In Pro Tools Expert Podcast 278 we answered a question from the community - How do you compress a voice? James and I aired two different opinions suggesting that the community member should first learn how a compressor works. My compression tip suggested the community member should learn a compressor control set by using a simple strummed guitar loop, James' tip was a little different, he recommended using a compressor plug-in, such as Avid's Dynamics III compressor, as the display in this plug-in shows exactly what the compressor is doing... seeing what a plug-in is doing? - Controversial. This reminded me of the term "mix with your eyes", in this article I explore this term along with reasons why you shouldn't do it.
Everyone Should Be A Little Bit Partially Sighted When They Mix
I am a partially sighted Pro Tools user, being able to see small plug-in controls is an everyday challenge for me. I have personally never "mixed with my eyes" because my vision is so bad it's impossible, I have to rely on my ears.
When I was young lad I was taught to cross roads safely using my ears to inform me when traffic was coming instead of using my eyes to see oncoming traffic. That principle of putting my ears before my eyes has followed me into many other areas of my life including... you guessed it, music production. Mixing with your eyes is like me relying on my vision to cross a road safely - it's possible but it is dangerous. Everyone should be a little bit partially sighted when they mix.
That Plug-in Looks So Good
Let's look at plug-ins for a moment - if I watch or read another plug-in review that describes a plug-in as "looks good" I'll scream. That's like me describing one of my wife's lovely dinners as "Honey, this meal sounds amazing!" Can we all stop describing plug-ins as looking good as I'm sure even plug-in developers will agree that it misses the point completely?
Elaborate plug-in GUIs can easily captivate us displaying all manner of things that are happening to audio that our ears should be listening for, FabFilter plug-ins come to mind. I've read a few comments in forums though about FabFilter plug-ins stating that they are too graphical - I disagree.
The main graphical element in a FabFilter plug-in is a single feature that loads on default. This can be either switched on/off or hidden altogether in the majority of FabFilter plug-ins leaving us to mix with our ears and reference something from time to time with our eyes if need be.
Mixing with our ears without our eyes getting in the way is a discipline that we all have to develop when mixing in DAWs with plug-ins - How much information are our eyes really telling us about audio when we are watching GUI displays? I can tell you, nothing worth straining your eyes over.
Quit The Habit
If you are a "Mix With Your Eyes" offender then there are a handful of ways to break the habit:
- Learn to "stop & listen" with your head angled down slightly. Have a featureless point on your desk that you can look at when listening back to tracks.
- Some plug-ins feature "disable display" options. In some cases, it is good to turn off plug-in displays to avoid being misled by your eyes.
- Try not to open too many plug-ins at once - This can be information overload.
- Get in the habit of occasionally turning off your computer display or minimising your Pro Tools windows so that you are not looking at the session.
- Invest in a small form factor control surface such as Softube Console One. Devices like these force users to use their hands and ears in harmony above computer mouse navigated by eyes.
Listen In The Dark
Have you ever listened to your favourite album in the dark? If not I highly recommend it. You will hear things in the music that you most likely have never heard before. In the dark, your eyes are in essence switched off which puts your other senses into overdrive making hearing extra sharp. It's this mindset I'm trying to inspire in this article - Learn how to use your eyes less to listen better. Being able to use your ears better = better-sounding mixes, period.
Remember, everyone should be a little bit partially sighted when they mix.