Mastering Guide v2.0

The original version of my mastering guide was by far the most downloaded and shared production guide I’ve ever written, even though it was primarily geared towards “beginner” musicians. As time went on and I began doing mastering as a full-time profession however, it also raised a lot of questions from more advanced users.  So I figured it was time to update it and provide some clarifications, as well as cover some new ideas in places.  I hope that this new version will be as useful as the original, and that musicians and producers of all skill levels will continue to benefit from it.

 

http://tarekith.com/assets/mastering.html

Of course, some people have always found it odd that someone who does mastering full-time as their main source of income would be offering a free guide on how to master your own music!  Without a doubt, I still think that professional mastering is the best option when it comes to creating a great sounding finished product.  Especially in this day and age where most people work alone on their songs from start to finish.  It’s still by far the most economical way to get advice and help from someone with more experience, as well as a dedicated listening enviroment, who can really take things to the next level to bring out the best in your music.

But I also remember being a starving student myself, and I know there’s a lot of people out there who just can’t afford to go that route (or have other reasons to want to go it alone).  My hope is that guides like this will help dispel some of the common myths about self-mastering your own music, and perhaps in some small way lead to a lot of music sounding better as a result.

My reasons are selfish you see, I just can’t stand to hear incredible tracks ruined by people over-processing things when they “master” it themselves 🙂

Peace and beats,
Tarekith

Production Q&A #4

Before I start with this week’s Q&A, just a quick note about the blog notifications going forward.  If you like the blog and the things I post, please take a second RIGHT NOW to sign up for email notifications of new posts (on the right hand side of the page).  Or follow me on Twitter, RSS, or Facebook via the icons at the top of the screen.  This is the last time I’m going to announce new blog posts on the various forums I visit, unless the topic directly has something to do with one of those forums.  Going forward, new posts will only be announced via one of the methods above.  Sorry, but it’s starting to come across as a little spammy according to some people, and I don’t want to make that impression.  Thanks!

Right then, here’s this week’s questions:

1. Can you detail your process for getting big, warm bass, big kick drum, mixing them together and keeping them big without the inevitable frequency conflicts?

I think that a lot of times people struggle with this because they’re trying to fit a round peg into a square hole (or maybe that’s a sine wav into a square wav?).  By that I mean, more often than not, when you choose the right sounds that compliment each other in the first place, they fit together in the mix quite easily.  So I usually tell people to think up front about what sounds they want to use.

If you want a deep 808-style kick in your song, then obviously you need to be careful about what kind of bassline you write.  Either by choosing a sound that sits a little higher in the frequency spectrum, or by writing the bassline that doesn’t sound when the kick is playing.  That’s one reason off-beat basslines (one AND two AND three AND, etc) are so popular in dance music, they don’t interfere with the kick.

And the opposite is true as well.  If you listen to dubstep or drum and bass where really deep and powerful basslines are more important, more often than not the kick is really bright and short.  That way it can cut through the mix still, and not get drowned out by the bassline.

Of course, even if you do pay attention to this stuff, there’s just times when you need to get a little surgical to get everything to sit together perfectly on the low end.  Side-chaining the bassline to the kick is a popular trend these days, it just pulls the level of the bassline down some when the kick hits. Done right, it can be a pretty transparent way of getting things to gel nicely.  Alternatively, sometimes you can use EQ to notch out each sound so that things don’t clash too much.  A few dB reduction in the frequency where the kick and bassline clash can be useful in some cases.

 

2. Why isn’t stem mastering used more?  Does it sound worse than regular mastering?

I think historically stem mastering was frowned upon by mastering engineers for a few reasons.  First, because a lot of times it just meant that the client was having trouble making up their mind, at a time when they need to really be getting everything nailed down and ready to release.  If they can’t make up their mind if they like a mixdown or not, then likely they’re going to be the same way with the mastering process.  Ultimately, it can just mean the client will be difficult to work with.

The second reason is that the mastering engineer is supposed to be looking at the big picture, the album as a whole and how it all fits and sounds together.  When they’re stuck having to deal with a lot of stems, it’s more difficult to bounce between songs and get a feel for the songs and how they’ll fit into an album.  You can’t get that overview of everything when there’s still so many details to focus on.

