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The sound of your mix is influenced by your equipment, your technical skills, and the path between the audio and your ears. Elements such as attitude, time constraints, physical endurance, creativity, co-operation, documentation and management effect the outcome as well.

The Equipment

Your DAW, console, eq's, compressors, limiters, gates, mic pre's, pluggins, mastering software, analog stuff, electrical stuff, etc.

• The Engineer

Your acoustic concepts of space, depth, tone, frequencies, dynamics, gain structure, originality, time behind the board, etc.

The Environment

Your control room, your living room, your car system, night clubs, the radio, the Internet, iPods, elevators, headphones, etc.

Mixing takes listening and re-listening and re-re-listening and comparing and balancing a large number of factors to get what you what you want. Often we find that there is a teeter-totter effect that can occur: bring up the highs, and now the bottom needs more. Bring up the bottom, and the mids need more. Bring up the mids and now there's no bass... bring up the bass and the vocalist can't hear herself.... I call it "frequency displacement."

A solution is to EQ different instruments at different frequencies - particularly leaving a "hole" for the vocal to come through. Another solution is creative compression - keeping certain things from jumping out at you, thereby taking your attention away from other elements. After all the mixes are done, it's common that each one will lean a certain way... more vocal on one... less on another... more highs on one... more bottom on another.

That's where traditional mastering and Separation Mastering adds another solution - we can make each song lean more in the same direction if a client prefers. We listen to all of the songs throughout the project to get a more "global" view of how each song sits in the album. When our clients submit Separations, we can go back if necessary and "tip" the blend - if requested - to better achieve the client's goals. When a super hot CD is desired, submitting Separations work well because gone are the associated compromises of getting all the locked-down 2-track mixes to be more consistent.

Dilemma: Often, clients with the smallest budgets are the ones who send projects that need the most help. They've worked hard to put together a studio, spent bucks getting cool studio gear (darn if they didn't have to sacrifice some practice time and lessons to get that gear), they're excited about recording.... they're ready to master... do the graphics... press the CD...

...they'll wisely send us some reference songs from commercial CDs that they love the sound of...

...and they love the bright edgy sound of Pantera...

but their mixes are warm and covered like an earlier Stone Temple Pilots CD.

...they love the guitar-driven fullness of the Throwing Copper CD by Live...

yet the guitar tracks in their mixes are mixed back in to the track...

These artists are not lame, folks. They're going through what every engineer on the planet goes through when it comes to recording. We all tweak, dial, massage, jump up and down, edit and do everything in order to make a great recording. It takes time and experience to learn how much and what to tweak.

Key #1: Really listen to commercial CDs when you're mixing. Match the volume of your mix and the commercial product. Then go back and forth - your mix, their mix - your mix - their mix. Listen to the drums - your mix - their mix. Listen to the vocals - your mix - their mix, etc. Listen to what is driving the mix. The groove? The vocals? The guitars? The brass & percussion? What's clear? What's full? What's spread L-to-R?

Key #2: Be original. Be creative. Don't get stuck sounding too much like anybody. Experiment. Go "outside the box." Smile. Have fun!

Q) Do you generally power through seven hours in just one sitting or can we break it into two sessions? -Erik

I'm comfortable with either. I generally don't like doing complete mastering on half of the songs one week, and the other half the next week. That breaks up my feel of the continuity of the album. But starting one day and finishing the next isn't a problem.

Is it easier for you to take away or add bottom end punch during mastering?

Good question. That depends on the balance between the kic and bass. If there's too much low low bass, controlling that in mastering will cut out some punch in the kick. Most often I am focusing the bass differently for each project. I probably prefer adding bass vs. cutting - but this can be easily solved if you submit Separations

for mastering - where we can put things in just the right perspective. If you would like to know our eq settings in the bottom department, we'll be happy to let you know what we did for your future reference.
Should I mix with more or less bass?

