Back from Aus, Busy as Hell (and a little bit about psychoacoustics)

So that was an interesting month! To go straight from manic end-of-year teaching hell to the other side of the world via a low-budget 30 hour flight was enough, there was the stress of my other half being made redundant literally the day before we left. Was great over there, however - so good to see everyone I've been missing. And the sushi is great. Here's a picture of me jamming with my Dad, CASIO-core style, on the back patio.

I left Matt over there for an additional 2 weeks and I rushed back slightly more burnt out than when I left, back home to a massive pile of projects that have been scheduled for, or put off until, the summer. Which is now. I love it, already I've reverted to vampire hours; I sit in my studio all night long growing paler and in the daytime I sleep while the sane people go out and enjoy sunshine, cavort in parklands, eat BBQ or whatever it is that they do. Take away my 9 to 5 responsibilities and this is what happens every time.

One of these summer projects is a mix and master for a band... something that on the surface seems a bit technical and prescribed, a diversion from all the PhD stuff I should be doing. But I'm finding it very useful as an opportunity to really look closely at timbre and texture in the context of a multitrack stereo mix.

So far the process feels a lot more like traditional music 'arrangement' - choosing colours, combinations of colours, manipulating the dynamics between them. Obviously there are limitations, chief of which is the genre of music and the expected commercial standards that are implied there. Another big one is obviously whatever the client wants. But even within the most rigid brief, there are still opportunities for creativity, I think. There is such an art to the 'act of combining things', after all the depth of a stereo field is just an auditory illusion - the mix engineer/producer is the magician who is conjuring it for the listener.

Moreover, I suspect the mix engineer can affect the listener on a different level to that which the composer (who is working with notes, harmonies and rhythms) can. Once again, these ideas throw back to (what Andrew Brown calls) the "modes of compositional engagement" - the director, the observer, the performer, the selector - basically the composer adopting various roles to facilitate the creativity in various contexts. It's an interesting idea. I certainly don't want to claim that all producers ARE composers (if we define a composer as the writer or AUTHOR of music, then that can't be true). But producers have influence over sound, there are creative choices to be made... in some cases these choices can affect the listener's experience profoundly.

I want to mention Mitchell Froom's record "Dopamine" (HERE it is on iTunes). Froom is a great producer, well respected for his work with Crowded House, Suzanne Vega, Elvis Costello & Los Lobos. In the 80s he composed "Key of Cool", which became the classic score to "Cafe Flesh" and arguably the best pornography soundtrack of all time (though I admit to only knowing the music, I haven't seen the film). But this Dopamine record just makes me feel physically ill, as if my teeth are buzzing... almost as if I'm biting on tin foil, it almost brings me to nausea (but not quite). It's not the music that bothers me, it's the SOUND of the music, the EQ, the tone, the positioning of the sounds in the stereo field. As Mike Stavrou so eloquently explains in his amazing book 'Mixing With Your Mind', it's these psychoacoustic elements that are playing with my brain and making me feel ill in the guts. Now I'm not known to shy away from a challenging listening experience but the effects are even more pronounced when I listen to it on headphones and it has been banished from the iPod - and that's saying something, Merzbow got to stay on.

I know that not everyone's ears and brain is like mine. There's even a few good reviews out there for this record where people praise the production. Are there any records out there where the SOUND of the mix affects you? If anyone reading this has the time to test the above record out on their own ears, I would love to know if you have a similar experience. In either case
email me!