Art vs. Science in Mixing – and Life?

This article first appeared in Recording Magazine. I reprint it here with permission, and I encourage you to subscribe to that publication, as they are a stand up bunch of folk!

If you haven’t read a book called “Zen and the Art of Mixing”, stop now, order it, and then continue reading this.

Now that you’ve done that, I’ll tell you a story. One day not long ago I was sitting in a plush lecture hall in the Westin hotel in Los Angeles, listening to a workshop on mixing by Rob Chiarelli. If you don’t already know, Rob is a Grammy winning producer and mixer, known for working with such acts as Will Smith, Christina Aguilera, Pink, LeAnn Rimes, Janet Jackson, Stevie Wonder…and on and on and on.

Needless to say, we were all excited to hear what Rob had to say, and there were many enthusiastic mixers ready with a host of questions. As you might imagine, some of those questions were quite technical, and I remember early on somebody in the back asked something I thought of as – well – a little nit-picky. LUFS on pre-master mix buss, or something along those lines. Something that although I have the capacity to understand, would never have crossed my mind to ask, in 25 years of making records. Naturally I felt stupid.

I was prepared for embarrassment, feeling sure that Rob would pontificate in great detail on the proper way to handle whatever it was, but was pleasantly surprised when Rob scoffed. I don’t want to say he called it a stupid question (he was very magnanimous) – but kinda.

Rob’s answer was basically this: does it sound good? Does it feel good? He did talk for some time in response to that question, but the lecture was about what matters in a mix, and that’s the song. If the thing feels great, it feels great. If it sounds great, it sounds great, and if you get so caught up in the technical mumbo-jumbo and fail to pay attention to the feel of the mix, you’ll probably mess it up.

That was a great relief, but in the next few minutes, Rob did talk about some very technical points, and he did end up addressing the question in some detail. What struck me was the deep understanding he had about the science of audio, as well as the overall goal. Here was a guy who has a grasp of the balance between art and science. He hadn’t scoffed at this question because he was stumped. Not at all.

It seems this is a pretty fitting analogy for life in general. We need to understand the details, and science has the been the way we’ve achieved most of what we take for granted now. It was a physicist (Loud Tommy Dowd) who gave us multi-track recording and the fader. An electrical engineer (Max Mathews) brought us digital audio. But when we get caught in the details and forget the reason for them, we risk losing the art entirely.

We’re seeing that battle a lot lately, not just in music. Science is being thrown away when it shouldn’t be, but so is its counterpart, faith. This is a dilemma as old as history. In college lectures on medieval history, we called it the battle of faith vs. reason. In every era one trumps the other and there are always consequences.

Perhaps this is what’s so magical about music and mixing. You really can’t get it right without both. Fail to understand the science and you’re left guessing, bumbling, and making mixes that sound like cats fighting or elephants dying. Skip the crucial details and you could find yourself overloading a speaker, losing a job, or recording silence at a once in lifetime performance.

Still, if you can’t step back and feel the music, let it tell you what it needs, and worry less about technical terms, peak meters and the next fancy plugin, you could end up making cold, dreary mixes that move no one. In fact, too much emphasis on the technical and you could end up with the same muddy, screechy mix as your head-in-the-clouds counterpart.

There are two abilities that set great mixers apart from mediocre ones. One is the ability to hear details – pick out the high-hat and hear that slight 3k resonance or hear the kick phasing just slightly with the bass. The other is to turn that type of listening off and hear the big picture. Listen to the way the mix grooves as a whole unit. Turn off the brain, notice the goosebumps, and feel your head nodding. The ability to be both analytical and emotional – sometimes simultaneously – is what makes a mixer truly amazing. It may even be what music is for.

It’s hard to be two opposite things at once, or at least we’re led to believe that. But I think in mixing, as in life, the great goal is balance. I think and I feel, therefore I am a musician.

So, if you ask me whether art or science is king in mixing, I’d say they share the throne. Whichever side you tend to lean toward, I encourage you to lean the other way sometimes. See what you can find by valuing both. Maybe you’ll be able to mix art and science a little better (pun fully intended). Either way, keep doing what you do.


I’m always trying to learn more about balance, art, science and sound. If you want talk about it with me, find me on Facebook @AaronJTrumm

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