The Art Of Listening

Posted by Aaron Davison on Saturday, January 25, 2014 Under: January 2014

Today's post is another awesome guest post by producer Gary Gray.

As a reminder, today and tomorrow are the last two days to get both programs I created with Gary about how to mix and master your music (and several free bonuses) for the price of one.

Visit for more.

Over to you Gary!

Having been mentored face-to-face by legendary producers such as Quincy Jones, Steve Lillywhite and Phil Ramone  has been quite an opportunity. These three producers are responsible for more sales, online streaming and downloads world-wide than any three producers combined, living or dead.  Sadly, Phil passed away last year in March.  I continue to be in communication with Quincy and Steve.

When I first started working with these producers, I thought for sure their knowledge of studio gear, engineering and the latest innovations was going to be intimidating and overwhelming.

Not the case.

I was amazed at what I discovered. And it changed the way I approached mixing and mastering forever – for the better.

This held true for all three, but the best example is Steve Lilliwhite, who, among other great artists is responsible for producing worldwide hits from U2, The Rolling Stones, The Dave Matthews Band, The Killers, etc.

I was excited to talk to Steve about studio technology and I had all kinds of questions for him about how best to utilize all the latest plug-ins and to find out all the detailed tips and tricks connected to his experiences in the studio.

But before I could get to my burning questions, he stopped me dead in my tracks from the very beginning.

“If you want to know how I mix these hits, listen carefully, because the simplicity of what I do is so simple that some people can’t see it.  I sit down at the mixing board and I adjust the volume levels of each instrument and of all the vocals. I’ll repeat that: I sit down at the mixing board and I adjust the volume levels of each instrument and of all the vocals.  My hands are on the FADERS.   

“I listen.  Very carefully. I don’t look at computer screens – ever. And I feel the music – I feel the emotion. I use my ears.  Very carefully.  And I adjust the FADERS.

“If you want to know about the outboard gear I use, the plug-ins I choose and my tips and tricks, you might be disappointed. I know what I know and it’s actually not very much.  I focus on the balance of the music more than anything else.”

As a real-life example of how important this approach is, I was in the studio last week mixing and mastering a large project, where my client asked me to mix and master his voice along with a 101 piece Symphony Orchestra.

Once I had the Orchestra recording nailed with the balance of each instrument finished, it was time to mix the vocals.  This particular recording contained three main sections which were very different from each other, it was quite a dynamic recording.

I had an intern with me, assisting me with the mixing session. He, like me when I approached Steve Lilliwhite, started asking me all kinds of questions about which plug-ins I was going to utilize, what tricks I was going to use on this recording.

I showed him by CAREFULLY adjusting the volume levels of the vocals only, working phrase by phrase, and sometimes word by word, that there was little to no need in adjusting EQ, COMPRESSION, REVERB, DELAY, ETC.  As I adjusted the volume of each vocal phrase, the SOUND of the vocals Changed!  The color, EQ, texture and effects somehow all snapped into a magic “sweet spot” by simply adjusting the volume of the vocals compared to the music!  Part of this secret is to mix the vocals last – because the sound of the instrumental background, when mixed with the vocals, affects the EQ, EFFECTS, COLOR and FLOW of the vocals in a huge way.  Another part of this secret also contains this one point – bumping the RHYTHM of a vocal phrase or a word to the right or the left when needed – even just a hair, can make quite a difference and negate the need for any other action. It’s a very interesting route to finding that sometimes elusive “sweet spot.” I’ve seen some people mix vocals first, getting the vocal track to sound PERFECT all by itself.  Then when the music was mixed in, it all fell apart.

This is a piece of magic that gets overlooked because of a very interesting phenomenon:

Today’s computer technology offers thousands of choices one can make in any given session in order to adjust the sound of a mix.

And it all comes down to ONE major activity that is more important than every other possible decision you could make in the studio: USING YOUR EARS AND SIMPLY CAREFULLY ADJUSTING THE VOLUME LEVELS OF YOUR TRACKS AS THEY RELATE TO EACH OTHER.

In fact, this is the shortest Blog I’ve probably ever written. And I’m going to keep it that way so that this vital lesson can sink in.  When I finally understood it myself and started spending my valuable studio time on this elusively simple approach, my quest for landing licensing deals took off incredibly.  It allowed me to know WHEN to use other tools such as EQ, COMPRESSION, REVERB, DELAY, ETC.  And believe it or not, the choices I make in any given session have gone from literally hundreds to less than 10.

Hope this helps!

Gary Gray

Los Angeles

25 January 2014

In : January 2014 

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