The Top 3 Reasons Mixing Engineers Fail To Control Their Dynamics...And What To Do About It

Have you ever gone out to some public place and seen a worn-down parent with half a dozen kids bouncing off the walls? One might be screaming, while another is drawing on something, and two more are wrestling on the ground? If it’s a bus or plane, you can almost guarantee one of them is banging on another passenger’s seat, and that mom or dad isn’t doing a thing to stop them. They’re just blankly staring into space, tuning out the madness around them.

While that scene sounds like an absolutely nightmare, dozens of mixing engineers are subjecting themselves to that torture every single day. Only, instead of screaming children, it’s their dynamics that they’re failing to control.

Just like those parents, these mixing engineers have accepted it for what it is. They’ve given up on trying to correct the behaviors that are out of line, and their mixes aren’t fully developing because of it.

Luckily, the tools for wrangling in your dynamics are more effective and willing to do exactly what you tell them to do. If you’re serious about taming your dynamics and avoiding judgment from your audio peers, read on…

1. Engineers Go On Autopilot

If there’s no innovation or experimentation in their process, engineers fall into career-ending autopilot. Their mixes don’t sound any worse necessarily, but they don’t get any better. They stop improving, and frankly, sound bland.

This limitation doesn’t just happen in audio – anybody can get burned out. It becomes easy to reach for the preset that’s been “good enough” and fake your way through the motions. Unfortunately, breaking out of the autopilot cycle has to come from the engineers themselves.

If you find yourself slipping into autopilot, seek out inspiration. Find a new band that you like. Get yourself a new toy to get excited about. For dynamics, it’s all about getting new sounds. A new EQ, compressor, or limiter can provide a whole new pallet of tonal inspiration to get creative with.

2. Working In Isolation 

Dynamics are all about give and take. You need to hear the highest highs and lowest lows, and you listeners will take notice if the only variation in volume is the pause between tracks.

A lot of engineers will dive into dynamic processing in isolation. Some of the worst offenders say things like:

· “I’m going to solo this so I can hear my EQ adjustments easier.”
· “It doesn’t matter if the bass sounds over-compressed on its own since it’ll be tucked into the background of the mix.”
· “Listen to how loud these breaths are on this soloed vocal! I need to remove them.”

Can you see the problem with all of that?

These engineers are working at too small of a level. They’re looking at how to treat a piece of the mix on its own, but they’re not taking into consideration how those adjustments are affecting the rest of the mix.

A soloed EQ adjustment might not be drastic enough to hear a change in the full mix. That crushed bass guitar might disappear from the mix completely. Your breathless singer might sound just a bit too robotic for the average listener.

All of these can be avoided by mixing at a macro-level. Think of how your mix decisions affect the entire mix before committing to them. Keeping your eye on the prize of the best mix possible can really make dynamic processing a breeze.

3. They're Not Thinking At A Group Level

Just like a track in isolation doesn’t give context to make accurate adjustments, a mix without group processing is missing the glue that holds it all together.

At a basic level, your entire mix gets summed together for playback. This “master” bus might not exist in your session, but you can be sure it’s all folding down that way when your software is sending 1s and 0s to your interface’s D/A converters.

Taking charge at this master bus stage gives you the ability to create a clean, polished final mix. To get there, it takes more than routing. Just like mastering houses have their outboard signal chain, you have the option of adding your own master bus chain to your output.

For most, I recommend using some Mix Bus compression to hold everything together. A good one can lead to a full-bodied, harmonically intricate print – something your listeners will most definitely appreciate.

If applying the glue is too much for one bus to handle, using busses to group similar instruments is a great way to create sub-mixes with their own signal chain as well. Multi-part instrumentation like vocal harmonies and stacks of guitars can have their own grouping for extra processing before the master bus.

The idea that bus compression was a one-size-fits-all approach always seemed to conflict with the needs that could be met better with instrument specific compressors. This concept led to the creation of the Bus Glue series, but at its core, it’s still got the master bus compressor (BG-Mix) leading the pack.

Are You Ready To Take Control Back?

Don’t let yourself become one of the dazed, disenchanted engineers that have given up on their dynamic control. Better yet – don’t let your fellow mixing engineers fall into that category either.

If you or a friend is struggling for some creative inspiration to drive your mixes to new heights, come see what’s going on in the Joey Sturgis Tones Forum on Facebook. Engineers and producers are constantly sharing their latest project and how they’re using different approaches to achieve their sound.

Happy Mixing!