Why Your First Mix Is Likely Your Best Mix

| Interview, Mixing, Tips

Do you ever get that sneaking suspicion that the more versions of a mix you do the worse it gets? We assume that with each tweak we are simply fine tuning a good mix, turning it into a great one. And sometimes that might be the case. But more often than not, your first mix, your initial gut feeling of where the tracks should go, is going to be your best mix. Or at least closer to your musical vision than say mix number 7, 8, or 9.

Mixing “Billie Jean” 91 Times

One of my readers sent over this clip of legendary engineer Bruce Swedien speaking to Full Sail students about mixing Michael Jackson’s hit, “Billie Jean”. It’s only 90 seconds, but what he has to say is profound, especially for us home studio owners with no time pressure to finish. Watch it and we’ll discuss.

Gradually Losing Perspective

Can you even imagine doing 91 mixes of the same song? That seems ludicrous to me, but these guys are pros and it’s Michael Jackson we’re talking about here! The song was recorded well of course. The first few mixes were likely really good. In fact like Bruce said in the video, Mix 2 is what made the cut on the album. The mix we all know and love. So the reason for making more mixes wasn’t because they didn’t have a good mix to begin with. Rather there was something inside these two men saying,”It could be better!”

But what happens with each minor “enhancement” is a gradual loss of perspective. I’m sure that by mix 20 they were already so far removed from the first few mixes, but didn’t realize it. They were making small, gradual tweaks. Isn’t that what we do? We keep firing open our DAW, making some more tweaks, and saving the session. We think the mix is OK, but it will get better with time. In reality, we’re just loosing perspective and forgetting what the mix really should sound like.

We’re Afraid To Commit

I think the bottom line is this: we’re too afraid to call a mix done. We can’t commit to a musical idea. A lot of it might be due to lack of experience. Which leads to lack of confidence. Which leads to lack of commitment. The solution? Keep fussing with a mix until you’re sick of it, or you run out of ideas. Bad move. Rather, don’t begin mixing unless you have a musical vision to start with. Then use the tools at your disposal (gain staging, EQ, compression, panning, automation, effects, etc) to realize that vision with the tracks at hand.

Here’s the truth: you’ll never truly be “done” with a mix. So you might as well finish it. Every mix I’ve ever done, I can listen to today and give you a laundry list of things I would do differently. Why? Because there isn’t only one way to get a mix done. That’s part of what our members see every month on Dueling Mixes. Two guys taking the same tracks and churning out very different mixes. So why not embrace that fact, and learn when to call it quits.

Don’t be so afraid that you missed something. Your gut was probably right early on in the mixing process, so trust it!

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36 Responses to “Why Your First Mix Is Likely Your Best Mix”

  1. Norman

    I totally agree!

    I think though that in the case of “Billy Jean” the pressure was not to present just a fantastic song/mix, but something extraordinary.
    Maybe these pro’s don’t use reference material anyway, but when you set out to do something out of this world, there’s nothing to reference to.

    As the goal for most of us is simply to make and mix just great music, without the extra non-music-related pressure, there’s no need to tweak ourselves silly that way.

    When you’re mixing a song and you feel that there’s something missing/wrong, but you don’t know what it is, it might be better to just mixdown or abort the mix and return to it at another time.
    If you already cannot identify the problem, how are you going to fix it?
    Maybe at another moment you might have learned something or gained more experience in the meantime.

    And if at a later stage you feel that you could have done it differently, that does’t man that the mix was bad, for it was the best that you could do at that time, but it shows that you have grown.
    You may experience this even in the mix that you’re doing today.
    As Graham stated before; it’s a process.

    One of my ways of knowing when a mix is done, is when I can let others listen to the mix without the urge to make excuses like “it is just a raw mix”, “it still has to be mastered”, etc.

    Reply
    • Graham

      “One of my ways of knowing when a mix is done, is when I can let others listen to the mix without the urge to make excuses like “it is just a raw mix”, “it still has to be mastered”, etc.”

      Couldn’t agree more.

