I`ve worked for a long time on my songs that I`m about to release — two years. Only me, a few drum gurus, and my family have heard anything I`ve been working on. Pretty much I`ve holed myself up in my personal studio perfecting my sound. I wrote literally dozens and dozens of songs narrowing them down to just the best of the best of the best. Seriously, if someone doesn`t like what I`ve done on my upcoming 7-song EP, `1234567`, then they probably just don`t like my take on music. Period. And that`s okay. At least I know that at this juncture in my musical life, it`s the absolute picture perfect spot where I should be. It`s the best of me. And… at the end of the day, I hope people get that I`m going for a unique sound. For better or worse.
But I digress. I had researched studio equipment; purchased most of it second hand off eBay and Amazon; learned how to use the gear; wrote and recorded a bunch of songs — over the course of about a year. By the end of 2011 with all my raw sounds, I was ready for mix down. Believe me, I had toyed with the idea that I would mix the tunes myself. I mean, if Justin Vernon of Bon Iver could do it. And if Mark Foster of Foster the People could write/record/mix a hit song like `Pumped Up Kicks,` then certainly so could I; right? I`m not saying I`m more talented then any of those guys, but as talented… who knows? We`ll see. So I worked and worked on doing mixes myself. And I got better and better at it. I was of course mixing everything in the box. Meaning, it`s all done within the software realm. No outboard mixing console. No cool analog this or that. Here is a list of my gear, which is not too shabby, but certainly not a real mix down studio…
Then I hit a brick wall. I realized that the problem is not with the gear or the software limitations. The problem is me. Without delaying the release of my EP for another 15 to 20 years — just enough time to start to learn the art & craft of mixing — I was never going to be able to mix one of my songs to a suitably high enough degree to be satisfied with. That`s when I went on a search for a pro mixer.
I had heard of Lee Bridges from hearing his work on the Phil Wickham `Canons` record and quite honestly, I fell in love with the depth and breadth of his mixes. Then a friend of mine used Lee on a mix of his own and I was blown away by the results. Lee has mixed a ton of extremely well known Christian bands. Namely, MercyMe, Paul Baloche, Tenth Avenue North, Bebo Norman, Third Day, Newsboys. But that`s not necessarily a good thing. Yes, I`m a Christian, of course, and those bands and artists are superb at what they do. But I`m not interested in sounding Christian. (Perhaps fodder for another post is the subject of why Christian music tends to sound so safe, so samey, vanilla and — Lord, forgive me for saying this — boring.) It`s not Lee Bridges` fault, by the way.
Anyway, I digress again.
So when it came time to select my mixer, I discussed my project with Lee and he seemed a good fit for the way I work. I would give him one song at a time, he`d do the first mix, I`d listen and request tweaks as necessary until the song was perfect. And that`s exactly how things went except for one small detail…
My songs had never left my precious sight before. They had never been outside of my control even for a second. So to have them all of a sudden be in the hands and scrutiny of someone else was uncomfortable and scary. It`s like someone else driving your car. It just feels weird. I learned several valuable lessons along the way. Here are a few, in no particular order:
1. A song is not ready to be mixed until it`s ready to be mixed.
The basic feel of a song has to already be there in the basic tracks otherwise it`s simply not going to be there when it`s mixed either. I sent Lee one song that I, in my inexperience, thought he could sprinkle some fairy dust upon to make it come alive. Boy was I wrong. Mix after mix came back which were disappointing to say the least. It wasn`t Lee`s fault. It was mine. I had sent him a song that I thought was ready, but wasn`t. In the end, the solution was to merely redo all of the drums. That`s all. No big deal. Not! Tip No. 1 – make sure the song is really in the can before handing off to be mixed.
2. Never make snap judgments on a mix.
My first reaction to hearing a new mix for the first time is to be so stoked on how it makes me feel that I immediately want to tell the world how great it is. Barely having finished listening to the song, I`d be emailing Lee telling him he`s a genius and a saint. And I can`t believe he hasn`t won a Grammy already for my song. I`d hit send on the email while the song would repeat and then all of a sudden, I`d be thinking, Well, I do love that part, but this part over here needs a little work. And I guess maybe I jumped the gun on saying how awesome that part was. Maybe I`ll have him change this or that. So by the end of listen number two, I end up feeling guilty about thinking about all the changes I want to make right after telling him how spectacular the mix was.
Tip No. 2 – never provide feedback on a mix until at least 24 hours and a ton of listens. Don`t put your foot in your mouth like I did on several occasions. (Lee, of course, was a patient professional so all my back and forth issues got resolved eventually. He suggested I take a few extra days here and there to be sure of changes I was asking for. Most times he was absolutely right. My ears just had to adjust to the new normal of the mixes.)
3. Organization and specificity are the keys to getting what you want.
I rightly assumed that the more organized I was in delivering my raw tracks to Lee the easier it would be for him to quickly accomplish a great mix. Instead of handing him wav stems that had names like 01-acoustic 12142001.wav or noise-duplicate-fuzz-bender-raw2.wav, I carefully created a track listing and renamed all of the wavs to be self-explanatory: electric-guitar-main.wav, electric-guitar-solo.wav, vocals-main.wav, et cetera. This accomplished a couple things. First, it allowed Lee to know exactly what kind of track it was. But secondly it allowed a clearer communication when it came time for me to explain the changes I wanted on a mix. So instead of, Hey, Lee. The guitars sound too bunched up. Please untangle that mess. I said, Hey, Lee. `electric guitar-tremolo.wav` is too loud, please lower it. Since the naming conventions I used were easy to define, my feedback to him on a mix was clear and concise and things went smoothly. Tip No. 3 – Be specific and organized!
So those are some of my take-away tips for surviving having your songs mixed. What others can you suggest for me for next time?