Mixing Minimalism And The Art Of Subtraction

| Mixing, Tips

What is our goal as mixers? To add our special something to the tracks? Perhaps. Is it to polish things up a bit? I suppose. What if I told you that the true goal of mixing was to take away everything that doesn’t belong?

Nothing Left To Take Away

There’s a quote by French author Antoine de Saint-Exupery that I’ve always loved. In case you’re not familiar, he’s the guy that wrote The Little Prince. 

Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away. – Antoine de Saint-Exupery, Author


Brilliant, right? The idea of reducing things down to their minimalist beauty is one way of describing perfection. Whether it’s a sleek piece of technology with no wasted buttons or space (think about when the iPhone first came out), or a simple and clean website that is easy to navigate due to it’s minimalist design and layout, sometimes less is more.

What Doesn’t Belong Here?

When it comes to mixing music, Saint-Exupery’s words are very relevant. As a mixer, one of the most helpful questions you can ask yourself as you listen through tracks of a given song is: “What doesn’t belong here?” Not every frequency, riff, or even instrument is going to stay in the mix. It’s very rare at least.

Your job is to start removing things to reveal the character and soul of the song. Let nothing cover it up. This could be as simple as some high pass filters on many of the tracks. That one simple move will free up loads of headroom and bottom end. You could employ some simple subtractive EQ carving on your midrange heavy instruments. Your tracks will pop more, with no EQ boosting needed.

Or you might even discover the most powerful of all mix techniques, pushing the mute button. By simply removing a track or instrument all together (or in certain sections of a song) you can sometimes improve the entire mix effortlessly.

The Marble Statue Mindset

You get the idea, we want to remove things in order to reveal the mix. Not add things to make the mix. I think it helps to visualize an artist carving a statue out of marble. In order to create a beautiful statue you must start with really good material. The artist likely would want the most beautiful marble slab he could find.

Once the marble is attained, the artist with chisel in hand will begin to carve away much of that beautiful stone, seemingly wasting it. Why? To reveal a masterpiece underneath.

This is exactly what we do as mixers. We hope to start with good marble (quality recorded tracks and solid arrangements), then we use our chisel (EQ, compression, mute button) to sculpt a masterpiece of a final mix.

Start thinking of mixing in terms of subtraction, you’re more likely to be left with natural, musical mix that is more faithful to the originally recorded tracks.

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34 Responses to “Mixing Minimalism And The Art Of Subtraction”

  1. Zach

    Great Post, Graham! Feeling inspired.

    It’s tempting to want to add when we feel something is missing in the mix, when often, we can add so much more by subtracting.

    Reply
  2. Rod

    Nice! Great perspective and advice. BTW, Michaelangelo is famous for this quote:

    After marveling at Michelangelo’s statue of David-vanquishing Goliath, the Pope asked the sculptor, “How do you know what to cut away?”
    Michelangelo’s reply? “It’s simple. I just remove everything that doesn’t look like David.”

    Reply
  3. DeVora Clark

    I really like the way you mix. You are very creative and seem to look for the best UNIQUE sounds, instead of making everyone sound the same. It reminds me of Paul McCartney who really spoke of The Beatles unique sounds. He was asked what made The Beatles such a recording success, and he started talking about Ringo Starr and that he did not use the same snare drum on any songs they recorded. He kept changing his drum kit to fit the song. How clever! Knowing that uniqueness is also important to me, what is the best device, technique to get different vocal variations, depending on the mood of my songs? I try to get different vocal variations with Logic Pro using their plug-ins, but it seems so limited. Perhaps I need to bite the bullet and enroll in recording online school, or is there a device that I don’t know about yet? DeVora Clark

    Reply
  4. Andrew Bauserman

    Great analogy.

    Here’s another version of the Michelangelo quote:
    “I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free.”

    Reply
  5. Sue Rarick

    At one time I used way to many tracks but as time has moved on I now try to keep it as close to just guitar and vocal as possible. It may sound silly but I finally realized that I have never heard a hit song that didn’t sound good as a simple acoustic song.

    My goal now is to not screw up a good song with un-needed clutter.

    Reply
  6. robertm2000

    Michelangelo is reputed to have said, “I take a block of marble, carve away everything that doesn’t look like a horse, and I am left with a horse.” In the same way, when I mix I turn down everything that doesn’t sound like a record, and when I am done I’m left with a record.” It got a lot simpler for me when I started working that way.

