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the myth of brilliantly mixed music Effects Pedals, Units & Accessories
Old 1st May 2012
  #1
Gear nut
 

Thread Starter
the myth of brilliantly mixed music

For most products and services, the law of diminishing returns applies. A $300 bottle of wine isn't much, if any, better than a $50 bottle of wine. You can only make a sofa so comfortable. What a Harvard student (vs, say, a Uconn or Clemson student) pays a premium for is not educational benefits. A Bic writes just as well as an expensive pen. You don't gain much by getting the priciest candle on the market. And so on.

I get suspicious when I hear talk of "great" or "brilliant" mixing engineers, and people venerating the renowned ones as if what they had was some kind of rare talent. It's a skill, to be sure, and a craft, and it takes a fair bit of artistic sensitivity. But it's closer to, say, illustrating as a vocation than other endeavors where "great" and "brilliant" might be more apt descriptors. Give 100 experienced illustrators the task of drawing a bear, and you'll probably get 100 well-drawn bears. Some of the bears might suit your tastes better than others, but all the illustrators probably would've been equal to the task, and it would make little sense to try to rank the bears in terms of quality. Same with mixing, I think. Mixing has quickly diminishing returns. It's a skill measured by competence more than by ingenuity. There are definitely bad mixes to be heard out there, but above a certain threshold, virtually all better/worse distinctions disappear. And that threshold is lower than we might think.

Factors that support this view -

1) Music is an art. So that we must always consider the possibility that what sounds like a poor mixing choice was merely an unusual artistic choice - and the possibility that a mixing miscalculation can be seen as a happy artistic accident.

2) The mix is a type of medium, and we soon forget about the medium. Two minutes into a great movie, you've already forgotten about what TV or device you're watching it on. Color film was a fine innovation, but did anyone care that "Casablanca" lacked color? Even the horrible fidelity of Skip James's early recordings isn't enough to stop us from enjoying those recordings. The point is, when we listen to music, we listen to the substance - the arrangement, the performance, rhythm, lyrics, melody, chords - not the mix. As long as the mix is ~good enough~, we quickly forget about it.

3) Playback systems for recorded music vary so widely that the purity of a finely wrought mix doesn't translate to the real world anyway. Digital file compression takes its toll too.

(Same approach goes for gear, too, I'd say. Mics, preamps, converters - above a certain threshold, there's difference, but no better and no worse. And it's a lower threshold than we might think.)

Thoughts?
Old 1st May 2012
  #2
Gear Head
 

There's a bit of arse covering going on for sure. If the single flops and you (the mook, in this case) sent it out to some no-name mixer who's sound you liked, you can bet your coke stash that your boss would blame the mix and your stupid devotion to 'art'. "What's the matter with you, Mook? Do you hate money? Do you hate success? Are you a communist?", he'd say, while busting your sorry butt down to Children's TV Jingles.

Spend a bit more and give it to a Name and sure, you've spent a bit more, but it's a decision that isn't going to bite you in the posterior. Worst case and the mix sucks? It's Name's fault, not yours: now your boss is saying, "he's usually such a safe pair of hands; I don't know what happened. Ah well, maybe he's losing his touch. Better luck next time, Mook my old son. Have a cigar."

EDIT: Yes, you're probably right but it doesn't matter and won't change a thing.

Last edited by scrumper; 1st May 2012 at 07:32 PM.. Reason: Agreement
Old 1st May 2012
  #3
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cowboycoalminer's Avatar
Well thought out and very well written. My thoughts? The trolls will soon appear.
Old 1st May 2012
  #4
IMO you can't compare wine or writing pens to mixing. Not sure you can really compare college education either as that involves many more people and other factors than just a mix engineer.

There is definitely a level of non-suck that makes any mix listenable but a good mix engineer can take a song to a whole new place than what the producer or artists imagined. If that is what you are looking for in a mix engineer, their input and creativity then, yes very worthwhile and no other mixer is going to give you the same end product.

Mixing is an art form just like playing guitar or any other art.

