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  Q&A - Mixing, CDR's, Compression, etc.  

Q) I have gone to this guy to record 3 different times, and for some reason, we can't seem to get a decent sound from him. I'm really not sure if this is due to musicianship, or if it is just due to mastering/editing. -David

I would suspect 2 things: (1) The engineer's monitor system isn't revealing and accurate as it could be and (2) he isn't comparing his work to other commercial CDs often enough. What can you do? The same thing Michael Jackson did on one of his latest albums: insist that the engineer have current commercial CDs available to reference to the studio at all times.

When you track drums, reference to an awesome sounding CD. When you track guitars, reference to an awesome sounding CD. Insist that the time be taken to listen to other CDs at the same volume level at every step of the way. (Michael, by the way, constantly referenced to his OWN CD (The Wall) when he was tracking and mixing his latest record... and if Michael can do it.... what engineer on the planet would say you shouldn't do that?)

When you mix, spend at LEAST 1/2 to 3/4 hour (out of every 3 hours) listening and comparing other commercial CDs to your mix. Click -your mix - click - their mix - click - your mix - click - their mix... etc. This eliminates 80% or more of the guesswork BEFORE you're in the mastering studio. When you go in to the mastering studio..... you may even consider the same method. Your master - their master... your CD - their CD - all on a level-matched mastering system. (The Nautilus DMC-8 is a monitor controller for all studios that easily facilitates this technique.)

Keep in mind that your engineer should NOT try to make the mixdown-copied-onto-CD as loud as a normal commercial CD. Trying to make a hot CD before the mastering process doesn't work in your favor. The volume is for the mastering engineer to create. The mixer should just make it sound great using good levels and good headroom, compressing within the mix. Mixes should stay 2 dB below clipping on digital meters. (Also check my articles on compression.)

I am just looking for some kind of suggestions to help [our engineer] master our recording better.

Your engineer is welcome to read my web site, but I can't give him 26 years of experience without the 26 years! Check the site map for a listing of the articles that may be helpful.

The problems that I seem to be having with him are the vocals being too low/soft, the kick being way too high, and the guitar being weird... kind of scratchy sounding, a lot of treble, not enough punch.

Aside from mix issues, it could be that the mics are too close to the speaker, or it's direct signals (not miked signals) so-so converters that aren't fat and wide (a key issue with any digital workstation). A "vacant" sounding mix usually means low-end converters, clock issues and more. Some big engineers like to transfer to analog from their digital workstation to give it the silkier, warm sound of analog.

When it comes to comparison referencing, sometimes it's a little intimidating for an engineer to put on the CD of a supergroup, and then put up the work he/she is doing for you in the studio. That engineer could think, "How can I possibly compete with that SSL or NEVE console - and all those tube mic pre's?" Well, consider that record companies will compare your product with the biggies who did record on an SSL - so you might as well go through that discomfort in the studio where there is no label rep in the room. Get happier with the sound at "point A" and you'll be more confident of your product when you're in the A&R room. Your results stem very directly from your level of confidence.

What can help is if the artist lets the engineer know that they are willing to pay for the extra time that it takes to make these side-by-side comparisons. Often the engineer has good intentions for the session to go quickly. Realize that it may be more costly at the time, but look at the aggravation that it can save you later... everything has it's price, and we generally are at an advantage when we just decide to bite the bullet and put in some extra effort earlier on.

In the worst case, the engineer will get aggravated and claim artistic independence and not allow commercial CDs to be heard in his/her control room! Then you can simply request that your preference be honored - it's nothing personal - no one will make any negative comments if it takes some time to achieve your goals - and ultimately when the project is finished, everyone will know more than when they started. It happens to the best of us. In fact, that's how we become the best.

Q) I just recently had a project mastered, and [the sound] seemed a little dull [before adding mastering eq]. [Adding top end] was definitely able to help it, but do you have suggestions for getting more "air" in the mix stage? -Danny

Top end can definitely help a mix have clarity, immediacy and more "air." Other factors can be the A-D converters, the quality of cables you have going into your mixdown machine, the kind of mics and mic pre's used in tracking, the kind of chips (or lack thereof) in the console (there's plenty of guys out there who will modify any console with better chips, power supplies, or discrete blocks), heck, there's a bunch of things that help!