    Reply
  7. Archie

    This is about the 100th post you’ve shared that rings absolutely true with everything I’ve ever learned through my own experience. I go through your stuff and I always imagine giving you big high five. Thank you for inspiring us to better our craft!
    And happy fathers day!

    Reply
  8. Adrian Hare

    Great post! It’s so easy to forget this advice and keep adding stuff. I was mixing once and the band came in and remarked how much better the verse sounded and how much of a lift the chorus had – the secret? I simply muted the keys during the first verse!

    Keep up the good work!

    Reply
  9. Jeff

    Since everyone is quoting, I’ll add a fave from Socrates: ““The secret of happiness, you see, is not found in seeking more, but in developing the capacity to enjoy less.” Plug ins? Guitars? Stomps?

    Great post. Funny that this quote is what I am guilty of: “You get the idea, we want to remove things in order to reveal the mix. Not add things to make the mix.”

    I find that I am very careful in what I add and less that I need to remove. I guess it’s easy not to add too much when it’s just yourself performing the parts. If it was a whole band…I’d be DOA.

    That said, this is a great tip. I know I’d mention before Graham that I like the old southern rock mixes because of their clarity and seeming simplicity but with lots of instrumentation going on.

    It seems this (and the gain staging you suggested) are a good tool to achieve that.

    Reply
  10. benjamin

    As a beginner,that suport’s my logic that i built.i think people tend 2 forget,that this is music & the idea is 2 b creative.there is no right,wrong,good or bad.as nike would say”jus do it”.shout out 2 makeing music magazine p.s a wise man once said”real artist do want they want 2″…love

    Reply
  11. Tassy

    Great approach this Little Prince idea.
    Maybe that was my unconscious idea when I began (decades back, and ever since) to do any of my mixes first as a “trio”: drums, bass, lead. If it sounds fine only then I began to add the rest of the tracks taking care not to overpower the “trio base”.
    Thanks for sharing your thoughts of mixing and all.

    Reply
  12. Alex

    great post, but how can I (as mixer) convince our songwriter that less is more? Once I mute one part, he complains “oh that’s not enough it should sound fatter” and then he’s adding even more istrument parts. LOL

    Reply
    • Graham

      If you mute the right parts, the rest of the mix WILL sound bigger and fatter, and he will be convinced :-)

      Reply
  13. Tassy

    Convincing a songwriter or a musician I, too, find harder than mixing a project of a thousand tracks with a hundred plugins on each:) Even in my band (I am drummer) I cannot make the guitarist guy to get a normal guitar sound out of his dammed combo that would the song.

    Reply
  14. konstantin ivanov

    Dear Graham. I like to ask you about (multi mic drums) line up two OH drum tracks (R and L) exactly on position….? what is properly thing to do..? my OH tracks differ from each other about 45 samples,…but resently i heart that OH tracks should be at the same position…when i listen..,i can,t make decision, what is better… Please, can you comment on this issue…Thank You.

    Reply
    • Graham

      This sounds like the overhead mics were not measured to teh snare and or kick drum before recording. In my mind they should be lined up, so go ahead and move the left or the right as needed.

      Reply
  15. Gabe

    I have found that less is actually more. Instead of layering 20 guitars, just use two, or something like that. If well written and recorded, the song will sound huge with not a ton of instruments.
    That said, I don’t like the term minimalistic, because it sounds like that will my my recordings small and wimpy… Maybe that’s just me though. :)

    Reply
    • Graham

      I don’t think Nirvana’s Nevermind sounded small and wimpy. Just a couple guitars, bass, and drums. :-)

      Reply
      • Gabe

        Just a couple of guitars, bass, and drums.
        My point exactly, less is more. :)

        When I said small and wimpy, I was referring to the term “minimalistic”. I agree 100% that minimalistic is awesome, and often can make recordings sound huge, I just don’t like the term because it sounds like it does the opposite of what it actually does (making recordings huge).

        Remind me not to think out loud while posting on the internet next time. :P

        Reply
  16. Max Velazquez

    Awesome post and analogy.
    Things like this are easy to remember when one is neck deep into a mix.
    I love easy to remember things while mixing. Helps minimize the amount of yellow stickie post it’s hanging around my workspace.

    Max Velazquez

    Reply

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