How Mix Songs For The Clients
Mixing is often discussed—and now taught—as though it were a singular and straightforwardly linear procedure, with a single definitive output,
namely, ‘the mix’, which is then sent off for client approval and, eventually,
for mastering. But mixing is a far more complicated procedure than this
linear narrative suggests. Mixes are often made, and remade, and remade
again, before they ever make market, and this is done to suit a host of
often competing interests. Moreover, to account for the specific musical
market(s) for which a record is intended, mix engineers will often alter
their approaches in a number of significant ways. A kick drum on a heavy
metal record sounds very different from the kick drum on a jazz record,
for instance; and with pop, rock, EDM and folk records, the vocals sit in
very different places in their respective mixes. Indeed, a galaxy of unique
sonic details marks a mix for one market over another, and every mix engineer adjusts their technique in light of those details. Few sources provide
concrete information about the adjustments they make, however, beyond
simply suggesting that they do so to suit the demands of the various markets they address by their work.
What follows is based on a simple premise: that understanding the different approaches a mix engineer takes to the same sonic material, but
intended for different markets, will broaden our understanding of modern
mixing per se. Moreover, it is my contention that only a successful working mix engineer can provide us with the sort of concrete and authentic
detail that is needed to address this concern. As such, I contacted Alex
Chuck Krotz, an engineer who works at Toronto’s celebrated Noble Street
Studios. Krotz’s credits include work on tracks by some of music’s most
successful acts at present, including Drake, Three Days Grace, Walk Off
The Earth, Billy Talent, The Trews, Mother Mother and Shawn Mendes, to
name only a few. I interviewed him on his creative practice as a mix engineer, his thoughts about mixing in general, and about some of the different
things he might do to mix the same sonic material, but if it were intended
for different markets. He was provided with the transcript, which he edited,
and he supplied me with numerous audio examples to help concretize some
of the points he makes along the way
they should be auditioned where mentioned in the text. In doing this,
I have done my very best to let the artist speak directly to an academic
readership about his craft. It is my sincere hope that what follows—which
I would call a methodological hybrid of ethnographic interview work and
straightforward musicological analysis—models a viable method for academics to draw successful artists directly into academic discussions about
How would you define ‘mixing’ for non-specialists?
Mixing is balancing all elements in a track, and giving each track its own
place. At the same time, it’s guiding listeners through a song, dictating
what they should hear, precisely when you want them to hear it, to help
bring out the emotion of the song.
How is mixing different from other tasks
in record production?
Mixing is different in that it is a lot more technical than many other tasks.
When you mix, you are trying to tease out the emotions in a track. The producer makes decisions like, “Let’s play this chord here”, and “Let’s arrange
the song this way”. The editors edit it, and the mastering engineer masters
it, all to ensure the production sounds good as a final product. It is the
mixer, though, who takes all of the elements the producers and engineers
and musicians throw into the stew and makes it musically and technically
coherent and pleasing. It’s the mix engineer’s job to make a track ‘sound
good’, both from a technical and aesthetic standpoint. And you can’t make
a record without mixing, of course. So I’d say it’s one of the most essential
tasks in record production.
How do you learn to do it?
Engineers learn to mix by ‘playing’. You hear something, and you think,
“How can I change that? How can I make it better? How can I make it different?” You say, “What can I do with these sounds so they make sense as
a mix and as a song? And what tools do I need to make that happen?” Then
you just ‘play’ with the tracks until you get them to sound more or less
how you want. That’s the only way to learn, in my opinion—by playing,
and making a lot of mistakes, and doing a lot of things wrong, and learning
from it all. At the same time, you should be watching people who are good
at mixing and learning from what they do. When you watch people work,
you might hear some things you like and some things you don’t like. So
you’re watching and you think, “I kind of like this, and I don’t like that”,
and then you can adapt what you see to your own way of mixing things. In
the end, if I’m doing what I should be while I’m watching the pros work,
which is ‘playing around’ with some mixes on my own, I’m going to learn
to mix tracks in my own unique way, even if I’m basing much of what I do
on the things I see and hear the pros do. And that’s what makes every mixer
different. It’s how every mix engineer eventually finds their own voice.
