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Modern, new-fangled mixing plugins; a philosophical question
Old 1 week ago
  #1
Gear Nut
 

Modern, new-fangled mixing plugins; a philosophical question

Hey guys,

This is a slightly abstract question, but I've consistently found the folks on Gearslutz are fantastic at helping with both the practical and the philosophical side of things, and I'd love to get some input!

I'm primarily a singer & songwriter, and I've taught myself to be a decent mix engineer and producer. Mostly I focus on my own material, but I also have a few clients, and I'm happy to do commercial work when I have time. When I first got into mixing I made a conscious decision to keep my toolchain relatively simple, loosely emulating an analog workflow, and avoided getting into most of the fancier modern plugins. I'm attracted to very "technical" things and easily get distracted by them, so I figured keeping things simple would help me focus.

Overall I think this was a smart decision, but I'm now quite comfortable with my workflow, and would like to judiciously introduce some new tools.

Right now I'm using a brauerizing mix setup, with all the usual virtual analog EQs and compressors (Waves & UAD), console & tape emulation through Slate VMS, the Fabfilter bundle for utility plugins, and a small collection of mostly analog-emulating effects. This gives me loads of options for vibe, colour, thickness, saturation, distortion, and the overall feel of a track.

However, I feel like I'm weaker at making more clinical adjustments: cleaning up mud, using metering tools, unmasking frequencies, managing the stereo field, dynamic EQ, multi-band compression, etc. I've seen other engineers work wonders making tracks sound more open, relaxed and expansive, and it's something I'd like to get better at.

Looking at the plugins and tools available to help with this, I feel a bit overwhelmed. There are hundreds of companies making plugins which seem [plausibly helpful, but I don't know what's snake oil and what's genuinely good. I'm prepared to believe in smart plugins (Oeksound's Soothe is great), but I'm skeptical of them.

So: I'd love to know what techniques you think are most practically useful, and whether there are any plugins I should look into to help me with all this?
Old 1 week ago
  #2
Gear Addict
Watch every single Eric Valentine video over and over again.

Feel free to pause and look at settings. Dont let the large amount of expensive gear he uses discourage you in any way. Try to focus on his in-the-box mix moves.

You might find, (as I did,) that a lot of what he’s doing is very clinical and precise, maybe even logical, (gasp!) which is what audio engineers have to do a-lot, instead of going by feel.

It will likely change the way you think about audio engineering entirely, and you wont be able to go back! Thats what happened to me.

Old 1 week ago
  #3
Gear Guru
 

Quote:
Originally Posted by willmarshall View Post
When I first got into mixing I made a conscious decision to keep my toolchain relatively simple, loosely emulating an analog workflow, and avoided getting into most of the fancier modern plugins....so I figured keeping things simple would help me focus.

Right now I'm using a brauerizing mix setup...
that's your idea of "simplicity"?

Quote:
However, I feel like I'm weaker at making more clinical adjustments: cleaning up mud, using metering tools, unmasking frequencies, managing the stereo field, dynamic EQ, multi-band compression, etc.
I would agree with Diane that these days anyway, the relatively "boring" and "clinical" aspects of mixing get short shrift and most internet hubbub centers on "creativity". But to me, mixing is largely a job in service to someone else's creativity.

Quote:
I'm primarily a singer & songwriter, and I've taught myself to be a decent mix engineer and producer.
A guitarist pressed into playing the bass on a song should be thinking like a bass player - not merely playing guitar an octave lower. Similarly, a musician doing the mixing should be thinking like an engineer, for that part of the job, i.e. not like an Artist 'performing' on the console. IMHO. YMMV. YOLO. Member, FDIC.

Quote:
Looking at the plugins and tools available to help with this, I feel a bit overwhelmed. There are hundreds of companies making plugins which seem [plausibly helpful, but I don't know what's snake oil and what's genuinely good.... I'm skeptical of them.
I have been mixing for decades. Started out with 4 track tape, all the way to Pro Tools HD. Far from being old-school and skeptical, I am truly impressed with the latest generation of "smart" tools. I haven't bought an emulated EQ, compressor or "vintage" whatnot in 2 years.

