All about producing and mastering audio for disc, the web and beyond

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Common Mistakes Mixing Engineers Make - From The Mastering Engineer's Perspective

Starting out it's worth making a general comment: I've often heard discussions where someone suggests that they have 'psyched out' a way to be sure that their mixes come back right after going through mastering, whether for vinyl, cassette or digital.

"Add more reverb, it'll come back drier"
"Keep it dark, it'll come back warmer"
"Don't compress at all, leave all compression to mastering"

Now in reality that sort of thing almost never gets you what you want. You can't possibly anticipate exactly what will happen fact if you supply a 'dark' mix the mastering engineer might assume you actually WANT it dark. And that's exactly the point. Get your mixes sounding as close as you can to perfect to the best of your ability. Then the mastering engineer has something to work with!

That doesn't mean make it loud, or to over compress or under compress or do anything that might be construed as mastering. Leave mastering to the M.E.....but do a good job mixing.

If you want the mastering engineers perspective beforehand, hire her or him for an hour to listen and give you feedback. If you make a good mix it makes for a better end result. If you can build into your mindset that you MIGHT need to adjust your mixes slightly, you should. Sometimes time, money, patience or skill argue against, but if you can do it....

Here, then, is a list of some typical foibles:

  • Mixes too loud: in case you didn’t know, leave 2-6 dB of headroom in your mixes. If you have been listening with a limiter on, turn it off and send the unlimited versions to the M.E..
  • Send the limited versions for reference so the ME knows what you have been listening to
  • Kick and bass out of proportion: The most common problem encountered in mixing rooms is inaccurate low end. Where music includes drums this often means the kick is too loud or quiet with respect to the bass (or vice versa). A room mode (that basically means the room exaggerates a narrow band of frequencies) can easily make a kick drumsound like it’s fundamental is loud causing the mix engineer to turn it down. A null ( a dip in frequency) can you might crank it up. Slight imbalances can be fixed in mastering, gross one’s need a remix. Cheapest cure....get a GOOD pair of headphones and learn what the bass sounds like. Don’t rely on headphones for your mix, but use them for a reality check
  • One thing dark and another thing bright: This is a really tough one. Let’s say the drums are bright and the vocal dull. Using m/s techniques and others the ME can fix small imbalances, but usually you have to prioritize one instrument over another and go for ‘fixing’ that one in mastering. Time for a remix!
  • Too much reverb....easier to add a little than take it away. No one has invented the de-verb!
  • Cutting beginnings and ending too closely: So often the first note or the reverb tail gets cut off. Leave them alone. The mastering engineer can often get rid of undesirable noise and edit the begin and end lickety split!
  • Phasing problems: It used to be you HAD to check mixes in mono to be sure they would pass muster for vinyl. Digital audio doesn’t care about phase, but you SHOULD. Too much out of phase information (experience helps you learn how much is too much) creates problems if you want a loud record, if you play music on the radio, and it will cause your mp3’s to sound pretty bad (quite important considering today's listening norms)! Always check your mixes in mono and make sure no important instruments disappear.
  • Not providing the album sequence: Assuming there are more than 3 or 4 tracks on your album, you should always provide a running order to the ME. You can always change it later, but an ME will pay attention to the relationship between the end of one song running into another in case someone listens through your whole record in sequence.

Well that’s a short list for now....happy mixing!

Monday, June 27, 2011

The Mastering Mindset (Part 1)

Welcome to the first in a new video-blog series where Jonathan Wyner of M-WORKS Mastering will be discussing various aspects of the mastering process. In this first introductory video, Jonathan discusses the overall thought-process involved, the goals, the mastering engineer's responsibilities, different music styles, and more. Next week, equalization (EQ).

Part 1: The Mastering Mindset

What is mastering?

· It is the last creative step, and the first step in distribution.

· It’s the last chance to catch any mistakes. When it leaves mastering, there cannot be any flaws in the master.

· It needs to function well in all common formats: mp3s, CDs etc.

· Getting it ready for distribution in these formats is key.

What are the responsibilities of the mastering engineer?

· In the case of a whole album, to take all the disparate pieces and unify them sonically (level and tone-wise).

· Pacing between the tracks should reflect the mood of the songs and allow each one to breathe or run-on to each other, depending on the desired effect.

· Enhance the sound – create a more open sound, a deeper sound, a fuller sound or a warmer sound etc – in a way that benefits the sound of the record.

· Sometimes you can enhance the dynamic range by turning up some sections and turning down other sections, reduce the dynamic range to create a louder master.

· Thus, the mastering engineer has some creative input. However, there is only so much that he can do in mastering, so that the mastering engineer relies on the mixing engineer to do a good job and to get the mix as close as possible to the desired sound.

What mastering isn’t...

· Mastering is not about making everything bright and loud!

· In this overcrowded and noisy world, the temptation to create a louder and brighter mix in hope of drawing attention is strong. However, such recordings tend to be hard to listen to for a sustained period of time, so that people may be reluctant (consciously or subconsciously) to come back and listen to them again and again.

Knowing what the artist wants…

· It’s important to know what the artist wants, so that you don’t land up going in a different direction.

· Have a discussion with the artist. You are more likely to keep him happy and achieve his vision. Sometimes, indeed, you learn from doing something you may not have considered before.

· At the end of the day, it’s art. And there are no recipes for what it ‘has’ to sound like. Always try to support the song’s meaning and artist’s vision.

Different styles of music...

· There will always be similarities – there is such a thing as ‘too much bass’ or ‘too much treble’ regardless of the style.

· However, different styles of music will require a different approach. For example, you want the low-end to lead in reggae, you want a wide stereo-image with depth (hearing into the reverb tails) and aggression through guitars with metal, a wide and true dynamic range with a classical recording...

· So, it is important to be informed about different styles of music and what each style wants.

What are the prerequisites for mastering at a high level?

A great monitoring system.

· Relatively neutral – no part of the spectrum is exaggerated)

· It’s phase accurate – the sound arriving from each speaker is arriving at the listener at the same time)

· Low distortion – so that nothing is being introduced by the monitoring system that is not in the recording. It also allows for longer listening periods without much fatigue.

A room that can support the monitoring system

· A quiet environment – so that you can ensure what you are hearing is directly from the speakers, and not ambient sound pollution.

· Size – the room needs to be large enough to allow the low-frequency information to be heard properly, for the waves to propagate.

What if I’m mastering at home?

· Get a good pair of headphones, with good low-frequency response.

· Listen to a lot of recordings you know and like, and become accustomed to the way that those sound in your listening environment(s).

· Have multiple monitoring environments so that you can get different points of reference (computer speakers, headphones, studio monitors, car speakers etc).

· Different speaker-systems will exaggerate different parts of the sound differently – so at least you’re not hearing a single distorting of the sound.

Hope you enjoyed. See you next week, we'll be covering equalization (EQ)!