Are you trying to say there are no masters in the mixing world? That makes no sense.
Old 1st May 2012
  #5
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BillSimpkins's Avatar
Quote:
1) Music is an art. So that we must always consider the possibility that what sounds like a poor mixing choice was merely an unusual artistic choice - and the possibility that a mixing miscalculation can be seen as a happy artistic accident.
Happy accidents happen in both high budget and low budget mixes. The best mixing engineers have the ability to mix very "professional" sounding tracks AND "amateur" sounding tracking and everything in between and do so for whatever sounds best for the song. Handing tracks over to someone who only has the ability to do a low-quality mix seems very limiting, artistically.
Quote:
2) The mix is a type of medium, and we soon forget about the medium. Two minutes into a great movie, you've already forgotten about what TV or device you're watching it on. Color film was a fine innovation, but did anyone care that "Casablanca" lacked color? Even the horrible fidelity of Skip James's early recordings isn't enough to stop us from enjoying those recordings. The point is, when we listen to music, we listen to the substance - the arrangement, the performance, rhythm, lyrics, melody, chords - not the mix. As long as the mix is ~good enough~, we quickly forget about it.
Even those old films did things to the best of their ability at the time. In the end it is about the song, but a good mix, or an appropriate mix, should bring out the song even more.
Quote:
3) Playback systems for recorded music vary so widely that the purity of a finely wrought mix doesn't translate to the real world anyway. Digital file compression takes its toll too.

(Same approach goes for gear, too, I'd say. Mics, preamps, converters - above a certain threshold, there's difference, but no better and no worse. And it's a lower threshold than we might think.)
A good mix translates pretty good on whatever medium. I can still tell the difference between most professional mixes and an amateur mix on a 2 inch speaker 10 feet away in a bathroom.
Old 1st May 2012
  #6
Lives for gear
 

Quote:
Originally Posted by Miharbi View Post
1) Music is an art. So that we must always consider the possibility that what sounds like a poor mixing choice was merely an unusual artistic choice - and the possibility that a mixing miscalculation can be seen as a happy artistic accident.
Yes, but you have to attain a high degree of mixing skill before you are able to actually make creative mixing decisions - rather than mixing by trial and error or happy accidents. And those few that have incredible skill are those in a position to make transcendental art. Personally, I am not interested in what I perceive as average art.

Quote:
Originally Posted by Miharbi View Post
2) The mix is a type of medium, and we soon forget about the medium. Two minutes into a great movie, you've already forgotten about what TV or device you're watching it on. Color film was a fine innovation, but did anyone care that "Casablanca" lacked color? Even the horrible fidelity of Skip James's early recordings isn't enough to stop us from enjoying those recordings. The point is, when we listen to music, we listen to the substance - the arrangement, the performance, rhythm, lyrics, melody, chords - not the mix. As long as the mix is ~good enough~, we quickly forget about it.
No, the mix is seamlessly integrated with the performance and the rhythm and the substance etc. If it's not then it's probably not THE mix.

Quote:
Originally Posted by Miharbi View Post
3) Playback systems for recorded music vary so widely that the purity of a finely wrought mix doesn't translate to the real world anyway. Digital file compression takes its toll too.
Yes. And

4. The kids don't hear the mix anymore so they don't care.
Old 1st May 2012
  #7
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T'Mershi Duween's Avatar
 

Yeah, excellence and quality are way overrated and so subjective.

We should all strive for mediocrity and appeal to the lowest common denominator.

Maybe everyone can get a trophy just for trying? Wouldn't want to hurt anyone's "fee fees" by having a skill-set that's superior or anything.

Pretty soon plug ins will produce the content and magically mix it for us! Then we can be free to be celebrities without all of that gosh darn "work" that's required to make quality mixes. I mean, "quality" is sooo subjective anyway, right?

Has art and culture ever seen such golden times?
Old 1st May 2012
  #8
Lives for gear
 

Quote:
Originally Posted by Miharbi View Post
For most products and services, the law of diminishing returns applies. A $300 bottle of wine isn't much, if any, better than a $50 bottle of wine. You can only make a sofa so comfortable. What a Harvard student (vs, say, a Uconn or Clemson student) pays a premium for is not educational benefits. A Bic writes just as well as an expensive pen. You don't gain much by getting the priciest candle on the market. And so on.