You can try using different eq ranges for different instruments and vocals, in order to have a spread of frequencies that are accentuated. So if you're bringing out 2.5k in the vocals, lean more toward 1k in the guitars, and 3.5k in the keyboards, and 4.5k in the backup vocals. That's just an example. Wait to go wild on the parametrics - I've seen a lot of home studio guys with their computers with amazingly wild roller coaster eq settings on stuff that just needs some gentle top, no compression and better panning. A buildup of frequencies in the same range doesn't make things more clear - it makes it more glaring or harsh. Then we have to cut very strategically to keep the clarity and lose the knarly.

Another biggie is having a great monitor system so you can hear that air is needed. Often studio monitors have their own "air" and it's quite common that us mastering engineers have to add that back in. Even the kind of cables going to the power amp, the kind of cables going to the speakers, the placement of the speakers in the room, the acoustic treatment, etc. makes a difference. (More here.)

I'm often surprised when a studio owner won't bat an eye to get a $3,000 mic pre/compressor/eq in order to get a great vocal sound, but resists getting a pair of $3,000 monitor speakers to get better sound on everything! Yes, mastering experts can easily spot when a mix needs more clarity, but that's largely due to the time and money we've invested in the clarity of the "lens" we look through... and experience helps... pro's who have been in their room for 30 years can hear a fly land on the cone.

Q) Are there major differences in the quality of CD-R's in different colors (i.e.- gold, silver, blue)? Is one type better for final masters than another? - Jeff

Absolutely. You get what you pay for. Unfortunately, the consumer market, and what the consumer will buy/pay is what drives the quality level of cdrs. If the manufacturers can shave off a penny here and a penny there, they will to cut the cost and increase profits. Quality isn't the priority.

The different color of ink (on the bottom) and the coating on top definitely makes a difference. I recommend Kodak gold on gold, BASF ceramic coated and Maxells. You can try Quantegy or Sony, but all of these brands change their formulas from time to time. I spend a lot of time testing different brands, and it's getting harder to be completely satisfied with what's out there. In a way, we're stuck with what they give us.

Has there been any study published on the shelf life of these different types of CD-R? Or is the jury still out? -Jeff

I haven't seen such a study, but the claim is a shelf life of 75 years. Ok. We'll see. We were surprised when analog tapes (mostly Ampex and some Agfa) started becoming sticky and unplayable. They can be salvaged via baking and other restoration techniques. Supposedly the manufacturers have fixed that. A huh. We'll see in another 20 years.

The jury is definitely out on how long dat tapes will last. We already know that the compatibility of dat tapes from machine to machine is *less* compatible than our analog counterparts, so keep your fingers crossed on those dat masters you're making. Best, in my opinion, to make a CD backup of any dats, and a dat backup of any CD masters!

Q) My mix seems good, but I have to turn the bass way down when I listen in the car. It seems to have a mid bass hump that needs to be corrected. Can you do that?

Yes I can correct what you're describing. If you can turn down the bass in the car and still hear the guitars and vocals and they're still big, you're in good shape.

When played through my studio monitors it seems just fine. Which would you prefer to correct...the hotter bass signal or one that the bass appears to be weak in the mix?


I would probably rather you be conservative with the low end. That way I have more control over which particular frequencies I bring out. Make sure that you can still hear the bass, though! Better yet, keep trying to correct this at your place.

It sounds like you have a "hole" in your mixing position, like you're close to your speakers, say 3-5 ft??? If you stand farther back from the speakers, how is the bass response? Closer to what you hear in the car? How about if you stand in a back corner of the room? Try to get at least one other consumer thing like a boom box with some "mega bass" or something where you can listen to some top ten commercial CDs and feel like the bass/guitar/drum/vocal blend is really right. Then compare your mix with that commercial CD in the studio as well as in the car, the boom box etc. It's research time well spent.

I know not everybody has CDs in their car. Do you have a CD cutter to cut a cdr to play over a boom box or other stereo gear? Cassettes can be difficult, because the azimuth can be completely different in your car compared to on your studio deck.

Big key: If you're listening in the car, don't compare a cassette or CD of your mix with music on the radio! That's like apples and oranges. The equalization curve for radio signal is completely different internally inside the car units. Only compare CDs to cds, and cassettes to cassettes. Commercial cassettes are usually pretty good, but remember there is still going to be an azimuth difference (slant of the heads in the deck) between the units that made those tapes and the tape you made. CDs are a more accurate way to compare sonics.