Whether they are "snake oil" or not depends largely on what you expect of them. They are not going to mix "for you". But some of them do represent truly new approaches. Not so much new solutions to old problems but genuinely pushing me into new ways of thinking about a mix, which I personally am enjoying exploring immensely. I started out using these things here and there as additions to my 'normal' approach, but I think they are starting to influence what my approach is.

"Helpful" is not a word I would use, however, as that implies merely making the job easier and I don't think that's really "it". While some tool might help you clear up "the mud", your ears still have to identify what is mud and what is not.

Are they going to mix the song "for" you? I don't think so. If anything, they may require a deeper level of digging into the mix. Most things have a demo period. So try them out for yourself.

Of course, if you are currently comfortable with your workflow and you prefer to keep things "simple", you might want to consider that you may be opening Pandora's box.
Old 1 week ago
  #4
Gear Addict
What I was chiefly hoping you’d realize is that what Eric is doing is using Soothe. All over his mixes, whenever its needed.

It does exactly what it says it does.
Old 1 week ago
  #5
Gear Nut
 

Quote:
Originally Posted by joeq View Post
that's your idea of "simplicity"?
I mean, yes & no. It's not a trivially simple setup (calibrating everything was a pain), but conceptually it's pretty intuitive. The tools involved aren't super complicated, and I find the workflow is more instinctual than analytical. I certainly don't have to bust out my metaphorical slide rule.

Quote:
Originally Posted by joeq View Post
I would agree with Diane that these days anyway, the relatively "boring" and "clinical" aspects of mixing get short shrift and most internet hubbub centers on "creativity". But to me, mixing is largely a job in service to someone else's creativity.

A guitarist pressed into playing the bass on a song should be thinking like a bass player - not merely playing guitar an octave lower. Similarly, a musician doing the mixing should be thinking like an engineer, for that part of the job, i.e. not like an Artist 'performing' on the console. IMHO. YMMV. YOLO. Member, FDIC.
I appreciate your perspective; it's getting my brain going in a constructive way!

Off the cuff, I think I would have actually said the exact opposite: that we tend to over-focus on learning quantifiable, technical skills at the expense of creativity and artistic soft skills. I'm not entirely convinced it's possible to mix well without approaching the task creatively.

The thing about music (and all art) is there's no "objective" way to determine how things ought to sound. It's not a mathematical problem with a concrete solution, so the only way to operate is to lean on our personal taste, which I see as an aspect of creativity.

Not to say the boring and clinical elements don't matter, because the mechanics of how audio works are mathematical problems with concrete solutions. But I've always seen mixing as technical finesse in service to creative decision making.

Maybe I'm taking these folks too much at face value, but one of my favourite mix engineers is Nick Launay, and he's pretty vocal about taking an intuitive, creativity-first approach to his mixes.

Quote:
Originally Posted by joeq View Post
I have been mixing for decades. Started out with 4 track tape, all the way to Pro Tools HD. Far from being old-school and skeptical, I am truly impressed with the latest generation of "smart" tools. I haven't bought an emulated EQ, compressor or "vintage" whatnot in 2 years.

Whether they are "snake oil" or not depends largely on what you expect of them. They are not going to mix "for you". But some of them do represent truly new approaches. Not so much new solutions to old problems but genuinely pushing me into new ways of thinking about a mix, which I personally am enjoying exploring immensely. I started out using these things here and there as additions to my 'normal' approach, but I think they are starting to influence what my approach is.
You've been doing this a lot longer than me! A big part of my question, fundamentally, is whether folks who've been mixing for years have time for these newer plugins, and clearly you do.

I'm absolutely not looking for anything that'll mix for me; I'm strongly biased in favour of doing things by hand, and I'm mistrustful of anything that claims to automate any non-trivial task.

I like "new ways of thinking about a mix" - that's a nice way of putting it. I think that's essentially what I'm looking for ... new perspectives and new tools, rather than hand-holding or magic.

Quote:
Originally Posted by joeq View Post
"Helpful" is not a word I would use, however, as that implies merely making the job easier and I don't think that's really "it". While some tool might help you clear up "the mud", your ears still have to identify what is mud and what is not.