Thoughts?
You're making objective judgements on subjective things.

I may not be able to tell the difference in wine or writing instruments, but believe me, someone can and finds the difference worth it.

Beyond that - if you compare a mix engineer to an illustrator, your hypothesis holds up.. if you see the mix engineer as more of an artist, not so much.

I think in today's popular music marketplace, you're probably more right than not.
Old 1st May 2012
  #9
Lives for gear
 

Everyone should keep telling themselves they are as good as Andy Wallace. It will make them feel super good.
Old 1st May 2012
  #10
Lives for gear
 

Quote:
Originally Posted by Miharbi View Post
But it's closer to, say, illustrating as a vocation than other endeavors where "great" and "brilliant" might be more apt descriptors. Give 100 experienced illustrators the task of drawing a bear, and you'll probably get 100 well-drawn bears. Some of the bears might suit your tastes better than others, but all the illustrators probably would've been equal to the task, and it would make little sense to try to rank the bears in terms of quality.
That's just stupid.




Quote:
Originally Posted by Miharbi View Post
1) Music is an art. So that we must always consider the possibility that what sounds like a poor mixing choice was merely an unusual artistic choice - and the possibility that a mixing miscalculation can be seen as a happy artistic accident.

2) The mix is a type of medium, and we soon forget about the medium. Two minutes into a great movie, you've already forgotten about what TV or device you're watching it on. Color film was a fine innovation, but did anyone care that "Casablanca" lacked color? Even the horrible fidelity of Skip James's early recordings isn't enough to stop us from enjoying those recordings. The point is, when we listen to music, we listen to the substance - the arrangement, the performance, rhythm, lyrics, melody, chords - not the mix. As long as the mix is ~good enough~, we quickly forget about it.
Those two claims are contradictory. Is the mix an inseparable part of the art itself, or is it merely an invisible technical consideration? You can't have it both ways.
Old 1st May 2012
  #11
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YOHAMI's Avatar
 

Agree and disagree. Put the top 1000 guitar players one to each other and have them all play the same solo. You'll get the good the ugly and the brilliant.

Now, is the performance going to have an impact on how the song does? Yes and no, depending on how good or bad the piece is, and how much the performance enhances and squeezes its emotional content, or destroys it.

In some cases the performance can add substance where there was none, and make the song.

And mixing is a performing art.
Old 1st May 2012
  #12
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YOHAMI's Avatar
 

initialsBB,

If it was a casting for a kids movie, the teddy bear wins.
Old 1st May 2012
  #13
Gear Guru
Great mixing = great turd polishing.
Mythbusters proved that you CAN polish a turd, literally.

A bad mix can ruin a good song.

A good re-mix can transform a tired song. Arguably that is a lot more than just mixing - it's an artistic creation involving arrangement, orchestration and often using the studio as an instrument.

I think a "brilliant mixer" goes beyond simple mixing, which is why they are so successful, and it makes other less creative engineers cry sour grapes ...
Old 1st May 2012
  #14
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Quote:
Originally Posted by initialsBB View Post
That's just stupid.

Ahhh...but which bear is the right bear for a Dora the Explorer adventure?

And which one for your rock-n-roll CD cover?
Old 1st May 2012
  #15
Lives for gear
 

Quote:
Originally Posted by YOHAMI View Post
initialsBB,

If it was a casting for a kids movie, the teddy bear wins.
Quote:
Originally Posted by slaphappy View Post
Ahhh...but which bear is the right bear for a Dora the Explorer adventure?

And which one for your rock-n-roll CD cover?

That's my point exactly. You can rate them in terms of quality in relation to how well they serve the client's goal. You're crazy if you think each of those illustrators could do exactly what the other one did.

