Tim Latham

What makes a bad mix bad and a great mix great

When I’m asked what I do for a living, there is a now familiar look of confusion when I say that I’m a mix engineer. Or a recording engineer.
Mixing records is a very difficult concept to describe to someone who has no idea what a recoding studio is, never mind what an audio engineer does. Once that difficult task is overcome, the next challenge is describing what makes a great mix.

Most people will know a poorly mixed record when they hear it, but will not be able to describe why. But I’ve never met a non-engineer that understood what a great mix is and why. In my opinion, formed over two decades in recording studios, a great mix is one that is transparent to the song. The listener should never “hear” a mix, they should “hear” the song. A bad mix is easier to identify than a good mix. They sound cheap, or like a demo. A good mix sounds “nice” or “clean”. A great mix should create an image, a visual to put the listener in the setting of the story of the song. And it should do this without being obvious. A great mix engineer is able to pull the listener into the story. A great mix should have the same effect that a great movie does: it should pull you into a space where you forget where you are. My favorite example of a great mix is that of “The Boxer” by Simon and Garfunkel (engineered by Roy Halee). It’s a visual masterpiece. Pro Tools has given me the ability to create unique spaces easier than when I was working solely with analog gear. “My Own Zero” by Zap Mama is a mix that I feel that I created a stage for the lyrics.

Posted on October 27, 2009.
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