5 tips for achieving a great mix from St. Lucia

St. Lucia is the music project of singer-songwriter Jean-Philip Grobler.

Blending nostalgic ’80s influences with contemporary pop touches, St. Lucia‘s mixes are full of energy and shimmer.

Below, Grobler shares some tips and perspectives he’s gathered throughout the course of his career around how to craft an effective mix.

1. Take a subtractive approach

Grobler: To me, the process of making music and the process of mixing music are totally different. When I’m creating, I’m throwing every idea that comes to me at the wall and seeing what sticks. Often, I end up with a ridiculous amount of tracks where I’ve tried the same part over and over on a variety of different keyboards, but in most cases those can’t all exist on the same song because it would just be a mess. So, when I enter mixing mode, I switch from being a hoarder to being Marie Kondo – from addition to subtraction.

2. Invest in your monitoring environment

My current monitoring setup is ATC SCM 25As, NS10s with a Bryston amp, Avantone MixCubes, and Neumann NDH 20 headphones powered by a Rupert Neve RNHP headphone amp. I arrived to my setup over years of doing this, and the more I create, the more I realize that it’s important (at least on the monitoring side) to have as neutral representation as possible.

In addition, you should probably invest just as much (if not more) on room treatment as you do on your speakers, because it doesn’t matter how expensive your speakers are if your room sounds like crap. If your room isn’t well tuned, you can try using something like Sonarworks to help you tune your speakers to the room, so you know what you’re listening to is relatively flat frequency-wise. Having a couple different speakers, headphones, and even a cheap little bluetooth speaker can also be helpful for comparing how your mix translates across different mediums.

3. Converters matter

For our new record that I’m working on, I wanted to strive to have the absolute highest quality signal chain I could. I‘d heard a lot of people I respect say positive things about Burl Audio’s converters, so I bought a Burl B2 Bomber ADC. I was also excited about Universal Audio’s new Apollo X series, so I upgraded my old Apollo 16 to an Apollo X16.

I can’t tell you how much of a difference these two things made – the Burls are a lot more colored and the Apollo is more neutral, but the cumulative effect of processing through both is that almost nothing sounds harsh to my ears. This obviously also has a lot to do with mic placement and the source, but there’s something about the Burls in particular that really sweetens the sound, especially for instruments like electric guitars and drums.

While you don’t need the world’s fanciest or most expensive gear to make something that feels good and has a vibe, in general I’d definitely recommend spending your money on less but higher quality gear, because in the end you’ll be working way less hard to make things sound good.

4. Get a second opinion on your mix (but don’t blindly swear by it)

Once your tweaks are so minor that no average listener would notice the changes you’re making, that’s when you know the mix is probably more-or-less done. At that point, consider leaving it alone for a night, playing it for a couple other people, and seeing what they think.

A note on playing things for others is that you shouldn’t take even what your most experienced friends have to say about your mix as gospel. When you send a song to people and say, “Hey, this is a work-in-progress – tell me what you think,” as opposed to, “Hey, this is my new track coming out next week – check it out,” they’ll listen to that track in totally different ways. When you ask people to look for problems, they’ll find problems. On the other hand, if somebody listens to a mix without thinking they have the power to change a song, they’ll listen in a far more forgiving way, and often hear things like mistakes or imperfections as endearing qualities. So, just keep that in mind when gathering opinions on a mix.

5. Paint a picture with your mix

Mixing is very similar to painting, cooking, or writing a novel. There are different layers that you have to think of; it’s difficult to describe in words, but there are things in the foreground, things in the background, and things that sort of orbit everything else. It’s like having a story with characters, and you want to bring your listener into a magical land, in a sense. With that in mind, even though I think it’s important for things to be as minimal as possible in a mix (I don’t have a strong track record for this approach if we’re being honest, but we’re all learning on the job), I also think it’s important to paint a picture, and so you have to find that balance somehow.

Do you have any questions on how to achieve an effective mix? Which tips resonated with you the most? Let us know in the comments below.

Incorporate St. Lucia’s synth pop sounds into your own mixes:

August 19, 2020

Jean-Philip Grobler Jean-Philip Grobler is a singer-songwriter who creates synth-driven pop music via his project St. Lucia.