From a client perspective, stem mastering takes longer compared to normal mastering, so it’s usually more costly to go this route.  Clients rarely like paying more money after all 🙂

I think today things are a little different, since so much of the mastering and production process in general is singles driven.  A lot of people only get one song mastered at a time, especially in the dance community, so some mastering engineers are more open to the idea of stem mastering.  There’s still some ME’s who swear it doesn’t belong in the mastering process, but I know that I personally am fine with it, provided the client is willing to pay the extra cost involved.

As for does it sound worse, I don’t think so.  On one hand it gives the ME a lot more flexibility in how they can fix any issues or make improvements, so you could say it could sound better.  On the other hand, it also means that the ME is going to be making a lot more of the decisions in how the final product sounds too, so there’s less of the uniqueness that the artists brings to the table.

Generally I think that stem mastering is one of those things better left to the ME to decide.  If they hear some issues that just can’t be best sorted in normal mastering, and they aren’t sure the producer has the tools or experience to handle it on their end, then perhaps stem mastering is the way to go.

 

3. How important is the acoustic treatment of the studio, in particular the treatment of bass?  Is it fundamental for the production, or is it something that’s just nice to have if you can?

I’m pretty biased on this, but I think that having acoustic treatment in the studio can be one of the best things you can do for your music making.  I’d go so far as to say it can sometimes be more important than what kind of monitors you use even.  Everything you do, every decision you make in the production process is going to be affected by what you hear in your studio.  When you have all sort of audio reflections interfering with that, or your room is a shape that just doesn’t allow you to hear things like they will sound on other systems, it can be a real problem.

I always tell people who are asking for monitor recommendations to split their monitor budget in half.  Spend half on the monitors themselves, and half on some acoustic treatment, and overall you’ll end up with a much better investment of that money.

And the good news about acoustic treatment, is that it often doesn’t take a lot to make a big difference, especially when we talk about early reflections.  Additionally, there’s a lot of DIY info available on how to make your own to save some money too.  Here’s a good place to start when it comes to understanding acoustic treatment, or how to build your own:

http://www.soundonsound.com/forum/postlist.php?Cat=&Board=DESIGN

Also check these sites as well:

http://www.acoustics101.com/

http://www.realtraps.com/articles.htm

Finally, if you do decide to purchase acoustic treatment instead of making your own, I highly recommend GIK Acoustics:

home

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Well, that’s it for this week’s Q&A session, hope some people found this useful.  As always, if you have a question you want me to answer, send me an email or post it in the comments below.

Inner Portal Studio v2.0

As I approach the next anniversary of Inner Portal Studio, I wanted to take a couple of minutes to let people know about some fairly important upgrades and changes I’ve made to the services I offer.

For starters, I’ve completely redone the website, and it’s going live today:

http://innerportalstudio.com

Aside from being a little cleaner looking over all, I’ve also condensed and streamlined some of information about my mastering and mixdown services so they are little less wordy, and a little more to the point. You’ll also find new comprehensive guides on preparing your files for mixdowns if you’re using Ableton Live or Apple Logic, though there’s still some general guidelines for anyone not using one of those two DAWs.

I’ve also scrapped the previous file uploader I was using for people to send me their tracks for mastering or mixdowns. Truth be told, the system I rolled out a couple of months ago turned out to be just not that robust, and people kept having issues with files stalling halfway through the upload. I apologize for the inconvenience the old method caused, it was highly recommended, but I never anticipated how fiddly it was going to be to use.  After extensively trying out many different alternatives, I’ve based the new uploader on WeTransfer.com’s slick and easy to use interface.

http://innerportalstudio.com/upload

Aside from being much less prone to stalling during transfers, it’s also simple to use, accepts files up to 2GB, and will send you an email confirmation so you know for sure that the file has been successfully transferred. Currently it’s based on Adobe Flash, but an html5 version is due any day now for those that don’t want to use Flash-based web tools. Of course, I’ll still accept files via all the other major file transfer sites like Dropbox, Soundcloud, Sendspace, Rapidshare, etc. I do ask that you not send me files via sites that require a wait to download the files, or ask me to click through a bunch of ads to access them.

