I've been starting to get into mastering work lately and it's lead me to some pretty interesting thoughts about the process of getting a mix ready artistically. A couple songs came in last week and on my first listen I was hearing all this big, fat hip hop kick and percussion. Then I was hearing some really lush Rhodes, jazzy guitar, acoustic guitar and Hammond organ but they were buried under the beat.
My first thought was to get back in touch with the guy and ask him what the hell he was thinking burying all that gold under the drums. But after a couple more listens I started to get what he was after. The project was definitely aimed at the hip hop crowd but it's a more sophisticated feel. The imagery I was getting was of upscale cocktail parties, not tuners sittin' on dubs with eighteens in the trunk. Maybe the crowd at the party used to be that crowd though so the hip hop drums needed to hit that mark a little bit and then make you look deeper down for the upscale feeling underneath.
Thank God I was only mastering the project and not mixing it. Starting out with a batch of tracks I would have gone in a completely different direction. I would have pushed the swanky elements to the front and balanced the drums with them. That would have pushed the imaginary cocktail party all the way into the tuxedo crowd when it was intended for people who might be wearing a Method Man shirt under their sport coat.
Now days a lot of projects if not most are already in the process of being mixed as they're being tracked. It's not a matter of doing all the capture and then sending it off to a mix engineer. Whether it's a band in the live room with a producer in the control room or a kid on a laptop in his bedroom the process of mixing starts almost immediately. Some projects are completed by the people that started them, but many still get sent off to another engineer to finish.
It's vitally important for that engineer to get a really firm grasp on what the rough mixes are saying emotionally. Even if the tracks get mixed down in an entirely different fashion than the rough mix, that rough is what the makers fell in love with and bobbed their heads to. The emotion and the feel that comes out of that rough must be carried through to the final mix. In my example, I heard a cocktail party and tried to make it sound like the night was a little warmer, the drinks just a little more expensive. The client was happy and I feel like he would have been less happy if I had not picked up on that and just went straight to picking out what EQ and limiter I wanted to put on it. (This was a pretty good example, I just happened to hit on the exact imagery he was thinking of.)
One last thing and it's about that bedroom producer crowd. With just a one or maybe two person team making a song it can be easy to miss some things. For example on this project there was an additional song I was asked to do that I just couldn't get to feel like it should sit with the others I had done. That got some dialogue started with the producer about the compressors and samples he was using. It put the life into a process that could have been entirely mechanical. Versions were tried, opinions exchanged and in the end all was well.
So if you're out there making stuff on your own Brethren of the Knob and Fader, consider hiring someone to master your tracks. It's not just a matter of getting things louder. It's a matter of getting another pair of ears on your project that will more than likely hear some things you missed and give you a chance to get things exactly as you want them.
These days you don't have to send off to a pricey mastering studio either. Just drop a casual post in a forum that you're looking for mastering and guys will come out of the wood work to have a crack at your project. Start by sending off one song to anybody that wants a try and pick the best one. You can be talking pricing as you go along. Many are willing to work just for the experience, many more have got some experience under their belts but still won't charge very much. You'll be surprised what you can get.