Mixing Memory Loss

| Mixing, Plugins, Tips

I’m afraid to tell you that you likely suffer from short term memory loss. More specifically your ears suffer from short term memory loss or bias. If you’ve mixed for even 5 minutes you may have discovered this yourself. It’s a serious problem for all mixing engineers, and one that if properly understood can refrain you from making dumb mixing decisions.


TRR133 Mixing Memory Loss

Via phantomswife Flickr

A Little Goes A Long Way

When you sit down to sculpt a mix together you’re hoping to take solid tracks and turn them into audio gold. At least I know that’s what I’m trying to each time I mix. The problem comes when we believe we have to make drastic changes to our tracks in order for that to happen.

We’ll make tweak after tweak after tweak. A little EQ boost there, some compression here, a little saturation there. We just keep going and going with this process without actually comparing our changes to the original sound. This is a problem because we quickly forget where we came from.

The 10 Minute Rule

This memory loss seems to rear it’s ugly head most aggressively when I’m using EQ. Whether I’m sculpting my kick drum sound or getting my vocal to sit in the mix I quickly can lose perspective. In a matter of just a few minutes I can easily find myself cutting, boosting, and tweaking my tracks too far in the wrong direction.

If instead I were to stop what I’m doing and bypass all the effect changes I’ve made in the last 10 minutes in order to compare, I’d realize that I’ve made a drastic change (for better or worse) to my audio and I can decide what to do from there. I call this the 10 minute rule.

I simply try to look up at the clock every 10 minutes and stop to assess what kind of “damage” I’ve done in the past 600 seconds. Sometimes it tells me I’ve gone to far with the EQ and I only needed a 2 db cut and not a 6db cut. Sometimes it tells me I can stop tweaking because things are actually sounding just right, even if I thought I hadn’t “done enough.”

The Cumulative Effect

The more you mix the more you’ll start to realize that it’s not the big sweeping decisions that define your sound, but rather it’s the cumulative effect of small seemingly minor tweaks that lead you to mixing glory. If we aren’t careful we’ll forget just how much we’ve changed the sound and we will lose perspetive on where the mix is going.

Don’t let your ears’ natural bias dictate your mixing. Instead, stop, refresh, and track your progress to see whether you’re heading where you really want to go.


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18 Responses to “Mixing Memory Loss”

  1. JT

    I love this tip!! As a rule, I try not to mess with thing too much after I get the initial settings together, unless I have a specific reason to change something. IE… kick is interfereing with the bass, or the guitars are cometing to heavily with the lead vocal. But I think we’ve all spent hours or even days working on a mix only to find out the rough mix that you put together in 5 minutes sounds better than what you spent 2 days on. We call that “learning the hard way”

    • Jordan Rowland

      Great post, after really learning about subtractive EQ and the whole philosophy, I tend to see a lot of mixing as a ‘subtractive’ process, and only adding where it REALLY needs it.

  2. Bob Sorace

    Great tip! I’ll have to put up a post it note on my monitor to remind me!

  3. Smurf

    I usually take a break & refresh every 2 hours to rest the ears & check progress, but I think I will try this out on the next mix…Thanks again!

  4. Josh Woods

    Taking breaks is always a good idea! Also something that I’ve started doing is having reference tracks of mixes that I like up in my arrange window. Taking a break and listening to some great mixes might point out something that was missing in yours.

  5. TomAFD

    Which is why you should NEVER over write old copies of a song. As soon as anything I’m writing starts to sound good, I save it. Whenever I make a meaningful change, I save again, fresh name, fresh copy. And so on… Which means I have snapshots of every stage of the process. If it starts to sound crap or I want to refresh my memory, I go back and check out older versions. Surprising how often they sound a lot better. I mix as I write, so level relationships between elements are crucial, since I ‘perform’ volume changes as I play and how hard I’ll play sections will depend on the existing balance. If I then change the balance too far it all starts sounding wrong. No old copy… No way to get back to the original balance. So don’t overwrite !

  6. Andrew

    I usually just take frequent breaks when mixing (the same way when I use to study college exams. And I took alot of breaks and it ALWAYS helped me get in “A” surprisingly… it’s weird how breaks are so important.). I’ll try this to see if it works for me. =)

  7. hillelkaps

    Good stuff! Just one question: is there an easy way to bypass everything in one shot? Other than clicking bypass on every single plugin on every track

    • Graham

      In Pro Tools you can simply hold OPTION + COMMAND and then CLICK each row of plugins and they all bypass.

  8. Reid Geisenhof

    Solid advice. That mixing rabbit hole is so easy to fall into. So many options, so many things to remember to take into consideration, and damned if it’s not just fun. I wouldn’t be the band’s recording guy if I didn’t like mucking around with sound, after all–but those hours get eaten up EQ’ing the bottom snare reverb return (“I heard Ken Scott spends hours tweaking reverb returns. I better do that, too, or I’m not trying hard enough!”)and not actually…y’know, mixing MUSIC.

  9. KRZZ

    For this reason I like to render the track before the mixing process and have it muted in the session so when i need to switch back and forth i can just hit the solo button. And then after making a few mixing decisions i like to “save as” the project thus if i feel i need to go back its just a matter of opening the last saved project.

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  11. Andrew

    Great article. Recently when I’ve been making my own music, I’ve noticed that I’ve been getting better results when I simply spend more time listening before making any changes. There are so many different approaches one can take to making a track in the mix stand out from the rest – and if you rush into one decision before considering all your possibilities, you’re more likely to run into problems later on .

    I feel like this works well for me because rather than trying out 5 different things which are hard to A/B/C/D/E compare, I can just be more patient and get the sound I want on the first or second try. This also mean I’m taking in the “essence” of the music BEFORE I knob twist.

    Thanks for this site Graham! It’s made a huge difference in the amount of fun I have making music.



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