Mixing as Performance: Discoveries in Creative Practice #arp2015


Brendan Anthony, Queensland Conservatorium, Griffith University, Australia

Roxy Music with Chris Thomas – cited as an example of mix-as-performance

Abstract: Mixing plays an important role in the delivery of an emotive product, and as such, it is argued here that at times the mixer requires a creative practice more akin to a performance.

Producers like Flood when working with U2 describes changing the music by performing with the faders of the desk (cited in Bennett, 1997). While pre­automation /analogue may have once manifested this mindset, with the introduction of the DAW, producers far less influenced by the past are mixing entirely ‘Inside the Box’.

This paper compares the effect that varying technologies have on mix performance to examine and compare multiple popular music genres and mix systems. This concept opens a discussion about operational schema including: auditory perception (sight verses sound), the issue of tactility, and in how a mixer’s background informs both process and product. It is suggested that mixing concepts similar to George Massenburg’s “decorating a four dimensional space” (Zak, 2001, p. 144) need to be learned and practiced in ways similar to that of a performer’s understanding of their musical instrument. This then leaves the mixer free to improvise and interpret recordings as final productions, as performances. Subsequently, the paper will argue theories for individualised practice where the promotion of a creative mind­set is a paramount objective. It responds to Izhaki’s provocation that “It is for their sheer creativity – not for their technical brilliance – that some mixes are highly acclaimed and their creators deemed sonic visionaries (2008, p. xiv).

References: Bennett, S. 2010. Examining the Emergence and Subsequent Proliferation of Anti Production Amongst the Popular Music Producing Elite. Doctoral Thesis. University of Surrey.

Izhaki, R. (2008). Mixing audio: Concepts, practices and tools. Oxford, UK: Focal Press.

Zak, A. J. (2001). The poetics of rock: Cutting tracks, making records. Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press.

As a practitioner-researcher, Brendan intends to define mixing, he says, as a performance process. He suggests that if it is possible to compose with the studio, it is also possible to ‘play’ the studio as an instrument. Chris Thomas and Roxy music are shown in a still to show the ‘all hands on deck’ approach to moving faders – literally performing on the console. Automation turned this into

Brendan worked with Chris Thomas on INXS’s ‘X’ album at AIR studios in London, and he observes that this is where he learned that mixing was a learned performance skill. He suggests that this internalising of the skill is analogous to a guitarist learning a pentatonic scale shape, playing it over and over until it becomes second nature.

We now hear a track (mixed by Brendan) by Caligula’s Horse, and we see video of the mixing session in which Brendan rides the fader of the delay return, responding to the music and the sonics emotionally and instinctively (based, presumably, on the internalised knowledge he mentions earlier).

[example of a Caligula’s Horse track – I’ll find out the title of the one that Brendan used and post it later]

Our next example is a track by Aquila Young that Brendan mixed this week. We see a video of his drum mixing session and observe the multi-tasking he undertakes, captioned with a real-time narrative of each instinctive action he undertakes (I particularly noted ‘looking at nothing, just listening’, a facial expression that will be familiar to everyone who has seen a mix engineer at work). Brendan suggests that the performative nature of the process, even if automated, is the same in an analogue or virtual environment.

[here’s a previous work by Aquila Young – different from the pre-release example Brendan plays]

Our next example is Chris Lord-Alge, another practitioner who ‘moves like a performer’ in the mixing environment. Brendan discusses the sound vs visuals approach and the relative merits of having the computer monitor on or off while listening. He cites a paraphrase of a frequent student observation, noticing the paradox between the visual and sonic domains ‘LOOK Brendan it doesn’t SOUND right’. He suggests that an overly visual approach to the music may be sonically detrimental, favouring a tactile approach to sound (mouse vs fader vs touch screen). He notes the subjectivity of generations, observing that some of his own students state that they feel like they are ‘performing the mix’ even in an all-computer mixing environment.

We see an amusing video clip of Brendan’s clearly inadvertent irritated facial expressions while listening to a badly compressed snare drum and a too-clean (DI’d?) bass sound (sorted out eventually by the insertion of a Big Muff pedal into the signal path).

Brendan finishes the presentation with a ‘further work’ slide, where he observes that his forthcoming doctoral research will relate his observations of mixing-as-performance to creativity theory, notably the idea of Flow and the Systems Model (Csikszenmihalyi).

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