Quick bullet point takeaways are:
- Have multiple speakers during your whole production (not just during mixdown), and be switchin’ between all of them to prevent your ears from adapting to just one set of monitors.
- take long breaks – up to 5 days!
- it’s ok to sequence your tracks at low volumes. Your ears are degrading bit by bit, so conserve them!
And don’t forget when mixing down, along with switching between multiple monitors, also have 2 reference pro tracks…
Fighting Your Own Ears
Ears are pretty important if you want to hear anything, but they’re a nuisance when you’re trying to stay objective about your mix. This is because the human auditory system doesn’t just transmit sonic vibrations straight from the air to your consciousness; it not only colors the raw sensory input through its own nonlinear response, but it also constantly adapts itself in response to incoming sounds—partly in order to extract the maximum information from them, and partly just to shield its sensitive physical components from damage. Although the fact that our hearing works like this is helpful in everyday life, it actually works against you when mixing, casting a long shadow of doubt over every balancing and processing decision you make. If your hearing system is doing its best behind the scenes to balance and clarify your perception of the mix, rather than consistently presenting you with the warts-and-all reality, then it’s all too easy to be suckered into signing off a second-rate mix as a finished product. The key to eluding this trap is to understand a bit about how our physiology skews what we hear, so that you can work around or compensate for the perceptual quirks when evaluating your mix.
One of the main problems is that the ear is very good at compensating for tonal imbalances. In one respect this is useful, because it means that tonal differences between brands of monitor speaker don’t make as big a difference to their usefulness at mixdown as you might expect. Once you’ve acclimatized to a particular set of speakers, your ear will factor out their unique tonal characteristics to a certain degree. But for every silver lining there’s a cloud: even if your mix has an obviously wonky frequency balance, it only takes a few seconds for your hearing system to start compensating for that, thereby hiding the problem from your consciousness.
How can we combat the ear’s fickleness? Well, one good tactic is to switch between monitoring systems fairly frequently, because this instantly changes the tonal frame of reference and hence offers a few precious moments of clarity before the hearing system has a chance to recover from the shock and recalibrate itself. “After listening to all sorts of frequencies for a long period,” says Russ Elevado, “the Auratone will just put everything flat and my ears kind of just recalibrate themselves.” Given that each of your monitoring systems offers a different set of strengths and weakness as far as analyzing your mix is concerned, switching between them is already a good idea anyway, so this is one more reason to make a habit of it. It’s no accident that the monitor-selection buttons on most large format professional studio consoles are usually among the most worn looking. “I can easily switch between 15 different speakers,” says Cenzo Townshend, for instance. “I couldn’t just mix on NS10s or KRK 9000s… you get used to them too much.” In fact, because switching monitors is so useful while mixing, I usually recommend that small studio owners without a suitable monitoring section in their mixer get hold of a dedicated hardware monitor controller for the purpose, because it saves a great deal of time in the long run if you can hop between your monitor systems at the flick of a switch—and it makes getting into the routine of doing it easier too. There are some extremely affordable models on the market, but you should bear in mind that everything you hear will pass through your monitor controller, so it’s perhaps a false economy to pinch pennies here.
A second important shock tactic is taking breaks. According to Bob Clearmountain: “Don’t just keep plugging away at something. When you start to question everything that you’re doing and you suddenly don’t feel sure what’s going on, stop for a while… I go out with my dog or take a 15-minute catnap, then come back and have a cup of coffee and it’s much more obvious if something is wrong.” The tougher the mix, the more breaks you should take,” says Russ Elevado. “If it’s a dense song, and there’s lots of frequencies going on, I’ll do 20 minutes, then take a 20 minute or more break. On a difficult song, you can be more productive with more breaks… It’s definitely good to pace yourself and know that you’re not wasting time when you’re taking a rest. You can get too focused on the details when you’re working for a long stretch. Once you take a nice break, you can come back and are more able to look at the overall picture.”
