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  Secrets of Mixing  

Rule #1. There are no rules. Be creative. Create a major "Wow!" factor. Create something unique with a twist. Ask yourself, "What is different about our music?" Imagine the unimaginable and make it real.

Organize all your files
, plug ins, folders, track groups, audio files, mix sessions, etc. Never break this rule! 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.

Watch the vocal SS's: When you add clarity to vocals with eq, the SS's jump out too much. Natural sounding SS's are preferable. Be sure they aren't louder than the snare!, Software de-essers and multiband compressors have improved, but hardware de-essers can help this issue before the sound hits the tape (I mean the DAW track). Another solution in mixing: 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. Less is more. 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.

Don't obsess for months. 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.

Since I started the Separation Mastering process (back in '05) we've had a lot of experience "seeing" into the inner workings of a lot of mixes. Most often the majority of enhancement we do 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....... I submit to you that the lost art of "Less is more" should be a healthy balance in your bag of tricks! 

Example: We often hear drums that have been 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. Nice. Up till the point when we get it into the mastering rig, and in order to bring up your overall level, we have to (fast attack/ fast release) limit that initial transient of your snare. The more that transient comes down, the less we're retaining the sound you had, 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

We're one of a few mastering studios who will work with Separations, and thus we are better able to "look under the hood" at the components of many mixes. We've seen a common mixing problem: the drums are OUT OF POLARITY in over 60% of home 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.

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. Yikes, whatta ya gonna do? 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. 

New! Since we've been in the "mindset" of mastering with Separations, we've developed better solutions even when we're given stereo mixes for mastering. There's much more that can be done now than before, and sometimes it's as simple as sending us a dry snare track along with your stereo mix.... when we encounter this issue. Frankly, we couldn't have predicted how much more "out of the box engineering" that we would now be putting into the mastering process in 2009!  As the plug in's and computers have gotten better, we've gotten better in our basic engineering skill sets - all for your benefit. 

Hitch: If you've newly arrived to the Digital Audio Workstation recording/ mixing world -- our solutions work wonders but time is needed to produce the outstanding results created by this process.  Account for this possibility in your budget.  We don't commonly use "one-button-fixes-all" engineering techniques, because every project/ sound is different.  We come from 20 years of analog recording and mixing -- and there's a fundamental understanding of sound that comes from that experience. We remember how big and smooth the sound of analog tape was -- and we also totally dig what technology offers today! So...  book time with us or keep reading...

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. Wha???? 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 "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 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 CD's. (NOT CD's made off of iTunes. Anything could be off using an iTunes reference. 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.

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 rag on the engineer (or yourself)! Mixing is a process, and being diplomatic will save you time and increase the creative flow. Just say, "I like a lot 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." Be sure to check out my page on commercial CD references, and see Studio Monitor Madness for more info about the actual speaker system and it's effects on mixing.

Quick Tip: Get a pair of Grado SR80 headphones (about $100) but special order the foam muff that comes with the SR60. This is important because the open-foam of the SR80 makes it sound too edgy and brittle, but the full-covered foam of the SR60 is just right. You can use a single hole puncher for paper and punch one small hole in the center of the SR60 muff if you want a tiny bit more high end to come though. I use the more expensive RS2 Grados every day in the mastering studio and for the price of either of these headsets you'll get big insights into your mix. Even with the RS2's I still prefer the SR60 muffs because the enclosure "sits" closer in to your ears and increases the bass response.

Want a great in-ear headphone to go with your iPod? Get these from Mapleshade.

I recommend both of these headphones for gaining 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 advice, listen to Tom-Lord Alge who says,
" 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 when I interviewed Stephen Marcussen in EQ Magazine/Pro Sound News and he said,
"...just put in a commercial CD, see what it is you like about the CD and go for it." See the complete interview here.  More info here on effective ways to A-B.

LA Music Award Winner: Win The Day - HD Separation Mastering

For the most sonic potential,
- or speak with us about our new
enhanced stereo mix process.

Without a doubt, this cutting edge format is revolutionizing the way engineers approach the final mixing stages, as well as the end result coming out of the mastering room.

