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!
The modern recording process has been set for quite a while. It goes:
- Pre-Production (writing/rehearsing, etc.)
Keeping these processes separate and distinct has its advantages. For example, a well written song composed, arranged and rehearsed is usually tracked smoothly, with fewer problems than ill-conceived ideas, even with non-traditional music like electronica. Well arranged songs also lend themselves to easier mixing. Mastering, meanwhile, needs to be its own process, with new ears and different gear, and of course getting a break from long tracking sessions and coming back fresh for mixdown can not only be more effective, but more fun and rewarding too.
The process has proven effective, but in the past 5-10 years, I’ve noticed a new paradigm developing for many musicians and producers, myself included.
In traditional mixdown, we bring recorded, edited final tracks to a mix studio, call up the tracks on tape, MDM or DAW and use a console and outboard processing to create the final mix. We move faders, dial knobs, make patches, and if our console isn’t automated (ie: the ubiquitous Mackie 8-Buss), rehearse and perform moves and changes in real time, sometimes working in teams (“move over, Bob! I have to twist the mid-range NOW to create that EQ wahwah! Make sure you fade channel 2 while I engage the delay…”)
These are often one shot sessions, with hours of listening on multiple monitors, boom boxes, computer speakers and car stereos to achieve translatable mixes. This works, but what if you make a mistake, or find out the mix is too boomy in Walmart? Can you recreate that session? Do you have the time and money to rebook? You can attempt to recreate an analog session, but it is painful and rarely works (remember the knob/fader sheets that came in 8-Buss manuals?).
Of course, DAWS and automated boards make it easier. A ProTools mix can be called up again and again, sounding exactly the same, especially if no outboard gear is involved, and an automated console can do the same. However even an inexpensive digital board sits in a single (expensive) room and so does a hefty ProTools rig, so there wasn’t necessarily a huge change to the process when digital boomed.
However, when laptops got powerful enough to handle multi-track audio, there was a bigger shift. In my own work, that shift was immediate and dramatic. Suddenly mixes could evolve over time. I could take the laptop everywhere, checking mixes and making small tweaks in video edit suites, project studios, theaters, houses or strange headphones. Add mp3s and stronger internet, and suddenly I was sharing evolving mixes with band members or label partners remotely, reading emailed feedback and correcting mixes while at coffee shops or on planes. Not only was there no longer a time crunch every session, I was listening in different ENVIRONMENTS, which is great for translatability. The result was lower cost and better mixes.
That change in process levels the playing field a bit, giving more artists another way to strive for world class material; but it can also change the fundamental recording process. With the ability to quickly tweak and change mix parameters (and save old versions), dialing in the sound can start earlier in the chain. Mixes can evolve with the writing, which is great for genres where the mix is a fundamental part of the composition itself, and while it can certainly be a double edged sword, if managed right, it can also lead to a more integrated and rewarding experience over all, and sometimes even to smooth as butter traditional mixdown and mastering sessions later in the process. Not to mention, there is a new sense of freedom there that wasn’t there before, and we artists do love our sense of freedom.
I like to call it “evolutionary mixing”. I wouldn’t call it a replacement for the traditional workflow. As I said, there are reasons that workflow developed, and some of the freedom afforded with a new outlook can be problematic. Mixing while writing and tracking can cause a loss of perspective, for example, and sometimes easier processes foster laziness. There’s also plenty of reason to hire and learn from masters of the trade. Having a laptop and an attitude is great, but taking that material back to an old master can really create that earth shaking sense of bridging past, present and future.
Personally, I still do my best to compose complete pieces first before doing much tracking, I’m adamant about hiring a world class mastering house, and on my next project, I’ll be combining the evolutionary mixing approach during tracking and editing to put my creative spin on things with a more traditional mixdown later in the process done by a whole different (better) engineer.
That all said, it is exciting to see technology changing the process in a way that increases access and creates new art and inspiration, not only for up and comers, but also for salty veterans who may need a kick in the pants. After all, new process: new result.
I’ve been searching for a good mix for 27 years. Most of the best ones have evolved over a little time. I’m currently outside…in fact I just took the picture at the top of this… talk to me about this and other music, creativity, and outside related things on my socials… @AaronJTrumm on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram.