COLUMN: Dave Swallow on mixing art

Is there really an art to mixing a show? After all, there are so many external factors that come into play when putting sound into a room, how much does it matter what you do? The sound changes as the room fills up, the humidity and temperature increases, so, is there an actual art to mixing or is it just down to experience and luck?

I think, as the equipment we use gets more refined and bit depth and sample rates increase, we are now being presented with true HD audio. Sound is by far our most accurate sense, but for some reason always seems to come second to visuals. I suppose images are more immediate and audio is, on the most part, subtle. Think about it like this; we see one octave in colour, we hear ten. We look forward, we hear all around us. The frames per second on an HD film is at most 30fps, yet if we convert our audio sense into frames per second, it would be nearing 56,000fps, and that’s just the start.

Digital technology has opened the world of audio right up, more than analogue technology ever could. I’ve read some articles recently that have got me really excited about the future of audio. I know some think we have stagnated and others think that we are at the very peak of audio technology. Personally, I think we are very far away from the potential, but well on the way to getting there. It is only through pushing the boundaries of what we can do that will eventually get us there, and as mixers we should be leading from the front. Each and every one of us should be questioning ourselves, our own abilities, and if the equipment we are using is really good enough or merely an adequate tool for doing an adequate job.

How does this all relate to creativity? How can we paint a sonic picture? How can we be creative within the confines of the room, our equipment and our artiste? These are all questions I’ve spent a long time thinking about. These questions will continue to be asked, but are rarely answered to anyone’s satisfaction.

As with any form of art, creativity comes from within, but how we tap into this creativeness and understand it is a very personal journey. Luckily for us as mixers, music is a very personal subject, so our journey into the realm of creative mixing starts with our personal relationship to music.

Our journey into ourselves starts with our own instinct. If you truly understand what you are mixing then there is no need to think about how it sounds. All those thoughts have been grouped together in your subconscious. Because you are tapping into your subconscious you should let your instinct and intuition guide your mix to a place where it feels right for you. After all music, is all about feeling. But your instinct comes from all of your influences. Your influences are one of the most important parts in your whole creative side. They guide and build your creativeness, but you must be aware of where they came from, and how they have biased you. We are all guilty of building opinions without gaining the proper knowledge, and the most important part to that knowledge is the personal journey you took to get there.

I gave a seminar at Plasa Focus in April and I used the word archiphonics. This means a kind of focal point, but not the focal point of a vocal or a guitar solo, but the whole crux of the song. Most songs weren’t written with that amazing vocal line, or that superb drop just before the bridge, the majority of these songs started as a small idea and grew from there. When you understand the music and where it came from, you can express these parts as a new angle on your mix, and this, is where the art of mixing a show starts.