Why Are the Big Boys Better Than Us?

There may be many reasons why some commercial recordings are better than our own, I’m focusing on one specific area in this post.

I genuinely don’t believe it’s much to do with equipment. Sure, your equipment needs to be at a certain level, but an SM57 - or even SM7b - and a pair of DT100s are the same regardless of the studio you’re in.

We often say that you have to know when it’s time to wrap up a mix, because the threshold of diminishing returns has been reached, and I don’t doubt that is often true, but I also think the reverse is often applicable, and that isn’t discussed so much.

There isn’t a single mix of mine that couldn’t be improved when I listen back to it. I’m not just talking about nondescript self deprecation here, I mean I could come up with specific moves, additions, subtractions etc that would add that tiny je ne sais crois to the mix. If you can come up with enough of those tiny moments, at some point the whole mix is going to go up one full level.

After much consideration I think the main reason I sign a mix off is because I have run out of steam - both mental and physical. I don’t often think to myself that the diminishing return threshold has been reached, I usually sign a mix off because I don’t have the mental or physical fortitude to take it any further.

When I listen to some commercial mixes, I can hear within them that someone with greater stamina than I has worked on them. Attention to the finest detail has been paid, and the only way to achieve that - in my opinion - is a dogmatic resolute approach: “keep going until it’s done”. I think in many cases this may be one facet that sets the big boys apart from the home recording boys. I think that commercially successful producers and mix engineers have a certain mindset that gets them to the fnish line. I liken it to the difference between successful businessmen and failures - the biggest difference is that the succesful ones keep going, even in the face of geat adversity, at times when lesser mortals would simply accept defeat, pack up and go home.


You have me there. Don’t know what that mean.
Unless of course, you mean “je ne sais quoi” - that little extra something.

As to the point of your post. Yep, I’m the same. Listening back to stuff I’ve done, I questioned why I didn’t do x, or y, or z , or at least try it to see if it was one of those tiny increments.

The stamina concept can be an issue of gear. First because of familiarity. Familiar gear will get a predictable result faster. And second because of sonics. The optimal choice of gear get you closer to your ideal place with less effort. I’m NOT saying am inexpensive plugin can’t cut it. I’m simply saying the choice of gear matters to the workflow, which matters to the effort exerted to attain a result.

The other difference I hear is pre-production. Well written songs, well planned arrangements, tracked in the best room, with the best players you can buy, have just as much effect on the effort that needs to be exerted at the mix stage.

So I agree that stamina is a factor, but possibly for different reasons.

There’s a point where you’re happy with a mix, and there’s a point where you believe it’s 100% flawless. I don’t obsess over the later.


yep, I 100% feel the same way. Although I don’t think it’s just that they are willing to spend the time on things. People who do this day in and day out get a system down. And when you have a system down, you also have the ability to make faster decisions.

I absolutely hate dealing with automation. Not because the act of applying automation takes a long time. It’s quite fast. I hate it because I’m rarely confident that the automation I’m doing is being done in the best way. So I end up doing it 20 times and still feeling like it’s not right. Someone who is a “big boy” does it once or twice and sticks with the results. This comes from practice, and having a system down to where everything isn’t an experiment all the time.

When I look at some of the effort people go through to get certain sounds, half the time I just think that it’s way too much work to bother. For me, it would be a lot of work, but for them, it’s actually not, because they have their system and processes down.

The first time you do a trick, it takes hours to dial in exactly what you are trying to do. The second time, you can just copy it in a few minutes, and maybe experiment a little more. The third time, you just make a preset and tell your assistant to do it.

So I don’t think that it’s that they spend more time or mental energy, I think that it’s because they set up a workflow that requires very little time and very little mental energy to get the job done.


OK, but my issue is slightly different. It’s not that I don’t know what the recording requires, or even how to do it reasonably effectively, I just can’t be bothered after a certain point. I get fed up and call it a day.

Right, the the more you streamline your workflow, the more you can do before you get fed up. You can only listen to a song so many times before you start thinking “this song is not worth the effort I’m putting into it.” If you streamline your workflow so that you can do that stuff before you reach that point, then you will have better mixes. The more you hone in your workflow, the farther you can get.


That is exactly right. Almost all of my processes are designed to give me the least grief and take the least amount of time possible. I’m not interested in twiddling knobs for hours. I haven’t ajusted a compressor ratio for literally years, I have the same setting for everything and just adjust the threshold. There are some people who not only disagree wih this philosophy, they try to make me feel guilty about it(!).

It’s gotta be as quick, cut and dried as possible, otherwise I’ll be long gone before the track is anywhere near mixed well enough.

So what part of mixing is it that makes you say “ugh, I hate doing this crap.” You can’t say “all of it.”

Would it help to start with the stuff you are less sure about? If compression is nothing more than setting a threshold, then save that for last, since you know you’re going to do it anyway, and start with the stuff you would have quit before getting to.


Why can’t I say that?

Because my answer would be “That sucks.”

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Can I say none of it? If I didn’t enjoy it, I wouldn’t do it. Sure I get frustrated sometimes, but there’s no single part of it that I don’t enjoy working with.


Ah I see. Well…I like it when I have finished, if that’s any good?

I don’t mean I like it solely because I’ve finished; I’m quite good at mixing, so I do look forward to an end product that is actually not bad, and that isn’t going to be an embarrassment to me for the rest of my life. But regrettably, each element of the process is just a drag to me.

