Recently, my band Project DIVIDE recorded the song that I’m thus far the proudest of in our career. It represents a new milestone for us as songwriters, and the production represents a new milestone for me as a producer and engineer.
But I’m sure in 2 years I’ll totally hate it.
Two years ago, we set yet another such milestone, and today, I listen to it and think it’s flat and lifeless garbage compared to what I can do now as a mix engineer. Note that I’m not calling the music garbage, and truthfully I still enjoy the mixes from our last EP, but I learned a hell of a lot since that EP and think I could’ve taken it to a higher plateau today.
But am I gonna remix it and re-release it?
What’s done is done, what’s released is released, and it’s already out there becoming part of the memory soundscape of our fans. I hate it when bands re-record things and re-release them after the version I fell in love with has been woven into the fabric of my past. It’s not the same unless it’s the same set of transients and harmonics in every way. A very similar representation of the same does not invoke the same memories. The first chords of “Fell On Black Days” takes me directly back to being a teenager in the 90’s. I’m 14 again before the first phrase is finished.
When we release our EP’s, they become the property of our fans. I can’t take that away from them just because I feel I could better represent the song now. It’s no longer about our vision, it’s about letting it be what we were in that moment and allowing it to remain for our fans to connect to.
I wish more artists got that.
Anyway, the cool thing about this is that I can mark my progress as an engineer based on the sonic quality of each EP we’ve done. Rewind back to 2012, and the first EP we made I thought sounded badass. I was very proud of it. 4 years later, I can barely listen to it when I’m in analytical mode because I keep picking apart everything in the mixes. When I’m not in analytical mode, I can enjoy the music for what it is. But I’ll freely admit that there are problems with the mix. It feels more like a demo to me, not an official release. The drums were Steven Slate Drums 3.5 EX, and they were all one velocity (because I didn’t know better and was a bit lazier about those details then). I blame the engineer, and not the gear, because the engineer didn’t know very much but thought he knew a lot.
Here’s a look into our world back in 2012 when that EP was released.
I had learned some lessons from the last EP. Having upgraded to SSD4, I played the drums using a midi controller to give them a more human-like feel. The editing was a lot tighter on this EP, and I hadn’t discovered how much I loved analog modeling yet. I figured it didn’t matter, and I still believe that. But I do enjoy the way it sounds and usually miss it if it’s not on a source.
I was also taking risks with our soundscapes, doing things that would cause other engineers to run simply because they gave me the vibe I was looking for. Things like using melodyne on every source on a song, even guitars, because the way it impacted the transients I thought sounded really eerie and cool for the song. Polyphonic mode on an arpeggiated acoustic guitar added a weird overtone shift that felt like a synth effect that I just loved on the song. Looking back, that may have been overkill, but I still enjoy the way the song came out.
Here’s a look at the song I’m talking about, 2014’s “Choices”.
I also dove head first into online learning. The Home Mastering Masterclass, Mixing With REAPER, Groove3.com, Puremix.com, The Mix Academy, Pro Studio Live, and things I learned through research, all helped finally shed some serious light on things I had trouble grasping and helped train my ear in ways that I’d never considered to be possible before. I can honestly say I’m a far better mixer today because of my time off, which forced me to constantly re-evaluate myself.
The latest course I took was the Audio Legends course from Slate Digital with Chris Lorde Alge. After taking that, as usual, I had a few light bulbs go off n my mind. After applying a lot of what I’d learned, here’s the results on my latest Project DIVIDE mix called “Dancing Angels”.
NEVER STOP. Keep doing what you have to do to keep going if it’s truly what you love.
LEARN. Read everything, from the latest issues of Computer Music Magazine right down to the manuals for your software and plugins.
ASK! Never be afraid to ask a question, no matter how much of a “Noob” you see yourself to be. If someone gives you shit for asking a question, come to The Noise Floor’s Facebook group. We don’t allow that, because that’s detrimental to a less experienced engineer’s ability to build up confidence and learn.
EVALUATE. Constantly evaluate where you are. Pick out fine details of your latest works and compare them against the stuff you hear on the radio and on streaming services.
GET FEEDBACK. Ask peers for help, but do it in specific ways. If you ask a group of engineers for a mix critique, they’ll come in and tell you everything they think is wrong. They’ll even be looking for things to call out, and that’s not gonna help you. Instead, ask for help with specific issues, give the example of the mix for them to hear, and see what advice they can give for that issue. If there’s something else that sticks out, they’ll tell you. If they don’t tell you, they may not have noticed because they weren’t explicitly looking for it.
INVEST IN YOURSELF. Take online courses, put in the time, and never ever stop improving your craft and your ears.
And the biggest tip I can offer newer engineers is to BE PATIENT. This will be a slow process, and there’s a lot of small nuances to learn. Tackle things slowly and methodically. The best way to eat an elephant is one bite at a time.