And it's the same thing with mixing. You're not necessarily going to hire somebody who is considered brilliant at top 40 pop to mix your metal album. And if the person who is good at mixing metal is in demand then his rates are going to be high. The idea that all mixers or all illustrators are somehow interchangeable is laughable. Different people have different qualities that are sought after and which determines the rate they can charge.
Old 1st May 2012
  #16
Harmless Wacko
 

The myth of brilliant internot commentary.

"Out, dunghill! darst thou brave a nobleman?"


SM.
Old 1st May 2012
  #17
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doorknocker's Avatar
Quote:
Originally Posted by Miharbi View Post
A $300 bottle of wine isn't much, if any, better than a $50 bottle of wine.
Not if you never tasted wine before. Also, the question is whether the $250 difference is just down to the rarity of the vintage or the celebrated name attached to it.

But assuming it's a fair representation of the way the wine was made and matured then I'd say:

In most cases a $50 bottle of wine will be more than good enough for what is being used for. But it might actually be superior to the $300 if it isn't the right wine for your dinner. (I'm just making examples, personally I'm far from a wine connaisseur and don't really like wine to begin with).

So the wine isn't just an isolated 'thing', rather it's part of a context which may be your previous experience, knowledge, the company you're with, the temperature it's being served, etc, etc

In the same way you need to educate your ears to even be able to hear the difference between an o.k and a great mix. And the perception of the mix is also heavily colored by your emotional response to the music. But since the mix CAN alter that response to a certain extent the whole thigng becomes a loop and so much more than 'diminishing returns'.

Brillantly mixes music isn't a 'myth'. Rather it's the question whether you're trying to make up for something that should have been done at tracking or arranging.

Too often, 'brillant' gets used for either a) blinding technical display or b) 'miracle working' as in tightening up and polishing lacklustre perfromances.

The most brillant mix might be the one that hardly uses any EQ or effects because it is not necessary. I would still call it a 'brillant' mix then even though it is all about the song/performance/tarcking.

And diminishing return shouldn't stop anybody from pursuing high goals.
Old 1st May 2012
  #18
Quote:
Originally Posted by BillSimpkins View Post
Happy accidents happen in both high budget and low budget mixes. The best mixing engineers have the ability to mix very "professional" sounding tracks AND "amateur" sounding tracking and everything in between and do so for whatever sounds best for the song. Handing tracks over to someone who only has the ability to do a low-quality mix seems very limiting, artistically.

Even those old films did things to the best of their ability at the time. In the end it is about the song, but a good mix, or an appropriate mix, should bring out the song even more.

A good mix translates pretty good on whatever medium. I can still tell the difference between most professional mixes and an amateur mix on a 2 inch speaker 10 feet away in a bathroom.
The men here has very good point...
Old 1st May 2012
  #19
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YOHAMI's Avatar
 

The point stands when presented like this:

Get a hit song masterly performed and recorded. Send it to 100 mixers that go from good-enough to brilliant and get as many mixes.

Then, even when there will be differences and some will be better than the others, the success of the song should be pretty much independent on which mix you release.

I can see the point since some hits out there sound like CRAP, and they are still hits.

Maybe the naked beatles would have been a hit without Phil Spector.

But... given the choice and I'll pick the brilliant mix and the 300 wine and the top 10 model girl every time.
Old 1st May 2012
  #20
I think you pay for the mix engineer's style, ear and particular mix presentation.

Some of those qualities when rendered in a mix are very popular and hard to get just anywhere, so you pay for whoever can consistently do it the way you like it. Doesn't mean you won't run into a situation with a well known mixer that for whatever reason doesn't gel with your project. Doesn't mean that when that happens that high dollar mix engineers are all hype either.

Could it be cheaper overall? Probably, but very few mix engineers are getting rich doing it, even those with names. So perhaps, given the level of revenue a hit album can generate, it's appropriate to cough up a few tens of kilobucks so they can continue doing what they do and be around for us to enjoy.

Is that diminishing returns? Only if you don't value what the engineer has to offer. Some do and some don't. Fortunately there's a price range for all. Bedroom warrior and small time rogue included.
Old 1st May 2012
  #21
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doorknocker's Avatar
This discussion -especially regarding 'diminishing returns' - reminds me of the way some folks approach co-writes. 'I wrote 80% of the words and the chorus so I need a bigger share'. Right, but maybe it's the little intro riff that sells the song.

