"The most common problem is
much level [at mixdown] - [It's unfixable if the engineer] just slammed
it. If it's crunched and distorted,
there's nothing to be done about it - those crunches are going to be
of saturation takes away the attack. It flattens things out.
drum becomes all mush, so you don't
feel the real
solid slap to it. Sometimes it will really need to
Bass" Brian Gardner - Bernie
1. Sampling rates
are low and mixing
levels are two
your recordings at the highest
sampling rate possible - up to 96k. Most projects still come in
44.1k. Yikes. Why??? Not for quality purposes.
Even 48k sounds
better. We're guessing that folks think that if you're making a
CD that's 44.1, there's no point in making a recording
that's at a higher sampling rate. Better: If
you're going to a mastering studio with analog gear, you always want to
have the highest sampling rate possible when you deliver those
files! If your CPU
processor/plug ins/hard drive space/track count will allow it, record
at a higher sampling rate - at least 48k and always 24 bit!!!!
Even if your system is 16 bits (gads!) choose to make 24 bit files at
When it comes
levels (and tracking for that matter) we
recommend that you keep your stereo buss set at unity gain (-0-) and
keep the levels 3 to 4 dB below the clipping point on a Full Scale
digital meter. Artists often worry when their rough mixes aren't as
loud as commercial
CDs. So the engineer often feels pushed into using extra
compression or limiting, when sometimes that confuses the issue and can
change the overall mix.
Key: Often musical
arrangements (how many instruments are
at any one time) have a lot to do with how loud the mix will be, so it
can be mysterious when some songs stand out and others
don't. It's also helpful to know that at hotter
more sustain is induced
into the sound (forming longer kic and bass notes and less subtle
Often the skill
mixing engineer has a lot to do with crafting a
loud mix. Down the road, Separations can facilitate better
mastering because the variety of elements throughout the project can be
optimized to get the most out of every song.
clip the signal when tracking or mixing in DAWs. Those red lights are
not your friend. While it can be helpful to make mixes with
stereo buss limiting or compression (to see how things sound with
hotter overall level), it's not ideal to just slam your mixes.
Here's more about Hot
CDs, compression, and Mixing
crash cymbals too loud
and kic "tick" (beater) too loud. 90%
of our indie clients mix their crashes TOO hot. Cymbal
crashes or harsh hi-hats are not easy to deal with, particularly if
you're requesting traditional
mastering. Since it's fairly common to add some highs or mid-highs for
clarity in mastering, cymbals become clearer -
right along with the voice - unless you submit Separations.
Crash cymbals effect the perceived level of the drums and the vocal.
Want more muscular drums? Keep the crashes down. Want a radio-audible
vocal, but not to the point of "teeter-tottering" (offsetting) the
instruments? Keep the crashes down.
Solo your drum mix. If you even remotely think the crashes are slightly louder
than your snare, then the crashes are too loud. Crashes should be lower
than the snare. Remember the "teeter-totter principle" - if something
is UP, then something else is being offset DOWN. If you want big drums,
keep the cymbals smaller than the drums. There are always exceptions.
A/B with commercial CD's - with an "ear" toward the balance between the
snare and the crashes.
That cool "tick" or "plastic" beater portion of the kic drum really
helps it cut through. But sometimes less is more. Often sampled kics
have too much of it. Along with the crashes, that "tick" or "click"
gets louder with added clarity in mastering. It can overtake the snare
in some cases. You may want it to overtake the snare. If you need it to
cut through layers of big guitars, it can help. But in general, think
"less is more."
