March 1, 2017
As humans we are adaptable. Hearing a song for the first time you might notice a part that
will jump out and make you take notice in either a good or bad way. Upon the 2nd and 3rd
listen, that part could become part of the “character” of the song or even something that
makes the recording unique. How do we really know what contributes to the character of
the mix and what is a flaw? Music is art and art is subjective by nature.
One way is to take notice of the reactions of someone who is hearing the song for the first
time. Are they tapping their feet, grooving along, or looking bored at certain times? Listen
quietly to their comments and try to not be defensive. Keep in mind everyone has a history
of what they deem as “good music”. Each comment should be taken knowing the
commenter’s point of reference in musical styles. It’s impossible to hear as others do. We
process what we hear differently than everyone else in the world does. Our goal is to
dissect each comment looking for the germ of truth that will help us hear the song from
Another technique is to step away from the mix. I will usually play back the song in the car
the next morning when my ears and brain are fresh. When parked I will take notes or while
driving use an iPhone recorder to dictate thoughts while hearing the song in the
background. You can also listen passively while driving or in a different environment to help
you hear with consumer ears instead of engineer/musician ears. Another very unique way to
hear the mix differently and reset your ears is to reverse the mix file. This will reveal the
textures in a new way.
A powerful technique is to listen from the next room. Close the door and see if you can still
hear and understand the vocal or most important elements in the mix. Is the bass making
the mix muddy? Are the high-hat or percussion parts still heard? Are instruments that you
had panned to opposite sides competing against each other now that you are hearing the
mix in mono? Is there a build up of lower midrange frequencies bumping against each other
making the mix feel crowded?
Listening to the mix very, very quietly can also reveal if the vocal is loud enough and if the effects are enhancing or putting the vocal farther away from the listener. Changing monitor levels while mixing will also help you gain different perspectives. Quiet listening helps hearing dynamics and balance issues, while louder helps timbre and resonance issues. Using high quality headphones will also show panning from a
new perspective. To reference your mix against commercially released songs, I use a plugin
on the mix-buss called Magic AB.
In conclusion, neurologically and cognitively your brain only gets one chance to hear the
song for the first time. Upon subsequent listens, your brain adjusts and will clean up any
“mistakes” until they become natural and part of the character of the recording. Stepping
away from the mix and asking for peer and friends/family feedback are the only ways to
really know if what you have is gold or fool’s gold.
Paul Harlyn is a musical artist and producer who’s 6th studio album The Paris Lounge was just released with 10 songs inspired by his 10 trips to France.
Link to listen to or purchase The Paris Lounge in iTunes
Link to stream in Spotify