Decision-making is a critical skill in general and certainly in the world of audio engineering, especially when it comes to mixing. Every choice, from selecting the right EQ settings to determining the level of reverb, shapes the final product. But what drives these decisions? Understanding the psychology behind decision-making can empower mixing engineers to make more informed and creative choices, leading to better mixes.
The psychology of decision-making for mixing engineers involves balancing intuition with analytical skills, managing cognitive biases, handling decision fatigue, and considering emotional impact, client expectations, and industry trends in their creative process.
In this article, we're going to be consider what goes into decision-making in the mix to help you improve your choices, workflow and, ultimately, your mixes!
This is part of a two-part series. The other article is titled “Top 11 Tips For Making Better Mixing Decisions“.
The Decisions Of A Mixing Engineer
As a way into the bulk of this article, I figured I'd run through some of important decisions mixing engineers regularly have to make and a few points on each to help you out.
The first is whether to take the mixing job or not.
- Is the music something you're interested in mixing?
- Are you comfortable in the genre or is it a new opportunity for you?
- How does the unmixed material sound? (it's difficult to craft good mixes from bad recordings)
- How is the pay (if you're mixing professionally)?
We then have issues of gear purchases, which I won't get into in this article. However, if you are interested, you can check out my buyer's guides here.
Inside the mix is where the majority of our decisions will be made. These may include (but certainly aren't limited to):
- Editing and Cleaning: Making decisions about cutting, aligning, and cleaning up tracks.
- Gain Staging: Managing the gain levels to ensure optimal signal flow without clipping.
- Noise Reduction: Deciding on the extent of noise reduction techniques for cleaner audio.
- Level Balancing: Deciding the volume levels of each track to create a harmonious blend.
- Panning: Determining the stereo placement of each element for spatial distribution.
- Equalization (EQ): Choosing frequency adjustments to enhance clarity and balance among instruments.
- Compression: Setting compression levels to control dynamics and add punch or smoothness.
- Reverb: Selecting appropriate reverb types and amounts for depth and ambiance.
- Delay: Deciding on delay settings to create space or special effects.
- Saturation and Harmonic Enhancement: Choosing when and how to add warmth and character.
- Automation: Implementing volume, pan, and effect parameter changes over time for dynamic movement.
- Stereo Widening: Deciding how wide the stereo image should be for different elements.
- De-Essing: Choosing settings for reducing sibilance in vocal tracks.
- Creative Effects: Deciding on the use of creative effects like flanging, phasing, or pitch modulation.
- Mastering Preparation: Preparing the mix with the final mastering process in mind.
- Feedback Incorporation: Deciding how to incorporate feedback from clients or collaborators.
- File Formats and Resolution: Choosing the appropriate file format and resolution for exporting the final mix (often specified by the mastering engineer).
There are plenty of things to consider when mixing, so let's dive deeper into the psychology of decision making to help you make better mixes.
If you're just starting out in your mixing journey (and even if you've been mixing for a while), I think you'll dig my 55 favourite music mixing tips, which you can check out after reading articles in in the following link: 55 Music Mixing Tips For Beginners (What I Wish I Knew)
Making The Best Decisions As A Mixing Engineer
The most important aspect of decision-making psychology, particularly in complex fields like audio engineering, is the balance between intuition and analytical thinking.
This equilibrium allows for creative and innovative choices guided by gut feelings, while ensuring decisions are grounded in technical knowledge and rational analysis. It's this harmony that enables effective and informed decision-making, which is crucial for crafting the best mixes you're capable of.
And so the two primary skills for improving our decision making, beyond any tactics (which we'll get to shortly) are technical expertise and seasoned intuition.
This intuition often comes from developing technical expertise and getting repetitions in across many mixes.
Indeed, experience plays a pivotal role in decision-making. Experienced engineers have a vast library of mental references, enabling them to anticipate how even the earliest decisions are likely to influence the final mix.
This experience comes from copious amounts of time spent listening critically and developing our sense of style and “sound” as mixing engineers. Dave Pensado put it nicely when he said “we're selling taste, not tactics”.
This may seem obvious, but our ear for what's sounds great must be met with the technical proficiency to actually achieve that sound. That's where years of dedicated study and practice come into play.
It's crucial for us as mixers to combine whatever experience we may have with continuous learning. Staying updated with the latest techniques and tools prevents stagnation and encourages growth, leading to more innovative and effective mixing decisions.
So with technical expertise and seasoned intuition as guideposts, let's continue our discussion of decision-making in mixing with a few psychological topics worth considering.