In your opinion, do any particular talents suggest
that an engineer might be good at mixing?
I don’t know if there’s any particular talents that might indicate someone
would be good at mixing. That said, you have to want to do it. You have to
want to mix to get good at it. And that’s not as common as you might think.
Mixing can be super hard, and it’s often long and drawn out as a process.
Unnecessarily so, in fact, given the wrong client! People might initially
think they’d like to be a mix engineer, but after their first few sessions, or
after they deal with their first difficult client, they’re not so interested in
becoming mix engineers anymore! You have to want to be a mix engineer
despite how grueling it is.
Is mixing usually considered its own unique phase
of record production? Or do most producers ‘mix
as you go’?
It’s a bit of both, to be honest. The way that I work, and the way of working
I’ve been around most in the last few years, is ‘mixing as you go’. It’s a
very popular way of working because you can keep throwing things at the
canvas—you can retain an experimental approach to arrangement, without
having to fully commit to anything—knowing that, if you change your
mind later, you can always just delete whatever you added to the arrangement the day before. That said, you still have to make the production sound
good, you have to make it sound like something that gets the musicians
inspired to do more to it, so you mix as you go.
In a lot of ways, you actually have no choice but to mix as you go. If
you record a guitar too high a level, for example, and you don’t mix it into
the track a bit before moving on to the next track, then you won’t hear
anything but that blaring electric guitar when you listen. And so much of
production is listening back and making decisions. So you’ll have to mix
that guitar a bit, make it fit into the production, before you can move on.
Then the way you mix it may inspire you to go back and record the part
a little differently, or do different things here and there. But that’s part of
the production process. Things are a lot more open now, even if you know
precisely where you want to get to going into a project.
Another thing I’d add is that part of production in general is to figure out
where there are holes in the frequency spectrum. You have to ‘mix as you
go’ to hear that sort of thing.
Of course, this all said, once you’re done with the engineering phase,
and all that ‘mixing as you go’, then there is still the proper, standard
‘mixing’ phase. In this case, you know you’re not adding any more elements. So you’re more interested in making all the elements you’ve got
fit together and make emotional sense in relation to the song. Sometimes
that’s done with the producer in the room, dictating what the mix engineer
should do. Other times, the producer just hands off the session file to a mix
engineer, with maybe a few words about where they’d like the production
to go, and leave everything else up to the mix engineer. In that case, the
mix engineer is expected to do a bit of subtractive arranging. They might
mute some tracks, move other tracks around, maybe add some delays and
phase effects here and there. They could say, “it would be cool with delays
here”, and they get creative with it on their end as another stage of the
production. At that point, it’s another phase, though. Generally the mixer
is provided with a ‘rough mix’ that the producer is happy with so he knows
the overall sound of the track, such as distorted vocals in the verses then
big clean reverb vocals on the chorus. This is guide for the mixer, but
doesn’t mean he has to or will do the same things. He can take some liberties but at least has a starting point.
When mixing is its own phase, there’s usually an
expectation that producers and musicians will be able
to make ‘mix notes’ or request ‘revisions’. What is, or
has, this revision process been like for you?
The revision process is funny. Sometimes you get one note for revision,
and sometimes you get a hundred. It always varies. It just depends on who’s
on the project, and how good you are at capturing whatever it is they said
they wanted when they handed off the session file, and how much your
creative tastes match up with what they like.
Generally, there’s no set person, or agency in the process, who gives
mix engineers their notes. It really depends on the project. Sometimes the
producer has a bunch of notes. Sometimes it’s the band who has the notes.
And sometimes it’s the management team that’s got a million notes for
you. So many people hear the mixes you submit, and often a lot of different
people will get a say in approving mixes, so there’s lots of opportunity for
people to disagree with the decisions you make while you’re mixing. But
usually, over time, as you get to work with people on a more regular basis,
the revision process becomes less and less drawn out—your clients will
learn to trust you a bit more with every mix they approve. And if you’re
willing to listen to their notes, and really honestly try to deliver the mix
exactly as they want it, and you don’t force your vision of the song on
them, they will trust you even more in the end!