      Reply
  2. Vincent

    I agree.
    When I mix, I do it in two steps: first “static” mix with EQ, compression, reverb, etc…, then the next day I automate and try to keep things interesting.
    Then th following day, I listen again, make a list of tweaks, make the tweak, and bounce it.
    My time is precious, I don’t want to be a slave and I tend to think I won’t do it better just because I spend 10 hours on it instead of 3.
    And as you said, it was just the best I could do at that time. And sometimes, you’re not good.

    Reply
    • Angela

      word ~ just began using a similar method, been struggling with the fact that it’s so much fun to automatically add a bunch of effects. :) I suppose it’s even more fun to have a mix that speaks for itself.

      Reply
    • Brian

      You are Sooooo right. I bought Graham’s “Rethink Mixing” and realized the value of a good static mix first after viewing the videos and exercises. So I try and get a good static mix using faders first, then add EQ and compression. Finally comes the ‘sweetening’ part with automation and ‘fancy’ effects. I like the phases in this process and think my mixes are improving because of that focus on the process.

      Reply
  3. ES

    That’s a very good tip, and I’m kicking myself for figuring it out so late. Now I find deadlines help a lot. Just get it done and move on. For me it’s usually mix 3 that makes the cut.
    However, my method of working isn’t to record and then mix. I always mix as I go along, so it sorts itself out while it’s being recorded. Like, doing the high pass filters I know I will do anyway, add that snare compression and all that, and then hard processing it, printing it to audio files. Not only does it save insane amounts of CPU, it’s about making a decision and then building around it. I find that helps a lot and forces me to move on. The same with reverbs, I print all of that to audio all the time. The extra space on disk is more than worth it when I look at the CPU meter.
    Of course everything is reversible via several sessions from different points in the mixing process, so nothing is gone forever.

    So yes, I completely agree. It will never be perfect, so just make it good and then move on. Mixes only get better from experience.

    Reply
  4. Angela

    Great article, thanks for the necessary reminder.

    I’ve been now using my DAW in two phases – one for layering the synths, samples etc – then the second phase for adding all other effects. When I first started I jumped into effects so quick, like a 6 year old who discovered the cookie jar.

    Making my recordings this way, waiting till I’m done recording to add effects, is slower, and had me really hone in my musical statements. I am now struggling with finishing projects that are in my queue :) haha.

    Reply
  5. Rodrigo

    Great article, I am finishing my band’s third CD mix on this week. But as you say every time I open my DAW and take a listen to the “approved and finished” versions I think something is missing and I am tempted to go over it again, it never stops! What I make sometimes is listening to tracks of the previous CDs that can be similar to the one I am working on, then I try to find if the new one sounds better or worse, in all the cases it sounds much better, so I feel confident.
    Another thing is that I send mixes to my partners and they notice other things than me, most of the time they are more focused on their own instruments, but sometimes they find interesting things that can be adjusted.
    The last thing that happened was that my brother plays acoustic guitar in one of the tracks, he was concerned about his sound, I made the first version and he said it needed more presence and more bass, when I made that he was not happy and reviewing the first version he was surprised that it fitted better with the band, I made some new adjustments and now he is happy, but the process can be exhausting.
    Thanks for your wonderful articles and research, greetings from Costa Rica!

    Reply
  6. KS

    Wow! I just keep getting impressed with your articles.

    Honestly, I have never found so convincing articles as yours. Your every word connects with me like, like I just don’t have anything to compare.

    It is so difficult to follow the very basic things, I admit. Even when we know, we still repeat the same things over and over again.
    Graham, what would you call this? Is it a kind of psychological thing according to you? Why can’t we just act on what we realize?

    Thanks again for this great article.

    Take care.

    Regards,
    KS

    Reply
    • Graham

      I don’t know what it is about humans, but there are plenty of things we KNOW we should do (eat healthier, exercise, get more sleep, pay off debt, save for a rainy day, invest in people) but ACTUALLY DOING THEM is a different story all together. Action is harder than acquiring knowledge. Changing habits is harder than acknowledging bad habits.

