Simon Peter went up and drew the net to land, full of large fish, a hundred and fifty-three; and although there were so many, the net was not torn.
—John 21:11 (NASB)
I’m sitting at my favorite Thai restaurant, The Smiling Elephant on 8th Avenue in Nashville. They make a dish simply called cashew chicken stir fry, but it’s anything but simple.
To me, it’s a perfect dish. Each element is combined beautifully, with each flavor enhancing the next. The bed of the dish is jasmine rice. Easily overdone, the rice holds the whole dish together. Each bite contains rice, so it has to be cooked just right, not too dry and not too mushy.
The chicken is sautéed in a large wok with pineapple, house roasted chili peppers, and broccoli. The pineapple offers a little sweetness in contrast to the heat of the chilies. The broccoli gives the dish a gentle crunch as do the few cashews sprinkled on top.
The best part of the whole dish is the tiny cup of satay sauce that comes on the side. You drizzle it over the dish just before eating it. It’s tempting to want much more of the sauce, but that would change the whole balance. Just a hint in each bite is all you need.
I wonder how the chef feels when it doesn’t quite come together? I bet we’re not so different, he and I.
In a moment of reflection it occurs to me that my job as a “mixer” of music is appropriately titled. It’s my job to approach each song like the chef does my favorite cashew chicken stir fry. My clients present me with a list of ingredients with the hope and trust that I will combine them to their liking.
The drums and bass are the bed of my dish. It’s often a delicate balance getting them to sit right. There are a few times where they’re meant to be the main attraction, but they are so vital to the outcome of the perfect mix. Everything in the song rides along on top of these elements.
The vocal is the main ingredient. The meat. Whether it’s heartache or redemption, the message of the song is contained here. I have to prepare it just right using tasteful amounts of seasoning like reverb or delay. Or in some instances, the vocal itself is just enough. No seasoning is required. The lyric can stand on its own.
The distorted guitars or a filtered arpeggiated synth might add some spicy heat to the tune. If I’m too heavy handed here the dish can be too much to take for some people’s taste.
The strings may add a touch of sweetness. Orchestration can be a great way to contrast the heat of the guitars, but again, too much and you’re left with a syrupy mess that bears little resemblance to the original intent.
Maybe there’s a banjo part or a guitar melody in the intro, choruses, and out section. You might be able to look at this as the satay sauce. The temptation here would be to be reckless and overdo the amount when just enough is all that is needed. On the other hand, without this addition, the song isn’t the same. There would be little left to set the song apart from other tunes without this addition.
My cooking temperature is set with equalization and compression. If I compress too hard, I over cook the dish, leaving a crispy, dried out shell where there once had been fluidity, but if I don’t add enough, the song can’t catch the listener’s ear.
The best chefs take risks and strive to surprise. A music mixer aiming to succeed needs to do the same. Whether by addition or omission, we need to catch the ear of our clients and listeners by creating an element of surprise. The dish needs to appeal, but it needs to stand apart from what others offer.
Of course all of this is open to interpretation. You may not like cashew chicken or banjos. Sometimes in your eyes or mine, I fail. That’s where I need to be able to give myself some of the grace that the Reverend Becca Stevens first taught me about.
I come from a spiritual tradition that emphasizes spiritual gifts over the basics of our shared Christian faith. I heard more about tongues and interpretation than I ever did about grace. But on the Sunday of my son’s baptism, Becca read the fishing story from John 21. I’d heard the text preached many times in my life, but I always skipped over verse 11. “Although there were many, the net was not torn.” Becca then blew my mind when she interpreted the verse this way: “The net is grace, and it’s strong enough for all of us. The net is love, and it’s strong enough to hold all of us.”
I’m not narcissistic enough to think that John 21:11 is just about my mental health in the workplace. Nor do I mean to reduce the importance of John 21:11 to a not-quite-right plate of cashew chicken stir fry, but it is a good reminder that there is grace enough in general, and that if there’s grace enough in general, I should be able to give myself some when I try to make the perfect dish and my customer doesn’t feel like I did.
That grace might be the box of macaroni and cheese that we keep on the top shelf of the cupboard for just that moment when we’ve burned the perfect meal and our guests are due any moment. We all love comfort food. We all love a feel-good song. Mac and cheese and “Good Vibrations” for everyone.
Shane D. Wilson is a recording engineer and mixer working out of his studio, St. Izzy’s of the East, in Nashville, TN. Shane has worked on recordings for Switchfoot, Third Day, The David Crowder Band, Amy Lee, David Hodges, Derek Webb, Sandra McCracken, Michael W. Smith, Big Kenny, John Rich, and many others. He often works for producers like Charlie Peacock, Monroe Jones, Cason Cooley, Will Hunt, and Scotty Willbanks. When not in the studio, Shane can be found enjoying time with his wife and son, doing yard work, brewing beer, or powering around town on his motorcycles.