Abi Asks: Travis Ference

Abi Asks: Travis Ference

Howdy Safari Blog People!

Story time: many moons (more like two weeks) ago, I had the opportunity to help a friend work on a mix. When I was sent the session it had a WHOPPING 90+ channels! (*gasp*), which for me who tends to be a minimalistic producer, was A LOT. I had a hard time making space for so many elements in the mix, and my PC laptop’s CPU meter was definitely not vibing with the 90+ channels lifestyle.
This experience compelled me to cover the magical world of dense mixes on this week's blog.

To learn more about approaching and slaying dense mixes, I chatted with Grammy Nominated Engineer, and host of the Progressions podcast: Travis Ference (Taylor Swift, Ariana Grande, Imagine Dragons- to name a few).

I asked him: How does your mix approach change, if at all, when mixing a very dense track with A LOT of channels and many elements?

He said: My approach to a mix stays pretty much the same regardless of track count and it starts with one question… “What is the journey this song will take the listener on?” This is the guiding principle behind every choice I make in a mix.

This process starts by listening. While I prepare the session to mix, I play the producer’s rough several times. I try to take it in as a passive music listener, while also analyzing it for what the intentions of the artist might be.

I then immediately start identifying what the focus of each section of the production is. This gives you a “roadmap” for the listener. Since I’m mainly working in pop it’s almost always the vocal, but there are plenty of moments in a song where the vocals are not the focus. Things like… do the ear candy bits in the verse want to be “noticed” or do they want to just pass by subtly? Are the instrumental sections about vibe and groove, or is there a melodic hook that will take over from the vocal?

Once I have that roadmap laid out, my job is now to guide the listener through it. Passing their ear off from one moment to the next. I need to “tell” the listener what they should be listening to in every section in a way that supports the artist’s vision. A big part of this is in the transitions.

How does the vocal hand off to the solo? How does the verse instrumentation sit so that the chorus comes in strong? How does the epic build shrink down to the small intimate vocal line? And don’t forget that silence can play a role in the story just as much as the music can.

As for how to guide the listener, I think anything is fair game. The obvious tools would be what we have in our DAW… automation, EQ, effects, etc. But don’t forget about emotional and psychological tricks as well. Breaking a listener’s expectations can be as powerful as fulfilling them, and using juxtaposition to paint certain parts or sections in an entirely different light can add to the journey as well.”

Finally, once you feel like you are close on a mix, I suggest this approach to bringing it across the finish line. Listen down from start to finish WITHOUT stopping to make changes. If you hear something you’d like to change just make a note. Then go back, make those changes and listen down again. This puts you on the same journey that the listener is on. You’ll find that things will jump out to you in the way they would for the listener and not as the mixer who is looping the chorus.

Regardless of track count, approaching a mix with a “listener’s journey” approach will result in mixes that stir emotions rather than just “sound right.”

Travis’s super insightful answer really got me thinking deeply.
I sat and evaluated how I have been viewing mixes, and productions thus far in my audio journey. It’s so easy to get caught up in the technicalities, gear, and how it “sounds” (guilty!!), that we can forget what it’s really all about: the music and the emotional journey.
I love that Travis’s focus while mixing is on the journey, the impact, and that the technical moves are guided by that. I am absolutely going to revisit that mix and see how making that mindset shift and keeping the “listeners journey” at the center impacts the mix decisions I make.

My new goal is to better the way I create that emotional journey for the listener, to be more aware of my mindset, and not get TOO carried away in the technicalities.

This was definitely a lesson and takeaway I needed to hear!

Thanks Travis for your insightful answer!
Catch y’all next week!
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