In addition to the changes to the website, the studio itself has received a complete upgrade to all the acoustic treatment previously in place. GIK Acoustics’ US office was most helpful in fabricating the pieces the I needed specific to the needs of my studio, and the result is that a great sounding room is now even more accurate. If any of you are ever in Seattle, you’re more than welcome to stop by and hear just how incredible your music can sound in a room designed solely for that purpose.

Lastly, yes, my rates have increased slightly too, effective today. I know that some potential customers will be upset by this, but I also know many of my long-term clients will recognize the true benefit of the services I provide and understand the need. Business has picked up dramatically the last few months, and as I work with more and more producers of all skill levels, it’s become clear that for many people I’m the only other person with experience that will have a say in the final product before it’s released.

As a result, I’m spending more time working with musicians to get their mixdowns as polished and balanced sounding as possible before I even start the mastering process, or detailing the steps I take in mastering their tracks after the fact. This is actually great news in my opinion, as it means that the end result will ultimately be better sounding, and I get the chance to help other musicians hone their production chops and become better producers in the process. I love the fact that so many producers look to me to not only provide a world-class sounding master, but also to provide feedback on ways they can improve their songs for the next time.

All of this has meant that the average mastering or mixing job is taking longer, so I need to raise my rates a little bit to compensate. Full details of the new rates are on the website, and customers I’m currently working with will still get the old rate for the duration of the projects.

So, that’s the update for August 2011. I’ve got some more exciting plans in the works I think people will be interested in, and I hope that in a couple more months (if not sooner) I can share that news with you as well. You can follow my updates a few different ways these days, via my email list, as well as Facebook at:

https://www.facebook.com/InnerPortal

and Twitter at:

https://twitter.com/tarekith.

Thanks, and here’s to a great sounding 2nd half of 2011, I can’t wait to work with all of you on your upcoming projects!

Vespers – Preparing your tracks for mastering

DJ Vespers runs an Ableton Live training website, with lots of great videos on how to use Live and other music production techniques.  Recently he asked me for some advice on how to properly prepare your tracks in Ableton Live to send to a mastering engineer.  Here’s the video:

http://vespers.ca/how-to-export-your-song-for-mastering-6-essential-tips/

While you’re there, take a look at some of his other videos, lots of good information available for free.

One thing he didn’t have time to cover in the mastering prep video concerns sample rates.  When you export your project, export it at the same sample rate you worked at.  There’s usually very little to be gained by upsampling during the mixdown in Ableton Live, which only uses a so so sample rate coversion in order to be practical for live use.  So if you’re writing your song at 44.1kHz, just export a 24 bit, 44.1kHz file to send to the mastering engineer.

25% Off Online Mastering

Hi everyone,
I had a couple of very large projects this week get pushed back to a later date, and as a result I’m sitting here with a lot of unbooked time in the studio this week.  So, to keep things rolling, I’m going to be offering 25% off my normal online mastering rate from now until Saturday, May 7th.  This is a great chance to save some money if you’ve got some older tracks you always wanted nice and polished. Also, just in case you ever wanted to put a face to my name, I’ve recorded a quick introduction video for the studio.  You can view it, and the details on how to prep and upload any files for me at:

http://innerportalstudio.com

Peace and beats,
Tarekith

Common Track Issues

One of the most common emails I get from people, generally goes along the lines of “hey man, can you listen to my song and let me know what you think it needs?”. I always freely offer mixdown advice to my clients before they come to me for a mastering job, but it’s just not something I can do for everyone. I certainly enjoy helping people out with advice when I can, but the fact remains that I’ll get 10-20 of these a day some weeks, and I just can’t take the time to listen and comment on them all while still trying to run a business. Or while trying to find the time to make my own music, something that has definitely gotten harder and harder to do lately!

