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Hiring Outside Help to Mix Home Recordings
When I wear my music licensing agent hat, one of the most frustrating parts of the job is listening to hundreds of songs that sound horrible. Sometimes they’re sub-par performances, but the vast majority of the “bad” ones just sound…weak. They sound lifeless, out of time, tired, or even jumbled. The sound gets in the way of the song. Here’s the truth: if your song doesn’t sound fantastic or better, you are simply out of the running – regardless of that killer bridge and lyrical hook. We’re at a place in the independent community where you have a real chance of making money from your music, but if you’re pushing some un-mastered, shoddy Pro Tools home recording with a smiley-face EQ mix, it ain’t gonna happen.
The harsh reality in today’s music business is that songs don’t really matter as much as recordings of songs do. This comes down to how, with whom, and where a song is recorded. In many cases, the magic is really in the choice of how a song is mixed and mastered. Most independent releases have the same person filling all of those shoes, except for maybe, mastering – which has traditionally been a separate process.
Recently, I am seeing mixing being treated much more like mastering; songs are sent out to a specialist not involved in the recording. I tracked down two of the mixers doing great work in the independent community – who have also worked on big stuff – to get some insight on what they do, and why you should choose an outside mixer.
I spoke with Justin Peacock of The Hook Factory (thehookfactory.com) and Joe Costable of C-List Productions (joecostable.com). Justin has done live mixing for John Mayer, Ladysmith Black Mambazo as well as others, and just finished up work with Carbon Choir. Joe mixed Good Charlotte’s Cardiology, and just finished mixing the debut for a band called Thorne. Both started out as assistant engineers and eventually (after constant learning, training and hustling), worked their way into producing their own projects. They are now both at the forefront of outside mixers, and here are the highlights of those interviews.
What’s your definition of what a mixer does?
Costable: The way I explain it to people who don’t know anything about the process is that I take every instrument and put the puzzle together. I have to make a spot for everything and create that crystal clear image.
Peacock: Technically, a mixer balances instruments, shapes the sound of individual elements as well as the whole, and fixes problems. Artistically, however, a mixer should dig into the core and bring out the energy, emotion and groove of the song. It’s a lot more than just the right snare drum sound.
Why do you think more artists are considering outside mixers rather than in-house?
Peacock: The disadvantage to having one person do it all is that the producer and artist might be tired of the project to a degree. Or they’ve just heard it so many thousands of times. It’s hard to give a fresh and exciting approach to something you’ve been living with for who knows how long.
Costable: The downside of having the same person produce and mix can be the act of being so involved with a project that you’re not able to take a step back. You become so attached you’re never quite happy with it. You really need a professional to make your recordings shine, and as much as I hate the term, get the “industry sound.”
What makes a great mix?
Costable: Making sure nothing steps on anything else or speaks louder than it needs to. Once you have that, the different textures that create the emotion or “vibe” of the song can really come through. If you close your eyes you can almost see every instrument as if it were on a stage in front of you.
Peacock: It is exciting. It grooves harder, feels deeper. It captures and enhances the spirit and emotion of both the song and the performance. A band that recently chose my mix out of three others they auditioned said that it just “felt better.” That’s what it’s all about.
Useful Info For Hiring Outside Mixers:
It usually takes one day per song for a good mix.
Prices are always dependent on the project, but generally, can range from $200-$500 per track for independents.
Normally, a mixer needs the exported consolidated audio files (ask your studio engineer). Even better, use your own external hard drive, and send it when tracking is complete.
Most mixers utilize Skype, live streams, and other online tools to keep you in the loop from anywhere in the world.
Mixers can point you to great mastering houses. Do not forget this step.