Saturday, April 5, 2014

Recording Tip 41: Thinking of mastering your project yourself? There’s a reason why the great mixers don’t.

Okay...I’ve been blessed to have many of my mixes mastered by some of the best in the world so I know the difference. My first efforts were mastered by Doug Sax who taught me the most about what mastering is, what they do and why their work is so valuable. Since then Bernie Grundman, Bob Ludwig, Howie Weinberg, Andrew Mendelson, Gavin Lurssen, Greg Calbi, Ted Jensen, George Marino, and even the late Chris Blair of Abbey Road. (Bohemian Rhapsody anyone?) all have done their best to make my mixes sound good. And let me tell you, what they do is a big deal. If you think it doesn’t matter, then ask yourself why do virtually all of the best mixers have someone master their work? You know their mixes will be as good as it gets. And if they think it’s needed, the rest of us mere mortals need it too.

Now a legit reply at this point would be, “Sure. If I had the money I’d use them. But I can’t afford it so I have to do it myself or find some local guy or gal who’s just starting out.” Fair enough. And I do get that sometimes a lesser skilled engineer can make your project sound worse. Additionally I’ve found some of those to be much more hard headed about what they think things should be than the famous guys mentioned above. (Odd that great talent and skill know better how to handle their ego. Probably because they’re more secure in who they are...something I’ve covered in a previous blog. Just remember this, one of the best reasons to have someone else master your work is you get another set of ears to evaluate it. They don’t come to it with the baggage of all the work that came with the making of the project. They don’t know any of the battles over sounds, vocal levels, etc that so often color the view of what has been done or what it should be. They just hear it for what it is and will make their judgements solely based on that. Also as the music is being heard in another room (hopefully sonically accurate and with a clean audio path) whatever flaws there may be in the mix room aren’t reinforced in mastering.

Okay. So there’s my sermon on why you should have someone else master your project. But at times I understand that simply isn’t an option. So what advice can I offer for those of you who have to master your own project? First of all, unless you’ve invested some serious time and research into the subject you probably need to forget everything you think you know about mastering. Mastering IS NOT just loading your mixes into your DAW, slapping on some EQ and mulitiband limiters till the mix is loud and squashed. That’s a sure way to make your work sound amateurish. Anybody can do that, and Lord knows the great mastering engineers don’t do that. Just as you’d dig though Pensado’s Place and other sites on the web to learn from great mixers in order to make your work sound better, so you should scour the net for good information from experienced and trusted sources on mastering before start.

Now such sites are few and far between. But there is one I can’t recommend highly enough. It’s run by a fellow in England named Ian Shepherd and his site is Production Advice. At this excellent site you’ll find tons of great articles, videos, and links covering almost anything you’d ever think of and some things you never imagined. Ian also wrote a great e-book you can purchase and perhaps the best thing of all is his Online Mastering Course which is held several times a year. I’ve taken the course, and despite that I’ve been at this a long time and been a part of hundreds of mastering session, I learned a ton from it. Best of all the course shows Ian actually mastering various songs and talking his way through what he’s doing and why….all on various DAWs that you probably already own with plugins you likely have. I can promise you it will easily be one of the best investments you’ll make. And no, I’m not compensated by Ian. But if you sign up, please let him know you heard about it from me. He’s an online buddy and I’d love for him to know.

So again, if you can hire a great mastering engineer do that. But if you can’t, begin learning what mastering is before you take a whack at it.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Recording Tip 40: When mixing better to have your faders plus or minus 10db of “0.” Insert trims if you find them far from that

This tip came from a project I mixed a few years ago, and I’m finding the problem happening pretty often these days. I was mixing a project which had been sent to one of the best guitar players on the planet for him record his parts. The tracks he recorded were mostly power/crunch guitars and they sounded great. The problem however, were that all of them were recorded at near full scale, almost totally filling up the meters. (This relates to TIP 3-4.  where I advise to only record percussive instruments that hot.)

This was a problem because I had to pull the faders almost to the bottom of the fader track in order to balance them in the mix. The reason this is a problem is at the bottom of the fader track, there’s not enough resolution to make small changes. You can easily see this on the faders with their dB marks. When the fader is near 0 the distance between dBs is fairly large. On my screen moving the fader about an inch near 0 gives about 7-8dB of gain change. But at the bottom of the fader track, an inch is maybe 15dB or more. I’m not going to get into the math of that. You can search that if you want more information. The bottom line of it all is there’s more resolution a the top half of the fader track than near the bottom. So if the fader is down near the -20 mark it’s really hard to make a small level change...and consequently, hard to get the balance of that track just right.