The Psychology Of Mixing Decisions
Decision-making in mixing is a complex interplay of cognitive biases, experience, emotional intelligence, and the tools at hand.
By understanding the psychological factors that influence these decisions, mixing engineers can become more adept at navigating the myriad choices they face in the studio
Remember, at the heart of great mixing is not just technical proficiency, but the ability to make decisions that allow the song to have the maximum impact on the end listener.
Understanding Cognitive Biases
Cognitive biases are systematic patterns of deviation from rationality in judgment. By that definition, you may think they're bad, but in reality, they're essential for our productive functionality in life and society.
They help us deal with the virtually unlimited information in the world, allowing us to simplify our reality for efficient use of our limited brain resources. In effect, they are “mental shortcuts” that help us make quick, efficient judgments.
Mixing engineers, like everyone else, are susceptible to these biases. Yes, they are a natural part of how our brains work, but they can sometimes lead us to make flawed decisions or misjudge situations in life and in the mix.
Psychologists have studied cognitive biases for a long time and there are many different types of such biases to consider. Let's go through a few common biases and how they may affect our mixing decisions:
Confirmation Bias: The tendency to search for, interpret, favour, and recall information in a way that confirms one's preexisting beliefs or hypotheses.
There's a lot of bad mixing advice out there, whether we seek it out or not. It's easy to believe certain techniques or general mixing strategies to work based on what you've been taught or found out on your own, but these same actions may actually be hurting your mixes.
Anchoring Bias: The tendency to rely too heavily on the first piece of information encountered (the “anchor”) when making decisions.
This can sometimes be unhelpful when starting from a rough mix if we want to stay too “true” to the idea of the rough mix. It can also lead us astray when basing our mix off a preliminary reference mix, especially if that reference isn't exactly the sound the client was going for.
Availability Heuristic: Overestimating the importance of information that is readily available or recent in memory.
Learning new mixing tricks is awesome and we often want to put these new techniques into action as soon as possible. However, such new techniques (which are typically advanced — there are only so many fundamentals) are often very specific in their use cases and can actually worsen our mix when overdone or done outside the proper context.
Dunning-Kruger Effect: The phenomenon where people with little knowledge or skill in a particular area overestimate their own ability.
I think this applies to anyone just getting started in mixing and music production.
Status Quo Bias: A preference for the current state of affairs, resisting change or new ideas.
What's working for you and your mixes may be all you ever need — or it may be holding you back. Continuous growth and challenging the status quo is essential for our improvement as mixing engineers.
Sunk Cost Fallacy: Continuing a behaviour or endeavour as a result of previously invested resources (time, money, or effort).
Sometimes a mix is beyond saving, and adding more inserts is only going to make matters worse. In dead-end mixes (which happen more often than you might expect), the best plan of action is often to scrap the entire mix and start over with fresh, unprocessed multitracks.
Framing Effect: Making different decisions based on how the same information or situation is presented.
Understanding the entirety of the music production process is important in the most general sense and in the specifics of whatever project you happen to be mixing. At the same time, however, it's important to not let the information presented to you by the artist or recording situation have a great impact on your mixing decisions — take heed of such information but always trust your ears!
Mere Exposure Effect: Developing a preference for things merely because they are familiar with them.
This one, admittedly, is largely to our benefit in mixing. As we'll discuss shortly, there are an overwhelming amount of mixing tools out there (many with significant marketing behind them) that we can choose from. And while the tool's we're currently using may not be the “best”, they'll often do the job perfectly well and we'll be comfortable and, therefore, efficient with them.
The downside of this bias, of course, is that it makes us more resistant to change.
The Paradox Of Choice And Paralysis By Analysis
Now's a perfect time to elaborate on the choices we have as mixers.
Indeed, we live in an era where mixing engineers have access to an overwhelming array of plugins and tools. So much so that we often run into a phenomenon known the paradox of choice, which can lead to dissatisfaction or indecision.
Having too many choices can make whatever choice we do make (good or bad) a regrettable one, as we develop an overbearing sense of “what if?”. Perhaps another plugin would have been the better option or perhaps a slightly different EQ cut or compressor ratio — the list is endless.
Even worse, making a choice with myriad options can become so overwhelming that we fail to make a decision at all. By deeply considering all of the plentiful options, we can suffer paralysis by analysis.
To combat this, it's helpful to set limitations. By restricting the number of tools or techniques in a given project, you can foster creativity within boundaries, making decision-making more manageable and focused.
Perspective: Mental Fatigue And Ear Fatigue
We only have so much mental energy, and this energy is used up every time we make a decision.
