Tuesday, 14 July 2015


When we are mixing audio there is a temptation to always reach for EQ, Compression, or something even more fanciful. This is because we are in the mixing mindset, this is how you mix right. Its not that these tools don't have a place in the mix, they really do. Its just that sometimes we need to remember that taking things back to basics can be helpful, and so we instead reach for volume and panning controls. We try to balance what we have in front of us on the screen or coming through the console and apply the tools we are used to. The problem is that often, as with so much in audio, the cause of the issue is actually in the arrangement. There is simply too much going on. Trying to fit too many parts together at once can lead to a lack of focus and can render any attempt to massage the parts together as pointless.


Accepting that the arrangement needs changing or altering in some way can prove one of the absolute hardest things to take on board for an artist. Their hand crafted, painstakingly sculpted work of art isn't perfect ? How dare you even suggest that ! (Cue Mozart in Amadeus proclaiming there are just the right amount of notes) Sadly it is often the case that a cluttered, unfocused arrangement can tie the hands of a mixer to a massive degree and some careful pruning would actually yield an astonishingly improved result.

So why does this occur? How does this parts explosion get started?

1.) Emotional attachment to parts

Artists are humans and as such they have emotions and feelings. Creative people are often very in touch with these emotions and use them to fuel their creative habit. The problem is that they can get very attached to parts throughout the writing process, even to the detriment of the track as a whole. They vividly remember the 6 hours of pain and misery trying to record that guitar solo, even though its going on at the same time as the lead vocal and blocking out the singer's tasteful vibrato.

2.) Lack of understanding of the function of parts

Often song-writers like the sound of a part but do not really understand the function it would play in a full arrangement. Each part should add something to the arrangement without stepping on other part's toes but also crucially adding to the full during of the arrangement. A part might fit beautifully at a certain point but could be to the detriment of the track when considered chronologically. Consider a crowded verse part when the chorus is crowded as well. The chorus will not soar, because of the verse part's fullness. It will sound weak in comparison.

3.) Good sounds in isolation

Sounds, when isolated, can often sound very good. The problem can be that they don't sound good in the context of the rest of the track. One particularly bad culprit for this is synthesiser patches. The point of many patches is not mix well but to advertise the sonic capabilities of the synth.

4.) Saturated ears

Often listening to the same parts of a song over and over, while writing, can lead to recognising the song in that form. A sort of over-saturation occurs because the brain can recall and latch onto that pattern within the song. This saturation leads to an inability to see the song as anything other than exactly what it is currently. The tendency of the songwriter is to then try to mix exactly that, and not consider other arrangement choices, which might yield better results.

Personal Reasons

I have personally come across this issue, within my own musical work, largely due to the my particular musical background. I am originally a guitar player, who picked up all the instruments I now play later. I started, fairly early on, recording on a computer and playing along with a metronome. I played in bands for a while but this became less and less a part of my musical life compared to solo work. It was only much later in my musical life that I had the confidence to start recording my own vocals.

As a guitar player my tendency is always to create music on guitar and then try to shoehorn the guitar parts into every bit of the track. Electric guitars in particular can suffer from a lack of dynamics if played from the top of the track to the bottom. They also eat up the frequency range like nobody's business. As such they are a fast track to creating mixes with no space to play with for other parts.

On top of this because I create the music, usually, before the vocals I almost always don't leave space for them in the mix. I create the track as if it was finished, including parts that are functioning as lead parts. Then when I do record them they sound thin and horrible because they are being crowded out. Everything sounds muddy and the mix never seems to sit in a way that blends.


The solution to this problem is something mixerman, in his book "Zen and the art of mixing" coined "Underdubbing". Essentially this means dropping parts when you have the full mix available to you. Its a simple process of editing yourself, judiciously. If the part doesn't add something, remove it. If the part detracts from another part, pick one or the other. Whenever I finish writing a piece of music and recording the vocals, I go back through it and remove anything that doesn't work, using the above two rules. I find that almost always the track becomes much much easier to mix and opens itself out. Reverbs have more space, delays and effects can be heard and often small details, that were being drowned out, come to the surface.

