How To Become a Mix Engineer
“I’m a Mix Engineer and Producer,” says Mark Needham, a Los Angeles-based audio professional who has worked on records by Blondie, Chris Isaak, and The Killers, to name just a few. Of his work, he says, “So many [people] now record tracks themselves and basically the job of a Mix Engineer is to take all the tracks and help with the arrangement and sound of the song and hopefully take it towards what the artist’s vision is. [The goal is to then] take it further so the audio is creating the emotions they’re trying to get across in the lyrics. Make it sound like a big hit — that’s what we’re trying to do.” This is done by mixing the various elements of a song (vocals, instruments, production effects) so the volume of each element sounds right, and the different parts all blend harmoniously.
Like many Mix Engineers, Needham assumes different roles outside his mixing capabilities, depending on what a record needs. He says, “As a Producer, I help to develop artists. Let’s say an artist comes in with a song. I might co-write the song; I try to find out what the artist’s vision is and try to translate the vision and song into something commercially viable with my expertise from making a lot of records.”
Mix Engineers usually work on their own, or at times with an Assistant Engineer or Interns. Mix Engineers can also find themselves working with musical artists, Recording Engineers, and record label employees, depending on the project and the artist’s team.
With the prevalence of audio production and engineering programs, many Mix Engineers now begin their careers as Interns or Assistant Engineers, working their way up as they gain experience. Career advancement comes through working with more prestigious studios, or by striking out and opening one’s own studio. Working with well-known artists who sell a lot of records also represents a significant career achievement, as it means the Engineer’s business and reputation will grow, as well.
Education & Training
Many Mix Engineers learn the essential skills by attending a production or audio engineering degree program. Of course, since being a successful Mix Engineer requires a certain level of hands-on experience before one can even think of joining the workforce, it’s important to receive on-the-job training through internships or assistant work. Needham adds, “I think it’s good to have a background in music. If you’re not a musician, take guitar, piano and drum classes, so you can understand what notes work together and which don’t. Also, have a good understanding of rhythm, so you can understand why beats aren’t working together. I think a musical background is a great place to start. I studied physics and I think that’s great to have a basic idea of sine waves and how energy works. That’s sound in the air. It’s a little easier [when you understand physics].
There are a lot of great schools out there that didn’t exist when I started. I think one of the most important things is if you have an understanding of how audio works and a musical background. Get some equipment and just start doing it every day. It’s the 10,000 times rule. Nothing beats doing it.”
Experience & Skills
Although Mix Engineers must have strong technical abilities, Needham says, “I don’t think there’s a real special skill [needed for this career], besides having a love for music or being a musician. I was a drummer and guitar player and was always fascinated by the technical ends: the tape recorders and all that. So for me, it was a perfect fit of both worlds. [One important skill is] being able to deal with people and get to the point of what they’re trying to get across really quickly. People skills are very important and so is having confidence when you’re in the studio with the band so they think you actually know what you’re doing! It makes the whole creative process move so much smoother and everyone feels comfortable together. I think making artists be able to feel comfortable in the studio and keeping it a creative experience is very important.”
Mix Engineers usually work on their own but must enjoy socializing in order to drum up new clients and maintain industry connections. The type of personality who would do best in this role is, according to Needham, “somebody who likes to work really hard. There are so many people who want to do it, but who don’t put in the amount of work that’s required. I think you have to be ready to work incredibly hard. There’s a certain amount of ego; I don’t think it’s being egotistical, but a certain amount of ego and confidence in your abilities is important.”
“Even after years doing this, I still probably work 70-80 hours a week,” Needham says. “I put in twelve hour days six days a week.” The time of day/night you can expect to find a Mix Engineer at work will depend on deadlines, but since the work is largely solitary in nature, an Engineer can make his or her own schedule. Needham says, “I do a lot of my critical mixing early in the morning when the phone’s not ringing, the email isn’t too much. It’s quiet and I just find it easier to delve into a project without a lot of interruptions. I find it really important when you’re mixing to take ear breaks and walk away from the song for a minute so you can listen with fresh ears and not be fretting over something. Coming back to things with fresh ears — that’s a big part of the process as well.”
