a route strip and some plug-ins. This gets me excited, helping to make me feel ready to work—even inspired to complete so.
Yes, it's a bit of psychological trickery, but as you'll see with a number of our more heady suggestions, psychological trickery can be the very best defense against blown deadlines.
2. Listen in an alternative space with a notepad at handAfter you decide to take a break, bounce the mix right where it is. After your break is complete, try playing the mix in an alternative venue
I prefer a respected pair of headphones as I walk around my apartment, but an alternative set of monitors, or possibly a different mix position, can work. Have a notepad or electronic equivalent at hand and write down everything that you do not like about a mix.
Here’s a list of what one of my most recent note-taking sessions looked like:
- Find a different vox comp for second chorus
- Build space around opening drums
- Build vox up more for chorus
- Fix boomy bass in second verse
- Harmony vocals in second verse too bright
- Tom fills in second verse sound too tinny
After this exercise, you’ll have find you’ll have the basis of an actionable plan. Even if your notes are as general as “everything is too brittle in the pre-chorus,” that gives you a place to start working out which elements are too brittle.
3. Always work with fresh earsAfter a good break, sit down in your usual mix position and play a level-matched reference track before returning to your mix. Listen to only ten to fifteen seconds of the reference’s climax. Then immediately check the climax of your own work.
This should help you discern exactly what isn’t working in comparison to the commercial mix. With a notepad in hand, you’ll be fit to jot down some ideas of what to fix.
I find this technique refocuses my brain and gives me the courage to implement bold moves, like cutting some element I truly like (but isn’t working), or boosting a frequency beyond the boundaries of good taste (say a high-shelf I wouldn’t dreamed of on my own, but in comparison to the reference, seems appropriate).
4. Just listen to awful musicWhen I’m not sure I’m at my breaking point, I use this technique to judge whether it’s time to take a quit for a moment: I listen to music I don’t like, or a mix I believe to be inferior. This just might give me a confidence boost — a simple, “well at least my mix doesn’t sound like that!” shot-in-the-arm.
However, if I’m listening to an odious mix and find myself muttering it still sounds better than my own, I know for certain it’s time to take a pause.
5. Remove everything from master busSome engineers like to work with a panoply of plugs on their master fader. If that’s you, than pay good heed: when coming back to a frustrating mix, try taking everything off the stereo bus — every compressor, equalizer, tape saturator, and harmonic distortion generator. Switch it off and see what happens. You might find the mix instantly feels more dynamic, alive, wide, and expansive.
Quite often, seductive sounds can become grating over time; when we return with fresh ears, they’re not as seductive. Sure, bypassing your master bus’ processing may mess with the punch a compressor adds, or reveal a bunch of low-mid bloat, but at the same time, you’ll hear the sound of the tracks working together in a different manner — one which refocuses your perspective.
This may serve to give you a hint as to what’s working and what’s not. You may find yourself with a new angle on why that kick isn’t sitting right, or why the backup vocals are taking up too much pace. Thus recalibrated, you can begin to attack the problems anew.
By all means, put your plug-ins back on—but you could not want to. And you could wish to accomplish so more conservatively. Either way, you'll have a better feel for the balance.
6. Bypass every track with an increase of than three effect plug-insLots of times we could blur up individual tracks with an increase of processing than need be. When I've noted I don't like an oral, guitar, and other element, my first move is to check how many plug-ins I've got stacked upon it.
Is it significantly more than three? If it's a module-based plug, am I running all of the modules at the same time? That's my first indicator that I would be doing too much. So I bypass everything and listen, instantiating one plug-in or module after another until I could identify as soon as all of it goes wrong.
Think of this as troubleshooting your mix elements.
7. Look for elements in groupsAfter I've made notes of what works and doesn't, I prefer to work with sets of instruments rather the whole mix. So, if I am aware there exists a trouble with bass and kick-drum interaction, I would solo the drums and bass, and once that's attended to, I would solo the bass and all of the remaining portion of the musical elements. Here, the vocal will be muted, just for now. By this time in the mix, I've already got a feel for its innate qualities, and how they will jive against other areas of the arrangement.
I find this method gives me lots of the benefits of soloing an instrument—hearing it in up close and whatnot—but with no drawbacks, namely losing perspective on the remaining portion of the mix. Plus, if you're working on an element in your harmonic instruments, and all of it falls apart once the drums come in, that informs you where your following problem lies. In these critical phases of a mix, I like to consider the work before me like
8. Create a playlist, drop the mix in randomly, and do your dishesThis psychological tip was suggested in my experience many years ago by a colleague, and I have to state this works wonders. When I'm no longer sure if I like the mix, I quickly bounce what I have and drop it right into a playlist. Then, I take a break, so that my ears are cleared. Next, I check out the kitchen to accomplish dishes, because there are always dishes.
While distracting myself, I play the playlist through my clock-radio or earbuds, set to random, and make an effort to forget my mix is in there. When it happens, yes, I'll always know it's my mix, nevertheless the context of so many reference tracks — heard while concentrating on an alternative, mundane task — changes how I listen. It allows me to pull right out of the narrow focus of mixing an hear greater picture.
You don't have to clean dishes while achieving this, of course. Almost any busy work will do.
9. Find an audio engineering mentorFriend and fellow contributor Phil Nichols would not inform you this, because he's quite modest, but he actually used to instruct audio engineering at a respected recording conservatory before moving to New York City. Over the full time I've known him, I've arrived at trust his ears as a second opinion when I'm really at the far end of the telescope.
So at some point in a problematic mix, I'll usually shoot it over to him for feedback; it's always constructive, helpful, and encouraging. Find your own instructor of audio engineering—anyone need not be a professor or teacher, but someone whose ears you trust. The person ought to be kind and honest, not a person who makes you're feeling bad, but encourages you to accomplish better.
FinallyHere's a doozy for you: don't doubt yourself because you doubt yourself.
You may want to evince confidence in this game, sure, but don't let private moments of self doubt keep you from moving forward in your career; it's all too easy for that to take place, and it will you no good.
I'm hoping that sharing these tips will help you out of that mire, like they continue to greatly help me — but more importantly, it's my try to convince you that the mire isn't a negative spot to inhabit in the first place: from these doubtful plateaus, we often achieve greater heights as engineers.