Learn, Practice, Forget
This article first appeared in Recording Magazine. I reprint it here with permission, and I encourage you to subscribe to that publication, as they are a stand up bunch of folk!
In martial arts, there’s a concept that goes something like this: learn the technique, practice the technique, forget the technique.
Music mixing is similar if you think about it. As we’ve mentioned in these pages before, there are two sides to mixing. One is artfulness and intuition – your ability to feel a track with your heart. One is technical knowledge, skill, and science – your ability to understand a track with your brain.
The Brain Side
On the technical side, it behooves you to study, study, study and practice, practice, practice; learn the techniques and rules of the masters, drill the technique, gain skill over time.
You should never stop learning new techniques and practicing the skill and science of mixing records. You can hone your listening skills by listening to great tracks. You can train your rhythm or do ear training work. You can read magazines and books, watch YouTube videos, and attend seminars. You can continually find new songs to mix and evaluate each mix you do with critical ears. And the more you understand the physics of sound, the science of audio, and the engineering concepts behind the gear and software you work with, the more refined your mix fu becomes.
All this will help you develop a skillset which will make you a technically great mixer. All the practice will deepen your skills and help you learn faster, becoming more confident in the mix. Building your mixing brain may even help you improve your intuitive side.
The Heart Side
Learning, understanding and practice is crucial. But when mix day comes, it’s time to stop thinking about all that. Learn, practice, forget. Mix day is the day to be an artist, and let your intuition take over.
Most great mixers will tell you to mix quickly and there’s a reason for that. Letting yourself follow your gut and move quickly will allow you to tap into your deep well of knowledge efficiently, without overthinking. Overthinking can kill a mix, because you’ll start to make technical changes that aren’t needed and fail to trust your ears.
After all, if it sounds good, it sounds good. The day you mix is the day to forget with your brain, and let your intuition take over. You’ve trained the scientist, now you can be an artist.
Many of us take a deliberate approach to this process, with rituals or methods that remind us to let go and feel the music. One famous story involves a famous Jamaican producer arriving at a studio to finish a mix and refusing to start before getting high. According to lore, this mixer got just high enough and spent the next few hours with his eyes closed and his hand on one EQ knob on the high hat, simply twisting and grooving until at last – voila! It is done!
You will probably do more than tweak one high hat, and you may prefer not to be really high, but you get the picture.
Sometimes a little darkness is good. Some mixers clear the room. Some meditate. I clean the studio and clear out all the physical clutter. I also set up many of the more technical, tedious aspects of a mix in a separate session (a job for the engineering assistant, if you have one).
It doesn’t matter what you do, only that you allow yourself to stop thinking and fall back on your accumulated knowledge and skill intuitively.
It Takes Both – Train, Practice, Forget
Some newer mixers rely only on feel and intuition. This is what Bruce Lee would refer to as the “brawler” – fighting only with passion, flailing and usually falling to the better trained “classical man”. It’s true, without passion and heart, you won’t find the magic in the mix. And if you overthink it and get too technical, you’re likely to create cold, lifeless (although sonically flawless) mixes.
But if you don’t do the work to train yourself and become technically adept, your passion will often fall flat. This kind of mix is often muddy, distorted, or overly odd. I have often suffered from this affliction myself.
To achieve music mixing greatness, you truly need both sides. Learn, learn, learn. Practice, practice, practice. Then call up the mix, turn off the brain, and let your bones do the talking.
Aaron J. Trumm is a lifelong martial artist and music producer. Talk to him about all these things on Facebook, Instagram, or email at aaron at aarontrumm.com!