Understanding an artist’s creative philosophy when mixing their tracks

Engineer Tobin Jones explains the importance of familiarising yourself with an artist’s musical intentions in order to achieve a mix that conveys the message they were hoping to get across when their song was written and recorded.

The most important part of any mix is to understand how the artist envisions their own music. What do they want to get out of it artistically, financially and emotionally? Usually it’s a combination of all three of these factors. In my experience, when an artist is overly driven by financial considerations the project can lack conviction and become confused. Above all, it is the emotional aesthetic of the track that must prevail. This is true regardless of genre, instrumentation and composition.

Understanding the artist’s musical and sonic background is key to achieving a mix that is original and engaging, which captures their creative and emotional intentions. It is important to spend time talking through these points with the artist and not to be shy in asking the personal reasoning behind why the songs were written.

Ultimately the artist’s view is the most important. If they don’t like something in your mix they are right regardless of your views. At the end of the day it is their artistic creation and expression – not yours. That is not to say that you cannot be creative and expressive with your mix – you should be, but you must do this within the scope of the artist’s creative vision. Sometimes they might be unsure of what this vision is and in this case it is imperative you spend time discussing the songs and the broader artistic philosophies that drive the artist.

Discuss how the artist would like their music to sound. Most artists want other people to like their music, although this is not always the case and I have worked with many artists who really don’t care what other people think, as it is his or her creative expression. I personally find this stance very inspiring as it can prevent the music from becoming diluted and confused by constriction of other factors. It also allows for the track to sound more concise. Other artists can’t afford to be so staunched in their convictions and this can mean doing things to make sure listeners engage with the music. There is an important reciprocal relationship between the artist and the listener and knowing that your music is stimulating an emotion in another person can feed on-going creativity. Understanding the extent of this is why it is so important to get where the artist is coming from.

There is an important reciprocal relationship between the artist and the listener

– Tobin Jones

Why I don’t ask for reference tracks

When mixing, I very rarely ask for reference tracks. I find that it tells me very little about the context and emotion of the actual song I’m working on even if they follow similar paths sonically. Music is generally a reflection of emotion of some kind. Most artists write a song based around a feeling they have or one they want to provoke in others. Therefore the mixing needs to reflect that emotion – if it doesn’t, it will fail as a mix.

If an artist wants to sound like someone else it is never going to happen. In my opinion it’s OK to have influences, but truly creative music has its own unique sound. Great music has never been made by copying someone else and the same is true of great mixes.

When I get asked to do a mix, instead of reference tracks I ask for a short sentence/paragraph about what the song is about; what emotions the artist felt while writing the track and the emotion(s) that they want to inspire in the listener. This tells me far more about how the artist wants to sound than another released track by another artist, which will probably be totally out of emotional context with the song they have written.

When I get a track to mix, it may have been years since the artist wrote the song, or they may have recorded it numerous times with different producers and engineers. Sometimes this means they have come to the point where they hate the song and have become totally disconnected with the original intention behind it. Often by asking them to write a little bit about the song actually reconnects the artist to the song and helps them remember why they wrote it in the first place.

Attended sessions

There are many engineers who prefer the artists not to be present during mixing or at least for the start of the session. I can see the attraction of this for the engineer as it allows them to do what they feel unhindered, however I think it is very important for the artist to be present for at least some of the mixing process. Mixing is a journey, taking a track from one place to another. As the music is the artists’ own expression it is important they are present during this journey. As an engineer, this means allowing the artist to express themselves during the session but also communicating with them in a way that allows you to get on with the legwork of the mix. Being able to retain focus on a mix while the artist or band is in the control room takes time and practice but it is well worth the investment. When artists are involved in the mixing process they generally feel more connected to the song and the creativity that goes into it and will ultimately be happier with the results. Knowing that you care about their artistic and emotional intention will inspire confidence within them and feed into your own creative head space when mixing, resulting in a more artistically-aware mix.

Tobin Jones is owner and head engineer at The Park Studios, a recording studio in Wembley, London.