The Psychology Of The Mix Engineer.

Learn about the mindset, workflow and thought processes of a top mix engineer.

Dom Morley
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22nd April 2020

I have heard many times in the world of studios that the psychological aspects of studio life can’t be taught.

You’ve either got ‘it’ or you haven’t. “You can teach anyone how to record a vocal, but you can’t teach them about vibe” – or something similar. Well, I disagree.

Here’s how to approach a mix from a psychological point of view.

Perspective

The biggest psychological challenge in mixing is to maintain perspective.

Have you ever got stuck into a mix and then after a few hours compared the mix to a reference track and realised that there’s no bass in your mix at all? Or your vocal is way too quiet? These things happen all the time, and it’s just a case of keeping your perspective in check.

Referencing commercial tracks is a great way to do this. You don’t need to go too far – you’re not trying to replicate anything – just take a widescreen view on the overall balance.

If you’re mixing for a client then you should have a playlist from them with a few tracks that have influenced them and that they want you to sonically aim for. Keep referring to these to make sure you’re in the ball park.

You’re not looking to copy, just to be able to stand up alongside them and sound like you should be there.

The Process

Take breaks.

While getting yourself into a ‘flow state’ can really push a mix on quickly, you do have to remember that without regular breaks you can find yourself having pushed for many hours in the wrong direction.

I find it very useful to get up and walk around. Leave the room or even leave the building if you can.

Just sitting in the same chair and hopping around social media is technically a break from mixing, but it’s not as effective as actually leaving the space that you’re working in.

It only needs to be a couple of minutes and then sit back in front of your mix and prepare to take notes…

Take notes.

On your first listen back after a break you hear your mix with fresh ears, but this perspective doesn’t last very long.

You know when you go on holiday and then come back to your house or apartment – you have about 30 minutes maximum where you walk around your home and see it as other people do.

That pile of stuff in the corner that you should have put away months ago. Why is that wall still not painted? My bathroom looks tragic. After about 30 minutes you don’t see those problems again until the next time you come home from a break.

Coming back to a mix after a break is a similar thing. That’s why I always make notes on that first listen – there are a few things that will come to me with this new perspective and they will be worth exploring. Within a couple of listens those fresh ears will be back to normal.

Take a friend.

This might sound odd, but if you can play your mix to a friend it can really help you hear it from a listener’s perspective.

Having an audience automatically makes you try to hear it from their point of view.

If this friend has an opinion that you trust then all the better, but you’re actually doing this for how it changes your perspective and not to gain theirs.

Clients

A quick word about clients.

Not all of you reading this will be regularly mixing for clients, at least not yet. For those who do though, here are a couple of things that are worth bearing in mind.

As a mixer you have come in right at the end of a potentially very long process. This music has been worked on for a very long time by the artist, and it’s possible that you’re the first ‘outsider’ to be involved creatively. Be respectful of this, and understand that this in itself can be stressful for the client.

Mixing is generally remote this days – you don’t spend the day with the client sat behind you in your studio, and often you never physically meet. This is no problem but it requires good communication.

Over-communicate.

Let your client know what’s happening and when it’s happening, of course, but also make sure you get as much information as possible on what they are looking for.

Ask for a playlist to give you an idea of how they want to sound, but also get detail on that. Ask why each song is on the playlist. Is it there because they like the vocal sound? Or the drum sound? Or the overall balance?

Be prepared to do revisions, for two reasons:

  1. You’re not psychic – you will make creative decisions that your clients don’t agree with, which is fine. They’ll like some things and not others, which is fine. Asking you to change something in a mix is not an insult, it’s fine.
  2. You’re not the boss. Your client is hiring you to mix their track. For today you work for them, so check your ego in at the door. If they want something changed, change it!

Final Thoughts

And as a final note – if you find yourself doing a lot of mixing for other people you’ll find yourself working on your own most of the time.

This level of solitude is not normal for humans and can drive you mad!

Try to integrate some actual (not virtual) human interaction into your working life and it’ll make for happier and more creative sessions.