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

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!

My Little Reminder

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Every once in awhile, we all need a bit of a kick in ass.  Over the last year I’ve been spending quite a bit of time exploring new workflows when it comes to writing music.  I’m sure anyone following the blog has noticed I’ve been buying, using, and then flipping gear rather quickly to fund something else quite a bit recently.  Partly because I wanted to try out some pieces of gear I kept hearing good things about, and partly because, well…  Let’s just say I was hoping that one of these purchases would reinvigorate me to get out of a creative rut I’ve been in.  We’ve all been there.

However a few weeks ago, one of my wife’s co-workers asked if they could bring their 11-year old  son to the studio.  He had been working on writing electronic music, and they wanted to see if I could answer any questions he might have, or just let him listen to his songs on the bigger speakers.  I sometimes have local school kids here for just this reason, I love to help out, so it’s something I don’t mind doing at all.

I have to say it was the first time in awhile that I was generally blown away by the music someone else had written, not bad for an 11 year old!

It wasn’t so much the quality of his songs, as it was his excitement and determination to write music no matter what.  Don’t get me wrong, he was writing Avicii-style tracks, and the sounds and arrangement were actually pretty well done. But I had to keep reminding myself that he was only 11!

The cool thing was that he was doing all of his writing using the demos of Fruity Loops and Sylenth1.  So he wasn’t able to re-open his work in progress if he closed the app, and he had to work around the annoying voice-over copy protection that Sylenth had.  I mean, he’s only 11, it’s not like he can even mow lawns or get a paper-route to pay for this stuff yet!

But it didn’t phase him at all.  If anything he didn’t know that it didn’t have to be so difficult, so he just got on with things.  Ultimately he didn’t really have any questions for me to answer, and if anything was just super eager to have someone else listen to his songs.  He had a really good handle on the production process already, just from watching YouTube videos.  Heck, he even spent 10 minutes explaining to me how he sets up his side-chaining!  Freaking 11 years old!

What I didn’t expect was just how motivating the experience would be for me.  Seeing this little kid have so much passion and commitment when it came to writing music really was a great reminder for me of a lot of things.  Like how the gear we use doesn’t matter as much as we might like to think, or how much fun I used to have when I first started writing myself.

Over the last few weeks I’ve thought about that encounter a lot, and it’s been a real kick in the ass to get me reinvigorated in the tools I already have (notice the recent Live songs I’ve been posting for instance).  Sometimes the way out of a funk comes from the least expected places, and this was definitely one of those times.  So hats off to little Ben, and I hope his dream of being a famous producer some day comes true.  Given his determination, I have little doubt of it!

Special thanks to Lennar Digital as well.  When they heard about his story, they were extremely supportive and helped Ben get around that annoying Sylenth1 demo limitation.  Very cool of you guys!

Peace and beats,
Tarekith

The Anniversary Wrap Up

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Well, I thought it might be a crazy idea I’d come to regret, but my decision to offer 24 hours of free mastering as part of my Studio’s 5 year anniversary ended up being a real success.  I was able to meet a lot of new producers, and quite a few former clients I hadn’t heard from in a couple years came out of the woodwork too.  Not to mention the fact that it ended up being a lot of fun getting to work on so much new music, and across so many different styles too!

Quite a few of the producers I worked with were happy to let me use their tracks to update the before and after section of my website too, so I’ll have some mastering examples everyone can check out in a couple weeks.  Gotta find time to update the website first  🙂

One of the comments I got from multiple people was that they were very impressed with the results given my minimal gear collection these days.  It made me realize that perhaps that’s in fact why I like mastering so much, by it’s definition it’s almost minimalist processing of audio.  Do only as much as is needed to improve the mix, and leave everything else untouched to let the producers’ intention and styles come through still.

It’s no wonder I like this job so much, being a confirmed minimalist myself these days!  Though I have to say that new Fabfilter Pro-Q update is looking very sweet, so I might be adding to my EQ collection shortly!  Check it out:

http://youtu.be/GYTCQeggyzo

More than anything though, this recent anniversary made me realize how lucky I am to have the job I do.  And that I need to redouble my efforts to reach even more producers who might need mastering.  I want to make the world sound better one song at a time!

With that, time to get back to work.  Until next time!

Peace and beats,
Erik M.

 

 

Welcome To The New Blog!

Woo hoo, welcome to the new blog location.  Sorry if you got multiple notifications for this blog post the last day or so, still working out a couple last minute bugs with notifications.  Ummm, that’s all I have, but more soon!

(Strymon Timeline review…..)

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The Recharge

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Well, I’m finally back from a nice long vacation to Luxembourg, Paris, and London, and it was something I needed more than I realized.  Though in a way vacation is a bit misleading, as one of the main reasons Hallie and I went was to see if Luxembourg was someplace we would want to move to.  Yes, Hallie has been offered the chance to transfer to a new position in Luxembourg and it’s something we are seriously considering.  Still a lot to weigh before we decide though.

It did give me the first chance in a long while to just get away from the studio for a couple weeks, something I haven’t done since…. well probably 7-8 years.  I have to admit it was pretty nice not really thinking about music making for so long, especially as now that I’m back I find myself recharged and more excited than ever to get back to mastering.

I guess we all need a break now and then, even when you’re lucky enough to love what you do for a living!

