Perception, Reality and the Mental State of Mixing Music

Or: Does the Smell of Popcorn Make My Mix Sound Different?

I was sitting in the control room a couple of weeks ago, reviewing a mix with the producer of the piece. I had been mixing all morning and was satisfied with the way everything was sounding and fitting together. About half-way through the review, the smell of freshly popped popcorn wafted through the control room from the nearby lounge.

As my mind drifted to the thought of popcorn and melted butter, suddenly the bottom end of the mix didn’t sound right. The kick drum and bass guitar weren’t gelling as they had all morning. There was a build up of energy around 160Hz – an annoying boom I hadn’t heard, or more accurately, noticed before. Things just weren’t right now.

Wow, the smell of popcorn just changed my finely-crafted mix of 4 hours!

This phenomenon is something I’ve been noticing for as many years as I’ve been mixing music. My mental state changes the perception of what I’m hearing while mixing. We’ve all experienced the “morning after” mix listen. You throw the mix up that you spent all last night working on. In the very first few bars it becomes blatantly obvious that the rhythm guitar is way too loud. “What was I thinking last night?” “How come I didn’t notice that before?”

There are scores of studies on how music affects the brain but how does the brain affect the way we hear music?

Music stimulates various parts of the brain, making it an effective therapeutic or mood-altering tool. Music’s pitch, rhythm, meter and timbre are processed in various parts of the brain ranging from the prefrontal cortex to the hippocampus to the parietal lobe. Rhythm and pitch are primarily left brain hemisphere functions, while timbre and melody are processed primarily in the right hemisphere. Meter is processed in both hemispheres.

It makes sense to me that the opposite is also true. The mood we are in, or what we are thinking about, affects how we hear music. This used to frustrate me when mixing but now I use it as a tool. I’ve learned to consciously “toggle” my brain between two states when mixing. I refer to them and the “analytical” and the “musical” states.

In the analytical state, I’m concentrating on the mechanics of the mix. What tracks am I using for the drums? Should the bass be mono or stereo? How should the guitars be panned? Should the guitars be panned? What type of buss compression best suits this piece, etc.?

In the musical state, I’m actually listening to the mix as a listener. This is the “morning after” state of mind. I’ve trained my mind to be able to toggle between these states at will. It produces better mixes more quickly and avoids that dreaded “morning after” experience.

It’s fairly easy to do and similar to mind relaxation or stress relieving exercises. A article by Jeannette Moninger entitled “10 Relaxation Techniques That Zap Stress Fast” summed my personal mind “toggle” up in step three.

Be present.

Slow down.

“Take 5 minutes and focus on only one behavior with awareness.” Notice how the air feels on your face when you’re walking and how your feet feel hitting the ground. Enjoy the texture and taste of each bite of food.

When you spend time in the moment and focus on your senses, you should feel less tense.

I take a minute to sit back in my chair, have a piece of fruit or get up to use the restroom. As soon as my mind relaxes, I’m listening in the “musical” state of mind. I’m no longer thinking about the mechanics of the mix. I’m just letting the music flow over me. Invariably, I’ll be snapped out of this state by something “non-musical” or just plain wrong in the mix. I’m back in the “analytical” state in a flash but I’ve discovered something in my journey to the “musical” state that I might have never noticed or took much longer to notice.

Apparently this is also the “smell the popcorn” state of mind.

So did the smell of popcorn change the way my mix sounded or did it simply allow me to hear how it really sounded?

Dennis Wall is Chief Engineer / Guru at Made Music Studio. Ask him about the mental state of mixing music on Twitter @offdwall.

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