Look out for this!: When you are mixing to CD (or making a CD copy of your dat), don't be bummed if your mix CD isn't as loud as a commercial cd! In fact, it's better if it isn't that loud! Some people are making the mistake of compressing and using digital brick-wall limiters and limiting programs in gear like the Finalizer so that their CD copy is as loud as commercial CDs are.

The reason this is a mistake is because the commercial CDs have been mastered, and they have probably used $30,000+ worth of gear just for the compression and eq, listening over very sophisticated systems, and applying years and years of experience to achieve that sound. World class mixing engineers know to stick to making the mix itself sound great, letting the mastering engineer do his/her job of making the CD sound great. Just use commercial CDs as a guide - a reference place to compare your highs, lows, mids, hearability of the vocals, power and emphasis of the drums and guitars, spatial spread, transparency, warmth, etc.

Even if you have to "turn off the clock" to make a few extra comparisons, it's worth it because it only helps get things dialed in for future projects. Also be sure to check out my pages on Studio Monitor Madness and More On Monitors and HotCD Disease.

Q) Wouldn't you recommend light compression 2:1 or less before mixing to a Panasonic SV 3800 DAT recorder? -Bob

You know, there just isn't a "one-setting-does-it-all" answer to this question. On some things, 2:1 would be perfect... others... I wouldn't suggest it at all. I feel it's safest to not use compression on the stereo buss. It's one more piece of gear that adds stuff making it less pure signal-wise. A compressor is a long way from a straight wire in terms of signal purity. For instance, some compressors may have a slower slew rate that can cloud the precision of the mids and bass.

However, if it sounds better and really works for your ears, go for it! Without being in your mix room and comparing A-to-B, I just can't safely say it's the best way to go.
Cool idea: Make two mixes - one with and one without the compressor - and let it be decided in mastering which sounds best within the context of your entire CD. If you change your mind, you have the other version ready to go. An excellent engineer once brought me material that was mixed two ways - with and without a Finalizer. Which did we use? The client and I picked the non-Finalized versions because it sounded more open and dynamic. But it was worth it to have the option.

If you are comparing your mix with other commercial cds, you will be hearing those CDs with mastering compression. Best not to try to emulate that compression in the mix room, but simply use the commercial CDs as a reference to vocal level, over-all punch/vibe, highs & lows, etc.

Compression can vary from song to song in any one album. Every song somewhat effects the approach used on the other songs. (That's one of the advantages of having automated eq - I can jump from the first song to the last song to the middle in a matter of seconds.) Therefore I think the less "unifying" one-setting-processors used, the more the character of each song is revealed within the context of the whole cd.

Do I mix to my dat at 44.1 or 48k? I know CD is 44.1 but it sounds better at 48 to my ears. Am I gonna lose any sound quality when its recorded to cd? -KC

Good question! Mix to 48 if the mastering house you plan to use processes in the analog domain, as I do. If they strictly master in the digital domain, mix to 44.1.

I seem to be getting a lot of feed back(i.e. hisss) when recording how can I remove this noise? -DC

I love the Behringer de-noiser, a bargain and sounds great.

I run a project studio out of my basement. What would you say is my best option to gain more control over my sound? -Jordan

The bottom end should be terrific in there. For low end, cardboard boxes, or go to your local Home Depot and get the cardboard tubes for making concrete footers. Anything that vibrates turns sound energy into heat. Fill with free (used) foam from carpet places that are happy to give it away. Also, diffusers like CD cases, books in shelves, plants, just experiment! (More here.)

I hear many song recorded on CakeWalk Pro9, Cubase, Vegas, and ProTools and they all sound good if its done right. What's best? -Sean

I like Nuendo, Pro Tools, Digital Performer, Vegas Pro..... they all sound slightly different, but what's most important is that your music kicks. Get the best A-to-D converters you can afford and if possible, a good clock device like the Apogee Big Ben. Pick the DAW that bests suits your budget and functionality goals. (Here's my look at 30 different DAW summing systems.)

How important are near fields for mixdown? -Alan

That's a loaded question! Some people HAVE to have them. I don't like them at all. I say get the most expensive audiophile speakers/amplifier/cables you can responsibly afford that are full-range. Getting used to them is a world better than going back and forth between big and small... but it's purely a preference thing. If you can interpret NS10's correctly (oh gasp!), you're in there.

