A short post today about something very simple, but sometimes overlooked.
The prevalence of DAWs, plugin effects and digital recording has given us amazing tools to play with, and the possibility to reach exceptional quality even with modest means. DAWs and plugins are amazing.
Both DAW and plugins, however, are computer applications. Specifically, personal computer application.
So what? say you.
Well, personal computer applications tend to use a screen. For DAWs, often two or three.
The result is that, like with any other application, the main interaction style for a DAW or plugin tends to be visual. Both DAW and plugins exploit the screen by showing waveforms,visual EQ curves, frequency response graphs, and so on and so on.
Now, nothing wrong with that. Most of the times, it's a blessing: for example, when rough-aligning kick and bass notes produced by time-challenged performers; or by allowing clip cutting, moving and editing down to sample-level precision (try that with tape!); or aligning accurately the pre-delay time of two reverbs by simply typing in the number; etc.
When mixing, however, most often we want to take sonic decisions: EQ frequency, Q and gain level, compression release time, delay durations, you name it.
All sonic stuff.
Nevertheless, due to the visual appeal of DAW and plugins, all too often we end up looking at things on the screen: waveform, EQ shape, frequency and gain values... or even comparing the look of our master waveform with, say, the one of a reference track.
It becomes a habit, and one that sometimes we aren't even aware of. It's also a habit which may bite back when we make sonic decisions.
Thing is, it's harder to judge sound when vision is involved.
That's because vision is so overwhelmingly important for the human brain, that when we have visual focus on something, we become less aware and focused on other aspects - including sonics. Visual clues take almost automatically precedence in our mind, and it happens quite independently of our will.
The best way not be affected by what we see is not to look.
And since, very often, the relationship between the graphic representations we get on an average screen and how things actually sound is not that direct... taking decisions with your eyes is not a great strategy.
In other words, for any important sonic decision on a mix, it's critical to listen to its effect without (visual) preconceptions on how things should look like.
Sometimes, of course, it makes perfect sense to use your eyes: for example, if I know what a 5K boost does, it's very efficient to type exactly 5000 in the EQ. But in general, it's best to use your eyes to "lock" your mouse on the right part of the screen or do all that you need to be ready to determine the effect.. and then play with the control parameter without looking.
Due to all this, a great trick to get better mixes is simply to close your eyes when taking important sonic decisions.
For example, if I want a 5K boost to get a little more clarity out of a vocal, I'll probably set the initial EQ frequency at exactly 5K by typing "5000" in the frequency textbox. Then I'll set the gain high enough to hear well what the boost does, set the mouse over the virtual "frequency" knob and then happily wiggle left or right - without looking at the controls and the on-screen EQ curve at all.
And when I nail it, it may be that the boost was more around 6K than 5K or whatever else sounds good. If I don't nail it, i.e. I find no place where it sounds good, it's a good indication that my idea was wrong and I cannot probably get the effect I want by boosting (and may need to cut something other track instead).
When you start mixing like that, fun things happen.
You may find out that you've made a 12dB boost, and it sounds awesome.
Your compression ratio may end up no more than a measly 1:1.5 and all is well.
You have no idea of the reverb time you've just set, but you know it clicks perfectly with the song groove.
And so on.
Now, don't get me wrong: there's usually good reasons for rules of thumb, and why for example heavy EQ boosts aren't recommended or in general is best to keep cuts relatively narrow... but the point is that, in some situation, these reasons and these rules may not apply.
Your ears - not your eyes - should be the judge of that.
I am also not at all advocating lack of intellectual knowledge, or of competence in understanding how control affect the sonics.. you want to be as knowledgeable as you can. But you want to use your intellectual knowledge to give yourself a starting point and a direction for a decision... and then use your ears to evaluate the results on the specific track you're working on.
All good, you say, but how do I do this with a mouse?
True, a mouse makes it harder, since it allows you to control one parameter at a time, with your fingers can easily jump between several physical controls without looking.
For that reason alone, it's useful to have a control surface (and incidentally, that's why I love hardware outboard, even if sonically you can get great results from plugins.. outboard has knobs and buttons and switches!).
Useful tough, but not essential.
The important bit is to be aware of the importance of not looking. Point, click, lock the mouse in place and then make sure you close your eyes while you wiggle it left or right or whatever allows you to turn the virtual knob or move the virtual slider.
Or at the very least focus only on the control, not any graphics showing you the effect, and try not to really look at numbers or labels. You won't ever try that 12dB boost if you do. :)
Even with just a mouse, it may take a little more as you need to repeat the process a few times, and look at the screen to find out where the mouse is... but the occasional waste of time or the mistake or two will still absolutely be worth it.
Another consequence of being aware of our preference for visual clues helps evaluating a mix in its entirety. The trick is very simple:
Don't look when you listen to the entire mix.
The best way to do that, especially at the final stages of mixing, is to really go the full monty: hit "play" and turn your back completely from the screen and the monitors.
You will still be in the sweet spot of your room, but you will be able to listen to the entire mix without being distracted by visual clues... allowing you to nail anything that needs improvement much faster and more easily than if you were. If anything, grab pencil and paper and make notes as you listen.
In conclusion: every time you want to make important sonic decisions, try to set up things so that, when you make them, you are not looking at the screen, but rather to a static landscape - be it your studio or simply nothing as your eyes are closed.
This will avoid the distraction due to the activation of the visual-processing part of your brain, and do your mixes a lot of good!