We all, beginners, homestudio enthusiasts and professionals alike, marvel at the top engineer with super hearing. But it’s not magic. It’s habits, knowledge and experience. We all can do it. And I’m going to tell you how.

Engineer with super magic ears

First thing first

The ears are like any other muscle. After a lot of work they get tired and need rest.

Next time you go to you day job, really listen for all the noise your ears are forced to process. Then you get home, driving, kids, cooking: more noise! And after a long day you finally get a chance to sit down in the studio…

By now your ears are tired, and all the decisions you are about to make are going to be done with tools that needs recharging. Your top end will be closed off, and the ears sensitivity to dynamics are limited. And you probably don’t even feel it, because the day has progressed so slowly that you didn’t notice how much noise it actually was.

The only way to be able to learn how to mix is by giving yourself the right conditions to do it.

The lucky few amongst us that are blessed to work in the studio full time get up in the morning just as we do, but the rest of the day is drastically different. They arrive at the studio rested (ears at least) and ready to listen. Then when they are feeling tired and are loosing perspective, they stop and take a break, letting the ears rest. Reading, doing some paperworks, taking a walk or cleaning the studio space. What they don’t do is plugging their airpods in and listen to an audiobook. However calming that might be, the ears still have to do some pretty heavy lifting.

So to come even a little bit closer to this ideal world my advice is – use earplugs! Spend the money to get a pair of custom molded soft silicon plugs with membranes so that you can use them for hours on end and every single day. Cost is 200 euros or there about, but this will make the most drastic change to your mixing you’ll ever know! Much more than any room correction tool or cool must-have plugin! Money well spent!

How to listen?

Okay so now the ears are rested, you have worked all day, commuted, cooked and put kids to bed with the earplugs on. Time to get serious!

Start your session by listening to (great sounding) music. You need to get accustomed to the room (we’ll talk about room treatment in another post. For now just bare in mind that all rooms are flawed. Just work with what you’ve got), and learn how it responds to the audio filling the space. Really listen, don’t fiddle around with anything else. Try to hear the different instruments and their relationships with another. Try to listen to how the bass and bass drum interact. How the attack in the guitar feels. How the vocals sit in the mix. What ever you can think of that catches your interest, and if you can’t manage to listen to anything specific it’s okay, just give it time. Just 5-6 minutes of music every session, on a not too loud volume setting, and then you are ready to go.

(To know how loud is too loud, try talking while the music is playing. If you need to raise your voice, it’s too loud!)

My recommendation is to listen to the same general type of music that you are about to mix, since every genre has a different preference for balance and sound.

Now it’s time to mix. And we mix with our ears, right? All those fancy plugins and graphs bobbing around on the screen are not there to make the audio sound any better, it’s there to make us buy and use the product! Close your eyes as much as you can.

The first step to learn the art of mixing is learning what all the plugins really do (some don’t do anything, and some do drastically different things than what you see on the screen), and the best way to do that is by using the bypass button. Keep asking yourself two questions when you toggle it back and forth. 1. Can I hear a change? and 2. What does it do? Answer those questions everytime you make a decision, and pretty soon you have a basic understanding of why you are going to use a certain tool and what it is good, or not so good, for.

Understanding your tools is the first step of a lifelong, and really exciting, journey.

Every piece of equipment is different, so start off with just one of each, and learn them really well. When you know what you can’t do with one tool you try another. But trying to mimic some big star on the internet will fail. They have traveled this path themselves, and learned over years and years what their tools do. Do not skip this step just because! I know it’s fun to buy new gear, to open up a new shiny plugin GUI and imagine you are the best of the best, but keep your cool. If you can’t understand one tool, do you really think that the next will be any easier? It will only add one extra layer of complexity for you to wrap your head around. Keep it simple!

Balance is power

Keep in mind that this is all a game of balance. Not of performing some advanced voodoo, nor building the longest plugin chain in history. Leaving a track just the way it is isn’t wrong. And it’s not about doing something because someone else is telling you to, neither! If your song needs more cowbell to get the right vibe, then add it, but make sure you add it for a reason. For example “my drums are hitting so hard the cowbell gets lost in the snare sound”. The solution to that problem is what separate one mix engineer from another. One might turn the cowbell up, while another will compress the snare. A third might send the cowbell to a compressed reverb, moving it out to the sides away from the snare transient in the center. This is what makes audio engineering so exciting! Everyone is different and will go about solving these issues in their own way.

Everything is a matter of taste and style. There are no such thing as a too loud cowbell. It’s all about context. That is why I recommended to start with listening to music in the style that you are about to work on. In pop music the cowbell would fit perfectly at a loud volume, while the same cowbell would overpower a country tune easily, and must be kept in the background to not feel wrong. But if you feel that your particular song needs something that isn’t commonly used in that genre, just go for it! If you can motivate why, then it’s the right thing to do!

This is how

This is how professionals hone their skills. They get good at one thing at a time, and develope from there. They learn one tool, they learn one genre, they learn one way to mix. Then they expand on that when there is a need to do so. This is why they are so good. They didn’t throw themselves out there trying it all at once, but went by it methodically and one step at a time.

Good luck!


The Swedish Music Studio

The Swedish Music Studio is a small scale production facility that focuses on the customer. Its owner Niclas Gustafsson is a multiinstrumentalist, producer and mixengineer who works primarily in acoustic music, classical and pop.

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