How to Choose the Right Mixing Engineer
Shachar Gilad, Founder and CEO of SoundBetter • July 23, 2015
In recent years, mixing engineers have become “rainmakers” in the music industry. The world’s top mixers, like Manny Marroquin or Andrew Scheps, are written about, interviewed, get Grammys, have mixing tools named after them and most importantly, the world’s top musicians want to work with them.
So what exactly is mixing and why is it so important? What should you look for when choosing a mixing engineer? Here’s a primer that will get you on the right track in no time.
WHAT IS MIXING?
Mixing is the process of combining a multi-track recording into a standard stereo track. When thinking of a production timeline, mixing comes after recording and before mastering, and it has tremendous effect on the sound of your song. More so than the use of a particular microphone, more than whether you added that one extra vocal layer or not, and much more so than mastering. A good mix will make your song pop out of the speakers, sound clear and polished and will complement the recorded elements of your song. A mediocre mix can make even a great performance sound muddy or mushy, make it lack urgency and clarity and sound like a demo or live recording.
During the mixing process a mixing engineer does three main things:
- Balances the levels of the different recorded tracks, to bring out the important elements in each section and make the song feel cohesive.
- Manipulates and enhances the sonic character of different tracks with the help of processors such as EQ and compression.
- Adds creative effects such as delay, reverb, radio filter, heavy vocal pitching, panning, distortion and others to make the song sonically interesting – ear candy.
The mixing process can tighten up a vocal performance; make it sound present, loud, airy and beautiful. It can make an already recorded beat sound more or less aggressive, make a piano feel more emotional, make a whole song sound more indie or more pop. It can make a groove feel more groovy. These things are achieved using technical and creative psycho-acoustic trickery. Mixing engineers are alchemists. Song colorists. Their trade comes with years of education, practice and talent.
FINDING THE RIGHT MIXER
At SoundBetter, we’ve been fortunate to help thousands of musicians find and hire mixing engineers, so we’ve seen what works well. Here is a 4-point checklist for hiring one for your next record.
- Style. You probably wouldn’t hire a metal guitarist to play on a pop or jazz record (or vice-versa) if you had a choice. The same is true for mixers. While some mixers are renowned for being eclectic, being familiar with and experienced in a genre definitely helps get the nuances and tone of that genre right. Mixing each genre of music is its own art form.
- Sound. Before you hire a mixer, listen to songs that he or she is credited on as mixer. Do they sound professional? Do they sound like a finished product? If you hear a mix that moves you and shines sonically, you’ve got a winner. Keep in mind a mixer isn’t a magician and can’t make a song shine if the song isn’t good, the production isn’t thoughtful, or the performance and recording quality aren’t good. These things need to be in place before the mixer even enters the picture.
- Reputation. Two indicators of a mixer’s reputation are credits and reviews.
Credits: The fact that a mixer worked on a great record doesn’t mean your record will achieve the same success, but it means they were already vetted and hired by someone else and didn’t blow it. While impressive credits are an indicator of quality, and a long list of credits are an even stronger indicator, credits are sometimes a vanity measure. Someone’s work on a great record might be due to circumstance or relationships. There are many amazing mixers out there who don’t have big name credits simply because they haven’t yet had the opportunity. If you can find those mixers, that’s an opportunity for you, since big credits often carry a price premium.
Reviews: Feedback from other musicians is very helpful as well. Another client’s review will tell you not only if their expectations for the final result were met or exceeded, but also if the mixer was professional, patient, timely, courteous and pleasant to work with. Working with a pro who understands customer service makes a big difference. Reviews or feedback from previous clients can clue you in.
- Budget. So how much does a good mixer cost? Mixes are usually charged per song, and there’s a very wide range. Here are some anchors, based on actual prices that thousands of engineers have provided at SoundBetter:
Someone with better mixing chops than you but starting out professionally might charge around $200-300 per song.
For $400-600 you can get a fantastic mix from an engineer with some recognized credits. This is a sweet spot for many serious indie musicians who want quality, but are self-funding and price sensitive.
If you know where to look and get lucky, for $600 - $1,500 per song you can get a mix from a name engineer who mixed some hits and might even have some Grammy nominations or wins.
The world’s top mixers, whose mixes you hear on the radio every single day, charge $5k-$10k per song at their prime, and in some rare cases get fractions of points on future royalties in addition to their fee.
I hope this helps you understand what mixing is and how to choose a mixer for your next great sounding song.
Shachar Gilad is the Founder and CEO of SoundBetter – a curated marketplace for music production talent including professional mixing & mastering engineers, producers, singers and drummers. He is a touring musician and producer. Before SoundBetter, Shachar helped create tools for musicians and sound engineers at Waves Audio and Apple Inc.