It all is meaningless because everything has to come together. Sometimes a song mixes itself. Other times it takes miracle work from a top-dollar specialist. There are no rules.
Old 1st May 2012
  #22
Quote:
Originally Posted by Winey View Post
Everyone should keep telling themselves they are as good as Andy Wallace. It will make them feel super good.
To be fair though, people who are perceived to be at the top of the game probably also get to start with vastly better raw materials than most anyone around here will. I don't know to what degree that Andy Wallace is renowned for taking crap and turning it onto gold. Maybe that's something he does all the time. So I'm not trying to make a specific point about him.

But it is true that the chef at the top end restraurant gets to work with the best possible ingredients. Even if he were only equal in actual skill to someone less well known, he'd start off with an advantage. And of course there's also the fact that if you are working with popular bands who are well known, everyone WANTS to like your work already. As compared to the unknown mixing the unknown or semi-known band for whom everyone actually critiques the work without any aura around it, and there's no hesitation to be pretty brutal about it. The same thing happens at the artist level. The well known artist with the wierd voice is unique and special, whereas the guy here on Gearslutz with the weird voice posting the stuff he recorded himself is just wierd.

When folks around here go through, say, one of those Shaking Through threads, listening to what other folks here have done with those tracks, they are probably listening to them with a 'prove it' attitude and looking for things that aren't 'right' in their opinion, because they know the person who did the mix is just another person here. If some well known mixers anonymously posted their own stuff there, they might get similar reactions as compared to if they posted it openly (assuming their style isn't so obviously recognizable that they can't get away with being anonymous or something.)

Anyhoo, I'm not particularly taking sides in this argument, just pointing out some possible factors to consider.
Old 1st May 2012
  #23
Lives for gear
 

My $0.02... fwiw...

Mixing isn't an art imo, it's a service. Granted, in many electronic genres mixing has been kinda coalesced with production so much that it's often hard to tell where the line between the two is. But in general (imo) mixing isn't an art at all... it's an acquired professional skill... like welding... some do it much better than others... but the only real art there is the music.

If mix engineers are artists then so are the other 1,000,000 professions where it takes years of study and practice to do them well. The fact that the services relates to art, doesn't make the service provider an artist.

I think (respectfully) it was about the time where mix engineers started to consider themselves as important (or more important) than the artist that it all kinda started to go downhill. Now it's probably less likely the case that a random mix engineer will just shut up and do what you want as opposed to trying to "produce" your song, unsolicited.
Old 1st May 2012
  #24
Gear Guru
 
drBill's Avatar
The constant GS dumbing down of the art and craft of music saddens me.

Feel free to believe that bad mixing techniques, crappy converters, cheap microphones, zero experience, and bedroom studio's are as good as the traditional alternatives. If that makes you sleep better and feel less insecure, embrace it.

Meanwhile, real artists, engineers, producers strive for the absolute BEST they can do, and will be pulling forward to the front. Choose which paradigm you want to live in and go.

Carry on.
Old 1st May 2012
  #25
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T'Mershi Duween's Avatar
 

Quote:
Originally Posted by Lawrence View Post
Mixing isn't an art imo, it's a service...

The fact that the services relates to art, doesn't make the service provider an artist....
I think Hugh Padgham, Steve Lillywhite, Tchad Blake, Mitch Easter, John Leckie, Ken Scott, etc. are artists when it comes to mixing recorded music.

Take a listen to John Leckie's mix of 25 O'Clock by the Dukes Of Stratosfear (actually XTC of course!) and tell me that it's not "art".

Perhaps mainstream hacks like CLA phone that **** in and just provide a "service", but that's probably because that kind of commercial music has no real artistic value anyway.

Uh... subjectively speaking that is...
Old 1st May 2012
  #26
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RARStudios's Avatar
Why are you on here if you have it all figured out? Go mix just like CLA, Brauer and Martin...if it's not an art form, it can OBVIOUSLY be easily replicated and everyone can mix the same. All those years those guys spent mixing was a waste when they could've just talked to you! I bet they feel dumb.