Still, I want to help in whatever way I can, so I thought it might be a good idea to compile a list of some of the more common issues I hear in people’s tracks over and over again. Often it’s not that a producer doesn’t have the skill or ability to hear these problems, but they’re just too close to the song and too used to it’s sonics to have that objectivity to do so (a good case for why people use mastering engineers still in the first place I might add). So, here’s some of the more frequent problems I run into when listening to other people’s work. Not saying all tracks have this problem, but it’s some of the common areas where you can focus on when listening and critiquing your own music.

1. High hats too loud. They add a lot of feel and groove to your drum parts, so a lot of people focus on these and as a result have them turned up a little bit too much while working on them. Usually it’s just a case of people getting used to them at that volume inadvertently, and once you compare the song with something else they really stand out then. Especially problematic as once the song is mastered, they can be almost annoyingly loud if it’s a club tune, and the only fix for this in mastering is largely just to EQ them down. This of course affects a lot else on the top end, so it’s not ideal. Just A/B with another song now and then to see how loud your high hats are compared to other material in the same sort of genre, often this is a pretty obvious issue once you do that.

2. Bass and Kick relationship off, too loud or too quiet. The low end is without a doubt the one area more people struggle with than anything else, as it’s the most susceptible to acoustic issues, or monitors that just don’t go low enough in a producers studio. A lot of people think adding a subwoofer will help, but 9 times out of 10 in my experience it just makes things even worse as they are not set up properly. The easiest way to check for issues here is to try other playback systems when you think the mixdown is done, especially car stereos as that seems to make the issue stand out more.

The other common problem on the low end is what I call the single tone deepness. It sounds cool to say that you tuned your drums to match the key of the song, but be careful that you’re not making the kick and bassline so close together that they just run together and create a mush of one single frequency. If you have a higher bassline with some bite to it, use a deeper kick. If you have a super deep dubby bassline, use a kick that’s got some high frequency content to help it stand out more.

3. Too much stereo, where’d the middle go? These days it seems that everyone is getting more and more fond of spatializers, stereo enhancers, and really wide ping pong delays/reverbs. Nothing wrong with spreading things out some, but be careful that you’re not pulling everything away from the center of the stereo field at the same time. I get some songs where it sounds like every single sound is coming discretely from one speaker or the other, and no instruments are holding down the center. Use your stereo tools sparingly, maybe on only a few tracks and not the whole song. Super important for anything meant for a club as well.

4. The reverb is going, going, go. Long fade outs seem to be making a come back, and as long as they’re not overused on every track on your album, can be an effective tool to slowly bring a listener down. If you do have a long fade out, say with a reverb or delay tail, make sure that the tail has really ended before you lop off the end of the song. You don’t want to have someone really into your song and enjoying the ending as it blissfully fades away, only to have it suddenly stop before the sound has really stopped decaying. Using headphones and turning the volume up is the best way to check for this.

5. Too many synths in the midrange. Remember that everything in your song has to have a place, both spatially and in terms of frequency spread. I get a lot of tracks sent to me where the producer has 3-4 different synth lines all fighting to be heard at the same time. Pick the most important one or two, and ditch the rest. Complexity in a song can be good, but not if it’s really masking your underlying message and the core of the song. Panning can help to some extent, but having wildly different synth lines in each speaker can be disconcerting and throw the whole balance of a mix off. Useful as a special effect perhaps, but do so sparingly if you must.

6. One-dimensional sounding, flat due too much individual track compression. Often in an attempt to beef things up and make them sound fuller, producers will start putting compressors on all tracks and reducing dynamic range of the individual sounds. Be careful if this is the style of music you like, it’s very easy to remove so much dynamic range that the song not only lacks punch, but there’s no sense of depth either. Everything sounds sort of flat and 1-dimensional. One of the main side-effects of this is that there’s very little you can do in the mastering stage either. We can make it louder, but it’s not going to be punchier as we have nothing to work with when shaping the transients and release stage of all the dynamics. Use compression on the core sounds if you must, but try and leave at least a few things really dynamic to offset that one dimensional feel. Percussion and cymbals, as well as backing synths are prime candidates for this.

