Mixing is An Illusion
Big news! MIXERMAN Zen & the Art of Mixing 2021 is out and has already received a rave review by Larry Crane, Editor of TapeOP Magazine.
For those of you who enjoyed the original versions, this is the book you love with the relevance you require. For everyone else, this is my most popular work, to date.
The following section comes from Zen & the Art of Mixing 2021. Conceptually, none of the information in this excerpt has changed since I first wrote the book. But if you understand how to utilize the available space in a mix, you’ll have a far easier time mixing. The visualization exercise towards the end is the first step.
Mixing Is an Illusion
Much like a painter uses angles and shadowing to create the illusion of a three-dimensional image on a two-dimensional canvas, mixers and producers create the illusion of three-dimensional space from two speakers. When you add time into the equation—given that a production unfolds over the course of time—we’re actually operating within four dimensions.
In the greater context of the animal kingdom, hearing is not our most powerful sense. Even relative to our own senses, we rely most heavily on sight for processing external information about our surroundings. Given the awful choice between losing our eyesight or our hearing, the majority of us would most certainly choose to keep our eyesight. Perhaps some of you would choose hearing, but that would probably have something to do with your interest in mixing music.
Our senses are our way of processing information. While we receive unique information from each sense, it all breaks down to information. Whereas we as humans use our eyes to move about our surroundings and avoid running into obstacles, a bat uses its remarkable ability to process sound reflections for the same purpose. Dogs can “see” with their intense sense of smell, which is so exceptional that they can actually see backward in time.
Our brains are constantly and simultaneously processing external information, and each of our senses influences the others. If, for example, you hear an unfamiliar child screaming, you will likely choose to investigate further. Seeing this child smiling and laughing as she screams will change how you interpret the screams. Food that smells delicious but looks unappetizing will reduce your desire to eat it.
I always find it fascinating to hear TV theme songs on the radio. How our brains process music that’s normally synced to video can be quite a surprise the first time the two mediums are separated. I had this experience when I heard the original theme from Star Trek on the radio. Without the video, the mix sounded completely different to me. It was so odd to hear it in this manner that I actually had to internally debate whether it was indeed the Star Trek theme song, despite having heard it hundreds upon hundreds of times. The absence of visual context allowed me to hear things in the music that I’d never actually noticed before.
Visual stimulation affects how we hear. So much so that when I get toward the end of a mix, I turn down all the lights and shut off the computer monitor. If you don’t do this, try it. Believe me, you’ll hear your mix completely differently when you’re not being influenced by what’s on the screen. Reducing the amount of visual stimulation makes your hearing more acute—there’s no doubt about this.
Obviously, you can’t work the entire day with the lights down low and the screen dimmed. There are certain procedures that must be implemented using our eyes, particularly with DAWs. The analytical, left-brained attention to detail in mixing can only be attended to if we can see what we’re doing. It’s the right-brained, big-picture thinking that’s most effectively performed with minimal visual stimulation.
When you get really advanced at mixing and producing music, your hearing can become so acute that it manifests as sight, to the point that the senses become indistinguishable. It can take many years of working in music before one might experience that level of understanding. Fortunately, you don’t need to wait for years to see what you’re hearing. If you go to your control room and place yourself directly in the middle of the stereo field, you can experience this for yourself right now.
Turn off your computer monitor and lower the lights in your control room. Don’t make it pitch black. That can be just as distracting. Play a song that you consider to be a stellar mix. As you listen to the song, try and actually “visualize” where everything is coming from in the mix. Close your eyes if it helps. If you’re truly centered within the stereo image, you’ll notice some parts that come at you from the left, and some that come at you from the right. Some parts sound louder than others, and those parts will literally appear more forward and bigger than everything else. If the vocal is placed properly in the mix, you can actually picture it in your mind like a big head floating in the middle of the mix. Your low end will appear to come from below the speakers, rather than directly from them. Your top end will appear to come from the top portion of your speakers (level with the tweeters). If there’s a part with reverb and delay on it, that part will appear farther away. Parts that are completely dry will appear close to you, particularly if the part is louder relative to other parts in the mix.
When you conduct this experiment, your brain is translating what you hear into what you see. This is a powerful and important tool for mixing, particularly when you understand how to manipulate this visual representation from within the virtual dimensions of your mix.
Planes of Space
In a stereo image there are planes of space that we use to create a four-dimensional image (the fourth dimension being time). All in all, I’ve determined that there are five basic planes of space replicated by two speakers: panning—left to right; frequency—up to down; balance—front to back; reflectivity—far to near; and contrast (dynamics)—sparse to dense.
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Be sure to check out Musician’s Survival Guide to a Killer Record.