Mastering Trends

bassNow that I have been mastering other people’s music for around 15 years, it’s interesting to look back and reflect on some of the trends I’ve seen come and go over that time. Not so much in terms of musical styles, but rather the mixdowns I’ve been sent. So, how’s does the music I was sent 15 years ago compare to what I get today? Here’s a few examples that stick out in my mind:

1. Bass issues. By far the number one issue I used to deal with when mastering other people’s tracks years ago was the low end. Too much bass, too little bass, bass all over the place. These days it’s still an issue for some people, but the range of extremes seems to be a lot smaller. People generally seem to have a better grasp of what’s happening in the low end of their songs.

I think it’s largely down to studio monitors getting better more than anything. It’s a lot easier and cheaper for producers to buy a fairly accurate monitoring setup for their studio. And more musicians than ever recognize how important it is combined with acoustic treatment.

These days it’s actually the opposite that I find true, people are putting the high end all over the place. Cymbals that will tear your ears off they are so loud, or high hats that are so quiet you can barely hear them. I have no idea why this is happening, but there you go 🙂

2. Tracks lacking stereo spread. Early on I used to get a lot of tracks that were very mono focused, some were straight up completely mono. These days it the opposite, I get so many tracks where everything in the song is panned so far out to the sides, or some type of stereo-widener was over-applied. I’ve gone from spending time to give tracks depth, to working on bringing back some solidity to the center channel.

Lots of stereo effects pushing things really wide, combined with people doing a lot of writing in headphones these days are my guesses to the culprits. Along with people over-applying stereo widening plug ins as I mentioned before. You need the key elements of the song in the center of the mix too!

3. Tracks are clipping or distorted. A pretty common phenomenon early on, people just weren’t used to paying attention to their levels as much as they are now I guess. Or they were DJs used to pinning their signals in the red all the time. Luckily with increased awareness of how to use digital audio, increased use of 24bit audio, and understanding of proper gain staging, this seems to be a lot less of an issue. A few times this year I even got a couple tracks with over 48dB of headroom, oops.

4. Producer confidence. Out of all the trends I’ve seen, this is the one that still surprises me the most. Years ago people would submit tracks and tell me “this is the bomb track, make it really slam for me!” when they submitted a mixdown for mastering. People might not have the best sounding tracks, but boy did they think they did! 🙂

Today I get so many mixdowns where the producer is obviously really insecure with what their work. They apologize for issues that I don’t even hear, or they expect me to send them a detailed mixdown revision list with a ton of fixes. The ironic thing is, usually these mixdowns sound great, fantastic even! I’m not sure if producers are just under more pressure to compete among themselves or what is causing this lack of confidence. The music sounds vastly better, but everyone expects that their work really sounds bad. Weird. Heads up, chins up, have some faith in your music people!

Anyway, that’s just a few things off the top of my head. It’s kind of interesting being in a position like this long enough to even see a trend in music making, here’s to hoping I can do another post like this ten years from now. Who knows what we’ll be seeing then!

iOS8 Anti-Rant

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Given how much talk is going on in the iOS music community about iOS8, I wanted to share my thoughts on the situation.

When I first switched to an OSX based computer from Windows, one of the first things I learned is that if you want things to go easy in Apple land, you stay current.  Apple has no qualms about abandoning standards, ports, OS’s, whatever if they think they have a new and better way of doing things.  It’s just the way they are, their main attraction to consumers is being cutting edge, and that means not looking behind too much, which is unfortunate for a lot of people.

I learned the hard way when I bought my parents an iMac years ago so they could surf the web and FaceTime with us.  It was a nice closed system, it worked, and we agreed not to update anything.  Except then you get cut out of the Apple ecosystem eventually.  You need a newer OS than your hardware supports just to sync, or to do something like FaceTime.  You wait too long, you get left behind, and no one at Apple will care.

So I update right away when OS updates come out, not because I’m an Apple lemming, but because that’s how their whole ecosystem is set to work.  Look, here’s the newest way we’re doing things, everyone get onboard.  You too with the iPod Touch, you have to stand in back though.  Apps are expected to be kept current, and Apple is going to adjust the OS however they want to make things better.  You don’t have to agree with it, that’s just how it’s worked so far.

