Fix my Mix: The Never Ending Search for Approval

We all suck.

We all suck.

A new trend in Internet buggery that's been popping up in my Facebook feed has to do with guidance and insight in improving one's audio mix or music production tracks.  I'm seeing things like "Warning: Don't Read This Unless You Are Frustrated With Recording And Mixing Your Music."  It's a typical motivational and self-help method that you would see in any other sector: finance, weight loss and diet, love life.  Kudos to audio engineering for becoming important enough in culture that we get our own vulture industry preying on the meek!  We did it!  This is a fascinating new addition to the creative space and it tells me a couple things:

1) people are out there making music

2) the fear of making bad art is palpable and persistent

This second point is interesting to me because it demonstrates such a base level of intimidation and self-doubt that people have when "putting themselves out there."  It's fucking weirdly scary!  Not even the standing on stage/performing part of it (which is its own kind of creepy monster) but even the slightly disconnected act of making a thing and then presenting it to the world for consumption while not necessarily standing next to it (i.e. releasing a written work, posting a video, writing this stupid blog, finishing a song or an album of songs and then tepidly asking your friends and loved ones to listen to it and then hopefully like it/reward you with many thousands of dollars for it).  Excellent horn blower, music educator and long-ago neighbor Steve Tresler has enlightened me to some interesting facts about fear re: making music.  He's blogged about the difficulty of the creative process and, even better, offered some answers to this oft debilitating mental state.  It's scary to suck and even scarier to suck publicly.  If only there was someone who could come along and make it so we don't suck...

Enter: the people who can make you magically not suck.  Those who offer coaching, guidance, insight, a wealth of experience, an "expert" ear or eye, the uncanny ability to take your bullshit and make it actually good.  "All our problems are finally gone, and this time it's permanent!!"  It's not that this path of artistic development is unethical, but more so that it's not terribly gratifying.  You can pay someone to listen to your raw tracks and they can even deliver something that seems like an objective improvement from anything you could have produced (i.e. louder, "richer," better stereo positioning, nifty sounding FX, etc.) but ultimately what you're doing is deferring to someone else the final approval of the "goodness" of the finished product.  And like I said, this is absolutely fine because some people work well that way.  People are specialized in certain areas and a hot mess in others and artistic cooperation can and should develop all the time.  But it's important to know the difference between "I work well with this producer because he accounts for my creative deficits" and "I suck at mixing so I need someone to fix my bullshit because I'll never be good."

The crux of this phenomenon relies on people who need to appeal to authority and those who decide that they indeed are the authority.  Beyond the delineation of "you are the hapless audio engineer" and "I am the skilled producer who regular turns shit into solid gold" there are no actual inherent ability deficiencies or magical powers respectively possessed by either type of person.  Relying on someone to "fix your mix" gets at a need to feel good and whole, and that the answer always lies outside of yourself.  Undo this toxic thinking!  You hold the power!!  Throw down your chains!!!

"I'm good enough, I'm smart enough, and doggone it, I can EQ a kick drum so that it doesn't sound too boxy."

"I'm good enough, I'm smart enough, and doggone it, I can EQ a kick drum so that it doesn't sound too boxy."

FULL DISCLOSURE: I've appealed to my fair share of authority.  I went to the Art Institute of Seattle for 6 quarters and graduated with an A.A.A. in Audio Production so I am by no means saying one ought to travel the path unhindered by external influence because the world is only full of exploitative snakes trying to chip away at your precious resources.  They answers lies somewhere in the middle, and gaining a solid education in the many facets of audio production prepared me in any substantial way, but it by no means "fixed my mix."

The joy in this process comes from making some stuff that kinda sucks, because as time goes on you actually end up enjoying it a little.  The real killer is your own closeness to the thing.  The art I make is, in a small way, a chunk of me.  So when it sucks, I suck.  And that's a crumby feeling so just avoiding it altogether removes ever coming to terms with being utterly terrible.  And now, consider the art of another...  I find it quite easy to consume someone else's shitty work and still love it, flaws and all.  Some of my favorite things ever are lo-fi, gritty, slapped-together, and authentically rough.  I'm a Pavement fan after all, and I don't think there is anyone (Stephen Malkmus included) who can objectively say "Trigger Cut is the prototype of high art and a template for sonic representation of the human condition."  In reality, it kinda sucks.  But it's OK to suck because everyone sucks and it's one of the more relatable feelings an artist can offer.

These guys suck... in a good way

These guys suck... in a good way

My solution: do a bunch of stuff, have it be shitty, and try to get a little better with each new thing.  It's horrible advice because it is neither quick nor easy (nor painless) but it is how you actually develop and not just use someone else's artistic aesthetic to glob on to your own thing.  It's scary because you remove the safety net.  If you send a mix off to an audio coach and she mixes it and you release it and your life still sucks well then that audio coach probably sucked and it's all her fault anyway and what else can you do?  What else you can do is keep trying, keep failing, keep dialing in the things that you like, push yourself to make something unique and true to you.  I am literally just imagining saying all these things to myself in the mirror during an epic, self-pump up speech, so no more talk!  Time to go out and do.