It’s like decorating. I’m pretty good at it, and I like producing an end product that actually competes with the pros, but that in no way compensates for the fact that I can’t stand actually doing it.

First of all, everything I’ve heard from you is pretty damned good. Secondly, how much time are you usually spending on a normal mix? Like Boz has been saying, the big boys probably get 95% of the way there really quickly due to having their processes down, and spend the other 5% putting their signature on it, whatever that may be.
I also guarantee that their confidence in what they are doing allows them to call it a wrap a lot quicker than most of us would, and they also have a more realistic idea of who is listening and what their standards are. When it is your baby, everything needs to be perfect. I’m pretty sure if you went after some of their mixes looking for perfection you’d find a few flaws.
I’d be willing to bet if you put yourself on a time limit you’d find you would get 95% of the way there before you ran out of interest. Babies have birthmarks.

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I can knock off the bulk of a mix in a couple of hours, but the levels are really tricky. For example if you want to get the vocals spot on, you can use all the tricks of the trade but at some point you have to wade in manually. I often post something like “its all about the levels” on this forum. It really is. By the time I’ve pissed about with the manual automation on stuff you can probably add another eight hours to those initial two. Interspersed with that I’ll be editing in little silences, percussion hits, and all that stuff.

Complex automation layers are handled much easier by a large console, again…back to gear?

Assuming your assistant has access to his own gear? And his (or her in my case) templates, plugins, and DAW are compatible with yours? Doh! Once again, back to gear.

It helps me to not have to edit. That in and of itself is a huge chore that can wear you out quickly.

Tony Maserati, Dave Pensado, and CLA have all mentioned the assistants are tremendously responsible about getting the mix at least to the half way point. Their process is dependent on their assistants, and on other people’s project management skills. When Tony Maserati mixes a track in four hours, its not because he’s superhuman. Its because the client has a limited budget, and because his assistants kick ass.

Workflow at all levels is still comes back to gear, resources, and tools.

Their confidence in what they are HEARING comes back to gear. Knowing their environment. Or trusting a high end monitoring system in a room you’re walking into for the first time.

No one is going to have any confidence in what they are doing, if they second guess what they are hearing, so long as you consider what someone is hearing to be a meaningful part of what they are ‘doing’. I don’t see how you can dichotomize the two unless you are talking exclusively about project management aspect of the workflow apart from actually mixing.

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The question in terms of efficiency and stamina is how you handle these manual aspects. Sorry man. Gear again.

I can’t think of a known name engineer that is going to draw automation with a mouse. When I say gear, in the box, outboard…it doesn’t matter. Simply the question of how fast can you get a knob assigned and linked to a parameter, and how fast can you forget about it as soon as its fixed.

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I would agree that for the big boys this is a given, as is the gear they are using. I’m kind of referring to the crowd mentality that takes over once someone is recognized for a specific skill. There’s a tremendous amount of talent and skill involved, but once everyone is telling you how great you are you don’t second guess, you just continue refining your process. The cool thing for me is there are some guys on here that are close to that level, who are also doing it without many of the advantages the big boys have. Having assistants prepare the tracks for you is huge, since you would be coming in at the creative level, instead of doing the tedious repairman stuff.

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I don’t have any doubt that high quality work can be done with a laptop, a mouse, a decent pair of speakers, and a good selection of plugins. My argument would be to push work out fast and consistently, the more expensive gear is absolutely necessary. Shit monitors in a poor room might not phase you for one particular track, but you might end up fighting like fucking hell on a different track the next day, because a hip hopper handed you a mix with too much bass and your room is bitching a hissy fit because you don’t have enough traps. So you have to keep re-running edits and walking it out to your car to see if it translates correctly. Then what turns into a mix that should have taken you seven hours, turns into three days.

So it isn’t necessarily the quality that’s a factor. I don’t believe anyone using a pair of HS8’s and a mouse can turn out the sheer number of broadcast ready tracks Tom Lord Alge pushes out in a week because his gear allows his workflow to be so refined.

And if you modus tollens that line or reasoning, take away Toms gear, give him a laptop and a pair of HS8’s, he’ll still give you a fucking awesome track, but it’ll take him a hell of a lot longer to get it to you, if he doesn’t throw the laptop through the window first out of sheer frustration.


There isn’t any other way of doing it if you’re micro editing. And the fact that you don’t know of any big boys that are doing it doesn’t mean they are not. I think they all are. Your mate Warren Huart certainly is. There are thousands of videos showing techniques about “this is how I do blah blah” but they just keep quiet about the fact that regardless of their methods and techniques they still have to wade in and manually edit - including Melodyne. (I’m talking mainly vocals here).

However desperate you are for the solution to be gear, it just isn’t. Methods and techniques are certainly an important element - and if those methods and techniques involve certain gear, fine, but it is not the solution.

My methods and techniques are crucial. When I sit down in front of a mix I know that every second counts because at some point in the not-too-distant future I’m going to call it a wrap even if it isn’t. So everything I do is as quick, easy, and simple as possible, but it’s the editing and automation that take the time, and there is just no fast process for that.

There was a time not so long ago when pretty much every studio in the universe had NS10s - many of them still do.

Regardless, you just cannot get away from the micro editing if you’re trying to produce top level commercial stuff, and that not only takes time, but literally only needs a laptop (or desktop), a mouse and a pair of reasonable monitors.