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Nathaniel Kunkel InSession: Why Not Give It Up?

June 1, 2009
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Nathaniel Kunkel

During the last couple of months, I've had the good luck to mix a bunch of different projects. They varied tremendously in genre, but many shared a unique attribute: When I finished and I presented my client with their hard drive containing my mix sessions and printed deliverables, I was met with amazement. Why? Because I returned my mix sessions to the client.

I thought I was supposed to do that. They pay me, I give them their work. How is giving my client my Pro Tools session data any different than giving them an SSL 9000J automation disk and a documentation package? The session data has always been the client's property. But from what I have been hearing, many mixers won't give it to their clients.

I cannot for the life of me understand it. I know what people say when they are justifying it. I just don't get what is so special about your EQ settings or signal path? Weren't the EQ, limiter, and plug-in settings derived from your analysis of the source material anyway? Don't clients pay mixers to mix their material?

I can honestly say I have never used the same EQ setting twice. Isn't that true for everyone? Isn't using the same setting on a piece of gear or plug-in, and never changing it, kind of like saying, “I don't know enough to make this thing sound good more than once?”

The truth is that if you have my session settings, you won't mix like me. And if I have your session settings, I won't mix like you. Our mixes and our settings are the logical output of our artistic vision for the song. But without ownership of the vision, the settings have no value.

There is a reason that photographer Greg Gorman gives his students access to his Adobe Lightroom image settings. It's not because they will take work from him if they have the settings. It's most likely because his color-mixing and contrast data represent only a sliver of the skill that makes him who he is.

And we haven't even addressed the obvious: When was the last time you opened a session of yours on another rig and all the plug-ins you needed were there? Has that ever happened to you?

Another reason I like to give back all my data is actually quite selfish. I don't want to be responsible for the migration and retention of it. For instance, presumably mixers hold back session files so that the client will have no choice but to return if they want changes. What if the changes are requested two years later? Why do you want to be on the hook for that data? There is something nice about being able to say, “Hey, man, I gave you everything. I have no idea where it is now.” Your clients should return because they like you, not because you're holding their data hostage.

Another justification I have heard for not giving back the session files is that mixers worry that clients will change the mix without their approval and then leave their name on it. Okay, let's pretend that has happened, the record is a huge hit, and you get all the credit. Do you care? Now pretend that it's a huge flop and no one ever hears it. Do you care then?

So let's relax a little about all these “proprietary” session files. If someone can take your plug-in settings and do your job better, you probably need to step up your game anyway.

Nathaniel Kunkel (studiowithoutwalls.com) is a Grammy- and Emmy Award-winning producer, engineer, and mixer who has worked with Sting, James Taylor, B.B. King, Insane Clown Posse, Lyle Lovett, I-Nine, and comedian Robin Williams.

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