The Most Important Thing

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I just finished watching a recently posted Q&A Michael Brauer did following his Mix With the Masters session last December. The interview really reminded me how much my approach to putting a mix together has changed over the years and how it has gravitated much more closer to that of the guys I admire.

In the interview, Brauer talks about building his mix around the vibe of the song or what’s most important for the song. He figures out what the important stuff is that drives the song and builds around that. In a lot of cases, the thing driving the song ends up being the vocal.

Another of my favorite mixers, Bob Clearmountain, has a similar tactic. He tends to throw all the faders up and get a rough mix going right away. A big thing with Clearmountain, though, is he always leaves the vocal in. Rhett Davies had this to say about Clearmountain’s approach in Tape Op #84:

What Bob does that’s great is he’ll be listening to the track and he’ll have have the vocal in from play one. He won’t be spending hours listening to the drums — he’s listening to the whole stew all the time and mixing the stew. He’s always got the vocals as his focal point….

Clearmountain then sums it up himself, “To me the song is the most important thing, which is the vocal obviously.”

Chris Lord-Alge follows closely behind Clearmountain. He pushes all the faders up and works on everything at the same time: I EQ everything at the same time, because everything reacts off everything else.

So what’s my point?

There’s an idea floating around out there that you should start a mix with the drums and then build it up from there, and at some point that idea turned into a rule for a lot of guys. There’s nothing wrong with approaching a mix this way, but you should know it’s not actually a rule and there are other ways to do it. And, in fact, some of the guys who get paid large amounts of money to mix don’t even do it that way.

Over the last few months I’ve received a lot of positive comments about the amount of separation in my mixes from both engineers and average listeners. I’m working on a possible series or posts about this, but maybe the biggest factor in this actually comes from my approach. If I were to sum up my mixing approach these days it would be to emphasize and support the most important stuff in the mix.

There may or may not be a lot of separation between instruments in my mixes; I don’t really think about it that way. What I do think about is keeping the stuff I think is important in focus. What this does is force me to focus the majority of my time making sure the important stuff is clear in the mix. Then I mix all the supporting stuff around it. So, when I get it right everything is there in the mix, but nobody’s worrying about the supporting stuff because the important stuff is working the way it should.

So, to get a little more specific, the vocals are typically the most important thing to me so I always try and start a mix with them. Even if it’s just a soundcheck where nobody’s singing, I’ll keep the mic of whoever’s leading soundcheck up and build around that. Then as I work through the mix, I try and leave the vocals up as much as possible. There are times when I might pull them out to work on making something else happen for me, but I try not to do this very often.

If your mixes are great right now, I guess you can just file all this in the back of your mind as interesting stuff. But if you’re not happy with your mixes and/or the people you’re mixing for aren’t happy, maybe you should consider your approach. Maybe it’s time to try something different. So instead of building some pyramid or architectural structure like magazines and books like to talk about, maybe try mixing a song. And if you’re going to mix a song, try starting with the most important thing(s) in that song.

David Stagl

One Response to “The Most Important Thing

  • Christian
    10 years ago


    Great article man. I totally agree with this approach and have found much success doing so. Catering to the song and what the band is trying to do and communicate is always the most important thing. Two thumbs up!

    That being said, I still think it’s important to allow room for a more technical approach when training newbies. Really so they understand what important elements make a good mix. I know people now who read about these approaches to mixing and yet their mix lacks punch, excitement, or even a focal point.

    I would love to hear you do a series on your mixes. That would be stellar!