Sunday, August 23, 2015

Learning To Mix Part 2: Percepts, Affects and the Sixth Sense

 Yeah, you got to mix it child
You got to fix it must be love, it's a bitch
Yeah, you got to mix it child
You got to fix it, but the love, it's a bitch, all right.
- the Stones, Live in Texas, 1972

Experienced engineers develop a sixth sense about their mixes.  They can tell when it sounds good, when it's working in a way that goes beyond  the physical sound waves coming out of the speakers. They know, or at least begin to suspect, when the tracks they've been mixing turn into music.  They can be completely fatigued from long hours of concentrated listening, their ears verging on meltdown and still know when a mix feels good or not.  It goes beyond hearing; mix engineers experience the music with their whole body, feel the mood and atmosphere it creates and whatever sensations might arise. Developing this sixth sense seems crucial to understanding when the musical aesthetic has arrived or descended into the mix.  It's the same sense musicians tap into when playing together, especially improvising musicians who create as they go.  They necessarily tune into a musical telepathy to keep the entity afloat, alive and moving.  Improvising music, getting familiar with the zen of that skill can definitely help in the creative mixing situation which has it's own kind of improvisation.  A good look at various kinds of improvisation can be found in Derek Bailey's book, Improvisation: It's Nature and Practice in Music.  Some examples from this book that apply to mixing:

"... means that the exact size of the sruti is in many instances purely a matter of personal choice, a choice depending upon the musician's knowledge, experience and instinct." -p. 2

Sruti, a Sanskrit word,meaning to 'to hear' is the smallest interval used in Indian music.  Substitute 'exact size of the sruti' with 'exact nature of the mix.'

"Most musicians learn to improvise by accident; or by a series of observed accidents; by trial and error.  And there is of course an appropriateness about this method, a natural correspondence between improvisation and empiricism.  Learning improvisation is a practical matter: there is no exclusively theoretical side to improvisation.  Appreciating and understanding how improvisation works is achieved through the failures and successes involved in attempting to do it."   - p.8

" Ours is a very intuitive music, you learn intuitively, the feeling for a raga (or a mix) is acquired intuitively." - p.9

You can hasten the development of this sixth sense by opening up the nervous system to receive more input becoming increasingly sensitive to subtler energies.  The specifics of how to do this appear largely individual, everyone figures it out for themselves depending upon inclinations, circumstances and other factors.  I've been using a floatation tank for years to aid this; in my younger days I did a lot of yoga that had the same effect; practicing Magick.  There are thousands of techniques and practices and you can make up your own.  You just want to ensure that the nervous system is opening up to more received signal not closing down.  One way to tell is to look at a piece of art before and after an expansion practice.  You will notice more, receive more of the artwork, input a clearer, more direct signal after a successful experiment; your perceptions will be heightened.  The same principle applies to music.  I used to float for an hour before going to the studio and this definitely improved the job performance.  Conversely, you should be able to notice when the nervous system's sensory apparatus narrows or closes down - fatigue being one common cause of that.  

Everything that you do in this regard, all the work, all the pain for the gain, accrues.  In fact, any effort, discipline, practice you do to become a better engineer accrues, it adds up, no effort is wasted even the so-called mistakes; you automatically get better in the studio by doing it a lot.  Not long after I started recording my first record with The Now Feeling in 1985 I realized that I needed to basically camp out in a recording studio for a period of months or years to get the knowledge and experience seeping deep down into my bones, to saturate my body with studio savvy so that this wisdom became instinctual, not something I had to think about.  That's what I did.  I relocated to New York City and got hired on at Platinum Island working constantly, up to 120 hour weeks for a period of about three years.  It illustrates a principle I noticed a long time ago, namely that you will get better at anything by doing it regularly, consistently and as frequently as possible.  The corollary of this in an open-ended, constantly changing and expanding discipline like mixing music is that you never stop learning, you can, and do, always get better.

