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Music, Technology

Getting a Better Mix – Secrets For Audio Engineers


Rule #1. There are no rules. All that’s needed is a WOW factor. Use unique sounds and your originality to bring new life to your composition. When someone hears your song, it should make them want to put it on “repeat.”

Jay Z and Kanye West in the studio for "Watch the Throne"

Jay Z and Kanye West in the studio for "Watch the Throne"

Rule #2. Organize all your files, plug ins, folders, track groups, audio files, mix sessions, etc. Never break this rule! I am also a big fan of organizing tracks by genre for easy placements plus separating tracks being shopped versus tracks in progress or already used. Tracks which might be already used by an artist could possibly still have licensing opportunities depending on the negotiations between the producer and the artist.

Rule #3. Do a pre-mixdown clean-up session. Take time to erase all the throat-clearing, lip-clicking, guitar blips, the out-take solos, etc. You’ll feel fresher at mix time, because you can concentrate on the creativity, not the housekeeping. Also, make sure to trim the empty space on each track as it keeps the session file size smaller.

Common issue: When you add clarity to vocals with EQ, the SS’s jump out too much. Natural sounding SS’s are much better, and most software de-essing or multiband compressors take time and add to the stack of digital processing in the mix.  Easy solution: use your volume automation (I prefer doing it manually with the line-with-dots — fader riding isn’t always fast enough to just duck those quick SS spots) to soften the SS’s and SH’s and sharp T’s etc.  This keeps the SS’s natural sounding and reduces the need for an extra de-esser plug in.  Sometimes less (processing) is more.

Key: Remember, your DAW is not a mixer.  It’s a big calculator.  The more processing you do, the less coherency remains from the original source you recorded.  The initial recording stage is so important to get that tone solid and meaty (better word clocking and A-D converters help a lot).  Also check your volume automation (line-dots) and see if there are massive amounts of those dots that aren’t really changing levels at certain points, but are just hovering… select-delete excess automation dots so the computer doesn’t have to calculate and calculate tiny up-down-hover moves that may not be doing that much.

Be effective but not addicted.  You don’t have to erase every speck of sound that isn’t the exact part of each individual track. Take leakage for example (the bleed-through of a different instrument into any given track – like rhythm guitar leaking into drum overhead tracks). Leakage on different tracks can add dimension and fullness in some cases. In fact, some leakage gave a sense of acoustic space to many vintage recordings. However, if the leakage on one track is making other tracks sound tubby or blurring an image that you want more precise, then clean the track as needed – or reduce the level of the areas of “space” where the instrument isn’t playing – this is a form of manual gating.

Most often the majority of enhancement done during the mastering process is on drums and vocals.  Over-processing tracks is a growing concern.  So much advertising is spent on software products and A-List engineer’s “favorite settings” and of course the favorite “Turn the knobs all the way up!!!” advice…….   We submit to you that the lost art of “Less is more” should be a healthy balance in your bag of tricks!

Often times drums are overly compressed.  This can create a cool sound, but often this cool sound works better in a mixdown than it does once it hits the mastering rig.  Loud CD Mastering changes the dynamics of your mix.  So if you’ve compressed a snare drum and the compressor’s attack is slower (than a limiter, for instance) — then the transient spike of that snare will be substantial, while the body of the snare will be reduced by the compression.

Thus you think you’re getting a nice “pop” on that snare and a smooth sounding decay up until the point when we it gets into the mastering rig, and in order to bring up your overall level, the mastering facility has to (fast attack/ fast release) limit that initial transient of your snare.  The more that transient comes down, the less retaining of the sound you had originally, and it starts to extend or sustain the decay of that snare… thus making the snare start to sound more like it did in the studio, and less like it did in your mix.  If we have more control over the drums by using Separation Mastering, we can work with this issue more so than if we only have a stereo mixdown.

Waveform Polarity: A common mixing problem is that drums are OUT OF POLARITY in over 60% of home studio recording projects. This means that if you zoom in and look closely at the leading edge of a given drum (kic, toms, snare) — the waveform goes down first instead of up first.  Not good.

This means the speaker reproducing your sound is pulling first instead of pushing first. The initial excursion always goes up first. In nature, sound never pulls first. In the womb we hear 9 months of a heartbeat that is polarity correct. This means that if we hear a kic drum that is out-of-polarity, at some level, it is uncomfortable to us.

ALWAYS check to be sure that your digital recording system is giving you the correct polarity.  This is different (but kinda sorta similar) than phase. Some plug ins may say “Invert Phase” — when this is being done over the entire track, not just one side or one portion — it’s really inverting the polarity, not the phase. Read more and see images of polarity examples.

