I don’t think that rock is dead, but I find myself nervously checking its pulse more frequently these days. And while the coroners of rock are mostly fixated on its front-facing performers, sometimes it’s a good idea to take the temperature of their enablers – a little health check for the people, like me, who largely work behind the scenes. Could your mixes be the nail in the rock n’ roll coffin? Regardless of your answer, you may be surprised to hear that one way to progress as a mixer is to regress to a time when you knew less about music making – but possessed the irrational optimism that making noise could make a difference. We’ve been conditioned to NOT be the wildcard; to literally blend in - not stand out. After all, the control room is no place for losing control, right? I think there’s a lot to be said for throwing this mentality out the window and recalibrating the way we think of mixing rock music. What happens when you inject some genuine rebellion into your mixes? The results are more dramatic than any piece of gear or plug in you can buy.
When Shit Hits the Fanatics
Most engineers are used to capturing and processing attitude, not generating it. So, how do you revert back to a time when music like this moved you? First of all, understand that this is not about nostalgia; it’s about actually feeling the way you did when you attended your first rock concert and fusing that with everything you currently know about mixing rock music. The idea is to combine the angst, the naturally occurring rebellion and the emotional volatility of a teenager with all your accrued mix wisdom…and voila, you have the DNA of a supernatural rock mixer.
How is this accomplished? Well, I’ve whittled the concept down to 5 steps that can help you get into this headspace and wrangle your inner child away from protective services just long enough to do some damage…in a good way.
1. Define Your Workflow
Not all of the mix process can be a reckless act of adolescent defiance; it’s actually sandwiched between rational preparation and detail work. Take the time to tee this up for yourself so your expression can count for something tangible without being hindered by repatching, renaming tracks, or scrolling through bottomless drop-down menus. Have aux sends, go-to-plugins, and track color coding chambered up for easy access when you’re in the mix zone.
2. Take Control
Akin to the non-automated mixes that were done in the 70s - where fader moves were outsourced to available appendages in the building - altering the movement and dynamics of recorded instruments should be a performance, have character and possess a personality. Perfection is not interesting and certainly not an attribute of the teenage mix prodigy that you’ve devolved to. The computer mouse is not very rock n’ roll. An ergonomically placed control surface can go a long way as the conduit to your badass attitude.
3. Have Something to Prove
Doing things for the wrong reason is a hallmark of adolescence and an important component in recreating the mix-savvy teenage version of you. Conventional wisdom says you should be driven by self-satisfaction - not the approval of others, but I contend that your mix will sound better if you work under the premise that nailing the mix will get you laid. Tones courtesy of testosterone are more boldly defined. EQ like you have something to prove. Come on, compress to impress…you know you want to.
4. Be Judgmental
This can only be described as mixing on instinct. Your first pass through the song needs to be reactive and pretty much devoid of rational thought. Here’s where snap judgments, sonic discrimination, plug-in prejudice, and binaural bigotry is not only encouraged…it’s absolutely essential. Huge, broad strokes that radically shape the feel and tone of the track are determined very quickly here. What you can do in 20 minutes should get you 90% of the way there. Fine-tuning and the detail work (that only you will ever appreciate) can be done in less of an erratic state and will probably take the rest of the day.
5. Push Boundaries
Hendrix set his guitar on fire. Nirvana destroyed their instruments on stage. You shouldn’t torch your Mac Pro, but you should be looking to hit the ceiling of the gear that you use. Find ways to get unintended results from plug-ins, software and hardware alike to achieve an unexpected level of expression. Plus, abusing technology will be retribution for all the times it has abused you. Get mad. Get even. #revengineering
Youth Gone Mild?
There’s a lot of work that goes into making something look easy. Like all art forms, it will take time for you to effectively harness your emotions into this medium. Your new knee-jerk mixing style may not be useable for anything for a while, and by all accounts you may feel like you’re smothering rock n’ roll under a throw pillow rather than saving it. Sometimes it gets worse before it gets better…but it’s all necessary in order to make some noise worth sharing. Let’s face it, legendary rock icons' days are numbered and I don’t know about you, but I’m not down with fumbling the torch that has been passed to us. The best way to cheat the death of rock is to create music that will outlive us all. Mix like you mean it.