Are they going to mix the song "for" you? I don't think so. If anything, they may require a deeper level of digging into the mix. Most things have a demo period. So try them out for yourself.

Of course, if you are currently comfortable with your workflow and you prefer to keep things "simple", you might want to consider that you may be opening Pandora's box.
I think you're pinpointing a really fundamental mistake here that it's deceptively easy to make; looking to make things easier, rather than making things better.

Learning new stuff always makes things harder, especially at first, but that's to be expected, right? **** easy. If I wanted easy I'd be working at the business factory.
Old 1 week ago
  #6
Gear Nut
 

Quote:
Originally Posted by Dlane View Post
What I was chiefly hoping you’d realize that Eric is doing is using Soothe. All over his mixes, whenever its needed.

It does exactly what it says it does.
I've done some digging into Eric's catalog, and must admit his work isn't exactly my cup of tea. I think it's an aesthetic thing rather than any criticism of his abilities, but his portfolio seems focused on a style of American rock music I've never gelled with.

I would happily pore over videos produced by someone whose work is more akin to Nick Launay, or Nigel Godrich, or John Congleton, or even Hiwatt.
Old 1 week ago
  #7
Lives for gear
 
James Lehmann's Avatar
 

Quote:
Originally Posted by willmarshall View Post
I feel like I'm weaker at making more clinical adjustments: cleaning up mud, using metering tools, unmasking frequencies, managing the stereo field, dynamic EQ, multi-band compression, etc...

Looking at the plugins and tools available to help with this...
Hi Will,

I'm all for throwing cash at problems (my own studio being a case in point ), but you asked for a philosophical approach as well so...

I really don't think it's the plug-ins!

I would argue that just about any modern DAW has good enough stock plug-ins to get you a very long way with your hit-list of weaknesses, at least on a technical level.

For example... Does Logic Channel EQ look sexy? No. Can Logic Channel EQ "make clinical adjustments, clean up mud, unmask frequencies, help manage the stereo field, etc" Yes it most certainly can.

What matters far more when mixing is a critical and comfortable listening environment so that you can practice your mixing technique for hours, days, weeks etc until you start to get better at all of the above.

I'm trying hard not to come across as patronising, as you obviously have plenty of experience in the field, but I mean, when you sit down to do a mix what are you sitting in front of, where are you sitting and what tools do you currently have at your disposal?

And the follow up to that is - why is it you feel you can't get the job done with what you have, and why do you think 'more plug-ins' is the solution?

9 times out of 10 when I ask myself that question i.e. do I have sufficient tools to get the job done? the real answer is yes, of course I do. I could get the job done with 20% of what I have. In fact, I once entered a mix contest and set myself the goal of using only volume and panning as my tools - nothing else, no comps, eq, nothing; I have to say my mix sat perfectly well with guys who had thrown the kitchen sink at it, Neves, plug-ins galore, the lot! So if a mix I'm working on mix sounds cr*p it's almost certainly because I simply have't worked hard enough on it, listened back carefully enough, auditioned it on multiple playback systems, identified where it sounds muddy/harsh/one-dimensional, asked for a trusted friend's opinion, tried something different, read another book from a master mixer or watched another pro at work on YouTube, and gone back the drawing board.

I will say though that the journey starts with a pair of monitors you trust. So when I see someone write: "I feel like I'm weaker at making more clinical adjustments, cleaning up mud, etc" I'm immediately asking myself 'are you really hearing what's wrong' because a good pair of monitors should be screaming at you to 'fix this racket now'. They should really be 'directing' you and pointing towards what to do in a way that is effortless and doesn't have you second guessing yourself all the time. Sounding muddy? Let's cut some 240Hz and see what gives... ah yes, there we are, only needs a 0.5-1.5dB cut but I can hear the improvement perfectly. That process isn't about buying new plug-ins; it's about listening, assessing, experimenting, and being able to clearly evaluate the effect of what you just did on your equipment, safe in the knowledge that making this change will be significant and beneficial once the music gets placed 'out in the wild' on thousands of playback systems. And with all the other elements in place such as a musical ear, a sense of what you're doing, time, and a modicum of experience – all of which you seem to possess – it might be worth asking yourself if you are truly getting the accuracy and perception you need out of your monitors, and by extension your listening space, before disappearing down the plug-in rabbit-hole?