I said in the previous post that mixing is almost always collaborative.  That means learning how to communicate with the Producer and Artist, learning how they communicate their musical vision, what metaphors they use to describe it and translating that into a technical approach.  It doesn't hurt to ask if they have any musical references they'd like to play to give an idea of the direction and sound.  Comparing a mix to a painting, putting the sound into a visual context becomes a common referent.  The mix can have a foreground, midground and background.  It can range in multiple intensities from dark to bright, warm or cold i. e. bass to treble.  It can get described in colors - someone once asked me to make their rhythm guitar sound more brown.  I knew exactly what they meant, more lower mids.

Collaboration encounters disagreements from time to time.  My practice is to get a mix to a point that I like, print it, then let the Artist or Producer have me change things to their heart's content.  You will save every mix.  Most often their changes make a definite improvement.  I'll also let them know if I think they're making a bad choice or if they're obsessing over detail, but I'll always apply their request if I don't convince them otherwise.  The credo of High Velocity Sound Engineering is the effective interpretation of the artist's vision.  If the artist gets in the way of their own vision or if your vision of what it could be goes further, you have to put that aside if they're not open to your input; go with what they say or drop out.  Ultimately, they are paying for it and they're going to have to live with it forever while you nomadically move on.  Finding a way to become detached from the end result, setting aside the mask called the engineer's ego can prove helpful in such situations.  Empathy for what the artist is going through doesn't hurt either.  It can prove helpful to remember that you're doing this all the time; you are comfortable and at home in the recording studio whereas the studio can get intimidating to people less accustomed to it.  However comfortable they are, the artist opens up, goes deep and bares their creative soul in the studio.  You want to respect and be sensitive to that soul-searching to protect the intimacy of the space.  Clients can tell when you respect their art.

Why mix music?  What is it about music that moves us so?  How is it that a specific arrangement of sound vibrations can dramatically lift our mood, make us feel better, even inspire creative activities?  If we had some inkling of a direction to go in to answer these questions it might aid us in our job of mixing, of formulating and defining that specific arrangement or assemblage of audio and quantum wave vibrations and intensities.

In between the loudspeakers and the brain something happens that engenders these reactions, that affects us sometimes quite profoundly.   Gilles Deleuze wrote prominently as a philosopher of the in-between.  He is pragmatic and considers effective philosophy always to be an attempt at a solution to one kind of problem or another.  For the purposes of this essay we will say the problem looked at here is how to mix a piece of music most effectively and most affectively.  Affects and percepts are terms Deleuze introduced and used to describe the feelings and sensations produced by art of all kinds. 

  "Art thinks no less than philosophy, but it thinks through affects and percepts."
 -Deleuze and Gutttari, What Is Philosophy, p. 66 

"What is preserved - the thing or work of art ( the mix) is a bloc of sensations, that is to say a compound of percepts and affects.  Percepts are no longer perceptions; they are independent of a state of those who experience them.  Affects are no longer feelings or affections, they go beyond the strength of those who undergo them.  Sensations, percepts and affects are beings whose validity lies in themselves and exceeds any lived.... The work of art is a being of sensation and nothing else: it exists in itself."
 - op cit. p. 164

The second quote agrees with both the tenets of Magick and of Taoism.  In Magick, percepts, affects and thoughts are known as spirits, angels, archangels, demons, elementals and various other archiac sounding names.  The point being that music contains a realm of non-human entities that you, the mixer, help to bring into sensible focus.  Music appears alive; it gets brought to life by musicians. This apparency of life, this assemblage of percepts and affects with varying discernability depending upon the sensitivity of the sensory apparatus might help explain why we can listen to a favorite piece of music multiple times over a period of years and still get something new out of it.   That life can be recorded, replicated, distributed and broadcast around the world by audio technicians and a marketing network.