Distinction: Phase is relative to something else – polarity is “absolute” – which is just a fancy way of saying it only relates to itself. Sometimes these terms are used interchangeably. Nobody’s wrong… we spend too much time obsessing over “wrong” when the bottom line is using what works vs. what doesn’t work. Reduces arguments and internet flame-throwing.

Hitch: If you’ve newly arrived to the Digital Audio Workstation recording/ mixing world — there is a big difference between mastering facilities which is often times reflected in the fee they charge. Often more time is needed to produce the outstanding results created by a quality mastering process.  Account for this possibility in your budget.  Beware of CD duplication companies which commonly use “one-button-fixes-all” engineering techniques, because every project/ sound is different.  Remember, you get what you pay for. “One-button-fixes” often result in distorting and limiting on the final project which is super disappointing to the ultimate consumer and radio who in the end may refuse to play your record because it is an inferior quality to the other songs being played and serves as a poor reflection on their station. Look for a mastering company with decades of analog recording and mixing as there’s a fundamental understanding of sound that comes from that experience coupled with the latest technology in digital recording and mastering processes.

Allow for more time than you think you need to mix. There’s nothing worse than thinking it will take three hours to mix a song, and it ends up taking five hours. You’re under pressure, the engineer’s under pressure, and the studio’s next client is pacing back and forth in the waiting room. Have extra money (if you’re paying the studio) on hand, so that if you go over budget (always the case) you aren’t sweating bullets.

Be conservative with stereo buss compression. If you use it, bypass it from time-to-time – match the volume with-and-without to be sure it’s helping the whole sound. I recommend making master mix versions both with and without limiting/compression added level. I don’t recommend using compression just for the purposes of getting your mixes louder on pre-mastered CDRs! Mastering is the best place to get more level. Overly compressed mixes box the mastering engineer into a corner, reduce the openness of the mix, and lower the number of enhancement options.

Don’t be conservative with stereo buss compression. I know it’s a contradiction to the previous paragraph. Were you paying attention? Remember Rule #1. There are no rules.  You might get the coolest sound ever by turning the knobs all the way up.  Your sound is your sound.  Just don’t think that compression is the magic bullet.

Be conservative with a “mastering processor” like a Finalizer or stereo “mastering” plug-ins. They can seem too good to be true. In fact, they can make your mix seem a little easier, but in the long run, lack the spark and vitality you could have with a little more work on the “insides” of the mix. Focus on getting the mix you want by using good processing on the individual tracks, even if you have to work a little harder to get it all nailed. Usually the extra energy pays off – just don’t burn out from over-doing plug-in addiction!

Quick tip: It’s not best, in our experience, to record your project at 44.1 even if it’s going to end up as a 44.1 CD. 48k 24 bit sampling rate is definitely better.  The higher the sampling rate, generally the smoother the sound.  However you’ll want to allow for the processing capabilities of your computer — because 88.2 and 96 will make your computer and your plug ins work harder. Be sure that your stereo buss does not ever go into clipping (digital overs) when it is set at Unity Gain -0-. Even better: keep 2-3 dB of headroom in your stereo mixdowns! Once you know you’re not making any digital overs, remove your master fader if possible – your mix will sound better!

A-B your mix with great sounding commercial CDs – Level-match and compare your mix to the other CD’s and adjust according to what you hear over your monitor system! For every four hours of mixing, spend one hour within that time listening to your “competition.” I know, it can be a stretch to listen to the best recordings in the world up next to yours. So what! Stretching makes us better engineers! A better sounding mix than yours is not an insult – it’s an opportunity to improve your skills. Every reference CD you hear is another opportunity. Be sure to include older, more conservatively mastered CD’s in your reference selection so you have a sense of more musically-based dynamics vs. the super-squashed levels of some newer albums. Yes – that means that you should be using reference CDs which might even be from different genres than you regularly listen to. Perish the thought!

The A-B technique helps you get your sonic “bearing” around balance, frequency spread, panning, vocal placement and more. Since commercial CDs have such different volume levels, you’ll want to compare your mixes without it just being a volume contest. When you A/B – only play short segments of music – 10-20 seconds – and then switch over to the other reference.

