Mixing as a Performance; Music as an Experience

I’m old enough to have tried to mix a sixteen track tape down to stereo, without mixing desk automation, having abused the tracks on my multi-track tape to cram more than sixteen instruments into my song, by the simple expedient of recording different instruments, end-to-end, whenever there was a change of instruments or convenient section of silence, in any instrumental part of my song.  So long as I never had more than sixteen instruments (or voices) sounding at once, I found I could get up to three different instruments on a single, longitudinal track.  All I had to do was make sure that as any new instrument timbre was needed, another could be discarded.

Amazingly, this worked.  I also did more than my fair share of bouncing down multiple tracks to a single stereo mix, straight back onto the multi-track tape.  Essentially, I created myself a mix that owed more to the design of a labyrinth than to an orderly recording project.  These were the days when tracks were scarce, money was tight and ambitions were huge.

That might sound relatively straight forward to some people, until you realise that different instruments recorded to the same track, end-to-end, require different equalisation settings, different compression and gating and different reverb wetness.  Besides having to continually rebalance everything against all the other instruments sounding, during each section of my song, I also had one track that had been recorded slightly flat of concert pitch, so I had to apply some judicious Eventide H949 pitch correction, whenever that instrument was audible.  Needless to say, I made extensive use of auxiliary sends and returns, to drive any outboard signal processing equipment, like the EMT plate reverb, the UREI compressor, the Eventide Harmoniser or the Valley People Dynamites.

How did I achieve this without automation?  Well, in those days you could mark knob and fader positions with Chinagraph pencils, directly on the console’s metalwork.  These things are also known as grease pencils.  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grease_pencil  You can write on just about anything metallic, with them and with some effort, erase the marks when you’re done.  Unfortunately, they’re not very sharp, so all you could do is make a mark approximately where the fader or knob should be and write “V1” or “Ch1” next to each mark, so that you knew when, during the playback of your song, the control had to be at that position.  The trick was always to move the knobs while the track was silent.

In the end, to make the mix work, in real time, while recording to quarter inch mastering tape, you had to move a series of knobs and faders at exactly the right time, to the marks you had previously made in Chinagraph pencil, before the track concerned made an audible noise.  There was more adjustment than a single person could physically do, in the three and a half minutes of my song.  Consequently, I, the producer/engineer and my band mates were each assigned some small subset of controls to get right, just in time, or the mix would be ruined and we’d have to start all over again.  This was “all hands on desk” automation.

Mixing the song became a performance.  Each person had to play their part in getting the right controls to the right places, by the right point in the song.  It really was something similar to synchronised swimming.  Compared to the performance co-ordination required to make a good mix, using this jury-rigged method, playing together in a band, as musicians, was child’s play.  You had to have the memory, focus and reflexes of a fighter pilot to pull this “mix as performance” off.

The funny thing was that you could hear the danger in the mix.  It was such an on-edge process, that everybody sneaked little tweaks in, beyond just moving the controls to the pre-assigned Chinagraph marks.  I’m sure you could hear our hands shaking as we moved the controls.  Having spent several hours working out where all the marks should have been, each person playing their own subset of controls tweaked around the mark, as the track played, according to what their ears were telling them.  You can hear these subtleties in the mix (which was finally achieved after many previous abortive attempts at mixing the track).  What we got was something not quite as polished as you could achieve today, with computer automated mixing, but we got a mix that was undoubtedly emotionally charged, which sounded edgy and right on the boundaries of possibility.  It was a very energising, if nerve wracking, way to create music.

Whenever I am mixing in the box, these days, using all the computer technology I have available to me, I sometimes remember those hairy, seat-of-the-pants, mix performances and I try to inject an element of what we had to do, just to succeed, into my modern works, even though I have no necessity to do so, given all the automation I have.  I try to recreate that sense of danger, with things being nearly, but not quite, set the way they should have been and with automation simulating the manual tweaks we did to balance the instruments on the fly, as we were committing them to the master.  It’s the nearest thing to aerobatics you can experience, in a recording studio.

To perform your part, in the mix, back in those days, you had to close your eyes and really listen.  I mean really listen.  Hard.  You had to do that to get the sound just right, after you had approximated your settings by grease pencil marks alone, initially.  However, while doing that, you also had to remember when to open your eyes again, to preset your controls for the next section of music about to come up.  It took a lot of dexterity and mental agility.