Last edited by James Lehmann; 1 week ago at 07:31 AM..
Old 1 week ago
  #8
Gear Addict
Quote:
Originally Posted by willmarshall View Post
I've done some digging into Eric's catalog, and must admit his work isn't exactly my cup of tea. I think it's an aesthetic thing rather than any criticism of his abilities, but his portfolio seems focused on a style of American rock music I've never gelled with.

I would happily pore over videos produced by someone whose work is more akin to Nick Launay, or Nigel Godrich, or John Congleton, or even Hiwatt.
Very well then. He did some singer songwriter stuff... Something like “love is love.” I seem the remember. Its all in his youtube channel.

He’s not only a producer but he’s done a lot of mixing work for other producers. Thats why I like watching him. He’s a producer with a mix engineer’s mind.
Old 1 week ago
  #9
Gear Guru
 

Quote:
Originally Posted by willmarshall View Post
I
Off the cuff, I think I would have actually said the exact opposite: that we tend to over-focus on learning quantifiable, technical skills at the expense of creativity and artistic soft skills. .
I am not sure who this "we" that you refer to is. Looking around this website, I see an overwhelming emphasis on the mixer-as-artist. They are disappointed when they learn he is only adding "5%". The biggest knock that people make on an A-list mix engineer is "oh he gets impeccable tracks to work with". As if degree of difficulty was worth extra points like it is in Olympic Diving.

There is even a strong cohort of self-recording artists who resent mix engineers in general as "stealing" their prerogatives. That's what they think 'mixing' is! They think it's all "art".

I see a lot of aspiring engineers here who act as if their "creativity" in mixing a song is somehow the equal of the creativity of the artist who performed the song. When the artist wants something that they disagree with, they start a thread to complain: "but my name is on it".

Of course, their name is on the back, not the front.

if you are the driver for a racing team, your creativity in sensing opportunities and being aggressive is a bigger percentage of what you do. If you are the mechanic for that team, Job One is to take care of all those relatively quantifiable, relatively technical matters about how the engine, and transmission are running. Coming up with a new way of modifying the spark plugs might be 'creative' ...but it doesn't mean jack if the oil gasket leaks during the race.

Quote:
The thing about music (and all art) is there's no "objective" way to determine how things ought to sound.
But there is a degree of critical listening to the sound, that should be independent of listening to the music. That is a kind of 'objectivity' that an engineer brings. I teach an audio class. Sometimes I will pull up a multi-track to demonstrate EQ. Then the following week I might pull up the same multi-track to demonstrate reverb. There is always a student who says: "oh THIS song again?". The poor dear, he has heard it twice. Once in the context of EQ and once in the context of reverb. He is clearly not destined for a career in audio, because he can't just listen to it as sound.

He could only ever mix bands that he "likes".

Mixing is related to music, but it is not "the music" itself. A lot of it is technical. Perhaps not so precise as "X dB" of this and "X%" of that, but the whole business of "a dash more orange there" is way overrated and IMO, often ego-driven. The mix engineer's job is supposed to have more 'distance'.

Because as you say there is no 'correct' way to mix that also means that any number of great mixes are possible and might propel a song to the top of the charts or deep into the hearts of the loyal fans. A truism here at GS is that a "great song" might even reach its audience with a mediocre mix, such is the relative importance of each factor. The first thing is to not screw it up. Which is to me "technical" by comparison, even if not purely "technical" the way operating a nuclear reactor is technical.

Quote:
A big part of my question, fundamentally, is whether folks who've been mixing for years have time for these newer plugins, and clearly you do.
I am having huge fun with them and pleased with the results. But I have never been a Good Old Days kind of guy. Plus I think these things are still in their infancy. Who knows what new uses they will be put to, who knows what new stuff will come?

I for one have not used them much in a replacing function, but I have read engineers who say that they will now often (for example) use such and such multi-band or frequency-riding gizmo instead of an EQ in this or that situation. Of course it is possible that people will start skipping the "basics" and I doubt that will be good for them in the long run, but who knows?
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