Tuesday, July 24, 2012

An Insight Into Mastering

I've got about an hour commute to work and back and I fill the time with different listening. Terrestrial radio, streaming music from my phone, my iPod. My favorite thing to listen to though is podcasts. I can't get enough audio nerdspeak and the Audio Nowcast and Pensado's Place deliver. I've been building my post production and mix/master chops for the last year or so with a lot of things I've learned.

One of the more recent epiphanies was that I'm well suited for the task of mastering. I wrote a post about it. Then I started working on my chops. At work I record the services every week and pick the best one to clean up a little and post for the band to listen back to. I had gotten in the habit of using a multi-band compressor on the two bus as a quick way to spruce up those board recordings.

The thing is, while it fattened them up a little, it was really hard to get a mix to come out sounding as exciting as it did in the church. Then I heard Dave Pensado interview Bruce Swedien who said he didn't use a stitch of compression when he mastered except in a few specific instances. I'm already sick of over compressed music so I decided to take a crack at it.

Last week I had a band that was smaller than usual and had found myself working to fill up the space. The services came out great but the multiband did its usual thing and the recordings were sort of blah. They still got rave reviews but I felt like they weren't being all they could be. So when I sat down with the tracks from a normal sized band I was all set up for another trip to the land of the Fat and Flat (the mix, not the musicians).

I will say that because these were live mixes I did allow myself to cheat a little because there's so much dynamic range that portions of the performance would be lost if I didn't squeeze just a little. There is some compression in the live mix but it's basically a rock show. It's got real mountains and valleys in it. I decided to trust the mix that I had done in the space and just sit down to spend a little time with the two mix.  I put up a parametric EQ and a compressor, no fancy plugins, just the ones that come with Reaper
I set a super low ratio and started playback at a high point in the service. I rolled the threshold with the mouse wheel while my eyes were shut and stopped when it started to sound flat. I opened my eyes and saw I was hitting about 9dB of reduction and opened up the threshold until I was getting about 6dB at the highest point and listened back. I could tell it was starting to squeeze just a little but it was nothing like the sausage factory I had been running before.

I clicked back to a quieter part of the service and started slowly raising the level until it felt like it wasn't getting lost. I could hear little details like the drummer tickling the high hat. I went back and forth between the hot spots and the lower sections for a few minutes until the master meters were just a tick below full scale at the highest points.

I went back and listened to some longer passages and started tweaking the EQ a little. Fattening up the kick drum a little, reducing some shrillness in the guitars and vocals, bringing out the high transients. After a few minutes of that I went back and touched the level and compression one last time and printed the mix.

It's not Grammy worthy material by any stretch, but it's a fair representation of what our band sounded like. I make every effort to make sure every person and instrument is heard on stage. It only makes sense to do that mix some justice by making sure that when my players listen back in their cars or on their iPods that they're not constantly jogging the volume up and down to catch everything. 
The EQ and subtle compression fattened up the mix while leaving in most of the exciting transients that make listening a pleasure. The human ear can handle dynamic range. You can hear a bee buzzing and also stand with your ears uncovered at a fireworks show. It makes no sense to me that commercial music is squeezed to within an inch of its life for the sake of being louder than the next track on the radio. When all was said and done I looked at the printed mix and the waveforms look a lot more like what music looked like in the 70s and 80s than the two by fours you hear on the radio today.

The whole process took about twenty minutes for eight songs. Far from what a real mastering engineer would do for a similar package but for what basically amounts to a glorified rehearsal tape it makes all the difference. I spend a lot of time encouraging my musicians, congratulating them on their good work and hopefully pushing them to do even better. This is just one more way I can do that without having to use any words.

Now if I could just get the whole thing out of mono so I could create an actual sound stage in the mix.


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