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”.