The first thing I wanted to do was update all of my audio production guides, and host them on my Inner Portal website, as they just feel more appropriate being housed there.  So, some minor updates to all the guides, which you can now find here:

http://innerportalstudio.com/guides

I also have to admit I made a bit of a mistake recently, concerning my recent abandoning of Facebook.  It didn’t take long for a lot of people to reach out and tell me they really missed getting blog updates and reading other interesting articles I’d find via Facebook.  So, after thinking about it quite a bit, I decided that I’ll rejoin the madness and still use that as an outlet for people to get notifications related to the music stuff i find and post.  So, if you’re not sick of the flip-flopping, feel free to friend me if you want:

https://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100006775729027

Sorry for the hassle, sometimes it’s a struggle to manage my time versus providing useful options for people.  I’m learning, what can I say  🙂

Stay tuned for more to come shortly!

Peace and beats,
Tarekith

Promoting Yourself

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Recently I had a friend send me an email to ask me how I went about attracting clients, as he was trying to get work doing audio engineering and was struggling a bit. It’s one of the many variations on a question I get asked all the time, how do I get work in the audio field? While this guide in general tends to stick with answering that question in terms of audio engineering, I think a lot of the things I recommend can apply in other fields too.

Someone told me when I was starting up my business that it’s 90% getting the work, and 10% actually doing the work.  It took awhile for that to really sink in, but over the last 5 years that I’ve been a full-time mastering engineer it’s really hit home how much time you need to spend to attract new people to work with. These days there’s just so many more “audio engineers” online promoting their businesses, so I’d say it’s probably more like 95% – 5% actually.  Not trying to be discouraging, there’s just a lot of people out there wanting to be audio engineers, mastering engineers, mix engineers, etc. It’s almost as crowded and competetitive a field as being a musician these days!

My start was slow, but I also didn’t really plan on doing this full-time initially. I was just having fun and making some extra money at the time, and I think that’s the best way to start. You don’t need to graduate college or some audio engineering school (ahem) and instantly be a booked-solid engineer. It’d be nice, sure, but that’s a rock star pipe dream. Happens to a few, but it’s definitely the exception and not the rule, so at least have a realistic plan in place for the long haul.

I did mastering on the side along with a normal day job for 10 years before I felt I had enough clients to go full-time, and even then it can still be pretty close some months.  I’ve tried all forms of advertising, web banners, forum signatures, Facebook, print ads, Google ads, you name.  The ONLY thing that has ever worked in my case was word of mouth from happy clients.  Everything else was just a huge waste of money.You need to make people see what you do as valuable, and they need to trust that you know what you’re doing with some many other people they could choose instead.

My blog and my production guides are a huge asset for me in this area, because a lot of people know me for those initially, and then find out I do mastering (usually).  By then I’ve already established some minimal trust, and hopefully shown I know what I’m talking about.  It makes people more comfortable in taking that initial chance on handing over their money.  I’m not saying you should do the same, just that you have to leverage everything you do to help nudge people towards working with you. And to not over do it at the same time, something that’s more of a struggle than most people realize.  Nobody pays attention to someone constantly pushing something at them 🙂

Oh, and always act like a professional online, people can google anything you ever wrote at any time these days, and trust me they do when researching you.  Avoid the flame wars, be nice to people (even trolls), and generally be as easy to get along with as you can.

I guess the core of what I’m trying to say is, you need to put your efforts into making people want to work with YOU. Having the right tools, experience, all that of that is certainly important, but those things should be a given if you’re serious about what you do. And the competition will have those things in place too, so it’s not really a selling point. It’s like trying to talk someone into buying a car by saying it comes with 4 wheels. 🙂

Stay positive, and Most of all, don’t give up!

Never Fear – Internet Stuff!

Oh my god, I’m not on Facebook anymore, how can I tell people about all the cool music related videos I run across? 🙂

Hehe, never fear, here’s your semi-regular dose of fun and off-the-wall music related sorta stuff:

Might not be everyone’s thing, but hard not to admire such musicianship and how well they improvise together. Skip to 12:00 if your attention span is short 🙂

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Here’s an interesting (if long) article I was forwarded that talks a little about some of the policies Google has used when licensing music in the past.  Very interesting read, and pertinent with all the deals happening now:

http://musictechpolicy.wordpress.com/2014/07/08/an-interview-with-andrew-shaw-of-prs-for-music-on-negotiating-with-google-a-guest-post-by-jonathan-david-neal/

Not trying to be doom and gloom, but it’s interesting how they are approaching this whole situation.

More interesting music news and performances as I find them, stay tuned!

 

A New Start

Well, those of you who followed me on Facebook know that I’m no longer on Facebook any more. 🙂

I’ve been debating it for some time, as I slowly realized in order to get the most out of Facebook you need to check it pretty often. And really, it wasn’t bringing me any new business or gigs, so I decided getting my time back was more important right now. I’ll miss a few things about it, but it certainly feels good not having that “must check Facebook” thought every hour!

I’ll still be posting updates on Twitter, and I plan on putting out more blog posts now too.  With all the gear changes I’ve been doing lately, I’ve just been busy learning new tools and trying to sell the old ones to focus on the blog as much as I would like.  Hopefully that’s all settled down though, as I’m really enjoying the new Strymon Timeline and OP-1 I recently got.  Both are way more fun than I expected, so stay tuned for some reviews!

Peace and beats,
Tarekith