You mix like you normally mix, and then you record separate groups of instruments. Similar in concept to color separations, these sub-mixes are similar to stems, but set up in a different way, and specifically meant for stereo mastering.

Book time with us
for your mastering session!

Hear the amazing difference:
Contact us now about a no-obligation demo

Levels of improvement to DAW sound



15% & up


High precision clock



Higher sampling rate



Excellent analog & digital cables



Loop-back file vs. internal bounce



Cool analog gear vs. plug ins



Remove master fader



Don't over-do digital processing


"At first I was skeptical about using Separations - but after hearing the end result I was blown away. The mixes sounded a lot more clear and each element in the mix is more recognizable. This makes the old model of mastering seem obsolete."
Doiran Wright - Producer, engineer, artist

"Before and after Separations is like adding a few more speakers on a 2-stereo set - the difference is that big. It's not like you're taking a chance with this method - the bigger chance is NOT mastering this way."
- Brandon McCambridge - "A Secret Life"

"Separation Mastering has more detail and clarity for a project like mine with all these great drummers. There's no other way to go. I highly recommend anyone with a project to use Separations - you'll be blown away with the result."
John Wackerman - Drum Duets Volume 1 - LA, California

"The difference in clarity, space, and even front-to-back depth is so noticeable you just know there's no going back to a limited 2-track mastering technique. This is the future."
- Laurie Morvan, Lisa Grubbs - The Laurie Morvan Band - Blues rock recording artists

"The sound is better than I ever expected it to be and the Separation Mastering technique really did the trick. You proved to be helpful, kind, patient and a real pro, Mr. Goldenears."
- George Sanford Jackson -Vienna, Austria

What about really slamming levels? Slamming at the mix stage can give you a closer idea of how the instruments and vocals interact - but it can be an area where distortion can show up. Be careful how much slamming you do at the mixing stage - a Waves L2 limiter plug-in over the stereo buss is a useful tool - or limiting/gain increase using a Masterlink's DSP. Observe how the mix changes with more limiting/more level. 

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 slamming 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.

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).

This 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.

Making Separations is way easier than this, and way more effective. We've just gotta put this stuff out there so folks can check out all the options and choose what they prefer. Note: If you are making a loud rock project using Separations, we HIGHLY recommend that you make two sets for your drums: [Your Song] Drums.aif and [Your Song] OHs.aif (overheads).  This makes a big difference and can save mastering time.

There's more....
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.

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.

Now we're perfectly happy cutting a loud CD for you. 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 limit/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.)

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 also love this little gadget: the Ionoclast!

George Duke - Grammy Nominated
George Duke - Grammy Nominated
Akwid - Grammy Nominated
Akwid - Grammy Nominated

Stephen Stills
Stephen Stills
Fly Miracle Project

Crosby Loggins
Crosby Loggins
Alright This Time Just the Girls
Sympathy for the Record Industry
Jeff Peterson - Hawaiian Grammy-Winning Performer
Jeff Peterson
Brazil's A cappella BR6
Brazil's BR6
Teena Marie
Teena Marie
Marc Seal
Marc Seal

Cutting a Hot CD

Mastering Procedures

How to prepare for mastering

Creative changes

Even More Secrets of Mixing

Even more about studio monitors


How to create Separations

Illustrated History of Separations

Great reference CD's

Getting a bigger sound recording

Eq Settings that make a mix come alive!

How much compression?

Should I have the pressing plant make the glass master at 1X?

Stereo widening techniques

Differernt opinions in the studio

Backup your masters!

How to Align a 2-Track Analog Machine

Career Consultation

Created 10/22/98 * Modified 09/18/09
More on Mixing
EQ suggestions
More about compression
Info on cutting a hot CD
Miking, drum sounds and vocal sound

Remember the "teeter-totter principle" -- when you bring somethtng down (frequency, instrument, vocal), something else appears to go up. Example: bring down the cymbal crashes (and/or hi hat), the toms and snare appear louder.

Thank you for visiting. 
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Erik Zobler, mix engineer for Dianne Reeves, George Duke, Natalie Cole, Anita Baker, Teena Marie, etc.