How to Choose a Mix Engineer

With the many affordable home recording solutions available to today’s musician, many artists are choosing to record their own albums and singles.  When the task of recording and editing the resulting session is done, you may decide to turn over the mixing to someone else.  This poses the question:  How to choose a mix engineer?

What is a Mix Engineer?

A mix engineer is someone who has spent years tracking and mixing music as well as audio for film, has experience with and oversight of the entire recording and mixing process, and can help take your production to the next level.  They are a person with a fresh perspective.  They will hear problem areas (competing frequencies, mud, ect.), and how the track can be enhanced to bring out the intended power and direction of a song.

Logic Pro mixing session at Beach House StudiosThe mix engineer’s primary job is to take the tracks that you or another engineer have recorded, apply proper gain staging for headroom and clarity, balance the instruments in the song so that they have their own space and frequency ranges, and then add panning, reverb, delay, and tonal color for musicality.  Some artists struggle with this process of getting clarity and balance in their mix, and others just really don’t enjoy going through the technical aspects of the mix process, preferring to stick with composing and production.  This is where a professional mix engineer can help.  Last but not least, their final responsibility, is to deliver all the files you will need for archiving, and to submit for mastering and/or remixes.

Common file exports from a mix engineer are

  1. Master Mix
  2. Vocal Up (vocal tracks 0.5db to 1db louder than Master Mix)
  3. TV Track (all music and background vocals)
  4. Instrumental (no vocals)
  5. Lead Vocal Acapella
  6. Background Vocal Acapella
  7. Stems (an optional export depending on the client’s needs)

In the beginning of your project with a mix engineer you should establish what you will be needing for final deliverables.

How To Choose a Mix Engineer

1. Know your budget

This is probably really obvious, but if you know how much you are willing to spend, that will help narrow down the field of what engineers will be on your short list.  Some name brand mix engineers can command 40k per mix, and there are novices who will work for free.  Who you end up working with in the end will come down to how much you can afford to spend.  Which leads me to my next point.

2. Choose someone who will do the job right…The first time

Sometimes you get what you pay for.  You have poured your soul into writing your songs, spent many hours recording killer performances, and many more hours editing and overdubbing. Why would you try to cut corners on one of the last two steps in getting your song to your audience?

I am not advising that you mortgage your house so that you can get Bob Clearmountan or Chris Lord-Alge to mix your song, but perhaps that guy offering to do your mix for $100.00, or possibly even free, might be just as bad an idea albeit for very different reasons.  I guess if it is free you have nothing to lose. You can always give it a try if you feel so inclined, but I would hazard a guess that you will soon find yourself back out looking for a mix engineer who can deliver a professional mix.  This is where you learn to balance your return on investment.

I recommend taking some time to make a short list of potential mix engineers that you would like to work with.  Narrow it down by the price range you can afford, and then….

3. Listen to examples of their previous work

Ideally you would have compiled your list of candidates from either reading the credits on recordings that you love, or through recommendations from other musicians and friends.  You may have run across them through online searches, or in a musicians forum, but no matter how you came to add their name to your list, listen to examples of their work.

This may seem really obvious, but don’t base your decision on reputation alone.  Going over the portfolio of work from an engineer will make it clear whether they can meet your expectations.  Hopefully they will have done a wide variety of work in many genres, and delivered top quality results.

If an engineer has only mixed hard core punk albums, it doesn’t mean that they can’t mix a jazz record, but do you want to risk your money, time and career on that gamble if they have never done it before?  Take some time, review portfolios, and find someone that has worked on records that you like.

4. Don’t get hung up on gear, pay attention to results

I get it, we’re all musicians. It is so fun to geek out on the latest, greatest, as well as cool vintage gear, but when it comes to choosing a mix engineer, don’t get sucked into this trap.  It is the mix engineer’s experience and ears that will get you the results you need, not the ever so shiny and blinky lights.

Bob Clearmountan or Daniel Lanois could probably make your mix sound good on a toaster with a rock duct taped to it, whereas the inexperienced engineer with a half a million dollar SSL console and every piece of outboard gear ever created, might deliver you a mix so rancid it would have to be disposed of in a hazmat suit.

When you find yourself pouring over the gear list on an engineer’s website, I suggest you go back to number three on this list and read that again.  Trust your ears, not your eyes.

5. Attend sessions, or work remotely

Do you need to sit in on some, or all of the sessions, or are you comfortable working remotely with someone?  The answer to this question will either really narrow your list, or expand it infinitely.  With the advent of the internet and large file transfer it is now possible to work with a mix engineer anywhere in the world.  If they are responsive to texts, or email, they can communicate with you about any suggestions or changes you require.

If you need to attend some or all of the mix sessions it is possible, though extremely rare, and will narrow your choices of mix engineer significantly.  At that point you will need to figure out what travel range you are comfortable with and look within that radius.

6. Have a conversation with the mix engineer

john eye mixing engineer at Beach House Studios

John Eye mixing a song for Gene Dante at Beach House Studios

Once you have narrowed your list down, I suggest that you have a conversation with the last few potential candidates on your list.  This can be in person, over the phone, email, Skype, or whatever works best for you.  Let them know what made you want to work with them, not necessarily as flattery, but to give them an idea what elements of their past work would apply to your project.

This first conversation should just be broad strokes:

A) Discuss your budget
B) Find out what files and formats they would need from you to start working
C) How do they want you to prep your session (See 10 Tips to Prepare Your Session for a Mix Engineer)
D) Let them know your timeline, and find out if your project can fit into their schedule
E) Ask what files they tend to deliver at the completion of a project
F) Your style and genre

Talk about the style of your music, what direction you want the mix to go.  Let them know what albums you really love the production and mixing on, and why.

Get a feeling for their personality, and what it will be like to work with them. Good communication with your mix engineer can effect the results of your final mix, so figure out how to communicate what you need from them clearly.  Ideally you will find someone that you can have a long and productive creative partnership with.

If you correspond with them over email, this will give you an idea of how responsive they are, and will be while working on your project.

Final Thoughts:

When you have finally decided who you will be working with, you will want to prepare your session files for them.  They may work in a different DAW than you, so often the surest way to share files is to print out all the tracks as audio files.  I have written another article 10 Tips to Prepare Your Session for a Mix Engineer which you may find helpful.

If you have any questions or suggestions, please leave them in the comments below.

(John Eye is a recording and mix engineer in the metro Boston area and often works out of Beach House Studios)