The Ins And Outs Of “Spec” Mixes

Over the years, I’ve been asked on a number of occasions to do a “spec” mix for a potential project.  This used to mainly be a practice of major, or financially healthy independent labels.  But as the recording business evolves I’m getting more requests from individuals who don’t necessarily understand the process.  I thought a little explanation and guide to the process would be helpful.

So you’re an independent artist, or producer recording an album on a tight budget.  To keep costs down you’ve done as much work “in-house” as possible…but now it’s time to mix, and you’re thinking it’s time to bring a professional in to wrangle all of those tracks you’ve so lovingly recorded.  You do some research online, in a book, or (gasp) a print magazine; and you’re introduced to the idea of a “spec” (short for “speculative) mix.

The concept seems both simple, and reasonable:  Have one or more people mix a song for free to gauge whether or not they’re the right fit for your project.  “Try before you buy,” if you will.  This seems perfect!  Sample the work of a few different mix engineers at no cost to you!  But before you click “send” on that first email, or dial the phone number of your potential mixer(s), there are a few things that don’t often make their way into the blog articles.  Understanding them will help you find the right person for your project, and get your creative relationship started on the right foot.

A Short History Of The “Spec” Mix

Understanding how the process used to work will help you avoid pitfalls now.  Labels would often hire multiple people to mix their planned lead single from an upcoming album.  The mixers involved would usually be well-known within the industry.  They would each mix the song, and the team involved in producing/releasing the album would listen to decide which mix they liked best.  That part you probably knew, but there are a few important details that are often left out.  It’s important to understand these things because you may be contacting someone who worked under these conditions.

1.) Each of the participants in the mix shootout was PAID FOR THEIR MIX.  That was not a cheap proposition.  It was not uncommon for people like Tom Lord-Alge, Chris Lord-Alge, Bob Clearmountain, Jack Joseph Puig, and Richard Dodd to all be taking part in the same shootout.

2.) The winner of the shootout got to mix the rest of the album.  Which is why it’s called a “spec” mix.  The mixers are speculating that if their mix is judged to be the best, their reward is another 9 or so songs worth of work.

3.) There were rules.  Or rather there were loose guidelines.  It is the music business after all!  As mixers, we liked to assume that there was some amount of democracy in the listening process.  That it was a blind comparison, so nobody would be swayed by names or reputations.  Of course this wasn’t always true, and politics often figured into the decisions.  But it was much more true then than it is now.

The Short Evolution Of The “Spec” Mix

Of course those were different times when the recording business was flush with cash.  As financial prospects dimmed for labels they squeezed everyone involved in the production process to work for less.  They stopped paying for the “shootout” mixes, and only paid for the winning mix.  Then they chiseled away at the amount they were willing to budget for mixing.  Then they involved an ever-increasing number of people in the shootouts.  Eventually it devolved into a sort of free-for-all.  The quality of the mix seemed to matter very little in the final decision.  While all of this was happening, so was the rise of the self-sufficient artist/producer funding their project on their own.  The definition – and expectations for outcomes – of the spec mixing process became blurred.  It’s often frustrating for both the mix engineer, and the client.

Guidelines For Hiring Spec Mixers

So let’s try and bring some clarity to the situation, shall we?  Here are some guidelines that will hopefully help you navigate the world of spec mixing today.

1.) Define your project.  Is it a single, an EP, or a full-length?  How many songs total?

2.) What’s your budget?  Before you contact anyone regarding a spec mix, know how much money per-song you’re able to spend on mixing for your project.

3.) Do your homework.  Listen to recordings you love, and look up who mixed them.  Narrow your choices down before you contact prospective mixers.  Credits can often be found online through a combination of wikipedia pages and allmusic.com (though allmusic can be maddeningly incomplete).  Usually a mix engineer will have a credit list on their website as well.  It’s our version of a resumé.

4.) To shootout, or not to shootout?  Part I:  This is important, and there are a number of factors involved in making this decision.  If you’re confident in your choice of a specific mixer, and just want to make sure it’s a good fit; you can ask them to do a spec mix for this purpose.  Be clear about both your creative and business expectations (budget, deadlines, etc.).  Answer any questions they might have regarding the project.  If they agree to a free spec mix, the deal is usually that you get a reference file of the mix (say an MP3 with a few short gaps in it that allows you to judge the mix quality without handing over a release-able copy).  If you like the mix you pay for it, and get the master files.  If not you part company.  If you’ve been clear about your expectations, the mixer will understand it’s just not a good fit.