My levels are clipping on my computer workstation. Should I leave the master fader at zero and turn down the levels of each track considerably (-8 to -12), or leave the levels of each track up around zero and lower the level of the master fader to around minus 6? -Scott

It's best to keep the master fader at 0 and bring down the individual tracks. If possible, remove the master fader - it can be helpful to the sound. Keep your pluggin levels such that if you bypass them, the volume of that particular track stays the same. That way you can bypass the pluggin and really see - level-matched - if it's helping the sound.

Q) How can I tell if my music is really at the level it needs to be to sound good once professionally mastered? -Mike

Your music is the same as everyone else's in the sense that some people are going to love it, and some people won't. There's lots of big name artists with recordings that sound so-so, yet they have hits. There's artists with magnificent recordings that only sell a small amount, regardless of the mastered sound. Sometimes it's the look of the artist that matters, sometimes it's the promotion that matters.

Your music is just... your music! If you enjoy it, and others you play it for enjoy it, then chances are it can be put out there at the level you are. See what happens. Promote it to the best of your ability. Just START. John Lennon was never satisfied with their recordings. If he had the chance to make them all perfect, it would have taken years longer for their classic music to come out, but promoters and record companies would have objected.

We deal with humanity's time-frame, and the infinite personality of the end-listener, who will find your music through whatever path is available for your kind of music. So if you expect night club-play to increase your exposure, you may want to consider that volume thing as an acceptable gain accompanied by an acceptable loss. EVERY vinyl record contained those elements. It's just with digital, everyone can be SO picky because there's no scratches and warped records to make us ignore purist concerns like a "change with the stereo field."

Q) I'm getting noisy CDs. Should I attempt to get the ambient hiss or "noise" out before or after mastering? -Phil

Use the Behringer de-noiser on tracks coming into the system. It's best if you can just hit "play" and everything's clean sounding before you go to CD.

Do mic pre-amps really make a large difference in quality? -Brandon

It may or may not seem subtle at first, but it all definitely adds up. Plus, a good pre can be used for anything, vocals, guitars, you name it. They are designed to replace the stock mic preamps in your board, which typically are chips, and don't sound as robust as tubes or discrete circuits. Ask your local gear dealer how they're set up - many engineers bypass the board altogether, avoiding the chips in the channel modules too.

I notice that on a lot of major label recordings the WAV is flattened out.

If you're referring to the musical waveforms having clipped table-tops, that's not a great goal. It's not musical sounding, though it can be acceptable.

Are these cut offs because if the wav goes any higher it will cause errors at the plant?

It's just the way digital clipping looks. It can come from hitting the A-to-D converters too hard. Slam it too hard and yes, the plant may not dig it - though in some cases I've seen commercial releases with a lot of digital overs. I don't recommend it!

I don't have the feature on cool edit pro to cut the wav off...

Good!

I wish we had the $ to get someone with experience to master it for us.

Mastering can be affordable (some will even say how can one afford NOT to master!).

We mastered 4 of our songs somewhere else, but they still weren't as loud as major CDs, would it be ok to just bring it up (normalize ) a little? -Tom

Normalizing either is or isn't - you can't really do it "a little." It probably won't hurt, but it's also possible your songs are already normalized! Try it and see if you get what you want. Otherwise great mastering gear (and experience) will help you achieve that level and still keep the quality.

I recorded and mastered my solo CD from my analog multitrack to digital. Sounds great in my studio but my local radio station won't play it because it sounds mushy over the air. I mastered at 44,100/16 bit stereo. Is this not proper for radio? What should I master at for radio? -Randy

44.1 isn't the issue for "mushy" sound. 44.1 is just the sampling rate, or how much resolution is occurring when the analog-to-digital converters are analyzing the sound. Mushy comes from some aspect of your recording, either the tracking, mixing, or *sonic* aspects of the mastering.

One of the advantages if an experienced mastering engineer is that he/she brings an objective ear to the project, on different speakers. If you've done all your work over the same set of speakers, you're compiling any problems or inaccuracies in the system, which are building up by the time it gets into their hands. Compare with commercial cds, and then compare yours with commercial CDs over your system, and then keep comparing. (More here.)

Created 6/12/00 • Modified 08/08/04
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