The Case For Mixing With Your Eyes Closed

| Mixing, Tips

Of all the advantages of mixing in the modern software based DAW, there is one huge negative. No, it’s not digital summing. It’s the fact that we have too much visual stimuli when mixing. In other words, there is too much too look at that we aren’t actually listening as well as we could.


TRR205 The Case For Mixing With Your Eyes Closed

Via Martin Cathrae Flickr

How To Increase Brain Activity

Just this weekend I was sitting in a workshop at Sweetwater’s GearFest, listening to Grammy award winning engineer Frank Fillipetti talk about recording and mixing in the modern DAW. At one point in the presentation he displayed images of two identical brain scans of a person. Scan #1 showed the brain activity when listening to music with eyes open. Scan #2 showed brain activity when that same person listened to music with eyes closed. And it showed considerable more brain activity happening.

It turns out, the amygdala (or the emotional center of the brain) increases in activity dramatically when presented with aural stimuli and no visual stimuli. Visual stimuli actually impair our ability to listen critically. The point? Looking at your DAW when mixing is a handicap.

Looking At Your DAW Is A Handicap

Fillipetti’s point was that by looking at our computer screens while we mix, we don’t listen as critically as say if we mixed on a console and had nothing visual to be drawn to. And if you think about it, from your own experience, don’t you notice more about a song if you close your eyes? You begin to visualize every instrument  more clearly. Your brain picks up steam and gets to work.

When “watching your mix” in the DAW, your brain doesn’t have to work so hard. The result? You aren’t listening as well as could be. You’re at a handicap. You can’t make the absolute best mix decisions possible. It’s kind of scary if you think about it!

Some Solutions To The Problem

So enough about the problem, what are some solutions? Fillipetti’s preference is to use a control surface with actual faders. That way he can close his eyes and make fader adjustments without the assistance of a screen. Clearly it would be hard to move your mouse around, grabbing faders, with your eyes closed.

If a control surface is out of the question, here are some other simple suggestions. After an initial static mix with your mouse and screen, close your eyes and listen through the whole song. Take mental note of what tracks seem out of place. Then open your eyes, make the adjustments and continue. You can also do this toward the end of the mix. Sometimes I’ll even turn off my computer monitor and listen through a mix while taking notes of what I hear.

Turn On Your Super Hearing

If closing your eyes instantly yields more brain activity and focus, then it’s like having super hearing at your disposal. Anytime you want to hear your mix better, simply close your eyes. How awesome is that?! You can literally hear your mix more accurately with something as simple as closing your eyes.

Don’t miss this powerful hack simply because it’s simple. Sometimes the simple solutions are the best ones.


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43 Responses to “The Case For Mixing With Your Eyes Closed”

  1. Luke

    I commute 15 minutes to work each day by train (living in Japan currently). Recently, I’ve been closing my eyes for nearly the whole trip and simply listening to music and taking mental notes. Even without the DAW and screen, opening my eyes is a huge distraction from the music. Closing them allows me to focus and I hear everything clearly.

    Great article Graham! I’ll make sure to shut off the monitor from time to time from here on!

  2. Brandon

    I totally agree. As a habit, I often close my eyes while mixing for that very reason. Sometimes i stare at my studo monitors as well so that my focus is not on the screen but on the sound.

  3. Brandon

    Also of note. I have a behringer bcr2000 control surface which has 24 rotary encoders that i map to my main channels and use it to mix without loking at the screen. The bcf2000 is cool as well because it has actual faders but the rotarys work fine for me and provide control over a greater numbee of channels in the same footprint.

  4. Tommy Detamore

    This is an excellent article that reinforces my beliefs I have held for a long time. I think this phenomenon is one factor that contributes to the widespread popularity of the “car test” for checking mixes. Provided you are in a parked car while listening and not driving, you are suddenly transported into an environment devoid of all the visual stimuli you just left behind in your control room. So you are pretty much just listening, which perhaps up until now you really haven’t been doing, at least not optimally. There have been many times I have caught some anomaly in a mix in the car and wondered why I didn’t hear it inside in my treated control room on my fancy monitors. I think the answer lies in this article!
    Graham, your “common sense” is greatly admired and appreciated here!

  5. TheSchmalz

    Another interesting thought:

    Mix with your computer screen brightness as low as you can handle comfortably. I forget which big-name guy said it, but he/she suggested a dimly lit screen is less visually distracting than a bright screen.

    Mix with a not-so-bright screen and turn that thing off every so often to give yourself a non-distracted, computer screen-off listen every so often.

    It’s pretty revealing to take a silent break for a couple minutes, then take a listen to a great-sounding, similar-genre track (computer screen off!), then a listen to your own mix (screen off again!). It’s simultaneously humbling and encouraging. Humbling because your mix probably doesn’t sound close. Encouraging because, if you can hear the differences, then you can start to identify what the difference is and get your mixes on their way to sounding as good as big-name mixes.

    Good luck out there, guys!

    • Narayana Cooper

      I’m currently on an underpowered Netbook PC, so cannot just “turn off my monitor”, unless I shut down the PC. Obviously, that won’t work very well at all! LOL
      Someone mentioned a plug-in by Massey called “Listen” that makes ur screen go blank.
      About to go grab that, if it’s a freebie.

  6. Alejandro Sanchez

    I have never used this technique while mixing, but I allways listen my mixes on headphones, while I’m in bed, with the lights off and my eyes closed. That’s where I turn on my “super hearing” and I realize things I had not heard in the mix.