It depends on the key the bass is playing in and the tuning of the kic, but for a start, try lower bottom (60-80 Hz) in the kic -- and a warm bottom (80-150 Hz) with clear mids (1k-3k) in the bass. Compare with other CDs in the studio while you're mixing.

Can you de-ess vocals and/or cymbals that are already mixed?

Yep. I do it all the time. Generally if you mix cymbals low, it helps the whole mix greatly. Listen to CDs. A good one that sounds huge is Eve 6 "horroscope", largely because of the way the cymbals are mixed.

Can you add stereo expansion type of qualities to the mix to pull it open and make it sound bigger?

Generally, our digital converters do that somewhat - "I love the wider sound." is often a comment we get from our clients. We are aware that some stereo expanders take away punch from the bass because they are adding out-of-phase material. If you really like that effect... and the muscle of the bottom isn't as important... we can certainly do some of that. We can also do some different eq settings on the left-right perspective and that can help to widen stuff too, without compromising the bass.

Some engineers aren't sure how wide to pan different musical elements. I prefer toms to be panned spreading from 9 o'clock to 3 o'clock (full left being 7:30 and full right being 4:30) - cymbals spread from 8:30 to 3:30 - and stereo room sound full left and right. Some songs, on the other hand, I might shrink the room down to 11:00 and 1:00 - depending on what's needed for the rest of the stereo field. It's all relative, meaning something panned in seems centered relative to something panned out. A nice way to open up space for a vocal is to pan things away from the center, leaving a "pocket" that's unique to the vocal. One highly respected engineer I know even recommends bringing in different reverbs by a fraction - example: Verb 1 is panned -100 to +100 and Verb 2 is panned -99 to +99 and Verb 3 is panned -98 to +98.

If you plan to submit Separations in for mastering, then you can lean toward a wider spread, because things can be brought in on a more specific basis... but best is just to get panning the way you like it - don't plan for us to change it. An advantage of Separations is that if we hear some big issue, let's say, in the instruments - we can make a suggestion - and you only need make one new pass of the instruments to be inserted back into the Separation tracks here.
NOTE: You must be sure that you start your Separations at exactly the same place each time -or- include a cue "click" or some percussive sound at the beginning of each Separation so that we're always always able to line them up accurately. Separating the reverbs via Separations means that they're not all being mathematically summed in the same mix buss.

Another factor in "big" sound is using high-end cables whenever possible, particularly digital cables to eliminate or reduce jitter. A $350 digital cable can have as much benefit as a $3,000 converter! All your audio cables, mic cables, heck even instrument cables and power cables make a big difference.

Q) When mixing process is started - first pushing a 'mono' button on mixer and mixing tracks, and then, when it sounds good enough, panoram it over stereofield. Did you had such experience? - Alexander (from Russia)

No. Mix your stereo field first. If you sum to mono just to see if you hear something you might change, then make the change - but be sure you still like it in stereo after the change. Mono just combines the left and right into the center, and is good to see if your stereo mix also sounds good from just one speaker. Some older TVs have mono speakers, so it's common to check the sound in mono, but usually after the stereo mix is set the way you like it.

If when we turn into stereo, and move some track, for example, into left chanel, when it completeley left it sounds more quiet then it was while it was in the center. - Alexander (from Russia)

Sometimes a track will be easier to hear in a different pan position, because it's not competing or conflicting with something in that "pan location." Some pan controls actually have a different volume level in the center than they do off to the edges. This can be confusing. Compare your mixes with other CDs and see how your stereo field compares.

Q) I seem to be using quite a fair amount of reverb. However, once the mix is finalized and everything is going it is hard to hear it, so should I mix with more or less reverb, or in other words, is it harder to add or take it away during mastering?

When everything is going, it is common to hear less of the reverb. That's because there's space being filled by other signals in your musical arrangement. It takes space to hear reverb more noticeably. Try taking stuff out whenever you can. Quincy Jones is famous for that. He'll try removing as much as he can without changing the vibe.