This has happened to me a lot over the years, both on the laptop and on iOS devices all the way back to the first iPhone.  Each time, I’d say that a few apps probably have issues, but in general it goes very smoothly.  The few apps that do have hiccups, usually get an update in a few weeks and then it’s like nothing happened.  Ironically iOS8 was the first time I’ve noticed more than 1 or 2 issues, and they are all related to Audiobus, not the actual iOS8 update.

I don’t make all my money from using my iPad to make music, but I do use it a lot for writing songs that I sell to supplement my income.  Never have I run into a situation where I didn’t have some other apps I could turn to that got the job done.  Any time you rely on too strict of a configuration of gear to get work done, you’re setting yourself up for a disaster eventually IMO.  There’s THOUSANDS of apps available for writing music, don’t blame the tools if you’re calling yourself a craftsman.

I DO make all my money running a business that relies on OSX software (Audiofile’s Triumph) for me to function and make money.  So I know all about wanting things to work right in order to feed my family.  But it’s also taught me that you have to really focus on the developers who KNOW how important it is that they are on that update bus just like Apple wants them to be.  One of my best friends writes iOS music apps, and I see with each of these iOS updates how much prep work they put in to make sure their user base has the least wait possible.  Good developers know what’s going on, they’re not (usually) surprised by OS updates.

It’s taught me to focus on a lean set up that uses software from developers I know are in it for the long haul.  Many like the people on this forum, you can tell by the way that they interact with their user base that everyone is on the same page.  You find the right group of people making software you like, those that have a great record for staying current and fixing bugs fast, and you don’t have to worry about many of these issues.

At least not for long 🙂

People have been freaking out as if things are the end of the world, but the fact is there’s enough that IS working that you can figure it out if you need to get a job done.  We’re making music with a computer, which means there’s actually a LOT of things that are integral to how we express ourselves that are out of our control (and always will be).  You need to be flexible to deal with hiccups when they come, because we are never the intended user base for the way these devices are designed.

Things like this will happen, adapt, move on (and support those developers that want to support you).  It’s critical to being a 21st century musician IMO.

(first posted on the Audiobus forums I admit)

Tarekith

Temples To Telescopes

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Temples To Telescopes <- Right Click To Save.

This track started one night after I had just finished up jamming on my acoustic guitar using my Timeline Delay pedal. I was putting things away, and realized I had left the feedback cranked up, and the electrical noise from the guitar pickups started to feedback making this cool sound wash.

I fired up Ableton Live, and started to record, not realizing that the metronome from Live was being picked up by the guitar pickups and thus being recorded too. Luckily, it ended up sounding cool, so that recording became the intro and ending guitar parts!

From there I built up the core track using Push to program all the drums, the bassline, and some of the synth parts. Once I had those in place, I brought everything to arrangement view and started working on the basic structure to the song. Every now and then I’d stop to record some new guitar parts, sometimes keeping the results, sometimes not.

The guitar is a Taylor 814ce running direct into an Xotic EP Booster, Strymon Timeline, and TC Electronic Hall Of Fame pedals, from there into my Lynx Hilo. I don’t mind keeping mistakes when I think they add an interesting texture to the song, as you can hear in some of the string buzzes I turned into panning effects.

The mixdown used only the Ableton Live 9 effects, with just a touch of Limiter on the master channel to handle the “Mastering”.  You can download the Ableton Project File here, if you wish to take a look at how the track was written:

http://tarekith.com/assets/TemplesToTelescopes.zip

Hope you enjoy,
Tarekith

The -6dB Rule

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Been seeing a lot of new producers asking why they should keep their DAW master meters around -6dBFS (or -3dBFS, -4dBFS, etc). While a lot of mastering engineers are the ones asking for mixdowns this way, there seems to be some confusion that this is something that is needed for mastering. In truth, mastering engineers could care less what the headroom of your tracks is, as long as there is some.

The real reason you want to try and keep some headroom in your mix downs is to make sure that you’re not inadvertently clipping. A lot of synths and effects use random modulations, even some dynamics processors are designed to mimic analog processors and thus might have slight variations each time you process audio through them.

By aiming to keep roughly 6dB of headroom on the master channel as you do your mix, you’re just ensuring that some of this randomness doesn’t clip. Just because your mix peaks at exactly -1dBFS one time when you play the song, doesn’t mean it will peak to that same value each and every time. Leaving some headroom just eliminates having to worry about this, it’s a safety net, nothing more.