I can hear some of you saying how stupid it was to mix that way, how suboptimal it must have been and how ridiculous it is to try to recreate some of that chaos and imperfection today, but I am here to tell you that a lot of music can really benefit from putting it all out there, hanging over the very edge of the precipice and trying to pull something off that is seemingly impossible.  While your mix won’t be technically perfect, your track will benefit from the subtleties.  Perfecting everything makes for very safe and homogenised-sounding music.  Putting in a few accidental, small errors in is enough to break the monotony, but they have to be convincing errors, even as you contrive them.  Given how much more sensitive our ears are, compared to our eyes, it is not surprising that small differences in mixing settings can make a large impact, even if you aren’t consciously aware of them.  There’s art in risk.

They talk about “skin orgasms”, today.  http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20150721-when-was-the-last-time-music-gave-you-a-skin-orgasm   This is the frisson or thrill you get, that little shudder, when a piece of music really reaches you, viscerally.  People that have researched why music has this very observable effect on people have noted that elements such as musical modulation (i.e. changing key signatures), tempo changes (even small ones), musical surprises, changes in pitch or tuning (so that notes are not quite in perfect pitch) and subtleties introduced during mixing, as you ride the controls to zero them in on the sweet spot, as the music plays, are causal factors in skin orgasms.

Also important are emotionally charged performances and uninhibited delivery.  The more you feel you can lean on technology to “fix it in the mix”, the more comfortable you can be, as a musician, taking wild, abandoned risks with your playing, which if they succeed, sound utterly brilliant, authentic and convincing.  If they fail, well, you can always edit the mistakes out, pitch correct them or time align them.  Computers let you do that, these days.  Most of the time, though, you are far better off leaving the smaller mistakes alone, allowing them to stay right where they are, uncorrected.  They add humanity and humility to the music.

For the longest time, those that sell music to the masses have insisted that what people want is a private listening experience, which is convenient, solitary and disposable.  They pushed their technologies at us to prevent us from engaging in the ceremony of really listening to a new music release, over quality speakers, with friends.  Instead, we’re supposed to listen to degraded recordings of music, on shuffle, via ear buds, while doing something else.  It saddens me that a whole generation of music lovers have never heard their favourite music played over a decent set of speakers.  No, we’re supposed to value convenience and cheapness over quality.  That’s the theory, anyway, but what’s the reality?

The reality is that people have flocked back to vinyl formats and to Electronic Dance Music.  Why?  Because it’s communal and there is a respectful ceremony around the listening experience.  You hear music moving the air and the hairs on your arm.  With the quality of modern, live sound systems, you can think of fans of electronic dance music as people that listen to music as an experience – it’s an all encompassing and enveloping, loud, clear, visceral, audio show, accompanied by lights and sights.  In fact, it’s a fully immersive experience.  People actually do like to experience their music, rather than listen to it, or disregard it as mere sonic wallpaper.

I think that the future of music is to stop worrying about the perfection of the audio format, or the quality of the converters, and focus, instead, on the art of the music.  Mixes should be performances.  Musicians that record should be uninhibited in their delivery, when laying down tracks.  You should assemble the music so that it retains its freshness and vibrancy, preserving its ability to cause skin orgasms.  Don’t get hung up on small imperfections.  Nobody cares.  What they care about is whether or not the music really reaches and moves them.

When it comes to music distribution, the future lies in enhancing how people experience your music.  The iTunes and Streaming route is sterile.  Music exclusively targeted at those channels is still born.  Work out ways to make the delivery of your music, to your appreciative fans, something of an event, which can be shared, with superb sound, brilliant visuals and a communal, almost tribal feel to the whole ceremony of presenting that music.  People are still excited by exciting music.  It’s the job of musicians and record producers to deliver that excitement, rather than dilute it, cleanse it, expunge it from the record or correct the hell out of it, in the pursuit of clinical, bombastic, artificial perfection.  Make music that spreads love.  Present music that people love to experience together.

That’s enough reminiscing and ranting for one evening.  Just go back to your studios and rethink how you make, present and deliver your music.  The demand is there.


About tropicaltheartist

You can find out more about me here: https://michaeltopic.wordpress.com/. There aren’t many people that exist in that conjunction of art, design, science and engineering, but this is where I live. I am an artist, a musician, a designer, a creator, a scientist, a technologist, an innovator and an engineer and I have a genuine, deep passion for each field. Most importantly, I am able to see the connections and similarities between each field of intellectual endeavour and apply the lessons I learn in one discipline to my other disciplines. To me, they are all part of the same continuum of creativity. I write about what I know, through my blogs, in the hope that something I write will resonate with a reader and help them enjoy their own creative life more fully. I am, in summary, a highly creative individual, but with the ability to get things done efficiently. Not all of these skills are valued by the world at large, but I am who I am and this is me. The opinions stated here are my own and not necessarily the opinion or position of my employer.
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