Thoughts on Mixing
& the Creative Process
Written by Dylan Gleit
Illustrations by Dan Criblez
My name is Dylan Gleit(he/him), and I’ve been fortunate enough to mix the new Eminence Ensemble album coming out in 2023. Every time I mix a new project, I walk away with new insight as well as additional clarity on what it means to be a “good” mix engineer. I’d like to start by talking about what mixing actually is, as I’ve come to realize this term is generally pretty foreign to most people who don’t make music themselves.
When you go into the studio and record a song, you can either record “live” as a full band playing at the same time, or you can record each element of the song one by one until the final arrangement is achieved. You can also do a combination of these two approaches, recording a live band first to lay down the “basics” and then adding additional “overdubs” after the fact. Regardless of how you arrive at the final arrangement, the end result is always the same – you wind up with tons of different elements, each with their own “track.” For example, you may have a different guitar “track” for each different guitar tone that appears throughout the song, or 10+ different microphones on a drum set that each pick up a different element of the drum set, or 3 different microphones on the Leslie speaker of a Hammond organ. Every microphone used throughout the recording process generates its own corresponding audio track. Thus, every little sound that makes up a song has its own track, and some sounds may have even been recorded with multiple microphones at the same time.
The mix engineer’s job is to take all these tracks and blend them together to create the familiar feel of a finished song. For any given song, when I start my job, I have sometimes hundreds of tracks to unify. When I finish my job, the result is one single, stereo audio track that contains all the individually recorded tracks blended together, living in harmony with one another.
To achieve this blend is far more involved than simply adjusting the relative volumes of each element. If that was the extent of mixing, the result would be a narrow, cluttered mess of sounds that lack any sort of clarity. While audio itself is intangible, the sonic “space” of a track, to me, is multidimensional. One dimension is volume – the louder an element is, the more present it feels to the listener, and vice versa. Another dimension that works similarly is distance from the source audio – I can create a sense of space on any particular element in the mix through time-based effects like reverb and delay. The more reverb I put on a sound, the more distant it sounds from the listener, even if I keep the volume at the same level it was at before the reverb was added. Thus, this dimension of dry vs wet (no time based effects vs lots of them) is another way to manufacture a sense of distance and space of any element of a song in relation to the other elements surrounding it. Another dimension is what we call panning – the placement of a sound within the stereo spectrum, meaning whether it leans towards the left speaker, the right speaker, or stays in or near the center. I have to decide where each element is going to “live” between the two speakers, and make sure both sides are balanced with one another. The final dimension is pitch – lower pitched sounds tend to feel like they’re approaching you from below, and vice versa. If I want the focal point of a section of music to feel sort of “3D,” sometimes I might choose to tuck in a higher pitched version of the same element, and a lower pitched version as well, but bring the volume of them down so that these versions are only felt and not really able to be heard. The result is that they seem to reinforce the main sound I’m trying to bring forward, and give it a perceived sense of multidimensionality. This is just one of an endless amount of tricks that mixing engineers either develop themselves, or pick up from others, over time as they develop their skills and build their own unique sonic identity.
But wait, there’s more! Sometimes the sounds we record in the studio sound amazing on their own, but once the other elements of the song are added, the aspects of the original sounds seem to get sucked away and disappear. It is the mix engineer’s job to figure out how to maintain the essential qualities of the raw isolated sounds that make them shine within the context of the full song, once all the other instrumentation is present. It has taken me many years to grapple with this phenomenon and develop the tools to combat it. It’s very tempting to work on a particular element of a song by itself, with nothing else playing, so you can hear every nuance of it as you sculpt it. However, this almost always proves to be detrimental to the overall mix. At the end of the day, nobody listening to the final product will be able to hear what “that keyboard in the bridge” sounded like by itself – all they can hear is how it sounds in the context of the song, so that’s all that matters. Sometimes getting an element to sound great in the mix means making alterations to it that would make it sound terrible on its own.
Sound is a wave, and thus is governed by the laws of physics. You may have studied “wave interference” in high school Physics class, or you may have just scoffed at that statement if physics plays a role in your career and your knowledge of it far transcends a high school education. If you already know about wave interference, go ahead and skip this section. There is only so much sonic “real estate” within the audible frequency spectrum. This means that when you have multiple audio elements that are competing for the same frequency range, they simply cannot all be played in tandem with every detail maintained. Different elements occurring at the same time in a song will often phase cancel each other out and wind up sounding weaker while playing together than they did in isolation. Destructive wave interference, or “phase cancellation” is one of the biggest enemies of recorded music. The most common example is the constant battle between the kick drum and the bass guitar. Both of these elements fundamentally occupy the low frequency range of sound, as they are traditionally low pitched. They are both fighting one another to be heard in the context of a mix, and if the mix engineer doesn’t rectify this battle, they both wind up sounding weak and lack that punchy feeling that rattles through your chest when you turn up a song loud. This concept doesn’t just apply to low frequency sounds – it applies to everything in the mix. Often times the guitars battle with the lead vocal, higher pitched keyboards with the guitars, hi hats with shakers, etc. Phase cancellation provides a big set of challenges that the mix engineer must overcome. Ultimately, that leads to my perception of what mixing is – the process of creatively solving audio problems with the goal of making a song feel full, enveloping, and slap the speakers in a way that conveys the desired emotion of the song itself.