Separations, all of
limitations of this issue are either reduced or
eliminated. We highly recommend that if you want a loud rock master,
make two drum separations. Make a Drum/no-cymbals.wav Separation and
make a Cymbals/no-drums.wav Separation. More info: visit the page on tracking drum
SURE to check the POLARITY
of your waveforms, particularly drums and bass! If the polarity
kic drum is incorrect, it is pulling
instead of pushing on
edge of the waveform. NO SOUND IN NATURE ever pulls (negative
excursion) on the leading edge of the sound. If the bass and kic
polarity isn't correct you will get mushy bottom end.
and look carefully at the leading edge of your waveforms. They should
go up before they go down. If they go down first, they are out of
polarity. This is different but kinda related to phase. Phase is
RELATIVE to something else. Like if one mic is out-of-phase with
another mic. Polarity is "absolute" - meaning it's relative to itself.
Stereo polarity is the same - both sides of the stereo sound are
pulling before pushing.
advantage to mastering with Separations is that we can discover issues
"under the hood" of the mix that are difficult (and often not possible)
to address with traditional mastering.
Probably 60% of
self-produced projects have polarity problems. This drastically affects
punch. Also, it just sounds weird when a kic drum pulls away from you
at the first moment of the impact. Use a polarity (or phase) inverting
plugin or waveform modifier to correct the issue.
Tom-tom samples can often pull
before pushing - and you'll get better punch if they push first.
Waveforms that start in the same direction give a fatter speaker
in mixdown is a
very common problem. Gads
this one is important! A de-esser
keeps vocals from becoming spitty or harsh when you want to add EQ to
get the sound bright and clear. But don't
over-do de-essing - the vocals can sound like they are lisping. The
SS's should sound
even and natural no matter how much top end you put on a vocal. Since
many software de-essers aren't that great, a very good way to de-ess is
to actually go into your volume automation window, ya know that
line-with-the-dots editing thing, and zoom in on the ss's and manually
lower the volume of each one. Fun, huh! Takes time, but it's the most
natural sounding (think manual compression). With Separations....
this becomes hardly an
issue at all.
"[Mastering] a mix
heavy vocal 'esses' means de-essing the entire mix, which doesn't sound
rather [lower the 'esses' in Pro Tools with manual editing] to bring
the volume of each of the 'esses' down individually."
"I leave the waveform alone and just grab and drop
the volume curve
down at the exact spot where the [high] frequency is peaking," he
continues. "After a while you get a good feeling for how much each one
needs to come down because you don't want to get rid of it completely."
Erik Zobler, 2-time Grammy
winner - credits include Stanley Clarke, Miles Davis,
Anita Baker, Philip Bailey, Celine Dion, etc.
4. The vocals are mixed too soft, or
inconsistently from song to song. ...or
there's too many
instruments or frequencies crowding the vocal. Create a "pocket"
in the frequencies in your mix where the vocal naturally sits even
around loud guitars and drums. "Feather" all the frequencies (and
panning locations) in your mix so that you don't build up any one
particular area. Also remember rule #1, "There are no
rules." This problem is totally solved by HD Separation
my old answer to this old
problem. Don't read it. I published it from 1999 to March 2005
because it was correct. Separation Mastering now makes this information
obsolete. Move on to #9....
Solution: Make alternate
mixes. For example, if you wonder about how
much kic to have in the mix, start out with what you think is
correct. Then make a 2nd pass
with the kic up 1 dB - then make a mix with the kic up 2 dB. Since a
hotter kic can "teeter-totter" other things softer (like the vocal),
you may then want to make
a pass with the kic and the vocal up 1 dB (or alter whatever tracks
you're concerned about.)
Then make a mix with the kic back to normal
and the vocal up 1 dB, and so forth. [Ok, so you're reading this
anyway... check it out... even in 1999 when this article first
appeared, alternate mixes were just a partial solution, so we
encouraged people to make
Separated tracks] ...Then make a TV
mix (a mix with everything minus the lead vocal) and a lead-vocal only
in all the effects, delays, etc. that you used on the voice in the mix.
We can layer the voice mix with the TV mix in
mastering and make it exactly the way you want it. It takes more time,
but then so does remixing. It's also a good idea to make an
instrumental mix (no vocals at all) and an all-vocals mix. We'll sync
it all up and give you the balance you want!
