HomeBlogsbillhare's blogCommunicating With Your Engineer For Fun & Profit

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Communication is key, not only with the people who are helping you put your album together, but also between members of your own group when making decisions about mixing, etc. Let me share a few words from two emails I recently received from two officials from the same group, regarding the same mix:

Group member #1:

“Is there any way to make the lead vocal sound more “in your ear and personal”? Perhaps less echo on the lead?”

Group Member # 2:

“I love how the soloist sounds like he's in a big room. Can we take it even farther, more epic, like he's singing from far away on a mountaintop?"

Now maybe I should just keep quiet about all of this, because I could just make a ton of money by lowering and raising reverb back and forth, charging the group each time I do it, and not have to do any real work again! 

This is a common (and usually unnecessarily expensive) problem, the “Too many cooks in the kitchen / Left hand not knowing what the right hand is doing” syndromes, but easily avoided if you can prepare for it beforehand.

First of all, the group members need to come to an agreement on what they want, which is no mean feat in itself – everyone has different tastes, and in art, there is no true right or wrong, which makes it even harder!  I’ve seen groups come to tears over this, people yelling at each other, and even groups disbanding over these differences, but even this can be avoided.

I am currently working with a couple groups who set up user groups (Google, Yahoo, or even a good ol’ phpBB forum like they use at RARB) specifically for having open discussion on mix direction.  This way everyone can make their points (and counterpoints) in writing without getting too emotional about it, and I’m also seeing people come around to other points of view quicker as well.

Personally, I'd rather stay out of such conversations, but sometimes it's interesting to eavesdrop on them if they allow me to.  In the end, though, I'd rather that they send me a consolidated list of the stuff they all agreed on, and left out the other stuff.  At over 2 dollars a minute, you don't want me doing test mixes to make one alto happier.

One of the biggest issues in critiquing your own group’s work is the “Forest for the Trees” trap.  You are so intimately familiar with your group’s individual voices, arrangements, previous albums, etc, that it’s hard to listen objectively.  This is why I can never stress enough to my clients to get outside opinions, because ANYONE outside of your group will be able to hear things much differently (and usually more objectively) than anyone inside the group.  Even we Engineers have an informal little club where we critique each others’ mixes and get advice from each other – we can’t be 100% objective either, because we are putting our own artistic touch onto it as well!

I’ve often thought it would be good to have one client make all the revision comments on another client’s mixes, and vice-versa.  People who fully understand what the goal is, but aren’t actually in the group so not emotionally involved. Groups tune in especially to things like delays, flanges, octave drops, filtering, etc - anything that is different from their raw performance.  The thing is, anyone from OUTSIDE that performance doesn't notice that stuff as much, it's just part of the music.  When self-evaluating, I find that groups and their music directors tend to focus on everything EXCEPT the actual song!

I actually tested the theory this morning, since I am working with two different Mixed Collegiate groups from different parts of the country, but similar in material, style, and numbers.  The results were just what I thought they would be – names will be changed to protect the guilty:

“Group X” is mixing “Song A”, and is having a lot of discussion about it, worrying about many issues that may or may not exist, or how it compares to other groups out there.  They worry that doesn’t have enough impact between sections, that certain people are out of tune at places or just plain sticking out (sound familiar?)

“Group Y” is mixing “Song B” and having the same issues, making a million comments about things that need to be “fixed”, but I am trying to tell them it’s stuff only they will hear because of the aforementioned familiarity issue.

So, I had one of the people from “Group Y” (the individual who had made the most detailed comments about his own group's mix) critique  “Song A” from “Group X” – he wrote:

"Song A' is AMAZING. WOW. The track literally shimmers.

The background gives strong support to an amazing soloist who seems fragile and tormented. The build at :39 is perfect. It feels as if the group is breathing in and exhaling together (nice job since the original doesn't sound like there's much of a build there). Then the transformation to the rocking out at 1:37 is incredible. I don't know how you were able to make the soloist and the group sound so ethereal. Wow. This track is solid. "

I wouldn't touch a thing...If they tell you to change anything, don't listen! Tell them that this random a cappella nerd thinks that this song has serious BOCA potential! "

Frankly, this was exactly what I expected to hear– it’s so hard not to pick on every little detail of your own project, but 99.9% of even the best trained ears won’t hear the things you do, only because of your own intimate familiarity of what’s going on in the piece. Get outside opinion, and then force yourself to listen to it – you’ll save a lot of money!

How did “Group X” respond to “Song B” from “Group Y” you ask?  About the same thing happened the other direction, of course, even though each group has a huge list of revisions they want regarding the exact same songs from their own point of view.

As an interesting aside: I did play “Group Y’s” mixes for someone in yet another group (we’ll call them “Group Z”) who said, “Why is it your first drafts for other groups are perfect while our third remix still has voices sticking out?”  Oh well, guess I’ll never win this one!  ;-)