All to say, I needed better fader resolution for my rides. So what I did was to put a Trim plugin on those track at -20dB. That allowed me to raise up the fader so it was more like -5dB or so for a good balance. From there I could make the small rides more accurately.

Using the trim plugin in this situation will also help keep from any plugins from overloading, especially if you add a good bit of EQ. Maybe you’ve wondered why an equalizer overloads when you add EQ. If the level going in is too hot, when you add gain at certain frequencies, you’ve maxxed out the plugin. Lowering the level will also give you more room with the threshold setting if you’re compressing it. When you find tracks like this, put the trim plugin first, so the following plugins have better gain structure.

One last thing. Don’t deceive yourself that hot recording levels will make for a loud record. That will happen when you mix. Super hot recording levels are likely just to give you unintended distortion. While you may get a thrill seeing all those lit up levels, all they’re really doing is making it harder to make a great mix. Healthy recording levels are important for sure. But again, re-read TIP 3-4.

So use that Trim in and get those faders back up to where they should be. Your moves will be much more accurate, you’ll not be as likely to overload your plugins, and your mixes will sound better as a result.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Recording Tip 39: Once you have basic levels and pans, listen in mono, THEN adjust pans. One small move may help something pop thru

This is a wacky tip and a bit more advanced than some of the others. And while the end goal is to make your stereo mixes better, your mixes heard in mono will be better as well.

Of course 99% of the time your mix will be heard in stereo, but checking your mix in mono is still a good idea for a few reasons, the most obvious being that if your mix is heard in mono you want it to sound good. And if you’re lucky enough to mix a big hit it will be heard in mono a lot more than you imagine. Playback from a smart phone’s speakers or in stores at the mall are a few places where songs are heard in mono by a lot of people. While mono isn’t common, it’s not totally dead. The fact is a great mix sounds good in both mono and stereo and it’s worth your time to check it.

So that’s my little sermon on why it’s good for your mix to translate well to mono. But for this tip that’s really the icing on the cake. The point is to listen in mono so your stereo mixes sound better.  So now you may be wondering, “How do panning changes in mono help my stereo mix?”  

The reason is that mono gives another reference for hearing how your levels, pans, and eq are working. If things are fighting in mono, they’re probably fighting in stereo as well. You may not hear it so much as things are spread across the stereo image, but it’s still there.  

The idea is this. Once your mix is in good shape, hit the mono button on your monitor section and make small panning changes. (Now I’m not talking about changing your pans to mono and then listening.  I’m talking about using your monitor’s Mono button so it combines the stereo mix to mono in your speakers. If you don’t have a mono button on your monitor this tip won’t work for you. You have to have a Mono button in your monitor section to do this.)

So get your mix in good shape, preferably before you’ve begun automating the faders.  TIP 37.  By then you’ve panned all your tracks the way you want them so now hit the mono button on your monitor section and listen. Are all the tracks in a good balance? Does the mix still sound like your mix, or something dreadful?  Hopefully it’s still pretty good. If not, go back to stereo and work a bit more, checking things in mono. Once it sounds pretty good in both, then take the next step. While listening in mono, select a track and move the pan a bit.

Now I’m not talking about making big changes. In fact when I go back to stereo I might not even be able to tell it’s moved at all. The idea is to give a small bump to the panning of the track a bit and see if it pops out better while listening in mono. One thing also...while panning is mostly what I’m working on, level and eq are also something I’m paying attention to, and often I’ll make changes to those as well.  (This is also why it’s good to do this before automation. If you need to make real changes to level you won’t have to backtrack fader automation.)

When doing this I tend to focus more on tracks panned between L-C-R, but those panned hard left and right might need a change as well. It may be that panning a bit less than hard left or right is better. I’ll make my final decisions and passes in stereo, but like listening on a second set of speakers, this gives another perspective to hear relationships of the tracks.

If I hear a problem right off the bat, I may swap back and forth between mono and stereo to find it. But mostly I stay in mono for this little exercise. I’ll take a pass or two like this and once it sound good I’ll go back to stereo and see how things sit.

Almost always when I go back to stereo I find my mix is much more open and sounds better. Of course a great stereo mix is the goal, so if what I heard in mono doesn’t work as well in stereo, I’ll change it for the sake of the stereo mix. But as I said before, a great mix almost always sounds great in both stereo and mono. Check out your favorite mixer’s work. You’ll hear that’s true.