Aspiring Mix Engineers have a couple possible options when it comes to building their careers. Self-starters with an intuitive understanding of studio equipment can teach themselves many of the skills they need before setting themselves up as professional Engineers. The more common route, however, is to find a mentor who can teach you the required skills while on the job. “There are internships available at major studios,” Needham says. “That’s one route a lot of people take. I personally never did that. I never worked as an Intern or an Assistant Engineer; I got a two-track tape recorder and a little four-channel mixer and just started my own studio. There’s certainly a lot to be learned if you can find an internship or work as an Assistant Engineer for someone who’s already established. I’ve helped train a lot of Assistants who have gone to become successful Engineers.”
Mix Engineers earn income in a variety of ways, which can also depend on the other roles they take on in the creation of an album, apart from mixing. Says Needham, “We have our base book rate but we certainly go up and down depending on the project. If it’s something I really want to be involved in and I believe in its potential for success, I’ll sometimes work cheaper. I’m a one point Mixer which means I have a percentage across sales of the record, Sound Exchange (every time it plays online) and licensing in film and TV. Payment for these two streams comes from either the label and/or directly from the artists whose work was placed in the film/TV [program].
That’s something a young Engineer getting started probably won’t be able to ask for, but certainly, to generate an income chain later in your career that’s a good idea. As a Producer, I’m always producing for three points on a record. Songwriting and actually playing on a record are great ways to generate income down the road,” as well.
Unions, Groups & Associations
Needham suggests, “The Grammy Foundation (Grammy U and NARAS) has ways for you to get together with other people who are more established in the business and people at the same level as you if you’re just starting out. That’s a way to be more involved with the community and networking. They have cheaper memberships for students as well. That’s really a good resource, that and the Audio Engineering Society (AES).”
- “Get a program you’re comfortable working with, if it’s GarageBand or Pro Tools. There are so many platforms available out there. Just start trying to create your own songs.
- There are songs online that are big hits already that you can download. Listen to what the final result was and try to match that. Or see if you can take a song in a different direction.
- Don’t be afraid to sit and experiment, to take a plug-in compressor and try to make it very subtle then just the most extreme it can be — just to learn what the parameters of all those plug-ins can be. Take an EQ and play with the EQ on the snare so you can get a little more rattle or crack out of a snare; you can really get familiar with where all those different frequencies are.”
What is the single biggest suggestion you would give to someone wanting to get into this career?
“Again, there are so many people out there doing it, and to try to really break through the fray, one thing that has worked for me was to get involved (because it’s hard for a major label to hire you for a top artist when you don’t have millions of records sold and have platinum records hanging on your walls), finding unknown bands at clubs and doing development deals with them, [then] going in and mixing their songs. I was in for an overall percentage on those records; I’ve had great success doing that and probably had artists who sold over 50 to 100 million records. That’s such a good springboard, so labels are knocking on your door instead of the other way around. If you can find the right band who can get signed and sell a lot of records that’s a great way to break through and become a known Engineer.”
What’s the #1 mistake people make when trying to get into this career?
“I see a lot of people who want to do it who then will train for a while, then expect jobs to just start flowing to them. There’s a lot more to the process than that. You really have to be out hustling for this work every day because there are always 100 people underneath you who want to work as well. Being proactive, out at clubs, meeting bands, and socializing is the best way. Networking is something a lot of people miss.”
What is the question people should ask about this career but rarely do?
“People don’t ask how hard the job really is. They think this is glamorous, and in some ways it is — I mean, this is what I love to do so I’d be doing it anyway. I started for very little money at first. It’s the same as being a Rock Star; a lot of people aspire to it, then they get a big deal and they’re like ‘Oh my God, I’ve been on tour for two years and haven’t seen my home and I’m stuck on this smelly bus.’ There are certainly a lot of unglamorous aspects and very hard hours and I don’t know if people understand that. Also be prepared for the ups and downs — it’s not like a regular job with a salary and a health plan. I’ve always worked for myself and I see how there could be some comfort in that, knowing ‘Next week I’ll get a paycheck,’ however, that’s not always the case going into this.”
If you could describe in one word what makes you successful, what would it be?
“The passion for doing it.”
Mark Needham is a Mix Engineer, Producer, and Engineer in Los Angeles, CA. With thirty-five years of experience in the music industry, he has worked on records by Moby & the Void Pacific Choir, Fleetwood Mac, Chris Isaak, Blondie, Imagine Dragons, The Killers, and many more.