The longer we spend mixing in a session, the more mental decision fatigue builds up, leading to indecisiveness, frustration, or reduced creativity. The greater the mental fatigue, the slower and poorer our decisions become, which puts us in a terrible situation where more time spent working on the mix actually contributes to worse results.
Understanding and being aware of such symptoms can help engineers recognize when it's time take breaks or shift focus.
Furthermore, we have to take into account our physiology and ear fatigue, which is more than just a psychological issue.
Ear fatigue is both a physical and psychoacoustic phenomenon brought on exposure to sound pressure level over time. As ear fatigue sets in, our sense of hearing worsens and we lose our objectivity in fully understanding what we're hearing. This, of course, leads to poor decision-making when mixing.
A few practical tips for managing mental and ear fatigue include setting time limits for sessions, taking regular breaks, or periodically switching tasks to something that doesn't require critical listening.
Ultimately, it's about perspective. Return to a mix after an extended break or even a simple A/B comparison to a reference track can give you a fresh perspective, which is a better place to be at when making any sort of mix decisions.
Emotional Intelligence In Mixing
Mixing is not just a technical task; it's also an emotional one. Understanding and manipulating the emotions conveyed in a track is a key aspect of mixing. As cold and analytical as we may be, expressing high emotional intelligence allows us engineers to empathize with the music, leading to decisions that enhance the emotional impact of the track.
As I mentioned earlier, intuition plays a significant role in the decision-making process, especially for seasoned engineers.
Over time, we'll develop our instincts to help guide our choices in the mixing process, stemming from a deep, often subconscious understanding of mixing principles and the tools we use to follow or even exploit such principles.
The Impact Of External Influences
Client expectations and feedback should be influencing factors in our decision-making. Balancing the artistic vision of the client with the our expertise can be challenging but is crucial for a successful mix.
Mixing trends and industry standards can also impact decision-making. While it’s important to stay relevant, it's equally vital to maintain a unique voice and not be swayed entirely by what's popular today.
Learn the idea behind what makes trends so popular and understand how to achieve such results, but be wary or jumping on the bandwagon just for the sake of it.
The Art Of Letting Go
One of the hardest decisions is determining when a mix is truly finished. Leonardo Da Vinci once stated “art is never finished, only abandoned.”
At some point, we have to trust that our mix has reached its potential and call it.
Over-mixing is the last thing we want to do, where continual adjustments can lead to a mix losing its essence. We end up spending more time and making things much worse. This isn't only due to ear fatigue and other factors — it's that over-processing ruins mixes.
Helping You Make Better Mixing Decisions
So we now have a better idea of how and why we make certain mixing decisions and how to help ourselves improve such decisions.
Beyond the psychological, we can develop frameworks to help guide us through the mixing process. Such frameworks will help make decisions for us (the when) while also giving us insights into making the proper creative decisions in the mix (the what).
I actually have a free ebook going into detail on my own framework for mixing that I think you'll dig:
Furthermore, you can check out my in-depth article Step-By-Step Guide To Mixing Music.
Call To Action
Meditate on the psychology of decision-making I laid out in this article and consider how your brain makes decisions when you're mixing. Bring this sense of focus into your next mixing sessions.
It's also important to judge the decisions you make with a critical ear. However, in your next mix, I also want you to consider why you're making the decisions you are, going beyond the simple explanation of believing they'll improve the mix and deeper into your psychology and subconscious programming.
Additionally, be sure to download your free copy of my Mixing Guidebook (mentioned above) and put the framework into practice in your own mixes.
New To Mixing? Check Out My FREE In-Depth Article:
Make the right decisions at the right times to craft professional mixes!
How can I improve my decision-making in the mix? There are plenty of ways to improve your mixing decisions. Consider the following:
- Set your mix goal
- Organize your studio and session
- Develop and follow a framework
- A/B testing with level matching
- Referencing reference mixes
- Take regular breaks
- Limit your resources
- Push the limits of your tools (and split the difference)
- Think subtractive instead of additive
- Seek constructive feedback
- Use your ears, not your eyes
For more information: Top 11 Tips For Making Better Mix Decisions
What is the goal of mixing? The goal of mixing is to achieve the optimal balance of a recorded song that maximizes that song’s impact on the end listener. In other words, our job as mixers is to understand the song from an emotional level and to have the technical abilities to enhance that emotion for the listener.
For more information: What Is The Goal Of Mixing Music?
Have any thoughts, questions or concerns? I invite you to add them to the comment section below! I'd love to hear your insights and inquiries and will do my best to add to the conversation. Thanks!
This article has been approved in accordance with the My New Microphone Editorial Policy.