One thing you must remember when doing this. Anything panned dead to center will sound louder when listening in mono because it adds equally from both sides. So expect the bass guitar, kick, snare, and vocal, etc. to be a bit louder. If it does a little bit, that’s normal. But if it’s radically louder, you need to work some more. Listen back and forth between stereo and mono and find the place where those things sound right in both. In mono you’ll also usually lose a bit of stereo reverb so things may sound a bit drier. That’s also due to the things in mono, like the lead vocal are louder in mono, so that relationship with the reverb is different. This may sound a little odd, but with a little experience, you’ll find what works between the two and your mixes will be better.

Give this rather nutty method a shot. I bet you’ll find good results. And if nothing else, it’s a good way to hone your chops.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Recording Tip 38: Panning is a lost art. Try other than hard left, center, and right positions

There are several aspects of mixing which can make a huge difference, level being the most obvious. But the position of the pan knob is just as important as the fader level.  The fact is, the two are wholly related.  If you have a track which can’t seem to find it’s place with the fader, it may be moving the pan a bit may just be what is needed to make it pop through.  

You gotta remember that panning is a form of level.  It’s something that can be easily seen with an oscillator.  Put a 1K tone in a track and put the fader so you get a reading in the master fader.  From there pan the track from hard left to hard right and watch the corresponding level change in that master fader.  You’ll see it move up and down as you pan.  That’s a clear demonstration and reminder of this relationship.

I wrote this a while back and recently found an Q&A video with the famous rock mixer Andrew Sheps who has become rather famous for mixing only with L-C-R (Left, Center, Right) panning.  By the this video.  It’s great!

In the video he was asked about this and confessed he does it not because of some mix philosophy, but because of the limitation of the Neve console he uses.  (He hates the pan pot insertion)   However when mixing in the box, he often pans between those three primary spots.  

All to say, listen carefully to great mixes. You’ll hear (almost all) great mixers use all of the stereo space.  They don’t just use hard left, right, mono, but use all the available space to find a place each track.   So when you mix, don’t’ hesitate to use all that sonic real estate.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Recording Tip 37: When mixing, spend plenty of time getting levels right before automating faders

Not long ago, the great Nashville engineer, Chuck Ainley and I had a conversation on the subject of mixing.  Chuck told me the most important mix tip he could give was to spend most of his time getting things to sound good with the faders in a static position before turning on the automation.  

That’s it?  Sounds like rather simple advice doesn’t it?  As simple as it is, I think it’s one of the greatest tip I’ve ever heard.

In the world of DAWs EQ, panning, levels, reverb sends, and fader automation can be done in a second with a click of the mouse.  And when wrestling a troublesome mix, turning on the automation early is a real temptation.  

You’re mixing along and the first verse and chorus the mix sound great.  But now that punchy, sparse track is competing for air with the onslaught of new parts beginning in verse 2….and so on comes the automation to “fix” it.

But when you do that, it’s likely you’re really just putting on a band-aid for basic flaws in the mix. Even though you automated the buried parts with fader levels or eq and can hear them better, the mix fundamentally hasn’t congealed and soon a lot of your faders are moving constantly.  (By the way, if you followed TIP 36 “Recording with the mix in mind” you probably won’t have this issue so much!)

While of course automation is almost always needed, I’ve found when I spend more time working without it (getting better balances, eq, compression, etc.) the mix has a better foundation.  The faders don’t need to be moved so much and the final mix sounds better because it is better.  If you can find a place where everything sits well for the whole song and then turn on the automation, you’re starting in a better place.

All the best engineers do this, and the great Al Schmidt is a perfect example.  A few years ago I was visiting Al’s mixing home, Capitol Records Studios in LA.  Al graciously invited me into his room where we talked for a while.  (I know Al from the days I assisted him at Bill Schnee Studio)  After catching up a bit, Al stepped out of the room for a call, so I asked Steve Genewick, his fantastic assistant (also a great engineer and producer in his own right) about Al’s mix methodology.   Steve told me most of time Al is mixing he works without automation.  When he finally turns it on, Al would need only two or three passes of rides and the mix was done.  (Al also rarely ever uses eq or compression either...but most of us mere mortals need some help with such things!)

Of course there are times when you’ll find a part on a track that really does need a significant change during the song.  But instead of automating it, do this.  Make a new track, pull those files down into it and treat it as needed.  To me, this a bit like changing a mic to get a better sound when recording.  It’s also less likely you’ll make some compromise due to the inserts or whatever which are on that track and you’ll end up with the exact sound needed for that part.

