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The Differences Between Mixing and Producing a Song

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Allow me introduce myself, my name is Drew Puzia. I am a Professional Audio Mix Engineer and Producer. I get asked all the time, “what exactly is the difference between mixing a song and producing a song?” So, I decided to make a post on this topic to explain what each job is in the studio.

First, let’s discuss what a Mix Engineer does. A Mix Engineer takes individual audio tracks and creates a balanced, coherent song. Below, I am including examples of how I receive a song from an artist or band and then how I mix that song to make it sound great. A Mix Engineer does not generally “change” a song. By that I mean they do not usually change verses, choruses, instruments and other arrangements.

The first example is a “Before Mixed” song. Once a band or artist records a song, they send the raw tracks to me. In this case, we have a very talented singer song-writer artist “Heidi Farmer”. She wrote this song, recorded it and sent it to me for mixing and mastering. The song was well tracked and labeled properly. There were no extraneous noises in the background and no effects were placed on the audio tracks. This makes it so much easier for me as a Mix Engineer to work on the song, plus it makes it less expensive for the artist because there is much less correction needed to be done by me, the Mix Engineer. She, essentially self produced the recording session and then sent it to me to make it sound professionally mixed and mastered. My job was to get the song up to industry standards so that it will sound great on most media sources like Apple Music, Spotify, Tidal and if necessary CD. In today’s music industry, CD formatting is becoming extinct do to the popularity of streaming, which is replacing the standard purchasing of Mp3 songs.

The second example shown is the “After Mixed” song. When you listen to this song, you can hear the how different it sounds from the “Before Mixed". The song in the second example sounds fuller and more rich. The instruments are more balanced with in the song so they no longer “fight” with each other, thus creating a much more enjoyable listening experience. As a singer, Heidi was very professional in her approach with her microphone technique.

By that I mean, she kept a proper distance between herself and the microphone, she had no overt head movements and she did not touch the microphone which gives her vocals a consistent level and tone.

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Sometimes, singers get in the groove and swing back and forth creating what we call proximity to the microphone problems. They also at times will touch or grab the microphone while recording which creates bumps that makes excess noise that must be removed by the Mix Engineer. In this case, Heidi did a great job of self producing her song and only needed me to mix and master her song. When listening to both the before and after examples, one can hear how a professional Mix/Mastering Engineer can take a good, self produced song and make it sound great!

Now, let’s talk about what a Producer does. A Producer will often Mix and will on rare occasions master songs like an Audio Mix Engineer does, but they also have an impact on the overall song arrangement. Producers influence the order of verses, choruses, lyrics, instrumentation and vocals of a song. A producer is beneficial to an artist or band who has/have a song that needs more direction. Not all artists can self produce well.

The song below is by the Alternative Rock band, “Girls With Wolves.” For the recording session, I secured a studio location, got all of the band members together, and properly set up the microphones. I produced the recording session, removed elements or tracks that didn’t help the song, and showcased the elements that gave the song strength. Setting up the recording session is often a producer’s job, microphone placement can be critical in a studio and the Producer sometimes likes to have input on that. In this particular song the band was well rehearsed and were very professional laying down the tracks. However, once the tracks where done each member of the band had very different ideas on what they wanted as an end product.

They felt that each band member should be equally represented in the song. This means they wanted all of the instruments playing at the same level of importance. However, every song is different and each song has a different set of needs. A Mixing Engineer can mention viable alternatives to make a song sound better, but ultimately it is the band who has the final say on the song’s final sound as the Mix Engineer is generally a “work for hire” service.

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Whereas a producer can collaborate with the band to make changes to the arrangements, thus becoming a partner in the songs final sound and has a vested interest in the song’s success.

In the case of “Girls With Wolves”, they wanted to self produce on the first go around. They wanted me to record their session and then only do the mixing and mastering for the song. The band simply could not decide on a final direction for this song and the end product, as you can hear, was not good at all. In the “Before Produced” song, all of the instruments are competing with each other for sonic space. When bands play together, each musician or vocalist hears the song from their own point of view. Their instruments or vocals are always louder in their own ear and they do not have an objective view of what the song should sound like. "Girls With Wolves" was actually a very good live band, but when listening to a recorded version of their song, they just couldn't be objective. This is very common with not only musicians, but artists of all types. This article is intended to help prevent other bands from making these common mistakes, and not as a dig on the band. In this particular case they could not come to a consensus on how the song should sound and therefore unfortunately the song went nowhere.

I wondered how the song would have sounded if they had allowed me to produce it for them, so I decided to produce the song, just for myself, to hear what it would sound like. My biggest problem with the song as “Girls With Wolves” wanted it to sound was with the keyboards. Not only do they not add anything to the song, but they sat awkwardly in the song and are uncomfortable to listen to. (Note: I tried to remove or reduce the keyboards when I mixed the song for them initially, but they wanted the keyboards to be equal in volume to the other instruments). I removed the piano entirely, and to be truthful I am not opposed to a piano in this song, but here the keyboards needed a lot of improvement and shouldn’t be in the song unless they are contributing to the song. Next, I reduced the guitar parts. The guitar playing is very good but by reducing the amount of guitar tracks it allows for the singer be heard more clearly. I then tuned the vocals just a little, but not overkill. I improved the drums A LOT by giving them more punch so that the dynamics really came out.

My approach to the mixing this time, since I could do what I wanted because this was only for me, was to simply follow my belief of serving the song over trying to please five band members who really could not agree on what they wanted. When comparing the self produced, “Before Produced” track with the professionally produced “After Produced” track, it is amazing the difference a Producer can make to a song. As a Music Producer I approached the song with an independent set of ears. Again, the goal is to serve the song, and present a song that is now ready for for multiple media sources.

These are just some examples of what a Music Producer does for a song. Once the song is ready for release the Producer may also market that song to people in the music industry to get the song more publicity.

I hope this helps explain what a Mix Engineer does and what a Producer does. Both are extremely important to a song and and to an artist or band.

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