Mixing – The creative process and a business conundrum

If one puts aside for a moment the sometimes complicated and technical business of professional audio mixing and the audio engineers, whom for some mad reason have decided to specialise in this art; an art reliant on the love of the creative process that improves and enhances the song. Many of us, with the material taking precedent over all other factors, may tend to understandably forget the actual work that goes into preparing and actually mixing a song when we engage a mixing engineer.

First, let us identify a couple of reasons why we have ever decided to use audio mixing engineers. Is it because the label or artist wants a fresh professional vision or mix on what for the artist is very personal material? Maybe, because it is understood that through years of loving this art, the engineer and the experience they have accumulated far surpass our own knowledge? Perhaps, it could simply be the vintage outboard or equipment that allows the engineer to mix “out of the box’ in analogue? Whatever the reason, it would be true that the sonic environment the audio mixing engineer uses and the results obtained are generally better than our own. For the acoustic environment, equipment and experience of the engineer ensure that the song reaches its required height and this allows the artist to continue to spend their valuable time composing, arranging or producing.

When an engineer accepts to mix for a client, most engineers will tell you that the first stage for them is to get to know the song – inside out! This will involve reading any session and track notes or other documentation provided by the artist or label. All this will be scrutinised in conjunction with auditioning both the song, and individual tracks several times over, as the engineer wants first to understand the arrangement before anything else takes place.

The engineer has to identify the direction of the song based on what the artist is trying to convey and establish their mix vision. At this stage, many engineers start to write notes about what needs to be done (some have the facility to remember – but not this author) but essentially all complete certain technical aspects first before the creative process starts, such as laying out the tracks logically on the desk, cleaning, restoring audio and even performance editing.

At this early stage an engineer may start to write some basic fader automation or a stereo bus compressor on the mix buss to add some sonic glue, but all work to their own process or sequence, to move the song to that “mix vision” point they are seeking. This process can start by bringing up all the faders or approaching the song with few tracks in stages – there are pros and cons for each method.

During the mixing process, an engineer can have sometimes 90 channels or more of audio, group aux inputs, and effects returns. Albeit that todays’ DAW’s (and some desks) allow engineers to reload sessions (and parameters of the desk, plugins and outboard), the engineer keeps written notes of most mix elements so that a session can easily revisited later when the artist requests revisions.

It is quite understandable that many of us who mix “In the box”, may start to realise that in order for an engineer to effectively interpret, create and reach a vision of a song, it is a process that can take up to 10 hours or more. In some cases and depending on the material, length and complexity, the work process and therefore the project can be revisited over several days, especially if an Artist or Label has given the engineer more than one song to mix.

Some engineers, once they have reached the vision of a song, will return to the track the following day, (if the deadline permits) to make sure that their rested ears agree with the first mix main pass before sending it to the client for comments.

Some engineers, once the revision process is complete and the final mix has been signed off by the client, will go a step further and supply the main pass with a cappella, instrumental or clean mix of the song.

Needless to say, there is a lot of work in the technical and creative mixing process of an engineer at work. As such, we lose sight of the financial aspect of this art whilst we  maintaining the artistic vision.

Commercial rents and rates, salaries, electricity, upgrades of software or hardware (Pro Tools HDX anyone), warranty extensions of equipment, maintenance, telephone and even coffee are all examples of financial costs that the engineer and studio must bear, something that mixingAudioPros, being run by engineers understood only too well.

mixingAudioPros asked the engineers how mixingAudioPros could charge clients based on the actual work involved and allow the engineer to quote a client calculated on the actual time required. The aim was to reach a professional mix of the artist’s material at a price that would allow the engineer to achieve the professional result that the client wanted.  For the engineer, reputation in this industry is everything and mixingAudioPros is not a factory? After various discussions, mixingAudioPros came up with a solution!

mixingAudioPros sends a rough mix of the song with any session/track notes the client may have to the engineer, so that the engineer can correctly quote on the work involved to mix the song to the professional level. On each engineer’s page, you will find a “From” price to a “maximum price guide”. This allows the visitor to see what the ‘spread” for an engineer will be, depending on the work involved.

The “find out more” button on each engineer’s page allows you to ask mixingAudioPros and the engineer questions, be they about the site, audio services or perhaps even a technical question for the engineer. “Find out more” can also be used to open up a dialog about an upcoming project or discuss clearly budgets for an EP or Album so you can correctly estimate budgets

The “From” price is based on a simple acoustic arrangement of several instruments, which requires no editing, cleaning or restoring. The “Maximum Price Guide” is for more complicated work, perhaps even taking up to 2 days and which involves research, preparation, editing, and generally greater input into the creative process.

As one mixingAudioPros engineer recently put it

“It’s rare that a 10 hour day doesn’t cover a mix + review, unless it’s complete audio anarchy or a marathon”

So, and as most of us know, audio quality is essential to help attain a great mix result, but will also help to keep the price of mixing down!

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