However, if stuff just can't be taken out, just trust that it's there underneath and is giving space to the stereo field. Mix it so that you love the way it sounds all together. It's very common to stop your multitrack and hear gobs of verb and think, "Wow, that's a lot of verb." but then in the mix it makes sense.

Mastering shouldn't take away reverb, although it can make it more audible in some cases. The louder the CD's overall level, the more you can hear everything, but it all blends together in a way that there can be less air and openness too. CDs are just getting louder, and we're hearing compression now as a part of the "new sound", whereas before, mastering people tried like crazy to make compression invisible. Verbs are just starting to blend blend blend. My suggestion would be to check it all out when you get the mastered version in your hands. If there needs to be more verb, you can send me another mix, or I can add some here (not my favorite thing to do, since it's adding to the whole banana, not just one or two things.... unless I'm just adding verb to your a capella vocal track and adding that into the mix... then yes, it's a separate thing... takes some time to do though...)

Aside from [not] compressing the buss out, do you have any other suggestions as far as things to do that might make the mastering process more robust?

Mix the cymbals low, keep the bass notes at a consistent level, even if it means riding the faders (a very natural form of manual compression). Make sure you can most every word of the lead vocal (riding faders or creating a volume draw can help) - unless your music is more textural and less lyrical... um, just listen to commercial CDs as you mix and glean as much as you can from the artists who have spent 1/4 mil. $ and up...

When I render my vocal only mix I have volume envelopes, compression and verb. Do you want me to render them completely dry and without volume changes [for Separations]? And what about the harmonies? Do you want them mixed together or separate?

Leave all of your processing still in place and put all vocals together in one Separation with the associated verbs. Separate the lead from the backups only if you feel there are blending issues that you would like us to address. Let us know if you want us to make you mastered TV mixes (music + backups minus lead vocal) and/or mastered instrumental tracks (no vocals). Generally we recommend that we give you less-hot instrumentals and TV mixes because these are used in cases where "Hot CD" competitiveness isn't an issue, and better dynamics are more live sounding.

I am having an extremely hard time deciding what playback unit is the most suitable. When I finish a mix I play it back on several different units (i.e.. my car, my boombox and my living room system) and each unit brings out different strengths and weaknesses of my mix. Which one should I trust?!? Should I trust the least expensive one assuming that the higher quality units will make the music sound better?

Get a sense from all of them, not just the cheap units. I would go more with the better system and the car. The master we send you will be more compatible in all systems - but still remember each system will always have it's own sonic texture. Listen to commercial CDs in each unit before playing your music. Match the level of your music, even if you have to change the volume control. Listen to the timbre of the music, not the difference in volume... and check out Studio Monitor Madness for more info.

I already mentioned that I do not have a DAT so I will be bringing the songs on a CD. However, do you prefer it rendered in WAV or MP3 format?

NOT MP3!!!!!!! AIFF, SDII or WAV is fine. Include an audio CDR of your mixes either way.

When you said to make sure that the bass is even throughout the song and compress it a ton if needed, what would a lot be? I use about a 4:1.

That's a good ratio. It's a lot when you solo the track and you really hear it sounding like it's a little over the top. Go by the way it sounds in the track mixed in. You should hear the notes pretty clearly and consistently, and none should jump out at you unless that's what you want.

Sometimes I'll actually just use a volume envelope to physically lower and raise the level during rhythm or feel changes, do you recommend this?

Yes! That's manual compression and it's a great way to go.

Right now I mix a lot of high end into the bass to add that string noise and clarity that my bassist loves so much, during mastering will too much high on the bass make the string noise too loud?

Possibly. Stay away from anything over 5K. More meat comes through in the mids. Typically we add some clarity to the sound, so too much bass sticking out will be accentuated. Clicky sounds can be mistaken for ticks or glitches when high-end details are added in mastering. Some kick drums can have a sharp attack too, and the bass player should be right on the money with a kick like that so that there aren't flamming spikes in the rhythm playing. Mastering via Separations solves all of this.

