Incoming Asteroid: Adaptation or Extinction?

Short story:

1) Evolve your customer service to accommodate changing times.  2) Constantly learn and develop new creative techniques to remain relevant—if not ahead of the curve.

Long story:

I became a professional musician in 1981, at the age of 19. Like the majority of folks in this business, I’ve had my shares of ups and downs over the years. Unlike most of them, however, I’ve stayed the course and I’m still making records 34 years later.

Why is that?

I attribute it to two main reasons, neither of which is talent. Number one: I pay attention. Number two: I choose adaptation over extinction.

I’m not saying that I don’t have talent, nor am I saying that I am a chameleon. It’s a given that the record business is filled with talented folks. The ones with longevity are not those who change like the flavor of the month, but rather those with a strong point of view that does not gratuitously change with the ephemeral fashions of the times. They know how to retain their unique perspectives while adapting to evolving technologies and changes in the needs of their customers (artists, labels, et al.)

Last Thursday presented opportunities to practice adaptation from both business and creative perspectives. On the business side, I did something unusual. I offered a potential client a one hour “rough” mix. Some people ask for a free test mix to find out if they want to work together, but I don’t play that game anymore. That’s the equivalent of telling a painter that you’d like your house painted for free as a test, and it if you like it, you will pay for the job.

Nonetheless, if you want to generate enough work to make a good living, you have to find a way to inspire enough confidence in your prospective clients to have them hire you instead of somebody else, especially if you’re competing with quality as your main criterion, not price. Fortunately I’ve been doing this for very long time, so my track record helps me in this regard.

However, I encountered a grey area in which maintaining absolute boundaries would have prevented me from closing the deal and booking the job. Rather than saying, “Dude, just take a leap of faith and hire me because I’m special!,” I adapted to the situation, and put a small amount of time into a rough mix.

Let me define the term rough mix: a mix that is mostly concerned with overall balances. Broad strokes, not details… Sometimes the rough mixes end up on the finished album because they capture the essence of the song on a visceral level. They are imperfect, but can be exciting. By nature, they don’t allow you the luxury of the laboring over details, so you’re forced to focus on the most important elements that tell the story or create the vibe. A rough mix may require anywhere from 20 minutes to an hour or two, whereas a full mix may take a full day or two to complete.

You might think that there is no way that a rough mix can compete with a fully developed final mix, and in many ways you are correct. That said, my workflow is set up in such a way that I can very quickly achieve broad stroke results that are 90% of the way to the goal line. I can get the basic tones and overall balances together faster than you’d guess. It’s the minutiae that takes time. Hundreds of detailed volume and FX automation moves can really bring a mix to life.  If a bangin’ rough mix can qualify for the Olympics, a fully developed final mix can win the gold medal.  Even without doing all the detailed moves, I’m confident that an exciting rough mix, in the right situation, can be a powerful sales tool.

Anyway, the new artist/client is a really cool guy who was referred by one of my trusted colleagues. Despite writing catchy songs with radio-ready hooks, he’s still an indie artist who is bootstrapping to fund his records. Thus, he was very stressed about his budget because he wasn’t sure if he needed to mix one, two or seven songs. Five of them had already been professionally mixed and mastered by some other engineers–twice!–so the thought of going back a third time was pretty nauseating to the guy. 

Maybe I need to clarify this. We already have a deal in place for mixing his newest song, and if that goes well, the same deal will apply to another new song that he is in the process of recording. A big concern is that these new mixes will sound better then his extant five (already mastered) mixes, potentially causing a lack of sonic continuity on his album. In his mind, he can imagine spending anywhere from $2000-$20,000, which is a big difference. 

Because I’ve been through this before as an artist, I can totally relate. My instinct told me that I could do something to help him sort through this. An exciting rough mix would answer a lot of questions for him. Maybe his five extant mixes/masters are already “good enough.” The best of them was obviously a cut above the other four, so we chose that one as an experiment to find out if the gains would be significant or marginal. If the improvement was marginal, he would only need to be concerned with coming up with the budget to mix one or two songs instead of seven. While any normal person would prefer the job security of having “more” things in the pipeline, I would rather commit to doing one song for an ecstatic artist than seven for a stress-case in panic mode. Happy artists equal lifelong clients.

I booked an hour before my formally scheduled session to do the rough mix. When I got into it, I had momentum and was excited to raise the bar. I spent more time than I planned, but I felt good about it. I was having fun and I knew that I was providing a very helpful service for my client, even if it might lead to ultimately mixing fewer songs than I’d prefer.

I uploaded the result. The artist was over the moon about it! He asked me to make a couple of small changes, and I ended up booking the whole package deal instead of merely a song or two. Plus, he now feels great about it instead of stressed. Win-win accomplished.  If I did not adapt, this would’ve never happened.

On the creative side, I also ensured adaptation rather than extinction. After uploading the rough mix, my formally scheduled client, Wishnefsky, arrived so we could begin mixing his new album. Over the years, I’ve trained him to deliver his files in such a way that we can crank out four or five songs per day. 10 years ago, it was one song per day.

Back in the day, Wish delivered his audio files the same way as everybody else: one track per microphone. His layered synthesizer arrangements always sounded perfect in his rough mixes, which at the time lacked in every other regard. Although I could quickly make everything else sound much better, it took me an inordinate amount of time to get the synthesizers to sound only 80% as good as the rough mix. So one day I asked him to make me a stereo submix of the synthesizers only. I flew that into my mix, and it came to life.

Several albums later, Wishnefsky’s mixing chops are much improved. He brings submixed “stems” to our mix sessions. I have control of only four individual instruments: lead vocal, bass, kick drum and snare drum. I don’t really mix his stuff as much as I improve the work that he has already done. Regardless of what you call it, I am providing a service that helps him achieve his artistic vision.

Over the past few years, we’ve gotten comfortable with the knowledge that this is the approach that works best for him. That said, we were feeling a little bit too comfortable, like we need to shake things up. So we did an experiment.

Our plan was to pick a song and then compare four different mixes of it:

  1. ITB (inside the box) digitally summed from submixes
  2. OTB (outside the box) analog summed from sub mixes
  3. OTB from sub mixes, plus buss EQ and compression
  4. OTB from the ground up, i.e. a proper Michael James mix from the individual elements

I’ve done similar experiments several times, and years ago determined which approach sounds best to me. That said, it was wise to do it again to ensure that Wishnefsky could make the best decision with respect to how deeply to put himself into the hole.  He simply couldn’t afford two weeks of mixing. 

Wishnefsky and I have known each other long enough that we consider each other close friends. He would have trusted me if I simply told him which version was the best choice for his budget. I already knew the answer, but… If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that there is always more to learn.

Technology is constantly improving, so the experiment was not simply for the benefit of Wishnefsky. I was able to re-examine the results to learn if today’s differences are as dramatic as those of yesteryear.  I’ll spare you my opinion because ITB vs OTB is widely considered a game of inches and the debate is heated, with many inexperienced “experts” spewing untested philosophical opinion as fact. Perhaps it’s time for those folks to evolve before going the way of the dinosaurs. 

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