  7. Smurf

    Yup, the old “use your ears” with scientific evaluation, got to love it!! LOL

  8. David Komel

    This has been my biggest stumbling block whilst getting back into the fun world of recording. I worked at a commercial studio back in the late 70’s – early 80’s (anyone from the Toronto Canada area remember the “Dave Nash for Canada’s Wonderland….” radio campaign – I engineered those ads) and now really miss that “control surface” we referred to as the console. You HAD to rely on what you heard! You still had some visual cues but not as much visual stimulus as now for sure. Haven’t found the right control surface for me yet so I’m saving my pennies. I’ve always done the “don’t-look-at-the-screen/close-your-eyes/listen/tweak/repeat” thing, and listened to my mixes in different “venues” ie: the “studio”, the car, my church etc, and through different playback medium. That has made the transition a little easier and I do notice the differences in my mixes. Maybe one day I’ll get over that “need” for a “console” but until then….

    Thanks for all the bite-sized bits of wisdom/knowledge that you keep throwin’ our way – it’s REALLY appreciated…..

  9. Alec

    Since when I was a teenager, I’ve got this “weird” habit of listening to music in the dark. I didn’t know exactly why by then, but the experience was amazingly different! Nowadays I don’t feel the same emotion anymnore, because since when I’ve started with this “mixing stuff” whenever I listen to music it feels like I’m studying the arrangement and the mix… Anyway, I still use to do that and I realised it makes my studying more effective. So, everytime I’m near the end of a mix I just listen to it in the dark before the final tweaks. If there’s nothing else to adjust, I can go just “Dancing in the Dark” (great song, by the way)! 🙂

    • Paul Odiase

      Dear Alec!
      This is very interesting! I have tried this with my final mix,and i found it very stimulating!
      Concentration and my judgement rose to a alltime high!!
      Thanx for sharing this experience!

      • Alec

        Yeap! Seems like open eyes in the absolute darkness kinda forces our concentration a step higher than just closed eyes, doesn’t it?!?
        You get that feeling just like “something is about to happen”… LOL… and that puts you 100% “on”! 🙂

  10. Jay Jay

    This seems like a really good technique. Unfortunately, as a deaf person, I need to use my eyes when I mix.

  11. banthaMUSIC

    steve massey has a free rtas toolkit that includes “listen”.

    when enabled it just blanks the screen. i use it for critical decisions, and it really helps!

    google “massey listen”…

  12. Andres

    Quote of the day and flag for the life: “Sometimes the simple solutions are the best ones.” Thanks Graham!

    • Narayana Cooper

      One of my all-time fave quotes: Life is pretty simple when you simplify life.

  13. David Roman

    Thanks for the reminder! I do this automatically now when I’m making critical adjustments in the mixing phase and it always brings my focus back. Great hack!

  14. Rich Airchess

    I’m reading this at work and I decided to give it a test run. Within 15 seconds I realized I could clearly hear two separate A/c vents (panned hard L and R), a frog croaking outside, a phone ringing in another office, and some sort of high-pitch ringing — I think that last one is my blown eardrums though. Very cool trick!

  15. Kev

    I’ve long been campaigning for a ‘Blackout Button’ in my Daw of choice – Cubase on PC, but it fell on lit eyes. There’s workarounds of course.. switch of your LCD monitors or create shortcuts to screen savers. However like I’ve said before I know this so obvious feature will become standard on all Daws once the Daw manufacturers cop on, and place audio before pretty graphics.. Great article

  16. Jamie

    I have to agree, I tend not look at the screen while listening through a mix. It either sounds right irt doesn’t.

  17. P.O.P.

    This is such an “ear” opening article for me. This really takes us back to the essence of why we’re in into music in the first place. With all of these new visually stimulating DAW’s I think we forgot to simply shut everything else down and listen. I have an engineer that’s mixing and mastering a project for me that uses a fully self contained Roland outboard and you can really tell the difference of an outboard mix. You can feel the warmth and the space that all of the instruments and vocals have. I agree the car test is one the best reference in mixing you can use. The car stereo will tell you the truth just like an Apollo audience. In all, absolutely love this article, thank you and I want a control surface mixer now.

  18. ROGER

    It’s the first time that I hear about scans of brain activity, but I had no doubt on my mind about the advantages of listening to music without other distractions (such as monitors).

    I find amazing how much details I can hear at night listening to music with headphones in my bed in the darkness.

    A few days ago I was listening to Roxy Music’s “Avalon”, and I started wondering how great the whole mix is as a whole, but particularly on ambiance and perfect instrument placement. And that’s a recording from 1982!

    I believe that mixing at that point in time was more about actualy hearing than anything else.
    There weren’t so many plugins and tricks available, and THAT may be the huge advantage of having some limitations.

    Our ears can be easily fooled by vision. How many times did you grab the EQ of that guitar part and still take a while to realize that you’re actually eq’ing the piano track by mistake?

  19. benjamin

    This whole thing about closeing your eyes,jus makes me think “idiot savant”

  20. Brian Warner

    I have produced commercial music in the advertising industry for three decades. Years ago I wrote an article for MIX Magazine. The premiss was that if you keep your jaw muscles tight, the seventh nerve which also runs near-bye your ear, will create tension in the muscles of your ear. When the ear drum can’t move proportional to income air-wave, then distortion is created. A dark room and super relaxed jaw muscles will help you hear better!!! Try it. You’ll be amazed. It takes practice, but your monitor speakers will improve as your relax! Also, tension in the jaw is one the effects of long-sessions and ear fatigue.

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