5. Songs mixed on small speakers
(without subwoofers) generally have incorrect bottom end.
overcompensate just because you're using small speakers. Too much woof
only makes home speakers work harder and not necessarily produce more
sound. This is one of the arts of mastering. Knowing how to produce useful
bottom end that translates well to a home system, radio, a boom box,
and a night club. When in doubt, get a subwoofer and compare your mix
to commercial CDs through your monitor system.
bottom on the kic from 30 Hz and below. The best way to check on any
system is to A-B your mix with commercial CD productions - so long as
you have instant level-matching and high resolution. (More A-B tips
Nautilus web site.)
TIP: Remember the teeter-totter
principle - when you add more of something,
something else will be lessened. This applies to frequencies,
instruments, panning and more.
6. Over-use of stereo buss
less is more. Before
Separation Mastering, clients would sometimes over-process their stereo
buss which was practically impossible to undo. Throwing more
technology at music isn't always the answer, particularly if the
monitor system or room acoustics disguise the cool sound that's just
there to begin with. Many classic recordings had very little
technology in the signal chain.... and amazing stuff happened!
Finalizers (or other digital processors) change the sound by
recalculating the numbers. The word length of the digital "samples"
change, and the resolution changes. Even panning or changing the fader
level in a DAW recalculates the numbers. What we find is that
more artists and recordists are creating amazing stuff - a 10th grader
today with a laptop DAW has more technology available to him (or her)
than the Beatles did 40 years ago today!
plug ins don't come with 20+ years of experience. An expert
engineer won't be caught up in
"gizmo-itus" and can hear deep into the mix to bring out the best in
your music. Creative beginnings and endings, or other ideas add to the
"icing" on the cake. Do your homework by A/B referencing your
mixes with commercial CD's, and always experiment - try different
to find what works best for you.
Old school: Less is more. Today we
often read articles where big-name mixers "turn all the knobs past 11."
Yikes. Ok, that's a cool sound, but I've seen it over done in many
cases. Balance is the key.
7. Not listening critically to your
mixes for clicks, pops, ticks etc. Digital
is unforgiving. Folks
today are auto-tuning, bouncing and trouncing in computers, using
plug-in mania with computer operating systems and word clock
personalities... Mastering brings out the best in your music, but it
also brings a lot forward that you might not have heard unless you sit
down with headphones, an undisturbed environment, and your favorite
beverage... Some common noises: mouth clicks, auto-tune glitches,
processor-strained drop-outs and more.
"A lot of people
going D to D, it doesn't matter because it's all numbers. But you can
hear it. Every step makes a difference, and when you add all the
subtleties up, the result is dramatic."
Bass" Brian Gardner - Bernie
Note: With that said, we
still recommend backing
up your masters, just
in case. Especially if you are sending your masters out-of-state for
mastering. We recommend using Fed Ex or a company that
reliably tracks your package!
8. Being too rushed
by the pressing deadline. Schedule
your mastering session so that you have enough time to take home a
reference CD and listen to it on several different systems before
sending it to the pressing plant!
YOUR PART of mastering is to take
your master into the consumer world (not just right back to the studio)
and "put on the hat" of your audience to gauge their experience of your
music. Put on the "hat" of the program director who will decide
if he or she will play your music! Examine the experience of your
whole album in the car, from the next room, out at a local retail
store, night club, etc. If needed, we can
recall your session and make creative
Allow for this in
your budget, too.
9. Not having your album
artwork, promotional posters, T-shirts, video's ready for release at
the same time as your music!
10. Editing the front and
back of your stems/spearation
files right up to the exact start of the audio can be a mistake. Leave
a couple seconds of
"pre-roll" before your audio file
begins. Just as in the days of analog tape, or DATS, a little
breathing room before the song starts is a good idea. We can
always trim things down in mastering.
audio CDRs at
(8x, 12x, 95x
etc.) Burn your audio CDRs at the
slowest speed your burner will go. Your CDR will sound better and
be more reliable.