5.) To shootout, or not to shootout?  Part II:  Say you’ve chosen 5 mixers you think might be great for your project.  Before you engage any of their services, ask yourself (or them if necessary) a few questions.  Do they all fit within your budget?  If you have a deadline, are they available during the time you need them?  Are you willing to pay each of them for their work, or are you asking them to do a mix for free?  If you’re asking them to work for free, then ask them if they’re willing to take part in a shootout situation.  They may have neither the time, nor the inclination.  Will you be hiring the winning mixer for the rest of your project (assuming it’s not just a single)?  Asking questions will help narrow your field of candidates before you ever hear a mix.  Which leads us to…

6.) Don’t go “window shopping.”  If you know your budget, deadline, or some other factor isn’t going to work for a certain mixer, DO NOT ask them to do a free spec mix.  No matter how badly you want to hear their work.  You already know they’re not going to be able to meet your requirements.  Cross them off of your list, and move on.  Nobody likes finding out that the free creative energy, time, and effort they put in on your behalf didn’t have anything to do with your final decision.  On the other hand, if you can afford to pay for a spec mix, most mix engineers will be happy to oblige you.

7.) Make sure you’re communicating your needs.  Mix engineers aren’t “one trick ponies.”  These days a “mixer” is often thought of like a piece of equipment you plug into your project, and get one kind of result from.  Sure we have our musical strengths and weaknesses, but our job is to be flexible enough to meet our client’s requirements.  We’ve put years blood, sweat, and tears into our craft.  If you want something to sound a little (or a lot) different than the first version of the mix you hear, don’t be afraid to ask!  If we’ve agreed to do a spec mix, we want to get the gig!  That means making our clients happy.  That said, the more clear about your creative vision you can be at the beginning of the process, the more likely you are to get a mix that fits that vision.  But mixes are very rarely perfect on the first pass.  Giving your prospective mixer (or mixers) a chance to make adjustments based on your feedback is crucial.  Especially if you’re working remotely over email/web.

8.) Everything’s negotiable…to a point!  Everybody’s working on a budget.  The terms of the project should be laid out even before work on a free spec mix begins.  That way the mixer knows what he/she is working towards.  Most mix engineers understand the need to be flexible with pricing when they can afford it.  But as with anything in life, you have to give something to get something.  As a concession for taking less money, a mixer may ask you to be more flexible with your deadline, or limit the number of times a mix can be recalled (a recall is generally defined as one instance of re-addressing a song to make changes).  Always remember that in a choice between good, fast, and cheap, at best you can only ever have two!

9.) Make sure your listening process is fair.  Especially when asking mixers to participate in a shootout situation.  Make sure you compare all of the mixes on the same playback system (NOT your laptop speakers).  Do everything you can to make sure you’re comparing apples to apples.  You want to be certain that you’re making a decision based on the different choices the mixers have made.  Not the difference between your car stereo, and your iPhone earbuds.  But by ALL means feel free to listen to all of the mixes in various situations to make sure they translate.  If it’s a situation where multiple people are involved in the decision-making process, it’s very helpful to have a joint listening session before passing final judgement.  That way everyone is listening to the same playback system in the same room.  And though it should go without saying, make sure all of the mixers in your shootout are mixing the same song, from the same set of multitrack recordings.

If you want to hear more information on the subject of spec mixing (and spec projects in general) from the studio pro’s point of view, check out this episode of the “Mix Notes From Hell” podcast.

New “Mix Notes From Hell” Podcast

Episode 17 (thanks for sticking with us this long!) of Mix Notes From Hell is now posted.  Phil, Marc, Kenny, and I are joined by our friend amazing engineer/mixer Will Sandalls.  Will and I swap stories about the differences and similarities between working on American Idol (where he spent 3 seasons), and working on Maisha Superstar (which I served as studio producer for here in Nairobi).  Apologies if I sound tired!  The time difference meant I was joining the conversation at 3:30am!