The Blurry Line Between Composing and Mixing

by Samuel Mindlin

Outside conservatory walls, the age of scoring for orchestra or ensemble is decidedly over, and technology now reigns in the realm of composition.

Why locate, book, direct, and pay a string ensemble when really a quite talented, and even exclusively ready-to-use string ensemble already lives in your DAW or software bundle?

The answer to this question may seem obvious; score for the digital slave-ensemble. Only recently has such a methodology for composition gained traction among composers as well as within the broader industry itself.

In the old days, if a composer wanted a fading echo effect played in the string section, he or she would have to write the echo into the score itself, requiring instruments to actually play a fading echo. Now all that needs to be done is for the composer to dial values into their delay or echo plugin… and that’s all. No need to worry about esoteric annotation, accurate scoring, competent performance, mic placement, tape op, or mixing.

These days, any observer with a hint of tech-savvy would be hard pressed to find a contemporary composition fitted for new media that lacks a digital or technological component. In fact, the vast majority have already gone digital and have done so quickly, irreversibly, and permanently.

In an environment dominated by DAWs and digital audio, mixing engineers have an increasingly enormous amount of technological resources at their disposal. Only decades ago engineers had to either find or physically construct mix elements such as echo chambers, reverberant space designs, tube effects, and amplifiers.

With an overwhelming amount of plugins, emulators, and other new audio goodies spilling from outlets like Sweetwater, composers are constantly learning to use the newest and most powerful digital gear they can get their hands on to keep pace with their peers in a competitive environment. Things have changed.

This new breed of composer often writes, tracks, mixes, and delivers his work without the benefit of traditional off-site assistance from specialized engineers for fine-tuning.

This state of affairs begs the question: at what point does composition end and mixing begin? At what point does dialing in a delay line cross from the realm of engineering into that of composition?

Any answers to these questions would be speculative at best, but what can be said with real certainty is that the technical gap that once separated and isolated engineers from composers is closing fast. Evidence of this phenomenon can be seen everywhere; large, historically significant studios are closing their doors, labels are being dropped for all-things-indie, all the while the number of DIY bedroom recording artists steadily continues to increase.

While time could be spent lamenting over the loss of traditional composition techniques, we as a community of music and audio professionals will undoubtedly be better served by quietly saluting the exit of the old ways and celebrating the birth of new ones.

Sam Mindlin is an independent audio engineer and composer living in Brooklyn.