Mixing for the younglings

Mixing is hard to teach.  I’m not going to lie.

Now my experience teaching youths music technology has been that 95% of the things I teach are very easy to translate to a tech-saavy population, regardless of age.  Ableton Live’s labyrinth interface, for example is a hurdle that is much shorter to an open minded high schooler than to a seasoned graduate student who has only used Finale their entire adult life.  Heck, I even teach PureData to these kids – no problem!

So why is mixing such a brain bender?


Mixing is not creative in the same sense as any of my other projects, PD included.  Electronic music projects invoke a sense of original creativity and ownership.  Mixing replaces that ownership with a sort of “stewardship” of the original artist’s intent.  To many, this is a barrier because they feel either unable to alter what they hear has already been made, or they feel underconfident about overlaying their opinions on the work of others.


Ears man, the ears.  All of my students (which range from the totally inexperienced to the most seasoned HS performing musicians) have trouble with *hearing* the right mix.  Even though these same students spend hours each day listening to radio-perfect pop music, they have trouble identifying the exact right kick drum sound or the best way to pan guitars.

Why is this?  Especially for the experienced musicians?  Don’t they have to balance and blend in band class, or sing with characteristic tone in choir?

Here’s why: 95% of the way music is taught in school is performance-based.  Students produce, others judge.  Very few programs emphasize self-criticism and even fewer value self-invention.

The students I have who are the best mixers tend to not participate in the large groups, but rather have formed their own music groups outside of the school day.  There, they have the freedom to explore and invent until they know how to reach a desirable result.

My humble suggestion: let’s drop the emphasis on product in our music programs.  Let’s look at the process, and see if we’re actually giving our kids a skill they can use in the real world.  Let’s have less horn technicians and more sonic inventors.

Author: Will Kuhn

I teach music technology to high schoolers. I do some other stuff too. @willkuhn on Twitter.

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