Nailing the right mix for your music takes skills, gear and discriminating ears

 You’ve penned the perfect songs, recorded flawless tracks, and you’re well on your way to creating a masterpiece. But what about the mix? Snagging that ideal sonic blend can be tricky business, and the stakes are high. The right mix can mean the difference between fulfilling your dreams of revealing your musical brilliance to the world—or not.

For many musicians and songwriters, the prospect of managing a pro-caliber mix can be as daunting as piloting a jetfighter in a dogfight. Selecting the right software and gear—and more important, knowing how to use them—can make or break the project. And there’s much to know, from tweaking EQs and managing compression to finding the right workflow. But crafting the perfect mix doesn’t require advanced degrees—just commitment, practice and advice from the pros.

We turned to two veteran mixing engineers for guidance, Leslie Brathwaite and Ben Wisch. Brathwaite has worked with a range of artists including Beyoncé, Ludacris, Akon, Pharrell Williams and Erykah Badu. Wisch’s resume includes projects by such artists as Marc Cohn, Ricardo Arjona, Tony Carey and Patty Larkin.

How do you approach mixing?

BRATHWAITE: I always approach every mix the same way. I start with the vocals—they’re the most important element in any song. Then I move on to the drums. I mix a lot of urban music, but even with gospel—when I was working with BeBe and CeCe Winans—I approached it the same way. Next I figure out how the bass will work with the kick drum. That’s a very important relationship in the mix.

WISCH: I used to be very systematic about my approach—start with the bass drum, bass, and move on from there. I don’t have a set way that I approach mixing anymore. Sometimes I do very little, but other times I have to change quite a bit. It helps that I’m an arranger. A lot of times I end up moving parts around. It’s a fun puzzle to put together.

Are you affected by a rough mix?

BRATHWAITE: An artist may have been listening to that rough mix in their car for a year. It could sound terrible—but they like it. So my job is to figure out how to make it sonically correct without destroying the artist’s vibe.

WISCH: A lot of people want to send a rough mix so I can hear what’s going on. I prefer to come into it completely fresh with a clean slate, so that when I sit down at the mixing board I can pick out the prime elements of the tune—piano, guitar or whatever—and bring those out. It’s all about creating a piece of art.

What’s vital in dealing with vocals?

WISCH: I don’t have racks and racks of gear. I use a Tube-Tech CL 1B for vocal compression and API EQs. These days I use the EQs in my board, but even back in the ’90s when I was mixing Marc Cohn, I used an SSL board with outboard API EQs. I fell in love with those EQs back then, and 20 years later I’m still using them.

BRATHWAITE: My main focus with vocals is to clean it up. I take my time and treat every vocal track individually. It’s not about putting this effect on it or using that plug-in and compressing it. It’s about paying attention to detail. How does this artist say her S’s? Are certain frequencies too harsh? Do the levels match? I go through it and make sure everything sounds right.

How do you deal with dense mixes?

BRATHWAITE: When somebody brings me a song with a million tracks and vocals everywhere, it’s often easy to mix. To create a song where you have all of these tracks working together, you need a rough mix going, and it has to have some sort of vibe to it. And because there is so much going on, there has to be room for everything. When a song is too sparse, you hear every single mistake.

How has mixing evolved?

BRATHWAITE: If I wanted to fly a hook and copy it down in the song, it would have taken me 45 minutes in the ’90s. Moving a bridge might have taken two hours. Now it takes 10 seconds. There are two sides to the coin. It wasn’t better the old way, but it gave me a different understanding about how things worked, and it made me patient to pay attention to detail.

WISCH: There was a lot of finesse involved with getting a full-sounding mix to translate in the old days. It wasn’t like today, where you can pump things through a peak limiter and have it do all of the work for you. It really forced you to get it right. But I embrace technology that makes things easier—it makes you more efficient, and you can spend more time being creative.

What are labels looking for?

BRATHWAITE: Labels are easy to please. They’re always chasing the current hit, whatever’s hot at the moment. It actually makes my job easy. Last week I was in the process of mixing a record with Nelly, Akon and Pitbull, and the A&R exec at the label called to tell me to think about some
Flo Rida song. I bought the song and used it as a reference track in my mix. That’s the thing about labels, they always give you a cheat sheet.

What are common mistakes?

BRATHWAITE: A lot of the artists I’ve worked with, like Mary J. Blige, Rihanna, Beyoncé and Cher, hate it when you destroy their vibe. It’s the biggest rookie mistake lots of younger engineers make. They get a song to mix, and they drop all the faders and delete all of the plug-ins and start over from scratch. Do that, and you’ve cut out any input the artist had on the final mix. The important thing is to focus less on what you want and more on what the artist wants.

WISCH: Overdoing compression, equalization, and how much time you spend on things. Mixing is an art form, not a science. It requires the ability to not only be intellectually invested but emotionally invested. Listening comes from both the ears in your head and the ears in your heart. You have to be multifaceted in the way you hear things.

When do you know that a mix is done?

WISCH: The truth is, it’s never really done. You put it away, and when you come back to it, there’s probably something you’ll want to change. At a certain point, though, there’s nothing standing out, nothing gnawing at you telling you that you need to change this or fix that.

BRATHWAITE: You can unmix a song as much as you’ve mixed it, so I have a checklist. A) Did I preserve the vibe? B) Did I make it sound better? C) Did I clean up the mistakes? D) Can I turn the volume all the way down and still hear everything in the mix? When I’ve achieved that, I walk away.

—Phil Selman


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