By Chris Musgrave
I have read many articles that do their utmost best to describe mixing music. Some say we are artists–and I can see that definition applied to our practice, for sure. We are sculpting a soundscape, if you will.
Others like to say that mixing audio is merely manipulation. I can see this definition as well–albeit those who subscribe to this school of thought might be seen by others as masochistic. The person doing the mixing might call him or herself “humble.”
Many approach a mix from the very learned approach of science and like to discuss the never-ending technical side of mixing audio. And of course there are those that just twist knobs till they think it sounds good–an approach of which I’m guilty.
And then there is the “we are another band member’”approach to explaining what we do–a point of view that is at least as valid as any of those the proceeded it. But is one right more so than the other? It is said that “art” like beauty is in the eye of the beholder. (Well, in this case, in the ear of the beholder.
So what am I going on about, you ask? In short, I have no idea.
I happen to be the kind of guy who likes going to two different churches of the same faith and asking them to explain the same part of the Bible and, of course, getting two totally different interpretations.
Be it religion or audio or what makes a great pizza, it is all subjective.
How many times have I been at a show that I thought was painful and yet the crowd loved it. Or worse, at a show where I feel the mix engineer really did an outstanding job and no one seems to even notice.
In thinking of these universe-encompassing issues, I turned my thoughts to my daughter who is aware of cd’s but doesn’t use them and is only really aware that they were used for music and movies when she was a baby (she is now 13). It quickly hits me that all her generation knows is digital files that have been in most cases compressed like a bug on a windshield. This generation doesn’t know what a ‘full dynamic’ mix sounds like and trying to explain this to them… Well, yeah, you get the idea.
So I turn my thoughts back to the technical guy who approaches a mix like a physicist and the fly by the seat of his faders guy (me) and wonder at what point does it just come down to “compress the shit out of it and crank it?”
But I digress. Maybe we are already at that point. I have been hearing thinner and thinner mixes over the last couple of years. I have even heard some engineers discuss with incredible exuberance how they almost got all their faders in a straight line at unity by the end of the show. Please don’t get me started on the fact that trying to tweak your trim gains and have all your faders at unity is… Well let me just say that if that were the only right way to do it, consoles wouldn’t have faders let alone faders that move. Suckin fruckin &^%$#%
Ok where was I? So when a whole generation of audience and mixers is only used to these thin, compressed files at 108db in their ears for hours a day what can we do to keep definition, balance and dynamics alive? While I know as an industry we strive for such things, have you heard some of these shows that I speak of?
Unfortunately it is hard to even describe what we are talking about to the younger generation because they don’t understand the concept. Technology has “hit 4th gear” which means there are no longer the drastic changes like there were for many of us. Like many reading this, I remember all the sound changes from Album, reel to reel (still the best) tape, Metal Tape, Dolby, Dolby ll, mini disc, laser disc to mp3. But our children don’t even remember cassette–just the transition from CD to MP3 and many don’t don’t remember CDs.
Is this just about getting old? Starting to seem that way. But seriously, For me, black and white movies are something old people talk about and albums are stuff their parents don’t want them to touch that house funny pictures of people in funny clothes. I understand. We were all the same way with technology and other stuff that came before our time. I missed out on bell bottoms (luckily) but not the dark ages (Disco). But we have the understanding of options and reference points. This new generation has no reference point and they think these files sound good because they have nothing to compare them to.
Do I have a solution after all this rambling? NO. But a sadness none the less that terrible sonic experiences are considered normal for a generation that has a $12 pair of ear buds in for an average of six hours a day.