My drummer is extremely into his cymbal work, he does a lot of cool syncopation on his hats and ride. He is always riding me to be sure that those subtle qualities can come through, yet you said to mix the cymbals lower. Are you suggesting that during mastering the cymbals come to the front quite significantly? And are you speaking of all cymbals or just the crashes?

Mostly crashes.... but yes, if we add clarity, percussive-note cymbals come forward, but not heavily. With traditional mastering, we generally won't accentuate cymbals much because we're being careful not to compromise the sound of the voice and mid instruments. Not meaning to be redundant, but Separation Mastering solves this. Meanwhile, ask your drummer to listen to commercial CDs and compare. Usually, less is more. In a live gig you aren't cramming so much sound into so little dynamic range, so you can open up more.

Often drummers overplay with the good intention that it helps the band sound more proficient. Problem is that most producers view overplaying in the same category as inexperienced, and so the good intention ends up being a sour give-away. Some of the most skilled musicians get hired because they know when to leave spacebe unique.

for other stuff. If you start with less, a record company producer can always ask for more, and they'll usually think of the subtle approach as being a more wise calling card, because it's putting the musicality and pocket (groove) in front of the gear list. If your music is very progressive and musically detailed, again, listen to commercial CDs and just use your best judgement - but remember -
Any general EQ ideas that can help?

Roll off some 30hz from the kic, and add some 2.5k to it. Add more highs and mids (say at 4k) to the snare and gate the toms slightly. Take (at least some of) the carpet off the floor when tracking the drums. Don't compress the snare until later in the mix process. Cross sticks can usually be brought forward more. (More drum tuning ideas here.)

Guitars do well with 100hz-200hz (peaking mostly vs. shelving) and some compression. Keep mids on steel guitar clear, but not shrill.

Stand back from your monitors sometimes. Occasionally you can even go into another room and hear what you hear through the doorway - not as a main reference, just as something to try - get "out of the box" to find what works for you. If you're going to compare in the car, start your test cassette (or CDR) with commercial CD songs first (maybe 1/4 of a song at-a-time), and then put your mix on.

Important: Adjust your car stereo level to hear each song at the same volume - DON'T try to mix or compress your music to the same level of the commercial stuff - that product is are MIXING right now. (More here.) Don't try to do what the mastering engineer does in order to get that level on CD. Just change the volume of your car stereo (or home CD player). A-B'ing in the car can be different than in the studio, where you should be able to level-match a commercial CD to your mix.

Q) John, thanks for the great feedback. But what does a De-esser really do?

A) It's a compressor that only compresses the highs. The word "SSSiZZZorSSS" would come out "sizzors" (I know - it's not spelled right). Years ago when I was in my band, I liked the recorded hi-fi sound of sizzly S's. But my suggestion is to keep vocal diction sounding natural.

Q) My program doesn't seem like it brings it out enough.

A) De-essing shouldn't "bring out/bring forward" anything - it should soften the S's! The idea is that by softening the S's, you can add more high end or mid-highs to the vocal (therefore more presence) without the S's spitting out over the whole mix.

Q) I can't get the vocals to have presence or not make them too dry as you suggested. Should I be adding more wet signal to the reverb?

Well, reverb *is* what I call the "wet" signal. The dry signal would be the vocal (send) coming from your multitrack. Make sure your reverb (return) is getting to the mix/remix buss. When your whole mix is going, the input meters on your reverb should be reaching up to (but not touching) the overload level of the reverb unit. Adjust the signal coming out of the unit so that it sounds appropriate in your mix. Most verb units also have an internal wet-to-dry ratio. Unless it's a live situation where you want the dry sound of the instrument coming through the unit, I recommend setting it to 100% wet. All of the dry signal should be at the channel fader. Keep in mind that dialling in the parameters of this stuff in a computer/pluggin system may differ from what I'm describing.