For this new album, Eminence Ensemble took the approach of recording whatever it takes to make the songs be the best they can be in the studio, even if it meant adding layers in songs that would be physically impossible to recreate in a live setting with only 6 people on stage. This has made the songs absolutely come to life in a very unique way, but has also made each song quite dense in terms of musical arrangement. The biggest challenge for me has been preserving both dynamics from section to section, and clarity in each instrument in any given musical environment. It’s easier to make a lead guitar cut through the mix when the amount of tracks in the song are limited to how many sounds 6 people can make once. It’s not so easy when you have layers and layers of additional percussion, background vocals, keyboards, and guitars to get through. Working on this album has been a great lesson in avoiding overproduction and resisting the temptation to add more elements to a song “just because you can when you’re in the studio.” I think we wound up striking a nice balance between achieving a full sound, rich with ear candy at every moment, and leaving opportunities for the essential instruments to breathe and shine in the spotlight. That being said, working through these dense arrangements and trying to carve out space for each element to play nicely with the rest of the instrumentation in the song was incredibly challenging from both a technical and psychological standpoint.
The mixing process itself often feels like a test of mental fortitude, especially when you are faced with the difficult task of mixing your own music. I’ve probably heard each song on this album hundreds and hundreds of times at this point. I generally spent about a week of full time work on each song, and throughout each week, I found myself in an endless cycle of sometimes thinking the song sounded incredible, and other days feeling like it sounded like a steaming hot pile of garbage. On days where I felt I was doing a great job, I’d wrap up my work for the day feeling on top of the world, proud of myself, and endlessly excited for the song to be eventually released to the public. On the other days, I’d feel like a total failure and question if I could ever mix a song at the level of quality and professionalism I so desperately desired to achieve. The funny thing is, the song would sound pretty much the same at both extremes, and the only thing changing was my perspective. Sometimes I’d end the day feeling like a failure, only to revisit my work the next morning and be over the moon excited about it, thus making me deeply question the reliability of my own ears. When you go through this cycle multiple times per song, and then repeat that process for 10+ songs, it eventually starts to take a toll on your sanity and self esteem. If you can manage to power through it by trusting yourself when times get dark, developing an effective system for taking breaks to reset your ears, and embracing the inherent imperfections of music, mixing a full album can be one of the most rewarding tasks of your job and one of the biggest catalysts for both technical growth and personal development.
Lots of accomplished engineers advise younger engineers to use reference tracks while mixing – this means finding a few songs that are in a similar genre as whatever you’re working on and that you think sound great – and listen to them for inspiration while you’re working on your own mixes. I’ve found this to be both helpful and harmful. It can certainly help you get an idea of how loud certain elements should be in relation to one another, as well as spark creative ideas to add color and unique flare to your recordings. At the same time, it’s all too easy to become attached to the sound of a reference track and feel like your mix falls short of it. It becomes hard to tell if your mix is actually not as good, or if you just think it’s falling short because your absence from the creative choices and mixing process of your reference tracks subliminally leads you listen to the reference through a more accepting and forgiving lens. This is something I constantly grapple with. I know my recordings will never sound like my reference tracks because they were recorded and performed by entirely different people, in an entirely different environment, with different gear, and different choices made along the way. I’m always asking myself “should my mix sound much closer to that reference that I love, or is it okay that it sounds different? Shouldn’t my mix be unique anyway, and not sound like I’m trying to copy someone else?” I still don’t know the answer to those questions, and I don’t think I ever will. I will say that with every mix I do, I get more and more comfortable with the idea that my mixes should sound like me, even if it means they don’t leave the same overall impression on me that my chosen references do. The quest for balancing the benefits that mixing with reference tracks provides while actively trying to filter out the inevitable bias of admiring something you had no part in creating is one that will always perplex me.
It’s also the mix engineer’s job to ensure that the mix translates well to all listening environments. It took me years before I could make a mix that I loved, and still love the way it sounded in the car, or on crappy apple earbuds, or through a phone speaker. I could write pages and pages about this and my journey to get where I am today, but let’s just say that it’s one of the bigger challenges that any mix engineer has to face at some point early on in their career. I’ll leave it at that for now.
The last thing I want to ramble about is how you know when a mix is done. There’s no right or wrong here, or at any point in mixing. There is only making yourself and your client happy. You could tweak a mix endlessly – and I mean endlessly – and never feel like you’ve gotten it to “100%.” One of my biggest mentors in the industry, Jay, once said something to me that I’ll never forget: “You’ll spend 20% of the time getting the mix to 80%, and then you’ll spend the remaining 80% of the time trying to get as much of that remaining 20% as you can, but you’ll never make it to 100%.” There is no perfection in mixing – there is only acceptance.
For me, I feel like a mix is done when I can listen through it without anything bothering me. If I play through the song and it just sounds like a song, and not a work in progress, I feel like my work is likely done. At this point I’ll usually send it out to a mentor for review, and they’ll almost always have a slew of notes and suggestions for me. Then the process starts over again – I try to incorporate these suggestions without taking away from the things I liked in the original mix. A good friend of mine, Dave, said to me on this very topic: “Mixing is like brushing a head of knotty hair. You go through once and get most of the knots out, then you brush through again, getting some more knots out, and you keep repeating the process until you can’t find any more knots, and what’s in front of you is a smooth head of hair. That’s when you know the mix is probably done.” You don’t keep combing through trying to find knots that aren’t there – you accept that you’ve done all you can do, and call it a wrap.
That’s it for now. I can’t wait to share this new album with the world when it’s ready. If you made it this far, thanks for reading and I hope you were able to take something away from all this. I’ve got to go now, the bass on track 4 isn’t sitting right and I’ve got to figure out how to fix it;)
Very interesting and helpful words from the incredible guitarist and mix engineer, Dylan Gleit.
Follow him on instagram and reach out if you have a project that needs some mixing love.