Make Better Coffee: A Mix Philosophy
When I'm not producing records or making my amp vomit really horrible noises by kicking on all my pedals at once and unplugging my guitar, you'll often find me teaching people how to make better coffee. I've been working as the Head Barista for a non-profit speciality coffee roaster for a few years now, and during this time I've redeveloped and rewritten all the in-house training and reference literature for what makes a good coffee.
I'm entirely self-taught in the coffee world, and gained a great deal of my skills through the fantastic work of Matt Perger, one of the partners at Sensory Lab in Melbourne. Matt won the World Brewer's Cup in 2012, and has placed 2nd and 3rd in the World Barista Championships (2013 and 2011 respectively), accidentally changing the face of how coffee is brewed in countless cafes across the world in the process. By using a completely different grinding method (and grinder) to the widely accepted standard in order to massively push the consistency and quality of what he was able to squeeze out of espresso, a notoriously finicky drink with a ridiculously narrow sweet spot, Matt inspired hipster baristas the world over to drop what they were doing and start buying EK43 grinders.
After this, Matt set up Barista Hustle, a company focused on pushing the limits of consistency, quality, and open source education about coffee. It's here that I learned the vast majority of the the technical skills that allow me teach staff and get them up to speed as fast as I do. Matt's articles are the groundwork of our new manual, and inform the way I approach every drink that I make.
How does this apply to mixing, you ask? Simple. But first, I need to teach you how to make a better coffee.
The Pareto Espresso
Ever heard of the Pareto principle? as Matt states in his article, Coffee Extraction - The 80:20 Method:
The 80:20 rule or "Pareto Principle" states that, for many events, roughly 80% of the results come from 20% of the causes. This can be observed almost everywhere:- 80% of the world’s income is only distributed amongst 20% of the population.- 80% of a company’s complaints usually come from only 20% of their customers.- 80% of internet traffic occurs only 20% of the time.- 80% of injuries in workplaces are because of 20% of the hazards.
In practice, Matt uses this to break down coffee extraction into the few things that have the greatest effect on the taste in the cup, and uses them to more easily leverage in to that top 80% sweet spot of extra delicious hyper caffeinated goodness. The 4 core elements of an espresso recipe have such a major impact compared to anything else that the average barista has control of that even a small improvement in any one of them massively increases the likelihood of a better cup.
Matt then takes this a step further with this spectacular graph:
This breaks down all brewing characteristics into the 1 overall parameter, extraction, to create a single, method agnostic approach that will work on any coffee, anywhere, anytime. Rather than splitting extraction into a spectrum between sour underextraction and bitter overextraction, a range of variables that can be hard to understand for people who haven't yet developed the taste and palate for diagnosing espresso, this approach relies on a simple question that is applied again and again:
Is it overextracted yet?
I was teaching some new volunteers the other day, when it occurred to me that I can apply this approach to almost everything about mixing a record. Balance, EQ choices, dynamics, even emotion. By using the question 'is it X yet?' I can approach so many decisions faster than before, trusting my gut instincts as I push each decision up to the limit of what is acceptable, backing into the sweet spot.
Let's take an example. I've got some drums, and they're sounding ok, but it's not quite there yet. I give it a listen, and it's just overall a bit dull, especially when compared to the band's references. Or to put it another way, it's not bright enough. I run this through our new question, and I can then make decisions based on 'is it too bright yet?'. There's any number of ways you can frame this question, giving you a hard limit for when you've gone too far.
Rather than making small, minor changes to a mix, this has given me the courage to make drastic fader moves, EQ decisions, reverb throws, all sorts. And in the process, mixes are more lively, the emotion is captured better, and I find that I'm getting closer to what I'm hearing in my head much faster. This takes some experience in knowing just how much is too much, but I'd rather take a risk in going too far and have the chance of making a piece of art more exciting and dangerous in the process than make thousands of conservative changes over the course of days and days of work.
Now, of course I've massively simplified Matt's work, and I strongly suggest that anyone wanting to make better coffee either at home or professionally check out the entirety of his series on extraction at Barista Hustle, as it's both exhaustive and incredibly easy to understand. You can check it out, as well as everything else Matt and the BH team are up to, at BaristaHustle.com