In a perfect world if you’re 100% sure your mix is not clipping, you can render it as close to 0dBFS as you want. But that doesn’t mean that you’re going to gain anything by doing so, your mix won’t sound better.  So there’s really no need to push things that hard and risk clipping your file permanently.

As you can see, I tend to tell people to aim for roughly -6dBFS, but that’s just a personal preference. Some people recommend -3dBFS as well, either will work fine, just be sure you’re also working at 24bit or higher.

So what if your mix is too hot, and you don’t know the best way to fix it? In general I tell people it’s best to get in the habit of leaving the master fader at 0 and just lowering all the tracks by the same amount until you have the headroom you want. But there’s really nothing wrong with just lowering the master fader too, if that works better because you have a lot of track volume automation for instance. Use whatever is easiest for you, the key is just to get that safety in place.

I hope that helps clear some of this up, let me know if you have any questions!

The Practice Guilt

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Last November I finally achieved a dream of mine by buying a really nice acoustic guitar. While providing me with a musical outlet that was a break from the electronic-inspired songs I work with all day, it also was a chance for me to finally spend some quality time improving my guitar chops. Something I hadn’t done much since I first started playing over 20 years ago.

So I made a pact with myself that I would at least pick up the guitar and play SOMETHING every single day. Even if it was only 5 minutes of exercises to keep my fingers in shape, such as the excellent “Finger Gym” by Justin Sandercoe.  Probably one of the simplest and best practice routines for finger independence and strength that I’ve found yet.

For months I was successful at my goal, every single day I played my guitar, sometimes for hours, sometimes for minutes. As you would expect, it didn’t take long for me to see some pretty dramatic improvements (even considering I was also finger-picking for the first time). If nothing else I FELT like I was playing better than ever before, and when you’ve been playing as long as I have, that’s a great feeling.

Then something unexpected happened that threw a wrench in my works, I went on vacation.

Specifically to Europe for two weeks, which meant I would have no access to a guitar the whole time (and I did attempt to find local shops on our travels). I was in a panic, not only was I about to break my vow of daily practice, but I felt like it was going to be a step backward in my progress too. But, at the same time I knew I had to be practical and that life was bound to throw me obstacles that would make daily practice impossible eventually.

When I returned from that vacation, one of the first things I did was pick up the guitar, fearfully expecting it to feel a bit clumsy again. I was more than a little shocked to discover that my playing actually felt better than before I left by a little bit. My fingers hadn’t forgotten everything, and they weren’t weak little sausages that couldn’t play for more than a couple minutes without getting tired.

I was happy, but convinced it was a weird fluke. However, as I’ve had the chance to take a few more days off for other various trips this fall, I keep experiencing the same thing. After a couple of days break from the guitar, I wasn’t struggling to return to the level I was at before. If anything, my fingers felt more confident, and my muscles felt stronger for the break too. A couple minutes of warmup and I was feeling better than ever.

This got me thinking about how I’ve noticed a similar thing when I come out of long bouts of writer’s block. I might go months without any solid ideas, feeling like my skills are slipping and things are going to be harder once the muse revisits my studio. But in each case, I’ve come out of these long periods of rest with my music being stronger than ever (I think anyway).

As I’ve looked into this some more, it seems this is a common phenomenon among musicians. Players say that after having troubles learning a difficult passage in songs, sometimes taking a break for a day and then trying again means they nail it first time. Or producers who struggle all day to achieve a balance in their mixdown come back to it after a good night’s sleep and suddenly the issues are obvious.

I think our brains need time to adapt and learn, and sometimes trying to force yourself to achieve a goal backfires, and we just end up making the same mistakes over and over. By taking a break, and especially sleeping for one night, we allow our brains a chance to process the new information we’re trying to learn at it’s own pace. The neural connections we need can form properly, and often we can suddenly achieve what we wanted the next time we try.

I don’t dread long times away from my studio like I used to anymore. I accept it’s a natural part of any learning curve, not just for something specific like the guitar. Sometimes trying to push through a problem doesn’t actually solve the problem, and you either never conquer it, or it takes way longer than it should.

It seems counterintuitive, but I guess sometimes you need to take a break from something to get better at it!