Reverb does add some extra dimensional presence and body. Reverb varies a lot from artist to artist. I used to think that Steely Dan's sound was too dry, but after years of getting used to it, I think it's classic. They're a studio group, so the precision and definition of each instrument is quite nice. Foreigner is too dry for my taste as far as rock music - which for me I envision being in a big concert space. I think the sound of Boston is classic. Either way, the reverb settings probably didn't affect record sales!

People's taste changes in music over time. I know when Led Zeppelin came out, I thought Robert Plant's voice was weird. Now I love it. I don't recommend trying to overly-satisfy what you think others will like, whether we're talking reverb or anything else. Do what *you* love, and the right audience will want to hear that.

Q) [I've had more than my share of mixing frustrations. I will take your advice to heart ] A part of the reason why I'm in doubt when it comes to mixing is because after I've trashed all the patchbays I get much more of a fuller sound now - which I'm not used to. I was really stunned when I found out how much of the signal they (and probably the cabling) stole.

I had my project studio wired with patchbays for convenience all these years, and never understood why I couldn't get the real punch out of my recordings, until I dismantled everything and set up a temporary recording session with the same gear but without the patchbays.

So that should also come as a warning to all beginners; Be careful with patchbays, always keep the signal path as short as possible, and if you really do need them, use only state-of-the-art.

You're right on-target! Good cable makes a huge difference, whether it's digital, analog, or power cables!

Q) Do you ever pan instruments or reverbs hard L or R?


I NEVER do that because they lose too many dB when played in mono. Sure it sounds bigger on a stereo system, but in mono the mix is just wrong. I pan no more than 64 L,R on PT, but I´ve heard that many people pan hard L,R.

It just depends on what the instruments are. It could seriously effect the mono mix, important to consider for tv and AM radio. But for the majority of applications, I encourage wide mixes with a balanced eye to the mono compatibility.

Am I "right" not panning more than 64?

Gosh, I don't think there's any right or wrong. I think it's the meaning you give it. I like panning wide on some things, but do what you feel is best! If you're summing in the analog domain, the Nautilus COMMANDER has full pan controls right on the mixer.

Q) I am home recording in Logic Audio 4.8 software. In preparation for mixing, I want all the tracks to be the around the same volume without clipping. Should I normalize all the tracks?

Normalizing isn't necessary unless you are seeing clipping. Those red "over" lights should never go on.... ever. but it's worse if you record a track at a low level and you bring up the gain, only to bring it down again on your faders. Bring tracks down only when you need to keep them out of clipping, and bring them up only when you run out of headroom and your need more to mix with.

Q) Why do you recommend to not use master faders in Protools? Sound quality would be better - is there a reason for that???

Most of the time Digidesign people disclaim that anything sounds different in Pro Tools when it comes to alternate busses, master fader, summing in the box vs. out of the box, etc.  Another Grammy-winning engineer showed us the difference in sound without the master fader - we did not expect it!

We're not computer programmers, and we can only guess that it requires more processor power to have the master fader in.  Taking the master fader out in Digital Performer makes a big difference, as does turning off graphic features like the meter display in the virtual mixer.  It just seems that there's some kind of processor "headroom" that's desireable. 

Forget what we're saying here - try it yourself and see what works best for you.  It helps a great deal if you have high resolution audio, speaker and power cables, and of course high resolution monitor control.  It makes a big difference if you have high resolution speakers that are full range, and usually not powered speakers (the vibration takes away some resolution in the image).

Q) You have more mixing suggestions than I've ever seen on any other site! Is there any one more thing I can do while mixing?

Um.... think about mixing to analog tape? How about say this over and over - "Om Mani Padme Hum" - a client tells me this is a Buddhist chant meaning "Enlightenment exists in all things." That should do the trick!

Created 6/7/00 • Modified 9/12/05
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