It's happened for the second time, only a few months later, with a different song: after my considerable effort, gazillions of trials and errors, and all kinds of tribulations, I get to make what I consider a decent mix of one of my songs; only at that point I remember to put it to the test it in the worst possible, but sadly plausible, listening scenario; the so dreaded laptop speakers. And the test throws a garbled mess similar to a guitar being sacrificed with a chainsaw at the top of an enormous heap of garbage, while surrounded by barbwire and the whole thing deep seated on a gigantic frying pan (now how's that for a dramatic description, huh?)
I could frame the whole thing saying "gosh, when will I ever learn", or "damn, I don't get no fricking advance", or, more generically, "God how I hate my life". Instead, I like to think of this like a guy who is trying to open a tunnel and, thanks to the repeated experiences, finding a pattern, getting to know the dimensions of the surrounding wall.
Too discouraged to tackle the garbled mountain, my next step has been restarting the mix from scratch, this time doing it all in laptop speakers. The obligatory bit of research has taught me that laptop speakers lack the range from 70 or 100 Hz below, something that is specially problematic to translate bass, as bass' fundamental lives around 80-100Hz. The favorite tricks of the trade for this situation seem to be potentiating the fundamental's harmonics of the bass on an upper part of the spectrum, and also adding distortion so that the bass pops out a little more.
From there, what I'm doing is going to and fro to the headphones. I have to say that the headphones audition is always somewhat original, unexpected to me. The mix, the year that I finish it, will be a waltz between me and the circumstances. A bit frustrating in my case because this discipline is not my cup of tea, but in the end it works like any other artistic process.
(Note of caution: this is just a depiction of my current state. Please don't take anything I say here as mixing advice. Don't you EVER take anything I say as mixing advice. Those guys in the recording forum seemed to really know what they were talking about, but that's always the trouble with internet: who knows).
The old adage goes "don't fear being slow, fear not to advance", and I repeat it to myself time after time after time. Mixing seems to be the gods' punishment against creative people; if there's a hell with a special circle for musicians I'm sure it will have DAW logos at the door. But this also means that getting minimally proficient on this stuff, although I'd rather be doing any other thing, is going to make my music in the end better too. Because I'm also familiar already with the alternative martyrdom of trying to make a mixer (a human who mixes) "get it", to make him understand what referents I had in mind and what kind of sound was I going for. Of course, perhaps what happened was that what I actually needed was a producer, a species that is probably rarer than ever, because you need a guy who is well taught and creative, but not so well taught and creative that he's focused only on his own stuff.
Here I remember, for the sake of example, an interview I listened with the producer of some of Cheap Trick albums (it was some time ago and I don't remember his name or the podcast's); it surprised me that he wasn't a technically schooled person at all, he had by his side an engineer, he provided the gusto, the vision of the whole, and the technician was his hands, translating "the kick should be punchier" or "this voice more to the bottom" into the appropriate compression ratios, predelays... the whole shebang.
If I can ever reach that kind of beautiful symbiosis with anyone (I've been told that there are nutcases out there who actually find all that knob twisting amusing, to the extent of doing it by choice, even in their spare time), I know I'll multiply my output by ten. In the meantime, I'll make the best of it and try to improve my own lemmonade, while taking comfort in the fact that, at least, I have discovered what is the obvious bottleneck of my process.
Post scriptum: this text was written last summer, and my policy re: mixing has changed a lot since then. The song I mention in the post is "Zombie barf", which unfortunately, didn't make it. That's perhaps one of my biggest takeaways: the more time a song spends in the operating room, the more chances of something going wrong. Add to that that my equipment is so minimal currently that it takes away most of the decisions and makes most of that sophistication irrelevant, which is a good thing. Add also the original spirit of punk, as it was conceived on both shores of the pond; young people who felt swindled, empty handed, with nothing to do, with nowhere to go, and being told 24-7 to screw themselves and smile. Oh yeah? Well I have something to say, give me that guitar... How do you hold this thing... Technicality does not enter in the equation, and all of the above is true, perhaps truer than ever, in the year 2017 AD. I'm a musician (as in "I get my kicks playing music"), and all the mixing technique I'm going to learn (and perhaps all I need) is the one I pick along the way, while I'm putting song after song out there...
I have a guitar and I'm gonna use it