Critiquing vs. Helping?

Critiquing vs. Helping?
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I would have put this thread in the Haggis mix contest subcategory, but it’s closed to new threads (mods move if you wish). This could also apply to BTR though.

My query for exploration is something along the lines of “how do we know if we’re helping someone when we critique their mix?” My premise for this could include these points:

  1. Unless the person submits an essay on what their goals were with their mix, how would we know how to help them achieve those goals?
  2. Since music and mixing can be so subjective and involve personal tastes, what are the chances that a critique helps a person further cultivate their personal subjective tastes and skills … rather than perhaps causing a person to doubt or question themselves, or feel uncertain about what they are doing?
  3. And maybe helping isn’t the best term? Maybe something like “encouragement” - i.e. the act of encouraging : the state of being encouraged : something that gives hope, determination, or confidence.

I’m genuinely interested in exploring this. It comes up for me every time there’s a contest. Below is some of the relevant text from the rules for this current contest, as a reference.
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Be sure to rate other mixes and provide HELPFUL information or tips to other entries with any improvements you’d recommend (ie, does the mix translate well on your speakers? what would you change? etc)

Points based on:
how actively you participated in the contest and helped others
the quality of that participation and help
how well you ranked in the community judging of your mix and final judging results

The Secret To Winning
The secret to winning this contest is to score as high as you can in the mixing contest AND give as much good, friendly, and CONSTRUCTIVE help to others on as you can.

A person with a decent mix entry that ranks well AND has been helpful to others could win the prize.

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I feel this will be a positive discussion.

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Interesting topic. I guess it’s up to the person who posted the mix to decide what is or isn’t helpful because only they know what was or wasn’t intentional. I always take comments with a grain of salt, especially when I suspect someone’s taste is involved. After all, it’s my mix and I want it to sound how I want it to sound. But if something gets pointed out that I didn’t notice while mixing it, and if I consider that thing is a flaw, then it’s helpful and I can fix it.

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I think feedback can be very helpful for translation purposes especially.Its always handy to have another pair of ears and others ideas of how a mix could be better or different .I have had feedback on mixes that i have never forgot and helped me no end

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Great topic for discussion!

I think feedback is important, it’s hard to get better in a vacuum. To me, the important thing is recognition that there are areas that are completely subjective. When I give feedback, if something is subjective, I try to state that, because while I may like hearing something a certain way, it has no bearing whatsoever on what the vision of the mix was. If there’s something that can be considered a technical error then I think it’s important to call that out, because that’s the stuff that helps us learn.

From a receiving standpoint, I agree with @Jclampitt… it’s up to the person. I miss plenty of stuff on my mixes for whatever reason and I’m thankful that they get pointed out. If something is more of “this is how I like it to sound”, then that’s great too because another perspective never hurts… but at the end of the day if it doesn’t fit within my vision then it doesn’t get implemented.

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I always feel the most helpful criticism is the most specific criticism.

“Hey you have too much 200hz in the vocal” etc…

Other more feeling based stuff is helpful too, but again harder to ingest.

However having your feelings hurt can be very educational as well, and its the persons choice wether they look at it as an opportunity for growth or not.

I am only in a position to offer what I can hear, and that may be wrong sometimes, but then again how would I know unless I say it and someone corrects me?

Also I usually have no idea if what I am doing is even good, its hard when you’re they only one judging it.

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Right, sometimes you get two handfuls of comments/suggestions and then you have to sift and figure out what to keep, what to toss, and what to maybe consider for future learning or experimentation. I guess my quandary is that this approach feels kind of messy and requires a fair amount of introspection at times. A possible solution could be to post a “tl;dr” essay on mix goals, but that too could be messy. :thinking:

So one area here might be called “blind spots” or, as the old saying goes, “you don’t know what you don’t know.” So getting that pointed out could help to see things more clearly. Another area might be “new possibilities” or “insights” - how to grow and expand knowledge and skills.

I think “translation” is important too, but unless you know how the other person hears things, what their room treatment or setup is, what speakers or headphones they are using … it’s kind of like trying to describe what chocolate tastes like. :smirk:

Yes, that’s something that you don’t want to “get through the net” as it were. Some things can be pretty obvious, but then I think there’s a degree of subjectivity there too when it comes to things like editing or vocal tuning. Some people do more, some do less. Some want a tight “grid” vibe and others want things more loose for ‘feel’.

