The Psychology of Mixing

Dom Morley takes a look at the mental aspect of mixing and explains why it is important to maintain a balance…

I love a technical discussion as much as the next person, but I think it’s worth pausing every now and then to think about the psychological aspect of the work that we do. What challenges do we face as engineers, and what do we need to consider on behalf of our clients?

I would say that the biggest psychological challenge that we face during mixing is maintaining perspective. If you’ve ever got stuck into a mix, been deep in a ‘flow state’ and then after a few hours compared your mix to a reference track and realised that there’s not enough bass, or your vocal is clearly too loud, then you know what I mean. These things can happen, and it’s just a case of keeping your perspective in check.

If you’re mixing for a client, then you should have a playlist with a few tracks that they want you to sonically aim for. Keep referring to these to make sure you’re in the ballpark. Obviously, you’re not looking to copy anything – just to be able to stand up alongside them and sound like you should be there.

In a very Buzzfeed-y sort of way, I have three ‘takes’ that can help maintain perspective:

– Take breaks. Getting yourself into a ‘flow state’ can really push a mix forwards, but you have to remember that regular breaks prevent you from pushing for many hours in the wrong direction. I find it useful to get up and walk around. Leave the room or even leave the building if you can. Just sitting in the same chair and hopping on to social media is technically a break from mixing, but it’s not as effective as actually leaving the space that you’re working in (I think I need to be in an acoustically different space to properly give my ears a rest but maybe that’s just me). It only needs to be a couple of minutes and then sit back in front of your mix and prepare to…

– Take notes. On your first listen back after a break you hear with fresh ears, but this perspective doesn’t last very long. You know when you come back home from a holiday, and you have about 30 minutes where you walk around and see your house/flat as other people do. Why is that pile of stuff still in the corner? How is that wall still not painted? This bathroom looks tragic, etc. After about 30 minutes you don’t see those problems again until the next time you come home from a break. Coming back to a mix after a break is a similar thing. That’s why it’s good to make notes on that first listen – a few things will be noticeable with this new perspective and they will be worth exploring. Within a couple of listens those fresh ears will be back to normal.

– Take a friend. This is an interesting one, as playing your mix to a friend can really help you hear it from a listener’s perspective. If this friend has an opinion that you trust then all the better, but the reason you’re doing this is to see how it changes your perspective and not to gain theirs. This is really worth trying if you have not done it before, as you’re likely to be amazed by what you notice when you’re in this ‘performance’ frame of mind.

As a mixer you come in right at the end of a potentially very long process. It’s also possible that you’re the first ‘outsider’ to be involved creatively. Being respectful of this and understanding your client’s stresses will help any mix session go smoothly.

Mixing is generally remote these days – artists appear to have come to the conclusion that mixing is not a spectator sport (I was an assistant for a few years, and I agree). This is not a problem but it requires good communication. Let your client know what’s happening and when it’s happening, of course, but also make sure you get as much information as possible on what they are looking for. Obviously ask for a playlist to give you an idea of how they want to sound, but also ask why each song is on the playlist. Is it there because they like the vocal sound? Or the drum sound? Or is it just the overall balance? This communication will reassure the client and make your life easier.

And as a final note on the psychology of mixing – unless you are lucky enough to be in a large studio complex with lots of people to talk to, you’ll find yourself working on your own most of the time. This level of solitude is not normal for humans and can be bad for your mental health. Try to integrate some actual (not virtual) human interaction into your working life and it’ll make for happier and more creative sessions!

Dom Morley is a Grammy Award winning producer and mixer based in his own Oxfordshire (UK) studio.