If your mix doesn’t impress you as much when you first A-B to a big-name album, don’t beat up the mixing engineer (or yourself)! Mixing is a process, and being diplomatic will save you time and increase the creative flow. Just say, “I like alot of what we have now, and I’d like to get a little more of [fill in the blank]. I’d like to listen to these to get some ideas.” As a sound engineer you might want to invest in commercial reference CDs and do more research on speaker systems so you understand their effects on mixing. It’s not enough to think you know your room or your speakers. It’s not enough to take your laptop into the car to hear the sound on your car radio. It’s not enough to invest $300 in a pair of Dr. Dre Beat’s and think that you are hearing everything.

Quick Tip: Take a good look at your mixing headphones. Sometimes its not about the price. Be careful that they don’t have an open-foam muff which might make it sound too edgy and brittle. A full-covered foam muff is best becauseyou want a tiny bit more high end to come though. You want your muffs to “sit” the earphones closer in to your ears and increase the bass response. You would be surprised how much better your mix can be just by ensuring the placement on your ears is correct adn as close to your ears as possible. You should also mix with a great in-ear headphone to gain an additional perspective, but not for fully mixing all the time. They also reveal distortion very nicely.

If you’re not sure about me giving you this A-B reference CD mixing advice, listen to Tom-Lord Alge who says, “…it can help to put up records that you like, compare them whilst you’re working and try to copy the sound. I’ve done that.” Still not convinced? How about Stephen Marcussen in EQ Magazine/Pro Sound News who said, “…just put in a commercial CD, see what it is you like about the CD and go for it.”

Not always known: Hot levels tend to flatten out the peaks, thereby adding some sustain to things like kic drum and bass, so be sure you account for added sustain when you pick your sounds. You also may want to do a slammin mix, and then back down the stereo output for an alternate mix, because you may find that this opens up the sound. Less slammin opens up more options at the mastering stage too. High-end mastering can definitely raise the volume level as much or more as you can, and retain a more dynamic sound. Advise your clients: don’t skimp on the mastering budget!

What is slammin? For slammin, try this:

Step 1: Make a normal mix. Get it to sound great without compressing the stereo buss (and don’t allow any digital overs – headroom is better). Make a CDR reference copy – it should sound right musically – you should like this mix. Do not worry if the volume isn’t as loud as a commercial CD right now. Just turn up the volume of the consumer system you’re playing it on! Keep this version (the 24 bit file) as your uncompressed master mix.

Step 2: Make a slammin’ mix. Go at your mix again but insert a limiter (not a compressor) over the stereo buss (limiters are fast, compressors are slow). Increase the input signal going into the limiter (set the output about .5dB below 0dBFS) so you can now make this hot CDR version, getting closer to the level of newer CDs. Listen to the way the kic, snare, vocals and instruments start to blend when the tops of the peaks are cut off, which is required to make the overall output louder. Listen to the hotter CDs again to see if there’s enough kic punching through the mix. You may have to bring up certain things (like the kic) more than you expect in order to bring back the punch in your mix…. Get this version to where you like it, and keep it as another master mix – labeled as “SlamMix2” or something else to make it easy to keep track of.

Step 3: Remove the stereo slammin processing. Now once you are hearing the kic more like you did on the original non-limited masters, go back and remove the limiter (adjust the level for no overs if necessary) and keep this as a third master. Keep the overload lights OFF. Digital clipping (on any system) is not your friend. Keep this mix, uniquely named or labeled. Now when you submit your mixes for mastering, include all the mixes: Normal dynamics, SlamMix2, and Non SlamMix3 mix (exaggerated kic, trimmed bass and whatever other changes).

Slammin gives you more options at mastering time. This whole technique really wasn’t needed back in the mid-’90’s because the labels and major artists weren’t pressing the volume so far beyond normal… as they are doing now. If this all seems complicated…. it is.

Pro Tools HD in action

Pro Tools HD in action

Other tips: Make sure your equipment is grounded correctly (no hums or buzzes) and you are using excellent cable everywhere possible and to the greatest degree that is appropriate for your budget – digital cables – musical instrument cables – mic cables – even power cables. Buy the best monitors and power amps you can responsibly afford – the resolution of your monitoring system is the “lens” you are looking through. Suttle differences like quality cables and hums/buzzes are the difference between a low-budget studio and a high-grade studio.

Your market: Know your market. What radio station would play your music? What are the CDs they play often? Which music sounds good over the air? Who’s drum sound do you like? Who’s vocal, guitar, string, piano sound do you like? Your idea of a big sound may be different from your engineer’s, so if you bring in a CD, hand it to him/her, and say, “Check out cut 5 for the vocal sound.” he/she knows exactly what you like. “Put in this other CD and listen to the guitars.” You get the idea.