I’m a big fan of time-stamps when pointing out things like frequencies or instrument levels, as you say, “specifics”. I want to listen at the exact point in the song where the person came to that conclusion. Each song section is different, and automation may have been present but subtle, and hearing something for a few seconds that jumps out is not the same as the whole song being that way necessarily.

I think this is a big area that gets overlooked and underestimated. The ultimate judge of a song is how the listener “feels” about it, or how it prompts them to feel (i.e. mood change). That’s the goal of most music I think. The problem is that describing feelings may be 100x harder than talking in technical terms. So I think we tend to defer to tech-speak to solve the problem when it really needs a gut-level “here’s how I feel when I hear that”.

Per your example: “Hey you have too much 200hz in the vocal”. Well, why is that right or wrong, and how does it make you “feel” when you listen to the song. It’s not even necessarily a specific mood or emotion - but simple attraction or repulsion I think. Does that specific thing draw you in or repel you from the song? Probably when we bring things like that up we are saying it repels us, but then how do you take that idea further? Other times it could be “look at that damn RTA spike … that can’t be right!” :wink:

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I don’t see why we have to know this.

I don’t see why we need to know the specific goals, if we trust that the overall objective of everyone entering the contest is relatively similar: To make that things sound the best that we know how in the amount of time we have. If someone enters it with aspirations to the contrary, they’re wasting their own time, and everyone else time anyway, in which case the entire question seems moot.

That’s not my problem or concern… They’re free to ignore any advice they don’t agree with. Causing people to second guess themselves is a part of the creative process. You have to think, evaluate, and reflect, and make decisions.

When your work gets critiqued anywhere else in the real world, there is no guarantee that the feedback is going to be supportive, friendly, encouraging, or inspirational. You’re taking that part way too literally. I don’t see anything wrong with critiquing something for the sake of critiquing it, rather than being motivated by helping the person. If the dialogue stimulations conversation and there is useful information in the critique, that seems sufficient and acceptable.

I really don’t feel this whole thing is an issue unless we like…had trolls harassing the community for sport. I haven’t read one critique this entire contest that came off as offensive, condescending, or derogatory. I dunno man. If this is an issue I would vote that we remove any part of the rules that requires us to be helpful to one another. That way we don’t have to think about it anymore.

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I think this is an interesting point… partly because when I’m listening to a track in the Bash forum, especially when it’s one that I’ve mixed, I very rarely listen with an ear towards emotion. It winds up being more critical listening. If I’m listening to a track that I won’t comment on for whatever reason, I’m more prone to just doing an enjoyment listen. It’s hard for me to join the two, I think partly because I’m not really a songwriter and have always been more of a “creative technician” if you will.

I think that’s a question that I’d like to pose… can people here listen critically but also take in the song from an enjoyment perspective? It’s funny, when I was in school for engineering, on the first day the guy who ran the school stood at the front and gave this great inspiring speech… and finished up by saying, “be prepared to never listen to music the same again”. As in, your technical ear will always play a part in the listening experience, whether you like it or not.

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Yes, I understand that part. I guess I’m talking more about the emotional aspect attached to it, as in:

I think it’s natural to have some degree of emotional attachment to something we work on and invest ourselves in. And it’s important to have honest discourse, yet there is an obvious limitation to getting feedback in a text-based forum. No parent wants to hear “man, that’s a strange looking baby”, but I guess it depends on how the person said it. :slightly_smiling_face:

My intention was just to explore what “helping” means, from both the giving and receiving sides if possible. I think everyone here has good intentions to help and support. It’s like any of the other relationships in your life - having good communication skills always requires constant work and attention. That was my point.

This was very much my whole premise for the thread. Do we get so caught in the technical aspects or taste aspects that we overlook feeling, enjoyment, and listen-ability. The irony is that ultimately we’d like what we produce to be listened to and enjoyed by a wide listening audience, not a bunch of musical technicians like ourselves. But at the moment, our little laboratory seems like a good place to practice. I think we should make the most of this, but I think we could possibly do it a little better from the communications standpoint. In other words, considering the wider listen-ability potential of a song and the emotional/feeling context of it. Most of us have had the experience of asking a non-engineer/non-musician to evaluate what we have done, and find comments like “I think it’s fine” or “That’s pretty good” to be unsatisfying and unsuitable as well. They aren’t specific enough.