Question: Why even post stuff like this? Have a lot of time on your hands?
Old 1st May 2012
  #27
If you don't feel mixing is an art form, then I think you are doing it wrong.
Old 1st May 2012
  #28
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T'Mershi Duween's Avatar
 

Quote:
Originally Posted by drBill View Post
The constant GS dumbing down of the art and craft of music saddens me.
Me too doc, me too.

Unfortunately, I think it's just a reflection of modern society where all culture and art has been devalued to a some degree. It's just not cool to strive for excellence anymore.

Nowadays you can get famous by just being some idiot on a reality show or lip-synching to half-ass computer generated dance "music". That's what some people now consider "art".

Some here on GS celebrate such low-brow idiocy while others consider it aesthetically offensive.

I think you know what my subjective opinion is...
Old 1st May 2012
  #29
Lives for gear
 

And off we go into Disneyland.

Look, I have utmost respect for great engineers. I wish I was as good as they are. I'm not and probably never will be. But that only means that they have great skill and great talent, it doesn't make them "artists".

If so, then every professional video editor is an artist, every great lawyer, every mechanic who can do more with less tools, and better, then most. The performers are the artists, we engineers are technicians.

Context is really crucial here guys. It's maybe too common to call great skill an artform, when it literally isn't the case in all cases, only where (imo) the person actually created the art.

It's a common use of the language to call great skill art, but in this case (because it involves an actual art form, music?) people seem to take it too literally.
Old 1st May 2012
  #30
Gear Addict
 

Quote:
Originally Posted by Miharbi View Post
For most products and services, the law of diminishing returns applies. A $300 bottle of wine isn't much, if any, better than a $50 bottle of wine. You can only make a sofa so comfortable. What a Harvard student (vs, say, a Uconn or Clemson student) pays a premium for is not educational benefits. A Bic writes just as well as an expensive pen. You don't gain much by getting the priciest candle on the market. And so on.

I get suspicious when I hear talk of "great" or "brilliant" mixing engineers, and people venerating the renowned ones as if what they had was some kind of rare talent. It's a skill, to be sure, and a craft, and it takes a fair bit of artistic sensitivity. But it's closer to, say, illustrating as a vocation than other endeavors where "great" and "brilliant" might be more apt descriptors. Give 100 experienced illustrators the task of drawing a bear, and you'll probably get 100 well-drawn bears. Some of the bears might suit your tastes better than others, but all the illustrators probably would've been equal to the task, and it would make little sense to try to rank the bears in terms of quality. Same with mixing, I think. Mixing has quickly diminishing returns. It's a skill measured by competence more than by ingenuity. There are definitely bad mixes to be heard out there, but above a certain threshold, virtually all better/worse distinctions disappear. And that threshold is lower than we might think.

Factors that support this view -

1) Music is an art. So that we must always consider the possibility that what sounds like a poor mixing choice was merely an unusual artistic choice - and the possibility that a mixing miscalculation can be seen as a happy artistic accident.

2) The mix is a type of medium, and we soon forget about the medium. Two minutes into a great movie, you've already forgotten about what TV or device you're watching it on. Color film was a fine innovation, but did anyone care that "Casablanca" lacked color? Even the horrible fidelity of Skip James's early recordings isn't enough to stop us from enjoying those recordings. The point is, when we listen to music, we listen to the substance - the arrangement, the performance, rhythm, lyrics, melody, chords - not the mix. As long as the mix is ~good enough~, we quickly forget about it.

3) Playback systems for recorded music vary so widely that the purity of a finely wrought mix doesn't translate to the real world anyway. Digital file compression takes its toll too.

(Same approach goes for gear, too, I'd say. Mics, preamps, converters - above a certain threshold, there's difference, but no better and no worse. And it's a lower threshold than we might think.)

Thoughts?
You are absolutely correct; unfortunately you are posting this on a forum where far too many members think that their contribution is more important than the work of the artists themselves. So I wouldn't expect many people here to agree with you.
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