      Reply
      • KS

        OMG! This is what I was discussing today with one of my friends!
        I agree with you more than 100%. I hope at least we, those who think about all this, really understand its importance and correct ourselves where we are lacking. Not for you though, you are pretty much out of it! Your words certainly leave an impact on my mind, mainly because they reflect my thoughts.

        I am trying to do better to be good.

        Regards,
        KS

        Reply
  7. Steve

    Reminds me of the comment by one of the creative directors at Dreamworks- the company responsible for Shrek, Madagascar, Kung Fu Panda, etc…
    He said “Our films are never finished. They’re just released.”
    Thanks for the reminder, Graham.

    Reply
  8. Alex

    What about this — my music is mostly about hardware synths and computer data card output is just for drums, and all mixing is done on analog console. So, I save in my project just a sequencer file and 2 track. So when couple days later I open my project I … just connect the synths and make the entirely new mix on the fly when I just want to listen or to continue project. Even if it has 16 instruments or 24 to connect and mix. Surprisingly I end up with the very very similar results with the first quick mix even days after if I compare the recorded 2-track sound. Well, about recording to DAW and mixing later then and tweaking, thats where the headache begins and neverending mixing job of overdoing thing. About quick-preview mix… that I do usually in 5 minutes. So , whats up about doing the mix a whole week? why?

    Reply
  9. Rob S.

    I understand the -never being finished- thing. I always seem to think of -something else- after production has ended.

    So Graham (and everyone else who has commented), generally speaking, what do you think is a reasonable limit? I know that, even in a rush, I will print at least 3 – 5 mixes and listen to them after taking a break from them for a day or two. Do you think that it’s okay to establish a rule of thumb like, “I will limit myself to x number of mixes. I should have it by then”?

    Reply
    • Norman

      I would say (generally speaking) that if printing 3-5 mixes gives you the peace of mind or push to round up a session, than that’s a very good system for you.
      Maybe you could wait longer than two days before listening, to allow you to forget the individual elements and techniques you applied, or forgot to apply, to the mix, so you can hear and judge the music as a whole.
      That’s the way that your public will be listening to your music anyway.

      While you’re waiting, you can start mixing another song, and repeat the process……

      Sometimes you have to detach from the song/mix to be able to appreciate it.

      Reply
    • Graham

      Yeah, you’ll develop a system that works for you. My goal is to make it in two mixes. Mix 1 should be awesome. But I assume I will want to make tweaks. Mostly because I need to step away from it and have others listen to it. But I should nail it by Mix 2. If not, I allow a final 3rd mix and that’s it. Same with my clients. Only two rounds of revisions (so three mixes total).

      Reply
  10. Smurf

    I do 3, starting with a different instrument every time.

    1. Drums

    2. Rhythm Guitar – Keys

    3. Bass

    I always do the vocals at the same time I do the bed, works for me….

    Reply
  11. Andrew Bontey

    I guess I set myself up in some way for mixing, as before I started really delving into doing mixes I read “Zen & the Art of Mixing”. But firstly yes, I realized Eric is a regular visitor here, and no, I’m not trying to kiss his ass.

    Anyhow, one point that Mixerman drove home was the differences between analogue and digital when it comes to printing the mix. I’ve done both, but not having the luxury of an analogue console in my home studio, I stick with DAW. The one thing I did love about printing from a console was the fact that you wanted to get it just right, because you knew there was really no second chance. As soon as you zero’d everything thing out for the next track, there was no coming back. Of course we’re all aware by this point that with digital, there really is no final mix.

    What I’ve taken to doing was treating my DAW almost like a console. I’ve severely limited myself in the amount of options I have, essentially trying to recreate the limitations of a 32x8x2 analogue console. Once I’m ready to print, I give it a listen on a couple different speakers out of my DAW to get the levels JUST right, then I print that sucker, save and close. I’ve noticed my workflow has improved, I’m able to make smarter decisions, and I’ve also found it has boosted my creativity. What can I do with only X amount of tracks, and X amount of sends, buses, and inserts? It’s interesting.