There are only so many one’s and zeroes on a CD. There are no “bonus” +1dB +2dB or +3dBs available like on analog. So when the peaks (like kick drums, snare drums, etc.) hit the top of that digital ceiling, that’s IT. There are no more numbers. In order to make the CD appear louder, the only thing left to bring up is the quieter non-peaky stuff.

Sometimes people think mastering is just about making the commercial version of your CD louder. Just know that the problem with making it louder is that all the transients take on a different shape and sound when we do this. For instance, many musicians like punch. Well, think about it. The punch you feel from the bottom or mid-bottom comes from the speaker excursion. The cone moves forward a certain amount and then moves back, and so forth. When the peaks are limited or compressed, mastering brings up the body of the music (the non-peak stuff) higher. That’s what gives you that louder, RMS level on a CD, BUT THE RELATIVE DISTANCE THAT THE SPEAKER MOVES IS LESS. That means that the over-all sound is louder, but since the speaker doesn’t push the sound wave forward as far, there is less impact from the movement of the air. (Unless you turn it up to glass-shattering levels, in which case the sheer intensity creates the impact.)

Ah, the old school… Competing for level is an old trick that dates back to vinyl, but with vinyl, there was a different reason for cutting a hotter lacquer. Since vinyl inherently had surface noise to it, the hotter the sound (and therefore the wider and deeper the grooves), the less you’d hear the surface noise. Also, if the song come on strong, level-wise, it seems more exciting right out of the gate. (You never get a second chance to make a first impression, right?) Vinyl is an analog medium, and it is a flexible medium, in that there is an acceptable range where the signal can be increased depending on the dynamics of the music.

In the analog world, we watched levels to reduce or eliminate tape hiss, keeping our eyes on how much headroom we had above zero VU to avoid distortion. With CDs, it’s different. We set the high peaks right at “0” and bring up the rest of the program material (as desired by the client) to make the product hot, but still maintain some degree of dynamics.

Quick tip: Never put paper labels on your CDRs – they inhibit the rotational balance and can cause the player’s error correction to work harder. Only write on the top of CDRs with a soft felt-tip pen (preferably alcohol free) prior to burning the CDR, not after. The top is more fragile than the bottom!  I am also a fan of printers that print the words and photos directly on the CDR. I wonder how that effects the CD’s quality though. I haven’t been able to find much data on that as printers that duplicate and print on CDRs simultaneously are relatively new to the consumer.

Ultimately, mixing and mastering are processes that you learn over time. “Great ears” don’t create enough equilibrium to compensate for the shortfalls of budget equipment and “great ears” don’t duplicate what quality equipment can produce.

Just like any other profession, you have to study. A good sound engineer knows his equipment well. If this is your passion, learn about it just like you would if you were taking a class. You will be glad you did and so will your clients!

Erik Zobler - Sound Engineer

Erik Zobler - Sound Engineer

Article courtesy of Erik Zobler – mix engineer for artists like Dianne Reeves, George Duke, Natalie Cole, Anita Baker and Teena Marie. Article appears as part Vestman Mastering’s CD Mixing/Mastering Series.

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About PJ Douglas Sands, The DS3 Group

PJ Douglas Sands is a journalist, author and international speaker on the areas of music, law, small business strategies, branding, digital lifestyle and the industries of Events, Hospitality, Caribbean Tourism, New Media and Entertainment. She is the co-founder of The DS3 Group (of Companies). DS3 is a boutique branding agency focused on planning destination events and designing branding strategies for creatives, small businesses and public figures with emphasis on the implementation of technology and social media. With offices and studios in Los Angeles, Atlanta, the Bahamas and Houston, The DS3 Group offers Corporate Branding, Event and Conference Planning Services, Public Relations, Label Assistance, Contract Review, Copyright Processing, Consulting, Artist Development, Distribution, Legal Services, Management, Production, and Publishing Assistance. The DS3 Group's subsidiaries include DS3 Entertainment, Douglas Sands and Associates Law Firm, LUXE Worldwide Events and State of Emergency Alliance and are run jointly by Events/Branding Strategist PJ Douglas Sands, Attorney at Law E. Verona Douglas Sands and Grammy nominated Music Producer/Sound Engineer Donnie "Scantz" Scantlebury. You can visit the website at www.theDS3group.com.

Discussion

2 thoughts on “Getting a Better Mix – Secrets For Audio Engineers

  1. I discovered your blog site on google and check a few of your early posts. Continue to keep up the very good operate. I just additional up your RSS feed to my MSN News Reader. Seeking forward to reading more from you later on!

    Posted by katom | April 10, 2013, 11:17 pm

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