Many of you reading this will be right-brainers, a term based on the theory that some people are more creative (right brain) and some are more analytic (left brain). It's a somewhat crude theory which can lead to stereotyping, but for this story let's assume that on the whole, it's a good starting point for understanding how most people work at a base level.
A friend and I were out walking one day, and I commented on what a fantastic day it was and what a beautiful blue sky. He immediately replied that the sky wasn't exactly blue and then went into some detail about what colour he thought it was. Me being a right-brainer was expressing my delight in the weather, he as a left-brainer thought I'd started a discussion on colour. I was exasperated and thought I'll not be commenting on the sky again if he's around.
Over the years we came to laugh at this story as it highlighted a fundamental difference in our personalities and we learned to appreciate how we could use them as strengths rather than weaknesses. My intuitive and creative mind and his considered and analytic one when combined could give a more rounded approach to most things... except perhaps the weather.
That story is to illustrate a fundamental fact about the problem with mixing or any creative pursuit for that matter, everyone perceives things differently. So when we hand over the 'FINAL FINAL FINAL' mix or edit then that's only a consensus of those involved in the process so far. BTW if you ever use the word 'FINAL' in any project I'm involved in, I will chuckle and ask you never to do it again. Anyone involved in client work will know that 'FINAL' is rarely the case.
But back to the point, your great sounding mix is only great to you and the consensus. When I listen I will hear different things; this is why you have endless debates about the sound of a music mix or the intelligibility of audio in film and TV. By its very nature art is a matter of perception and not something that can be measured by absolute scales. Now the left brainers reading this will be thinking what about distortion or any other technical issues, I agree, but even once we transcend those problems in a mix you are not out of the woods by any stretch.
Yes, there are bad mixes, yes the snare is too loud for everyone, or the music is too loud in a movie, but in one sense those apparent flaws are just the start of any debate.
Taste, the physiological makeup of the senses and medical conditions all contribute to the perception of any stimulus on our vision and hearing, for some people, a mix is too loud when for other people it's too quiet and for many 'just right.' If you want to know what mixing hell is, ironically it's a church worship service. Ask anyone who has run sound on a church PA, and they will look at you with eyes of despair as they recount the number of conversations they have had with people about the sound level being too quiet, too loud, or they can't hear the preacher, which reminds me of one of my favourite stories. A minister gets up to give his sermon and says 'can everyone hear me at the back?' To which a voice comes back 'yes I can, but I wouldn't mind changing seats with someone who can't!'
So far we've considered loudness, but taste also plays a part on each of our experiences.
The bottom line is when you mix a track, or a film or do any creative work then the number of different mixes is equal to those listening - the mix you hear is just one version, and it's your version.
I have nothing against metering plug-ins or the other amazing tools we have at our disposal to help us meet precise specifications, such as loudness, but these tools which offer a scientific remedy to meet delivery specifications, will never help deal with opinion and taste.
As someone who works in client approval chains every day of the week, I'm battling (yes battling) as I present work and then have to deal with consensus. One person thinks this and another has a different opinion, the larger the group involved in the process, the more frustrating it can become. I can't be the only one who turns stuff up, then down, then up, then down, or takes something out and then back in. A life that consists of this kind of approvals back and forth learns fast to create a new version of a project every time the amends list comes back.
I rarely agree with every change I'm given, but that's the nature of working for clients, ego has no place in this kind of work, and you soon learn that spending a day arguing over 0.5dB is pointless. There are some projects one works on that at some point are renamed in your team as 'that F*CKING job!' You get to the point of being tempted not to care, and you have to use every professional bone in your body to make sure that doesn't happen.
Even if you don’t work in client approval chains you might work with bands and we all know the whole problem of the band in a mixing session. Guess who thinks the guitar is too quiet, or the snare needs to be louder, that’s why I’m not a fan of attended mixing sessions. I was the worst when I used to have mixes done of my albums, so much so that I was banned from the mix sessions and had to wait for them to be sent to me, I don’t blame them for this. Often trying to mix with a band in the room is an endless game of fader up, fader down, fader up, fader down.
I use these things to illustrate that once your project is done (laughs out loud) then that small group of critics is extended to however many get to hear or see the work, all of them have a different perception of the work.
That's the really bad news about mixing audio.
But here's the really good news about mixing, the sooner you realise that then, the sooner you'll be free to be yourself and not try and reach a perfect absolute (there isn't one) but bring your unique personality and the best of your skills.
No one can interpret the work as you do. So be yourself, do your best and hope that as many people appreciate your version of the work as you do!