Everybody knows that when you’re making art in whatever form, it’s a good idea to double-check it before you call it “finished.” Even most of the folks who mindlessly throw a bunch of shit onto a canvas or blog will probably give it a good once-over before shipping it out into the world
Double checking after even editing a piece requires a clear eye for detail and a good sense of how the audience will react to it. Sometimes you hire an editor or producer, but more often than not, you need to make quite a lot of little decisions about what you’re doing in order to produce something cohesive.
This becomes a very important concept when you’re trying to do more than one project, or you have strict deadlines. Specifically, when recording your band or someone else’s, every fine EQ choice, every noise left unedited, every slightly overloaded component will make a drag on your mix. These are the details that separate the “good” mix from the “awesome,” and are the first things to suffer when you can’t take the time to consistently step back and hear what you’re doing.
For example, once have enough experience, depending on the complexity of the material it should take you two to three hours to do a first draft. This first draft mix should be very nearly something you would deliver to your mastering engineer, even though you personally think it sucks. This means that all the instruments sound fairly natural, and everything is balanced, maybe with some volume automation and appropriate reverb/delay action going on – by all standards, a perfectly fine and mundane mix. It may not seem like an enticing goal, but work hard to get to this point, because this is a good place to start for some real creative work.
Then you go take a fucking nap. Period. Don’t keep working on this project. Deep three-hour focus is a big deal and your brain needs rest, or you will start making shitty decisions out of impatience and “small picture” thinking.
Certainly everyone’s threshold is different. Some folks can smoke some of the tweed and go all night. One accomplished engineer I knew would keep a tank of oxygen next to his console, saying he could go for hours without a break if he used it for breathing.
Whatever the case, the next steps in the mix are where you really need to have a clear head and fast brain.
Subtle manipulation might destroy relationships, but it really sells a mix. Automating the guitars to become slightly brighter and louder during the chorus can make the energy of the track shine. Slightly burying the vocal can make something else sound louder. Changing the amount of reverb or delay on something from section to section can prevent boredom. These are not changes you make to every mix. These are where the real artistry comes in. It’s rare that you would throw a flanger on your whole mix, but maybe you just put it on your toms to bring them out, because the song needs it. These choices are nearly infinite in number and are personal to you – and maybe without even noticing it, these are the subtleties that keep people coming back to you specifically.
Remember, a good engineer moving quickly won’t put out a specifically crappy mix, just a boring or inappropriate one. Consistent practice is the only way to add speed to your usual quality; practice coupled with strategic rest. Most importantly, leave yourself more time than you think you need for review and changes. Come back in a day or so; such is the luxury of digital recording, where you don’t have to tear down your mix after every session. Undoubtedly you will change a bunch of shit and have to rework other things – leading to hours of satisfying creative work.