Thursday, 9 July 2015


After a rough few days, and a lot of hard decisions I was struck by a thought as I walked up to my friend's house last night. The world often feels like opportunity is hidden behind a wall. It often feels like it's extremely difficult to get past barriers and the things you want are kept from you. What i'm actually realising is that often the capability to achieve the things you want is within most people's reach, its about effort and desire. What I mean by this is that when you have goals, the actual path to them is often not as complicated as it first seems. What holds us back, in my opinion, is that we often crave things that we don't want enough to follow the path to get them. The path is hard, but its not impossible, and this difficulty stops us taking it. For instance many people crave money. They seek a way to have a large bank balance, because they desire the particular life it will bring them. Very often the primary driving goal behind this desire is to be able to quit their jobs and live a life of leisure. The pragmatic path to doing this usually involves many risks. It can necessitate starting a business, going into property development and, crucially, can take many years. What people normally mean is they want that end goal, the money, now. They see successful rich people and assume that it must be luck. Yes, some get lucky but what you find is that those who have gotten rich by pure luck often set out with other goals than simply to be rich. The money comes as a consequence of their other desires and the work they put in to achieve them.

So what am I saying here? That we are all lazy slackers who want the world handed to us on a plate? No not at all. I am saying that humans are largely irrational beings who tend to crave. What these cravings often do is hide the things we actually want or need behind a haze of fleeting desires and a feeling of unfulfilled yearnings. The path to the things we really want can be absolutely gruelling, but because we really want those things that is a path we will gladly walk. At this minute in time I am writing this blog from my bed, still in my pyjamas. There are people in the world currently out climbing mountains and I genuinely could not force myself to get up and do that without breakfast, a shower, coffee etc but that doesn't mean i'm lazy. It means they have a goal and a desire to climb the mountain and it gives them some meaning to their life and their day. Other times I might want to be the mountain climber and they might be blogging in their pjs.

One, particularly insidious, side effect of this craving things we don't really have the motivation to achieve is envy, the green-eyed beast from the pits of our belly. We see someone with something shiny we want, in a better situation than ourselves, living our dream. The problem is again to do with timing and perspective. We have no idea what they have sacrificed for that which we envy. We don't see the path taken, only the end result and the pot at the end of the rainbow. We are viewing the last few pages of a book, without any notion of whether the preceding chapters are something we'd even want to read. Modern consumerism encourages this viewpoint of the world with credit, high interest loans and buy-it-now-to-save deals. Money is being made on people's envy by offering them a way to bypass the path to goals. Its a cognitive trick and people don't even realise they are being taken in. The problem is that all this actually does is place people on the path, but with no reward. The path is now harder, due to the downside associated with all shortcuts, and there is no payoff. In general if you couldn't take the 'path before goal' approach to something you desire, it might be worth questioning whether you even desired it in the first place.

An example from the last week came up when our boiler broke down. We have been living in our new home since last September and since then various parts of the house have started to break and need repair and replacement. It was really starting to get on top of me and the boiler going felt like the last straw. Replacing it with a new boiler will wipe out the last of our savings and leave us once again staring at a blank ledger to begin saving for any home improvements we want to make. My first reaction was to despair. I was pissed off and really not able to handle the situation. I went out for a walk and on my walk my mind cleared a bit. I realised that I could actually cut quite a bit out of my budget each week from things like buying breakfast on the way to work and ordering take-aways etc. These were things I had largely being doing to deal with the pressure I had been feeling, I comfort eat a lot. I thought about it and what I really wanted was to fix the boiler and get the house done up as i'd like for me and my family. The idea of giving up treats from my daily schedule seemed terrible but not when I weighed up how badly I wanted to not be worrying about how we were going to fix up the house. So we sat down and looked through the budget and realised that we can have most of the things we want done in a couple of years, just by cutting back on these extra little tit-bits (starbucks coffee, I am no longer your bitch). Its not like i'm even losing the treats, i'm just bulk buying them, taking them with me and not falling prey to commuter prices for things like a morning roll. The path is difficult, but the end goal is something I truly want so I take it without issue.