High Velocity Sound Engineering views the recording studio as a landing pad for the descent of higher entities.  This requires an invocational approach.  Regarding music as a living non-human Intelligence involves a much different approach than treating it as another commercial disposable product for mass consumption.  The studio that Bill Laswell and I recorded classical violinist L. Shankar in Madras (now Chennai) India made you remove your shoes at the front door.  The only other places in India with the same rule were Hindu Temples.  When you entered the Control Room from the foyer you passed through an antechamber containing a large altar filled with portraits and statues of deities and gurus, garlands of flowers and a constantly lighted oil lamp.  Incense seemed always burning with a fragrance resembling jasmine orange.  A female employee was present whose only job was attending this altar.  I'm not advocating this same approach here in the West, but a healthy respect for the sacredness of the music-making endeavor can't hurt.  An interesting coincidence happened when we started on the first day.  There was a movie voiceover session running late when it was our scheduled time.  A large screen projected the film behind the actor reading his lines in the darkened studio..  After about 20 minutes with no end in sight, the movie's dialogue read, "get out, get out now!!!," and they abruptly stopped.  I guess they took the hint from Coincidence Control.

Mixers can be considered special case musicians.  How a mix gets constructed and balanced bears a direct relationship to how musical the piece turns out; it has a direct relationship to the nature, quantity and strength of the percepts and affects that generate from it. Tuning in and paying more attention to the mood altering aspects of a mix relates to the development of the sixth sense, the mixing intuition mentioned earlier - opening the nervous system to getting more affected by music, receiving increased signal,  helps to create mixes strong and resonant with mood and atmosphere.  When successful, it becomes a transmission of a range of percepts and affects, actual and virtual; actual in the moment of listening, virtual in that they always appear different to a greater or lesser extent with every different moment of listening.  The virtual field with its multiplicity of combinations of percepts and affects offers one explanation of  why we can listen to a great piece of music hundreds of times in a lifetime and continue to get different and new things, new gnosis from it.

Musical intuition also naturally develops through  long time spent mixing.  Music itself shows how to unlock the nervous system to receiving greater and more subtle forces and energies.  The theory behind these gnostic awakenings applies the idea of entering the space/mood/atmosphere of a piece of music - the chamber that music exists in.  The mix is one critical determinate of that chamber; or even the mix = the chamber.  The chamber is alive, a singular entity containing  a diversity of everything in it.  Consider it a non-human teacher.  It generates percepts and affects creating an electrical circuit between the music and the receiving apparati in the listener.  Music that affects you strongly can change and alter different parts of the nervous system; it can increase sensations, feelings, and intuitive ideas.  The next time you hear the same piece of music, even a recording of the same performance, you will hear it differently, both because the context of listening will be different, and because your nervous may be changed from the previous listening, slightly more sensitive and aware of the deeper layers the music has to offer.  Listening to music attentively creates an alchemical feedback loop; by alchemical we mean, among other things, the growth and expansion of spiritual functioning ( to use a vague general phrase) or what Deleuze called transcendental empiricism.  Opening up the nervous system to receive and transmit greater signal.
The affect is not the passage from one lived state to another but wo-man's nonhuman becoming.
- op cit. p.173 (slightly paraphrased)

We at HVSE regard the printing of the mix as the most critical juncture point of the mixing process.

The chamber, the space, mood and atmosphere of the moment when the mix is printed also gets recorded, it's not just the audio. 

This can get experimentally verified.  Take a two track recorder of any kind and record the ambience of any intense space - a shamanic or magick ritual, a house burning down, an intense meeting of some kind, then play it back later to someone who wasn't there, but who is able to listen attentively and get their reaction. 

Awareness of the zen moment the mix is printed when the Invocation occurs, naturally creates an aversion to recalling the mix and making changes at a later date.  Sometimes this can't be helped if the client or producer isn't present at the recording of the mix.  If the changes are minor then the integrity of the initial pass doesn't seemed adversely affected.  Mixes that get recalled and tweaked to death (both a figurative and literal phrase) seriously hinders the invocational affects.  Ideally, the final decision makers of the mixes future prolongation and use are present when the mix is printed.  The first few years working with Bill Laswell I engineered a lot of mixes he did and we never recalled a  mix, not once ever.  That's because there was always full presence at the moment of printing; never a need to go back and fix something later.  Expanding the nervous system to receive more signal, more percepts and affects, more communication from the music can also be viewed as a penetration into the present.

