Mistakes, Perfection, and the Sweet Spot

By the time it comes for your mixes to be declared "done" we often end up with a problem. One of two problems, actually. We end up either over confident about our mix, or we end up never being able to say it's "done." Let's talk about how a mastering engineer can help you with this dilemma.

My father had a funny saying.

"I don't make mistakes anymore because I've made all the mistakes 7 or 8 times already. And I still make mistakes."

It looks like a joke. There's an obvious contradiction, a juxtaposition of humility and arrogance, and a rapid-fire self defeat. But there is some real wisdom in there.

 

Whatever task we are attempting, we typically fall into one of two categories. We either feel a lingering self doubt about whether we are competent and succeeding, or we feel very confident that we are "nailing it" and are finally "there." Often we feel either like we haven't had enough experience to do a good job, or that we've done this for so long that we don't have much room left for improvement.

There is a great Venn Diagram reflecting these principles. Check it out:

Another joke with a lot of wisdom behind it. At some point we all sit somewhere here. Not a lot of people hang out in the middle consistently. It's a very fine line.

The artist and mixing engineer aren't immune to this relationship either. Both the red circle and the blue circle have inherent problems. In the blue circle we might be taking perfectly good elements of the mix and endlessly changing them hoping that somehow we will slip into the purple zone. More often than not, we are not improving anything but just making it different instead of better.  In the red circle we may be so excited about how awesome the mix has become that we are now blind to the flaws that still exist. 

Just take a look at Gareth's testimonial:

 

As an artist, I know what it's like to spend months labouring over a project, fretting over the minutiae, walking the tightrope with pride on one hand and nerves on the other. I know what its like to reach the end of the thing and, with feigned coolness, send the songs over to get mastered. I can say, unreservedly, that Jon eased all my nerves. Like finding a good mechanic, you want to find somebody who you can trust, and who cares about your project. Jon ticks all the boxes. he is professional, proficient, and patient. My songs were elevated to a level which I didn't realize they had yet to achieve. 

Deepest gratitude to Jon, and I could not recommend his services higher. 

- Gareth Inkster, Last Year

That seems to sum up the conversation perfectly. You may notice that there's some reference to my involvement in his red/blue circle conundrum.

What he is talking about here is benefit of collaborating with a trusted third party. Am I saying that a Mastering Engineer can solve this dilemma for you? Not necessarily, and certainly not entirely. But it is part of an industry-standard set of relationships that have stood the test of time.

The artistic and aesthetic components of your mix need collaboration with a Producer. No, I'm not talking about a beat-maker. I'm talking about the old-school definition. A producer is someone whom you trust to re-structure the song, make arrangement tweaks, and guide the mixing process for the most impact.

The mastering engineer, however, is someone that you hire as quality control for the technical aspects of the mix, and that's just what I did for Gareth Inkster. "Technical quality control" sounds boring, but it can actually be exciting and help you fall back in love with those mixes or songs, or fall even more deeply in love with them.

Whether you are hanging out in the blue, red, or purple zones, don't worry. It's not the mastering engineer's job to judge or  tell you which zone they think you are in. It is the mastering engineer's job to gently and objectively push the technical aspects of the song into the purple zone, just as it was the producer's job to subjectively push the creative and aesthetic aspects of your song there.

A great producer and great mastering engineer share one thing in common. They are supportive of your vision and work to help you realize your goals in the song, not their own. They require great musical empathy and understanding, patience and decisiveness. But above all, they require you to trust them with your art, whether you think it's horrible or perfect. 

 

I'd love to work with you and see if I'm the right mastering engineer for your vision. We can start with a free test master or just a conversation.  But either way it has to start somewhere, so let's start here.

There are some more quotes on this page from real-life clients who were either red or blue circle when they started the project. See what they had to say!