    Also setting a deadline helps. Even if it just exists in your head, that nagging feeling of “I need to have this done by..” helps a little bit too.

    Reply
    • Rob S.

      I agree. Limiting your console features in the DAW and setting deadlines is definitely the way to go. It seems like it’s a simple way of developing the discipline needed to stay on time and on target.

      Like Mike Senior, I am a “Reaper Guy.” I love the skinnable interface and I use the Imperial themes for the ‘real console’ look; not just because it looks cool, but because it lends to the effort to visualize a real console with all its limits.

      Reply
  12. Jeff

    “…don’t begin mixing unless you have a musical vision to start with.”

    This, I thought, was a key statement. Since I only produce the music that I write, I have a vision in my head of what I want to hear. I can hear the sonic landscape in my head. When I was ‘just’ a guitar player, that’s all I worried about. Now, when I record something, the guitar tone and bass tone are all selected in support of the end result. It seems the make the mix easier.

    That said, I still have nice, chunky gaps in my knowledge of mixing know-how….that’s why I’m here!

    Still, I think knowing where you’re going is much better than trying to find a destination without that mental map of a vision in your head.

    Reply
  13. Patrick

    Spot on! This happens to me all the time. Even though I know my mix is good I still keep tweaking shit to try to make it sound better. When im “done” i go back and listen to some earlier sessions… and They´re usually better =)I know the problem but I still keep doing it.

    Reply
  14. Yaniv

    damn right!
    Recently, i found a word which i set my goals to: the word is SOLID.
    I want my mix, my song, my voice, my album and everything else to sound solid and that keeps me from drowning in this vast ocean of “I could make this better…”
    I learnt that you have to know the “basic rules” like, use eq the right way, use comp the right way, de-ess if you have to, make it sound balance etc etc.
    Because I know that making it better is something that never ends – i go for SOLID…
    Other than that it is creativity and hard work…

    Reply
  15. jay

    what i found through years of pain is i listen to it later, but i don’t listen to the mix, i “hear the song” and if nothing jumps out and annoys me…its probably fine. (but hey, tweaking is fun! just save that first mix :) )

    Reply
  16. Echo

    Wow, here i am thinking that i don’t know the proper way to mix my stuff. When all along i was creating it. Thank you for this insight.

    Reply
  17. Tim Hewitt

    When it comes to this that’s one big reason why I did the thing of getting Reaper studio projects already set up for each kind of recording. Then with the church worship band recording that I told in a past post of mine that I got mixed sounding so good, I made two other copies of that Reaper studio project to another folder for one or two other multitrack recordings and renamed them. Then if it’s a band or group of singers and musicians who don’t have quite every instrument that the church worship band has, I just get rid of those tracks of whatever they don’t have. Then I just adjust the mix according to the level I know all them in the other band or group is going to sing and play at. Before mixing the other band or group with a copy of the same project, I’ll also clear out all the audio on each track from the other band or group. Since the other band or group sings and plays a bit different kind of music I know there will be for sure a few sound processing plugin setting changes to me made, so I’ll do those after recording the other band or group according to how they need to be done for them. Also like I said in a past post of mine, I know when I use the same Reaper studio project like that for each other band or group that there will be track fader, master fader, and sound processing plugin setting changes that will still have to be made, but when I start mixing them I’ll be starting with a project that’s all set good at least for the most part. The church worship band recording took me over a day to get mixed sounding as good as I got it, but that was the only mix of them I turned out. I feel sure this idea will really help me turn out other mixes of the same good quality faster, because it will leave a lot less work to do as far as track fader, master fader, and sound processing plugin readjustments needing to me made.

    Reply
  18. Aaron

    Anytime I want to improve my mix I’ll listen and take notes. If it’s not where I want it in two or three adjusting sessions, I’ll usually make a new save and reset everything back to 0. No plugins and all the faders centered and start over from scratch. Usually when it comes to this that mix is the one.

    Reply

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  1.  Your first mix is often your best | maclalala:link
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