The success or failure of a song is predicated on a whole engine of promotion, timing and networking beyond the scope of the mix engineer.
No mix engineer will ever mend a song that has poor arrangement, poor musicianship, or that has been poorly recorded, let alone make it successful. That said, a mix engineer can definitely take a mediocre mix of a strong song and elevate it to broadcast or release quality.
The mix engineer is very important from this aspect – they know how to manipulate audio to surpass that “demo” sound and get professional sounding results.
With a strong mix, the song is easier to sell and promote (it sounds good and can compete with other professional releases) and it can reach a wider audience because it translates well across various listening environments and devices.
In electronic music production the producer/mixer/artist are one and the same, but in acoustic recording and production there are a chain of people involved.
Often the recordings are done by one person and the mix by another, especially in film, so the mix engineer must work with whatever material he is handed – and the quality of that material is what is most important. By this logic, the most important person in the recording chain (minus artist and producer) is the recording engineer. Their job is to capture the sound of the artists or project in such a way as to facilitate the mix later in the project.
The artist or band have a vision for their song, much like a painter has an idea for a painting. The band writes some music, practices a bit (hopefully), and then comes to the studio to record.
The recording engineer separates the song into its component puzzle pieces, usually by instrument or performance. He does this by selecting which instrument to record and when (following a recording schedule), chooses microphones suitable for the instruments and style of the band, and then records them at the highest quality available to the session.
Mixing a song is like putting the puzzle back together – with the added benefit that the pieces can be shaped to fit if they aren’t quite the “right shape”.
The mix engineer’s job is to then to take all these puzzle pieces – recorded track parts or stems – and put them back together as close to the artistic vision of the recordings as possible – or whatever the desired outcome of the project is.
On some projects the mix engineer can be nothing more than a robot engineering a specific set of requests from the artist/producer (more bass, bigger drums, louder vocals, etc) with little to no creative input, i.e., purely technical, by the numbers engineering, but on other projects the mix engineer can be an integral part of the creativity of the artist and significantly help to shape their “sound”. This kind of mix engineering, mixing with some executive power or input, allows the mix engineer to make critical decisions about what parts can be dropped, shifted or edited, and even, in some cases, manipulated down to the arrangement itself.
Which ever approach the artist or producer takes with the mix engineer, the mix engineer is integral to polishing the recordings and making all the pieces fit. A good mix engineer will tease out the heart of a song, accentuate all the performance nuances, grooves and frequencies that work, mask the ones that don’t, and facilitate the realisation of the artist’s audiation.
That said, it is not always the case. The following article on Lana Del Ray’s track ”Videogames” covers how the original demo track made it onto the album because nobody was able to mix it “better” than the original – even the best in the business.
Robopop: Producing Lana Del Rey’s ‘Videogames’
There are always exceptions to the rule of course, but by and large, a mix engineer is crucial to getting a recorded song beyond that “demo” sound and bringing a mix to life.
Will it become successful because of the mix? Well, that’s an entirely different puzzle.