The “technical ear” is definitely a ‘thing’, and I’d guess all of us struggle with that. I suppose my hope is that through awareness we can incorporate both the technical ear and the conveyance of feeling enjoyment (or lack of it) into the ‘feedback’ process. It’s like the left-brain/right-brain model - you can’t do both at the same time, you have to alternate. And that can take more time and be harder to switch the brain like that. Maybe what I’m asking is not practical or feasible. But I’m asking. :wink:

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There’s a simple solution to that. Don’t enter them in a child beauty pageant if you don’t think they’re normal looking enough to win.

If you put something out there for people to critique, you kind of get what you get. Again, I think this contest is helpful, but if we try and tip-toe around giving more ‘considerate’ feedback than we already are, I think we’re gonna devalue what we’re doing. And I for one would probably feel like shooting myself if I had to worry about hurting someones feelings every time I tried to explain something as basic as changing an EQ curve on a kick or thinking the processing chain.

Look, I’m not sure what you’re after, but if you feel some of the critiques were harsh beyond what was helpful to you personally, I would think the solution would be to pursue feedback by only asking for specific advice. That might help minimize the shock reaction from comments that you might not find as helpful.

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That’s not really where I’m going with this. It’s more of the “why is that important”, and not just a simplistic “why” but - in what way will making a kick drum sound different help someone (the average listener) enjoy the song more. How is what you’re suggesting I do with the song going to benefit the listening masses rather than just satisfy the musical technician telling me to do it? Is this an unreasonable goal?

Again, I may be asking a lot here (which includes myself as well), but music is a very diverse and rich landscape. I guess sometimes it gets a bit one-dimensional when we toss out technical prescriptions like doctors do pills. What most patients want from their doctors is more human connection and understanding, not more pills (but they may get the pills anyway). I’m interested in not just the technical, but the artistic (style) and emotional elements of what we’re trying to do. Like storytelling, an emotional connection with the audience.

As I noted in the OP, this is something I have noticed for a long time, especially in mix contests but also in BTR. Maybe it’s just me … you know, a case of existential angst (again). :drooling_face:

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I thought the TBH comp was the MOST PRODUCTIVE btr EVER… seriously…

Everybody helped eachother. Because we all had the same tracks, whether you entered or not.

The only problem was opening the voting TOO early. It would have been cooler IMO, to let everybody submit and then bash away for six weeks or whatever… THEN close it JUST for voting for a week.

Just me, but I had fun interacting with everybody and trying to help them improve their mix, without even entering… :+1:

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I’m not in this contest but I’ll barge in here anyway!

The contest rules are clear, your comments are to be helpful, friendly and constructive. That requires clarity and honesty to be sure. But any information can be easily delivered in a cruel manner or a friendly manner. One of the favorite troll excuses is: “But I was only being honest!”

The only thing any of us has is our opinions. What is “normal” is a matter of opinion. No one can be completely in touch with the vagaries of the preferences of the public because those preferences are constantly changing. Success is the result of a popularity contest, so right now the Beatles are omniscient and cannot be questioned. Of course you may have a different opinion.

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There was definitely something different about this one. Maybe the spontaneity of how it came about was one factor. Also since there’s no prize, I think it’s a bit less competitive, leading to more cooperation as you indicated. Your idea about a six week bash is interesting, though I think there’s a point where people want to wrap things up and move on to something else. And I think there’s only so long you can listen to the same song over and over and maintain some sense of objectivity about it (not to mention the feeling part, in terms of burnout).

I think the different atmosphere this time is also what is bringing up a shift in me as to how and why we do them. Yes, I’m asking a lot of questions, and it may shake up the status-quo a little bit, but personally I’m sensing a growth stage for myself as to the driving purpose for why we are all here. I thought it might be a meaningful conversation for others as well, and it seems to have generated that.

Oh damn. There goes my “appealing to the average listener” initiative. :slightly_smiling_face: So that kind of leaves us with only our own tastes and preferences. And whoever here chimes in with an opinion. Oh well, perhaps I was looking for a golden feather. :wink:

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We don’t. The only way we would know if we were helping them would be if they actually applied the advice and their mix improved.

