How do I know when my project is finished?
I think this question births from the feeling we often get when we go back on our past work and hear things or notice things that we wish we could change. All those things begin to store themselves somewhere in our head and then we begin to question every project, reflecting on that past kick drum that wasn't loud enough, or that mix that had too much top end.
Even though the client signed off on it all, we are usually our worst critics.
I struggled with this for years and I think the reason I struggled so much with whether or not a project was done was because I could hear things in my music that I knew were not sitting right, but I had no idea what to do about it.
There’s a number of reasons why you may find yourself in this place but for me it usually came from comparison to other projects or references and not being willing to admit that my skill level was not where I wanted it to be.
When I first started, I did a heavy amount of rap and hip hop. I would be comparing my production, engineering, mixing, and even mastering to Jay-Z, Outkast, Lil Wayne… and the list goes on of A-list successful albums. I would do a mix that I thought was so solid and then flip on a reference and want to delete everything. For a long time, I would delete everything and start over.
I heard a really successful guy one time say that he just resets all the faders and begins fresh again. I did this for a long time and I found it to be so depressing because I would mix it again and get a similar result that I wasn't happy with.
Resetting your session doesn't mean you improve in your skill.
For the last three years, I have been extremely happy with my work. I think it took me around five years of doing projects, learning, studying, watching, and asking questions before I could honestly get my music to a place that I actually enjoyed listening back to it. I think too many people that are fresh in the industry think they are missing some plug-in or piece of gear that will finish their project or give them that pro sound, but I have learned that it comes from putting in the work for years and years.
When you're working for a client, I find it best to take the song to a really great spot that gets across everything you think the song should have. At this point, I know it’s probably not done, but I need the client to hear where I am at to then give more feedback. Think of it as taking a song to your personal 100% but knowing that the client is going to want 10% more in tweaks.
I have learned that professionals truly spend the time making that last 10% the client wants a priority and amateurs give up and get frustrated.
So how do you know when you’re done with a project? This I feel like comes from only having years of experience under your belt and knowing how to trust yourself.
I will never be a CLA mixer or a Dave Pensado. I don’t want to be. I love learning from them but I think the most important thing they have taught me is that unless you're willing to find your own sound and niche you will always be a lame copy. No one wants to work with someone who can just recreate what's already out there.
I spent a lot of years imitating mixers I loved. Chasing sounds and tones and colors. I got really good at recreating things but I had a brick hit me in the face one day when a guy I respected said "all your stuff just sounds so clean and wide and big. It sounds terrific but it doesn't do anything". What he meant was that my music was sterile. It was perfect, it was clean, it sounded like everything else in a playlist. While this was a great compliment it still left me in a place of not knowing my identity as a mixer and mastering engineer.
When I began to take “risks” and try new things that I thought reflected me, I began to finish things more quickly. I was able to trust myself that this is how I interpret what the client is asking me to do. If they gave me a reference, I would listen but also take into consideration what my stamp will be. You want people to work with you because you can offer them something unique.
So now I know I am done with a project when I know I have been true to myself at that present time fully knowing that a year from now I will realistically be better and I will be making better sounding music. Obviously "better" is a subjective term, but I think you get the point.
Your music should be a time stamp of where you are in life. It should reflect you as a person. If you feel like a project is not done because you don't like the way a certain thing sounds, there may not be much you can do with it at that moment. I always found sending it to the client first gave me my confidence back most the time. The things I was most worried about the client rarely cares about and most of the time the client is pretty stoked on version one.
If you listen back to your work a year later and hate the way the drums sound, be gracious. Don’t use that as ammo to why you can’t finish a project or land on a version to send the client. Use that as encouragement that you were in that place and now you do your drums different, better, knowing once again you will in a year probably have even better drums sounds.
There’s a fine balance between striving for perfection and chasing an unrealistic expectation we have on ourselves. We can never be too hard on ourselves with any project because we have never done that project before. Unless you have lived a life before this where you got to work on that project, there is no reason why you would ever do a “perfect” mix or master. It’s all a moving target and that’s not the point of music.
Something is finished when you decide it’s finished. The more you begin to trust yourself that something is done and ready to present the more you actually get better at finishing things.
When I work, I am constantly printing things in place. When I like a sound I roll with it. I don’t search for an hour on delays or reverbs. I pull up a few things, play with the knobs until it feels cool and then let it be. Could there be a cooler delay somewhere… I guess but who really knows… ignorance is bliss at that point. I am not saying don't care, but I run into too many people who spend eight days on a mix trying to find the perfect snare sample or trying to remake a Skrillex vocal pitch shift when they should be focused on the overall sound and vibe. When I started listening to things as a whole and actually moving faders and knobs in the mix, things began to sound how I wanted and I finished things quicker.
So when you get to a happy place in your project, send it to the client knowing that you will probably have to make adjustments. This is completely normal and not a personal attack. Hopefully your mindset is one of wanting the best end product and finding harmony between what the client wants and what you have to offer. Know that a year from now you will probably be better than where you’re at currently. That is normal. If you find yourself never getting to a happy place in your project, I would suggest you be gracious with yourself and understand that, this may take time. It may take time, years, to get your sound how you want it. This is normal. If you have been in the industry for less than five years and your always unsatisfied, this is very normal. Keep going. Focus on the things you do like. Make a note of what you don't like and schedule sometime to learn about that thing in some free time.
Hopefully all of this helps give some clarity on how to finish something. We are all a work in progress so be gracious with yourself and continue to always learn and educate yourself.