In my case, I usually mix a track and then the producer listens. They’ll
have some notes before anyone else involved in the project ever hears the
mix. When I get their notes, I say, “Great!” It’s their project, after all, so
what do I care if they think, say, the snare should be a dB up or down,
and maybe the drums could be a bit louder in the chorus? I just do the
revisions and send the track back to them. They usually approve, or maybe
have another note or two, but then the mix goes off to the band for their
approval. The band will have some notes, usually, which are generally not
as useful as the producer’s notes. Usually band members just want to hear
more of themselves—that’s the honest truth! You might get a note from the
guitar player, saying something like, “I want my guitar louder.” Then the
keyboard player chimes in, saying, “I want my keyboard louder.” And then
the drummer says “I can’t hear my kick!” The revision process becomes a
bit of balancing act, at that point. Part of being a mixer is dealing with clients in these situations; there’s a client management aspect to the process.
In fact, here is where the mix engineer might actually ‘overrule’ a mix
note. But you have to be really careful how you do it. You have to overrule musicians, often, because it’s just not practical to raise the volume or
profile of tracks any more than you’ve already done, but they just don’t
understand that. Sometimes, and this is being honest, the way to ‘overrule’
a mix note is to tell a little lie, saying, “Yep! I did that. Great ears!” And
you literally did nothing to the mix, but all of a sudden they like it better.
This makes me wonder if, sometimes, mix notes aren’t just a way for musicians to feel like they’re staying involved in the process, because a lot of
musicians can feel like the project is ‘out of their hands’ once it leaves the
Also, if there are just too many revisions to deal with, you have to ask,
“Was I the right guy to mix this? Maybe I shouldn’t be the guy to mix.
Maybe you should try another engineer.” That does happen quite a bit,
actually. Engineers have to say, “Maybe I’m not the right person for this”,
a fair bit. It doesn’t happen on lower budget projects as much, because
most projects blow their budget on the bare minimum. But it happens on
projects with larger budgets as well. It’s not always the mixer who says
that either. On other occasions, the producer or band realize after a few
rounds of mix revisions that “this guy just isn’t getting our vision”, and
they kindly say thank you and move on to another mixer.
In your experience, how many revisions will a track
typically undergo before it’s finished?
That really depends on the production. A project I just did, for example,
was recorded in one day. And we did a ‘rough mix’ as we were recording
it. At the end of the day, we had a rough mix, and everything was edited.
Then we did a ‘mix session’ on a later day. The band then had a couple
notes—they wanted to try harmonies in a couple different spots, mute the
guitar here and there, and that was it—and then the track was off for mastering. But that’s an exceptionally quick turnaround. And it’s rare that a
project gets done like that without having some corners cut as a result of
everything being so rushed.
On the flip side, I’m working on a project right now where I’ve submitted four different mixes, each of which was supposed to be a final mix.
Two other engineers mixed it, before I got the gig, plus there were ‘rough
mixes’ made along the way before it even reached mix stage. And now it’s
being sent off to another mix engineer, who will produce separate mixes
for the single releases. Once we get those mixes back, I’ll have to remix
the rest of the album to match balances with them! These tracks have been
mixed so often, now, that you just know there has to be a very sizeable
budget involved! And if you can afford to do it, why wouldn’t you? Why
not labor over your tracks until everyone involved feels like they sound as
good as possible? Once a track’s been released, especially when a band’s
operating at the very upper echelon of the industry, you can’t just turn
around and say, “Thanks for buying our album but we’ve decided we don’t
like the mixes anymore, so we’re going to have the album remixed and
then we’ll re-release it!” Once it’s released, you have to live with it. And
your reputation depends on what you release. So I understand why producers and bands are very, very careful about what they put out there, and why
the mix process is sometimes very, very drawn out as a result