Audio is a medium that is generally presented without additional explanation. That being the case, that is also generally how it is evaluated by the listener - on its own merit.

The fact is, when, as a mixer I am given a mix to do by a client, my job is to present their work in a way that compliments and enhances their vision. If I explain to the client why I did (or did not) do certain things a certain way, it will make absolutely no difference. The client will still want what they want…

Andrew Scheps talks at length about this many times in interviews he has given. He says something to this effect: “If I’m composing an email explaining my mix to the client in my head while I’m listening back to it, then I haven’t finished the mix yet”. I’m a BIG believer in that philosophy - I identified with it, because that is the conclusion I came to early on when mixing for clients…

…So personally, when I see someone pre-explaining their mix as if it were a purple blob on a canvas in a modern art museum exhibit, it immediately makes me wary. I’m in the position of the client - I’ll hear what I hear; I’ll react to it the way I’ll react. No amount of eloquent prose will make one iota of difference… It all sounds like “uh…sorry teacher… the dog ate my homework” :grimacing:

The question I would ask is “does the mixer’s personal subjective tastes” enhance the song and make it subjectively “better”; improve its “feel”… or whatever? A person’s personal taste in clothing might be to wear crop tops. If that same person has a giant beer gut, is anyone in their right mind going to encourage them to pursue that mode of clothing?

The fact is, there is a wide variance of style among the top mixers of today. But anyone who is a student of music can quickly tell whether the person who mixed the song knew what they were doing or not. I think even someone who is just starting out in audio (& I’d venture to say even “the average listener”) has a sense of that too - what sounds “pro” and what doesn’t…

It’s much like a “dress code”. If the dress code for an establishment states “smart casual”, there is still a lot of room for variance according to personal taste. But if someone walks in with no shirt and flip flops, they’ll stand out like the proverbial and be easy to spot.

It may just be one of many small decisions that add up to something that “feels” better as a whole. Whenever I critique, the very first thing I listen for is “does it feel good”; “Does it feel right”. If it does, I’ll say so. I might give it another forensic listen to see if there are any technical things that could be improved, but generally speaking, if it feels good, those things will be low priority.

On the other hand, if it doesn’t “feel good”, I start asking myself “why”. More often than not, the reason is a technical one - The vocal is too dynamic; the mix is muddy; the kick drum isn’t driving the groove as it should; the low end of the guitar is covering up the top end of the bass… etc etc.

Sometimes, it is a matter of taste. For example, I personally hate mixers whacking chorusing on guitars just for the hell of it. I generally try to make it clear that I’m making a comment that reflects my personal taste. Each to his own.

Don’t forget, critique is every bit as helpful to the person doing the critique as it is to those being critiqued, IMO. This is the way you practice your critical listening skills, which I would venture to say is THE most important thing to develop in this field. When you listen carefully and critically, you can’t help but develop a viewpoint; a perspective as to what sounds “good”. As @ingolee so succinctly put it:

Amen. In mixing and producing, taste is everything - it is why one person gets a project and another doesn’t.

Develop your opinions, develop your taste.

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And this is what comes up in a mix contest. It’s kind of like having 10 (or many more) clients saying they want this or that. I think just as you would only want one band member to give you mix feedback, rather than all 5 members, it might be helpful to have a designated ‘client’ in a mix contest who we are accountable to. Anyone else could chime in, and even comment on what the ‘client’ is asking for. I don’t know if that would work, just brainstorming here for more of a real-life type experience.

Right, so in the “big boy” mixer world they have some pretty clear and tangible feedback on how frequently their taste is appreciated by other mixers and by artists and record sales. I hate to say “if it sells well it must be good”, but I think that’s kind of a bottom-line mentality in the business.

And if it’s subjective, and there’s a wide variance of style, how do you find some kind of “standard” or measuring stick for your progress toward a goal like that? Or is that not possible? And what is a helpful approach to following your “inner compass” versus taking and implementing feedback from others? The “inner compass” would be what you have developed from your opinions and taste, so if someone offers something that contradicts that, would you change your opinions and taste … and what would you base that on?

I think some of this happens organically when you have a mentor/protégé relationship, like say Bob Clearmountain and Chris Lord-Alge. Two people with distinct opinions, but they are learning things from each other based partly on their differences. Yet one is more of the role model in a sense.