Again, this is really simple advice.  And as in life, the best advice is usually simple.  Of course there are no rules in mixing, only guidelines.  Sure, sometimes you’ll have a mix with a lot of automation, and that can be a lot of fun.  But do that only once the mix has a good solid foundation and then pull out the DAW’s bells and whistles.

So give it a try.  Next time spend at least half of your mix getting it as close as you can before resorting to automation.  I think you’ll find that not only will the final mix sound better, you’ll learn more about what was really needed and your skills will improve.

Extra the Andrew Sheps article I mention in the above blog he discusses this same idea as well as some other great tips.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Recording Tip 36: When recording, record with the mix in mind.

The ability to record with the mix in mind is a bit of a lost art these days.  When someone gives me a song to mix, I can tell within a few minutes if the person who recorded it understands this concept.  A well recorded song has certain characteristics technically, and I don’t mean subjective preferences of sounds.  These characteristics have to do with how the tracks were recorded, and consequently, how they play back.

When a well recorded song has a good basic balance, the faders should sit in the “sweet spot” of the fader track; somewhere between -15dB and 0.  Also, as the mix plays, a lot of fader pushing won’t be required to keep the mix balanced.  A well recorded song maintains a good balance with the faders sitting still.

This is something which was taught to me from day one as an assistant.  In the bad old days we couldn’t click a mouse and have the song open up with the exact levels we had last time we worked on it.  We’d load up the tape machine and have to quickly get up a mix from scratch with each song.  Good engineers soon learned that if they recorded with consistent fader levels, moving from song to song was much easier.  And of course as the label exec would invariably appear unannounced, they’d be able to make the best showing for the producer and artist, not to mention showing their own skills at things sounding good when they were at the helm.

To do this, engineers developed the idea of setting the monitor faders at an even level, and adjust recording levels into the stationary monitor faders.  We’d record almost like a live mix; adjusting recording levels as we worked so a lot of the balancing was already done.

Back in those days, the old joke was that if you recorded things well you could mix with a nickel and a yardstick.  Line all the faders up evenly with the yardstick, put a nickel under the lead vocal fader so it was a bit louder, move the yardstick up, nickel and all, until there was a good level on the stereo buss, and the mix would be done.  Of course I never saw such a thing happen and I doubt anyone ever really did that with a final mix.  But the story made for a good point about how to record well.  As an assistant I was fortunate to work with a lot of great engineers.  And every one of them worked this way.  Bill Schnee, Jack Joseph Puig, Elliot Scheiner, Al Schmidt....every one.

Now there’s no Grammy for “Best Fader Position in a Mix.”  And you may be thinking, “That sounds like some old fart spouting some old school technique which is pointless today.  Isn’t that why we have automation?”  Sure.  You can put your faders wherever you want and sort it out later. But there’s an additional benefit of setting the faders and adjust your recording levels to fit.  When you do, you end up choosing better parts and sounds.

The reason is this.  By not moving faders around so much you start thinking more about how each part works with the rest of the track.  A good part with a good sound blends into the mix more easily.  When recording if I can’t find a good level...if it always seems too loud or too soft, I wonder about what’s being recorded.  If I can’t find a balance where the part works throughout the song, I probably need to change the part, the sound, or both.

One last thought about this.  While recording with the mix in mind has a lot to do with levels, it also has to do with coming up with parts that will work well in the stereo field.  A great stereo mix has a good balance of parts in both speakers, giving the mix size and power.  So when recording, think of where a part may end up getting panned in the final mix.  Spatial interest is a huge part of good mixes..and makes song much more fun to listen to.  I always love it when I get a mix where somebody took the time to make parts that work well in stereo.  Of course, there are no rules.  Sometimes having a big guitar part on one side can be great, in particular if it’s a power trio.  But most songs sound better with a balanced feel between the two speakers.

But whatever you do, don’t get caught up in layering part after part, focusing only on the overdub of the moment.  Listen carefully, keeping the end in mind...a great mix for the song. 

Monday, July 30, 2012

Recording Tip 35: On a related note, I’ve heard of a fellow turning on a vacuum cleaner as he listens with the same purpose.

Now this is something I’ve never done, nor am likely to do, but it’s worth bringing up as it relates to Tip 34.  Again, maybe 1% of people who hear your mixes will listen in a quiet room with their head between the speakers.  At best it will be with headphones, but they’ll still most likely be doing something else when listening.  
The vacuum noise will mask a lot of things.  And if your mix is in good shape, you should be able to hear all the important elements over the din of the motor.  
I’m not saying to do this, but on the other hand, hey...if it works, do it!