Notes from the Shore

Work, marriage, kids and music

HOFA Mix Contest Update: I Lost!

M0374I heard back from HOFA about the mix contest I entered after Christmas. To no surprise they informed me that I was not selected as the winner of the contest. What I didn’t expect, however, was a fairly comprehensive mix analysis from the contest hosts. It turns out one of the businesses HOFA is involved in is an audio school. Apparently they provided this mix analysis to every entrant.This post is going to be about what I learned from this experience. Let’s start by looking at their criteria:

For the evaluation of the submitted mixes we carefully examined different criteria. In the first place, we looked for a musically sensible and “style-true” leveling. The second criterion is the design of the frequency spectrum, both in regard to the sound of individual tracks as well as the overall mix. Here, we have given value to a natural sound character and a homogeneous overall picture. The next important point is the aspect of ambience, in which the use of reverb-plugins, but also the use of the available ambience tracks should lead to a pleasant and natural space. In addition to dynamic processing by the tasteful and appropriate use of e.g. compression or limiting we focused on technical aspects such as the sample rate.

The comparison of the frequency spectra can be seen in the screenshot at the top of this post (provided in their return e-mail to me). My curve is the white line and their reference is the orange. I’m not sure I entirely understand “true-style” leveling, but in their specific response to my mix it may be a bit more clear. I interpret other aspects they are looking for as not overusing reverb or compression.

Considering the mentioned criteria your mix hasn’t taken the first place, which was due to the fact that in the intro part of the song the acoustic guitar too loud. A homogeneous leveling helps the instruments to find their place in the mix. Furthermore, your mix has problems with the dynamics. In this case it relates to the vocals. The dynamics control ensures that the signal remains present in the mix. Otherwise, loud passages would stand out from the mix and quiet passages are too quiet. The result is an unsettled sound. Moreover, the frequency spectrum is a bit unnatural or the frequencies have an unusual relation. This happens, when the different levelings of elements are chosen in an non musical way or the use of an equalizer is not optimal.

Okay, so there’s a little bit of a language barrier here, as the people who sent this e-mail out are native German speakers, and I don’t know their level of English fluency. I think, though, we can suss out the gist of their comments. It seems to come down to that they didn’t like the balance of instruments that I chose for my mix. It actually becomes more clear when you listen to the winning mix.

Speaking of, for your reference here is my mix:

And here is the winning mix:

So here are some things I hear differently between my mix and the winning mix:

  • Much more prominent electric guitar in the intro and throughout the song
  • Greater separation of the various elements
  • More reverb on the vocals
  • The vocals are quite a bit louder relative to the mix than mine
  • I like how he mixed the violins better – those tracks vexed me
  • Less dynamic contrast between the soft and the loud, but maintains punch in the drums – love to know how he did that
  • Ad libs are mixed much further back in the mix, even in the last verse where I featured them
  • Mandoline is much more prominent in his mix, love to know how he did that, although the organ is much further back and by this point he’s pulled the electric guitar back quite a ways, too

Lessons Learned

I could never have won this contest. My taste is far too divergent from that of the judges. I could have mixed the song perfectly to my taste (and I still hear some things I wish I had done differently when I listen back) but since my balances and instrumental features don’t match what they were looking for I could have never met their expectations. Which leads to:

The client is always right. Yes, I mixed this song for me with the expectation that I would not win. I mixed it to my own taste and am happy with the results. However, if this had been a paid mix, the notes would have been copious, and appropriate. That’s because I didn’t:

Pay attention to the rough/examples. Granted, Jochen in his description of his mix made it clear both that he was not on the judging panel and that he understood other’s takes on his arrangement may be different from his. That being said, the winning mix is MUCH closer to Jochen’s sample mix than mine. So, next year I’m going to look into:

Get a matching EQ plug-in. These plug-ins read the difference in harmonic content between two sources and produce an EQ curve that will help one to match the other. A couple of examples of this software include Har-Bal, Izotope’s Ozone 7, Fab Filter’s Pro-Q2 and the Voxengo Curve. If you are observant you may have noticed that all of these options are multiple-hundred-dollar programs except for Curve. Not sure which way I want to go at this point, but have wanted a matching EQ for some time. I may pull the trigger with refereeing money this year.

Final Thoughts

This was a lot of fun to mix, and I definitely want to try again next year. I enjoy the style and instrumentation and the tracks are really well recorded. I may do two mixes – one for me and one for submission to the contest, we’ll see. Until then, though, I hope to do a few more practice mixes in the midst of working on my own material. I think I grew a lot from the experience.

Last thing, please take four and a half minutes and listen to the remix winner, below. I think they were expecting mostly dance and EDM remixes, but the winner has more of a… symphonic feel. It’s really worth the time.

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