Well duh! You’re not going to be mixing with your eyes, I hear you say. As ridiculous as this sounds no matter how experienced we are we can all fall prey to the power of what we see over what we hear.
Many people are overly influenced by the “eye candy” on offer in the visually rich world of DAWs and plugins we have available these days. And I can admit, even after 40 years’ mixing experience I am still prone to falling for this one. There are however steps you can take to help your ears wrestle back the honour of being in-charge of the mix.
Here’s the problem as I see it. You get caught up in what the flashing lights, and the pulsing meters are saying and make mixing judgements led by what you see, rather than what you hear. Further confounding the problem is that ever present, “expectation bias” or “confirmation bias” that reinforces your judgements because your brain wants to believe it is making the right choices. This effect comes under the banner of psychoacoustics, which is the topic of how the human hearing mechanism perceives sound. I suggest to you, that by gaining an understanding of how we humans perceive sound, you can enrich your mixing prowess to get better sonic results from your mixes.
Let me give you a simple example to illustrate the point. You have two instruments you are looking to balance together. You set one, let’s say it’s a djembe, to dance around 0 dB on your meter as a starting point, then you raise the other, a tambourine, and adjust to 0 dB again. Pleased with your morning’s work, you go and make a coffee. Upon your return, you review your work and find the tambourine dominates the djembe. What’s going on here?
Let’s break it down. You’ve made the assumption that level and loudness are the same thing and therefore if you get the levels to match, then the two sounds will be balanced in equal loudness. By making this assumption, you’ve primed your brain to expect that once you match the levels, you’ll have balanced the tracks. This results in you favouring what you see in the meters over what your ears are saying, hence producing the poor mix result.
Now, you might be saying the problem here is obvious and you wouldn’t make the assumption that level is the same as loudness in the first place, and you are right, well done you. However I use this example to illustrate a point. And I would caution – do not underestimate the power of expectation bias. It is ever present and we as humans are never immune to its power to erroneously influence our decision making.
Product manufacturers often exacerbate the problem by making products that stand out from the crowd by having lots of eye candy going on. I’ve noticed some recently released reverb plug ins with what looks like a fireworks display going on in sync with the audio. I can see what the manufacturers are trying to do. By having pleasing visuals syncing with your music you are more inclined to favour using the product over something less visually titillating. It’s more about selling product and less about helping you mix your music.
So, what can you do about it??? Here are some suggestions that can move you back to using your ears to mix, rather than your eyes.
1 – Avoid the flashy products
Avoid using or buying products that have a gratuitous fixation with visual information. Look instead for products that are quick and easy to adjust and encourage you to focus on the sound.
2 – Get the flashy visuals out of your eye-line
If you’ve got your computer monitor sitting straight ahead of you, consider finding a different position so that when you look ahead you can focus on the sound, rather than what you see. A couple of possibilities are positioning the computer monitor to your left or right and putting your mixing desk or controller in front of you. Or you could put the monitor lower in your field of view so that your default listening position allows a clear, uninterrupted and uncluttered view to your audio monitors instead.
Failing this, try closing your eyes as you make mix adjustments or looking elsewhere other than your computer monitor to help you focus on how the change sounds rather than on what it looks like according to your device’s visuals.
3 – Use A/B comparisons
Utilise the bypass button or the compare feature to listen to the change you’re making in comparison to what you had before. Ask yourself, if the change you are making is heading in the right direction. Better still, do a blind comparison. Toggle that switch a few times until you don’t know which option is which, then assess which option sounds better. Remember to always compare at similar levels, because we humans tend to like whichever option is loudest.
4 – Don’t sweat the small stuff
Work towards making lots and lots of small decisions rapidly. This will keep you moving forward and efficiently and effectively getting the job done. Make sure you’re using your ears and not your eyes and go with your first thoughts. Your ears will adjust to changes over time and if you spend too long listening to a new change, this will cloud your judgement. Why is that? Our ear-brain hearing mechanism becomes more “accepting” of a change over time.
5 – Don’t worry, we all fall for it
Never assume you are immune to the power of expectation bias. No matter how experienced you are or how skilled you think you are, you are always vulnerable to expectation bias. It is human nature. Accept it and adapt your processes to minimize its influence.
6 – Avoid hunting for what sounds nice.
Get your head inside the music with your ears and identify what needs to be addressed. Initially this can be intuited, but the next step is important – identify what problem needs to be addressed first, then select the best tool and solution, then execute the adjustment, then compare the result with what you had. If it is better, move on, if not, adjust to suit. If you are unsure, leave it and go on with something else. Trust that if there really is a problem there, it will find a way of reminding you later.
In order to avoid mixing with your eyes and to aid using your ears to make each of the myriad of mix decisions, consider how to reconfigure your studio and your mix practices to minimize the influence of the eye candy. Yes, visual information such as metering is important to help you understand what is happening in your mix, but it should be secondary to the information about how it sounds, and that’s what you’re hearing, not what you’re seeing.