One common task when mixing tracks for someone else is going through the mixes track-by-track and trying to figure out the vision of the person tracking. Sometimes mixing is easy — the session has been recorded pretty close to how the final mix should sound.
Conversely, if mixing means listening to a grab bag of 20 guitar tracks, 30 vocal tracks and 20 drum mics, that job gets harder. It gets even harder if the guy tracking had the “vision” (cue huge dose of sarcasm) to record everything clean to “keep the options open” — in which case, they may as well have sent you a box full of tape cuts and asked you to splice it all back together. As one Grammy-winning producer friend said to me, “My first job with some mixes is deleting and muting tracks.”
Fixing in the mix is a pretty much common phenomona, but was less often done before near-infinite track counts and endless plug-ins were part of the deal. In the “good old days”, fewer tracks and one compressor meant you were forced to make decisions BEFORE you mixed. Often, stems were created out of necessity and limitation, not to make mixing easier or leave options wide open.
Take a talent like Buddy Miller and his recording of Robert Plant’s “Band of Joy” album. Buddy used a minimalist approach and laid the entire album on 16 tracks. You can see the track info here and the Pro Tools mix here, and read the whole SOS article on how it was mixed here.
To make a modern major release on 16 tracks takes vision, planning and balls - it means making decisions and committing to them, not hoping to fix it in the mix. It’s hearing the sounds as you put them down and using those commitments to make informed choices as you build up the song.
If you are used to leaving every option open and then fixing it in the mix, I encourage you to have a go at making your decisions as you record. After all, if it’s done right, it shouldn’t need “fixing”! You may never look back, you might continue leaving your options open.
Irrespective of who ends up mixing your tracks, make some commitments in advance and in process and you’ll make better music.