Tech Tip:Mastering Your Music - Secrets of the Pros, Part 1

by John Vestman of John Vestman Mastering


Part 1 | Part 2


Secrets Of Audio Mixing (Or What Bob Clearmountain Won't Tell You)


Rule #1. There are no rules. Be creative. Make your listeners go, "Wow, check that out! That's baaad (or good, or wonderful, or whatever)!


Book a pre-mix clean up session. Take an hour or so to come in with the engineer, and erase all the throat-clearing, the guitar clicks, the out-take solos, etc. You'll feel fresher at mix time, because you can concentrate on the creativity, not the housekeeping.


Allow for more time than you think you need to mix. There's nothing worse than thinking it will take 3 hours to mix a song, and it ends up taking 5. 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.


DON'T COMPRESS THE STEREO BUSS OUTPUTS! Ok, every Mix Magazine and Keyboard Player and Home Studio Addict magazine has got all the cool ads for high-end compressors. Ah! THAT'S how to get my home studio to sound like Ocean Way! Nope. Save your money on that high-end compressor, or just use it on your tracks that need individual compression. Leave the stereo compression for the mastering engineer. Overly compressed mixes reduce the number of options I have to make your cd sound it's best. If one mix is very compressed, and several others are not, guess what? Once they're all together, you'll hear the difference, and in 99% of cases, my artists have all wished they didn't compress their mix! When I master, sometimes I compress, sometimes I limit, sometimes I do both, sometimes I level correct in the Sonic, and sometimes I leave well enough alone! I can bring more musical consistency to your cd if you give me a bigger range of options in this area.


Bring in a few commercial cds with you to the mix. But first, know your market. What radio station would play your music? What are the cd's 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, 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. This is also cool at tracking time. You have an abundance of material in the form of commercial cds to get ideas from.


NOW HERE'S THE CATCH - Cds have been mastered! I recommend that you audition some older cds as well as newer ones. Why? Because the older cds haven't been compressed and limited as much as the newer ones have, and this gives you a truer sense of the dynamics you hear in a mix. Your goal is to compare the sounds and tones of the cds as a guide during your mix. For instance, you may be used to hearing the bottom end of group ABC sounding great at home. You may have heard the guitars of group DEF on the radio sounding rad. But since the studio monitoring environment is different, your impression won't necessarily translate into the mixing room exactly the same.


The characteristics of the studio speakers will be different. So when you bring in those cds, you now hear what impressed you in the real world right there in the studio next to your mix. If your mix doesn't impress you as much when you first A-B to a cd, don't rag on your engineer! It's just a process, and being diplomatic will save you time and increase the creative flow. Just say, "I like some of what we have now, but I'd like to get a little more of fill in the blank". Be sure to check out my page on commercial cds you can use as references.


Give yourself some slack at first. Group XYZ may have had a $50,000.00 budget for their mix alone. Mix so that when you push the cd-player-button, they sound great, and when you push the stereo buss button, YOU sound great too, in the context of your music and the tools you have to work with.


Cd mastering leveling practices have changed, even in the last three years, such that for pop recordings, we are engaged in a level contest to see who can cut the hottest cd! Depending on the style of music, your favorite cd could sound way different than the original mix did! I heard a cd of a popular group that I could tell was very well recorded, but in mastering, it was squashed just for the sake of making it sound loud next to other cds. It sounded awful! There is a delicate balance where level and musicality meet. It's a judgment call, and this is where musical ears make a big difference in this decision.


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.


But with digital, there is NO fudge factor. A 1 is a 1 and a 0 is a 0. There's no 1.3. So when the level hits Digital Zero, that's IT. There are no more numbers. So we mastering engineers, when presented with the hotter and hotter cds of our associates (I don't use the word competitors - there's plenty to go around), we've used our expertise to compress, limit, de-ess, level-correct, and multi-band compress the sound right up to the max. What we have to control is two things: (1) The RMS level, or average volume and (2) The Peak levels, those things that can light up the 'digital over' light like crazy.


With analog tape, we engineers used to be aware of the tape hiss, and adjust our levels upward to eliminate that hiss, keeping our eyes on how much headroom we had to work with on the tape, so as to avoid (or utilize) tape distortion. With cds, it's the opposite. We watch the very top peak of the song, and gear everything around how close to digital zero we're going to get with that peak. How much RMS level ends up on the cd depends on how we manage the peaks of the music.


Now I'm perfectly happy cutting a loud cd for you. Cool. Just know that the problem 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 we compress the peaks, we are able to bring 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.)


So there are very fine lines that we walk in creating level, impact, punch, attitude, etc. when mastering your music. This is why you need someone with a vast musical background who can take all of these things into consideration for your music.


MIX TO ANALOG TAPE! The vast majority of projects do not need the hiss-less format of digital, and the bottom is so much better on analog! There is just a "hole" that is hard to describe in digital audio. For some reason, the extra thump that analog has (or holds onto) is just great. And as Bob Katz at Digital Domain says, there is an accumulation of budget components in some consoles and digital machines that adds to the problem. I highly recommend BASF tape. Ampex (or Quantegy as it's now called) is not as good sounding. 456 is very cloudy sounding tape, and a great way to lose some transparency right off the bat. While 499 is better sounding than 456, it still isn't as clean or live or transparent as BASF 900. BASF is physically cut better, has less print-through, and is just better sounding.


I don't recommend elevating your level above +6db. Why? Because of a lot of things. Marketing hype has made the overload capabilities of modern tapes overrated. There's a lot to consider about the plus' and minus' of tape saturation vs. signal-to-noise vs. print-through, etc. Take print-through for instance: Tape machine heads pick up magnetic signal, and the stronger the signal (louder you've elevated the tape) the easier it is for the adjacent tracks to pick up what's recorded. Result: more crosstalk, especially from 500 hz down. That means that all the low end will bleed slightly from track to track to track. At +9, track 5 "hears" more of track 4 & 6 than if you elevate to +5. All that low bleed makes for mush in your mix. You'll have no hiss, but the bottom will be tubby and slow sounding.


Trick: If you don't mind breaking the rules, align your machine so that you set 1K at -2 (using an NAB 250 nW/M alignment tape) and 10K at -3. That way you have to elevate the high end more. The tape can handle the extra high end level, and it doesn't mush up the bottom. It's not enough to saturate the highs, and it's not dangerous enough that if the tape goes to another studio people will faint. Think of this trick as a broad-range, simple form of noise reduction (which is the whole goal of tape elevation, anyway!) Now you get the hiss reduction of a +6 master with the clean bottom of a 5 master! Voila! (Or just use IEC (CCIR) equalization instead of NAB. It's a standard, and it's reproducible and accomplishes the same noise reduction effect.)


One last thing. Mixing is a creative process, and sometimes we can get stressed out, or have a communication breakdown, or just plain get ticked at the other people we're working with. Working together sometimes is a challenge. But there's hope. I've written a 6-cassette audio tape series on success in the music industry. It's about how to get an edge by using some success strategies that you and I were never taught in school. Bernie Grundman, one of the most famous mastering engineers in history, has heard these tapes and said, "Here is a real prescription for success." As an artist, you can't go wrong having more ways to accelerate your career. Visit my site and see what you think.


John Vestman has been a Engineer/Producer/Studio owner for 24 years. Experience in Rock, Jazz, Classical, Country, R&B, Hip-Hop, World Music, Film Sound, Spoken Word, and Industrial productions. Presented with Gold and Platinum Records for rap artist, Candyman and Capitol Records artists Great White.