To put it in less philosophical terms, it's simply understanding when the mix feels right.  That doesn't always mean when every element is perfectly processed and balanced.  I can vividly recall mixing Nicky Skopelitis' Ekstasis project with Bill and Nicky.  I was not quite ready of getting a balance on one of the songs when Bill suddenly said, "this feels great."  I said something to the effect that I wasn't ready with the mix and he told me not to do anything else to it, "whatever is going on, it feels really great."    Nicky also got way into it when he heard it.  We printed it in that moment as it was.  I'd been too busy doing all the proper things you're supposed to do to a mix to pay attention to the strong feeling and presence it had in that moment.

And now for something completely different...


Recently I looked at a number of youtube videos of more well-known mix engineers taking questions on their craft.  Many of them were from the Mixing with the Masters workshop series.  It was interesting and informative to see the different approaches they take.  One of them, I don't remember who sponsored it,  was a Q & A session with Chris Lord Alge and Bob Clearmountain.  They were asked what three unique qualities they brought to the mixing sessions to make them better and Lord Alge's response was " CONFIDENCE CONFIDENCE CONFIDENCE!!!"   I  find CLA highly entertaining when he talks about engineering.  I think he's absolutely right on this point.  Confidence in your abilities to get the best possible mix goes a long way.  When you're confident, you're not worried or intimidated which are basically fear reactions and make you less present in the moment.  When you're confident and on top of it, the well-equipped recording studio can feel like a sports car that you rev up to a smooth cruising speed; high velocity.  The presence and attention a mixer brings to their job cannot be underestimated.  Confidence in what you're doing helps put you solidly in the moment.  The first time I met Jason Corsaro at the beginning of the mix sessions for The Swans, The Burning World album he immediately struck me as someone with the large presence of a star engineer and I instinctively knew it for a significant quality to bring to a session.  Just confidence that he could do the job better than anyone else; not arrogance or ego which confidence sometimes gets mistaken for.

It's So Easy

Here's a mix I really like, I don't know who did it.  It's a great garage band performance by Paul McCartney of Buddy Holly's, It's So Easy from the Rave On tribute album released in 2011.  The mix noticeably highlights the garage band aspect with overdriven vocals, massively compressed drums and exaggerated solo levels.  I love it!

Optional listening exercise: find a copy of John Coltrane's, My Favorite Things, the studio album, and for at least one pass listen closely to Coltrane's saxophone tone.  He subtly bends notes for emotional emphasis almost like an Indian musician searching for the exact right sruti to play -  the smallest interval of indeterminate size.  This seems particularly evident in the first two pieces, the title track and Everytime We Say Goodbye.


  1. Shruti (Sanskrit, IAST: śruti) means "that which is heard" and refers to the body of most authoritative, ancient religious texts comprising the central canon of Hinduism.[1] It includes the four Vedas including its four types of embedded texts - the Samhitas, the Brahmanas, the Aranyakas and the early Upanishads.[2]

    Shrutis have been considered revealed knowledge, variously described as of divine origin,[3] or nonhuman primordial origins.[1] In Hindu tradition, they have been referred to as apauruṣeya (authorless).[4] All six orthodox schools of Hinduism accept the authority of śruti,[5] but many scholars in these schools denied that the shrutis are divine.[6][7] Nāstika (heterodox) philosophies such as the Cārvākas did not accept the authority of the shrutis and considered them to be flawed human works.[8][9]

    Shruti differs from other sources of Hindu philosophy, particularly smṛti “which is remembered” or textual material. These works span much of the history of Hinduism, beginning with the earliest known texts and ending in the early historical period with the later Upanishads.[10] Of the śrutis, the Upanishads alone are widely known, and the central ideas of the Upanishadic śrutis are at the spiritual core of Hindus.[11][12]

  2. Interesting that sruti or shruti has a different context outside of the musical one.

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