7. Low-pass filtering the whole song. I have no idea who started the myth that low-passing your song around 16kHz or so can help make it louder, but it’s not true 99.99% of the time. If anything, you’ve just taken out all the frequencies that give a song a sense of space and depth, that lovely air on the top end that almost puts the track in a physical location you can really feel.

The same is largely true about high-pass filtering the song too, many times it doesn’t solve anything and can introduce weird phase-shifts where you don’t want them. If you do hear a problem with something less than 40Hz (congrats on having great monitors!), then sometimes a little bit of high-pass filtering can help, but don’t do it as a matter of course. Make sure there’s a real need for it. If you’re sending your track out to be mastered, then don’t even do it at all, let the mastering engineer handle it. They have more accurate monitoring and a properly treated acoustic space, and will be able to remove only that which is truly problematic.

Anyway, I hope that gives some people an idea of some of the more common issues I see when working on other people’s tracks. I want to reiterate one final time, that before you go and implement any of these solutions, make sure there’s a problem in the first place that needs to be addressed.

In many cases people are just so excited to finish a song, that they often don’t live with the mixdown for a couple days and play it back on multiple systems before mastering it themselves or sending it out to be mastered. Giving your ears a break and getting some fresh perspective on the overall sonics of the track can solve so many issues. Have some patience, and your track will sound the better for it in the end.

Just Because

Before I get started with the topic this week, it appears I need to make a clarification on the purpose of this blog.  As with my Production Guides, this blog’s only purpose is give me somewhere to voice my thoughts on different topics.  I’m not trying to say my ideas or working methods are the “right” or only way to do things.  No need to send me a bunch of emails telling me I’m wrong, or you’re successful using some other method or style of music making.

Experimenting and coming up with your own conclusions and working methods is the only “right” way to do things.  If you have something about how you work that you think others would benefit from, by all means post it in the blog comments for everyone to discuss!  And so…

As most people reading this know, I run a studio dedicated to mastering and mixdowns.  I also offer a consulting service, where I listen to people’s tracks or look at their projects and offer suggestions.  One of the things I see a lot when people send me project files is how many effects they’re using in the project, and typically we’re talking about dynamic processors and compressors.  I’d say that 90% of the time things sound better when the effects are off.  The material never really needed that effect in the first place, and ends up sounding a lot better when we get rid of it.  Trying to fix something that wasn’t broken ends up actually breaking it.

When I ask the producers WHY they put the processors on there, they say “because I thought I was supposed to”.  They didn’t hear a need for the effect, they probably weren’t even listening to hear if there even was a need.  Instead they read an interview with producer x,y,z who used a bunch of compressors on their latest song, so they thing they have to do the same.  Certainly nothing wrong with giving it a go and seeing if it helps, but make sure it really IS helping.

A lot of times I see the make up gain on a compressor turned up a lot, but the threshold isn’t even set in the audible band.  In this case, the compressor is just another volume knob, and since it’s making the track louder, it tends to sound better.  This is a good reason to check your changes by A/Bing with an uneffected track at the same volume, especially when you’re first learning a new effect.  Most DAWs let you quickly duplicate a selected track with a CMD+D (Ctrl+D) keystroke, so it’s really simple to set up a quick comparison.  Make sure that you’re actually making things better, and not just louder.

Another example I see a lot in the mastering phase that reflects this sort of mindset, is people high- and low-passing their entire track with an EQ.  They read online that this is how someone did it, so now they want to do it too.  There definitely are some reasons to high-pass a track, but again, make sure you actually have signal down there that’s a problem, before you just do it as a matter of course.  Some of these high-pass filters are very steep, and you could actually be making things worse with phase-shift or pre-ringing.

Also, a common myth is that low-passing a track will allow it to be mastered louder. This is not true at all, and more often than not just makes the track sound a lot duller and more closed in (not open) than it should be.  If your high’s are so loud that you’re hitting the mastering limiter and can’t go louder, than your track is probably all sorts of messed up already.  The kick, bass, or vocals will 99% be the thing that determines how loud a track can be.  High hats or cymbals this loud would just be so obviously painful, there’s no way anyone would mix the track like that (I hope).  Still, if you have a real need for low-passing, then by all means do what you need to.

Remember, don’t do things “just because”.