Taking a break doesn’t just mean sagging back in your studio chair and scoffing pizza, either—leave your studio room and do something to remind your ears what the real world sounds like. If anything you hear in your studio setup is a better reality check for your ears than the sound of your own kettle boiling, then you seriously need to get out more! The longer you work on a track, the longer your breaks may need to be. As Bill Bottrell explains: “Objectivity is everybody’s big problem, especially if you’ve worked a long time on a song… But, if something ends up sounding wrong, you will hear that it’s wrong if you get away from it for five days and then hear it again.”
Breaks and Hearing Fatigue
A few hours of uninterrupted mixing will still tire out your ears, and your sensitivity to high frequencies in particular will suffer. So if you want to be able to mix all day the way the pros can, then breaks are essential to keep your ears from flagging. Even then it pays to be careful about what you commit to toward the end of a long session. After one grueling (and not particularly successful) mixing project, I came up with a basic rule of thumb that has served me well ever since: Never finalize a mix after supper. I find that by that time of the day my ears simply aren’t objective enough to do the job properly. If at all possible, try to “sleep on the mix” before finishing it. “When you come back fresh,” says Joe Chiccarelli, “there are always a couple of obvious little things that you’ve overlooked.”6
Engineers such as Bob Clearmountain, Mike Clink, Russ Elevado, and Thom Panunzio have all echoed this sentiment in interviews, whereas Joe Zook offers this cautionary tale about a hit single he mixed for One Republic: “When I first mixed ‘Stop & Stare,’ I made the drums and the bass massive. It became this huge grunge thing, and it just didn’t sound unique or fresh. I’d started at five or six in the evening and I went home late at night being really proud of myself. But when I came back in the next morning, it was like, ‘F**k, where did the song go?’ There were all these great sounds, but it didn’t feel right… I’d become too focused on all the unimportant aspects of the engineering, rather than the music itself. So I started again.”
The simple issue of how loud you listen while mixing also needs some thought if you’re going to get the best results. For one thing (and to get the preaching out of the way as quickly as possible), it’s just plain daft to listen at thundering volumes for long periods because there’s a real risk of hearing damage.
It’s just plain daft to listen at thundering volumes, because there’s a real risk of hearing damage. Most of the highest-profile mix engineers actually spend the majority of their time mixing at quite low volume probably damaged your hearing to some degree. Every time you do that, you’re eating away at your hearing bit by bit, and there’s no way to bring the sensitivity back once it’s gone. Most of the highest-profile mix engineers actually spend the majority of their time mixing at low volume. Take Allen Sides, for instance. He stated in an interview that he only listens loud for maybe 20 to 30 seconds at a time and does his most critical balancing at a low enough level that he can easily conduct a normal conversation during playback. So think like a professional; take care of your ears!
“Be safety conscious when you go to shows, and monitor at reasonable volumes,” advises Kevin Killen. “Do not be afraid to protect your most valuable commodity.” Take special care when listening on headphones, because the unnatural listening experience they create makes it easy to monitor dangerously loud. And be aware that alcohol and drugs can tamper with the physiological protection systems that are built into your hearing system, so be doubly cautious if you’re under the influence. (Yeah, yeah, of course you don’t.)
There’s more to setting your monitoring level than avoiding concussion, though, primarily because these pesky ears of ours present us with a different perceived frequency balance depending on how loud we listen. For mixing purposes you only really need to understand this quick-and-dirty generalization: you’ll hear more of the frequency extremes as you crank up the volume. That’s not the only factor at work, though, because our ears actually reduce the dynamic range of what we’re hearing at high volumes as a safety measure too, and background noise effectively recedes as monitoring levels increase.
The most immediate ramification of all this is that you need to understand how your production responds to being played at different volumes. “I switch my monitor levels all the time,” remarks Bob Clearmountain. “I tell people I work with ‘Just give that monitor pot a spin any time you like.’”As Chuck Ainlay clarifies: “I don’t see any way of identifying if the whole mix is really holding up unless you crank it. I don’t know how you can check the bottom end and whether the vocals are poking out too much without turning it up quite loud. There are also things that you’ll miss by listening loud, so you have to work at low levels too.”