Friday, 1 March 2013

Ear initialisation

One of the things you constantly read online is that as home recordists we should always use a reference track when we are mixing. I couldn't agree more but I think that a stage is often missed regarding this and that's the stage before we start making music.

So picture this, you sit down and get ready to start making music. You make some music and it sounds good to you. Then you listen to your preferred reference mixes and you sound......terrible. At this point you start mixing and try to fix the issues there. Nothing is working. What is the problem. Well I have some suggestions.

If you are anything like me you listen to the vast majority of your musical input on headphones. I have a couple of pairs of cans that see the most action, my bose in ears at work and my bose noise cancelling quiet comfort 3's out and about. The problem with this is that we get our reference of music from these. Chances are, the sound of this same music in your studio on your monitors is very different. In my case it certainly is as my headphones are nowhere near flat but my studio monitors are.

Now im not proposing that you bin either your headphones or your speakers or that you stop using either. That would be crazy. What im suggesting is that before you sit down and start recording a new track, take maybe 15 minutes to a half hour to listen some of your favourite mixes in a similar style through your studio monitors. This does two things, firstly it resets your ears from your headphones and secondly it also inspires you, listening to great mixes BEFORE you start making your mix is uplifting. Listening afterwards and feeling that your mix doesnt stack up actually has the opposite effect, you end up feeling down about your work !

Hope this top helps and stay creative,

Thursday, 28 February 2013

Mastering with headphones.

Probably not the world's most popular idea but recently I've been mastering with headphones. Why? Well a number of reasons.

  •  Familiarity

I listen to pretty much all my music on my headphones. That is a whole lot of mastered, finished, polished, professional music.
As a result, I know my cans inside out. I know how much bass they should respond with, how much treble there should and
generally I know what music should sound like through them.

  • Perfect listening environment

People tend to complain that headphones dont give an accurate responce, certain frequencies are hyped, stereo placement
isnt good etc etc. But the one advantage they have for most home studio owners is that they dont suffer from
reflection issues or peaks and nulls in an inconsistent way. If your room is quiet, headphones sound the same wherever
you are in the room. As for the disadvantages, i've usually sorted the vast majority of those issues already by the time
I come to do my mastering. Im really just making a few final eq changes at this point and doing a little bit of mastering
compression and limiting.

  • The microscope effect

Because headphones typically put the sound right at your ear, you can generally hear tiny details in the music. This is generally
what you are looking for when it comes to mastering, the details, the small things that polish a track. As such headphones really
are perfect for this task.

Wednesday, 14 November 2012

Making decisions

Sometimes we cripple ourselves with decisions. We um and ah about the relative merits of one thing or the other. We convince ourselves that one option or the other is the "best" and worry excessively about picking the non-optimal thing and the negative effects this will have. Often its actually the case that neither option is "better" and we actually just need to make a decision as the only bad thing to do is to do nothing at all. Making a decision allows us to forget about the other options this time and move forward with whatever we are working on.

This isn't just advice for the music world either, often in life the multitude of decisions can be crippling. Im not arguing against having options, because I think options are good and total minimalism isn't the way to go. I just think that the ability to pick and deal with options is important. It allows us to learn, grow and move forward.

Friday, 19 October 2012

On limiting and stereo depth

The main complaint that people have about heavy limiting in the mastering stage is that it reduces dynamic range. This a perfectly well founded complaint but this heavy limiting also has a detrimental effect on other factors in the mix. One of the more overlooked side effects is the way that it damages stereo imaging.

The main way that we perceive a stereo signal is differences in the left and right channels (or speakers). If a sound is identical in both channels and our listening setup is relatively sane, we hear that sound from a, ghost, central position (mono). As if there was only a single speaker centrally playing the sound. If we add changes to the two sources individually and with different values (time shifts, pitch shifts, different eq etc) we hear the signal as stereo. A well crafted mix will have many of these differences and will make use of all of the stereo field to put the sound across.

Now if we consider what a limiter does, it essentially chops off peaks in the signal when it reaches a certain threshold of volume. So lets say that the left side has a signal which fluxuates around -6db and the right side a signal which is simply just a single sine wave hit at -3db. For the period that they are both over a threshold of -7db, both signals will simply be a flat-line at -7db. Not only have we lost dynamic information from either side but we'v lost that important difference between the two, and as we discussed earlier, this is what triggers our perception of a stereo signal. This is why simply slapping a limiter over a mix at the mastering stage can often lead to a more mono sounding mix.

As a side note, this also applies when using a brick wall limiter, and even aggressive compression, on stereo sources within the mix as well as at the mastering stage.

Monday, 17 September 2012

Incremental Improvements

A concept from my mixing kind of bled into a general thought on life recently, the idea of incremental improvements.

When we mix all to often we are looking for the golden bullet, that one thing we can do that will fix the mix, that will make that track hang together perfectly. The truth is, a good mix isn't acheived like that, its sculpted from many smaller steps that incrementally improve the mix as a whole. They might be tiny, they might seem insignificant at the time. e.g. Limiting a bassline by half a db so that it has a small amount more headroom. In time though, these small improvements mount up and the end product is significantly better for it.

I firmly believe that the world around us operates in this way as well. We are bombarded with the idea that we need to make massive changes, that everything needs to be done insantly and be huge in nature and far reaching in effect. Everything is sensationalised and everything is hyped up to the point where we are literally crippled against any action because it seems so insignificant im comparison. The truth is that if you are making small improvements all the time, little changes that leave things in a better state than they were before you started, you are making a big difference, over time. And even if the difference you make is only small over time, the fact that you are making something better, creating a better world than the way in which you found it, or doing something positive in nature, that's a good thing and not something that should be easily overlooked. In fact, in my opinion its the point of all of this. Do something positive, even if its only a small thing - It matters!

Wednesday, 12 September 2012

Compensatory EQ

I dont know about everyone else out there, but I have some bad habits. One of them is applying too much much in my EQ when I'm mixing. I do this EVERY time I do a track and then have to go back and hack away at it after the fact. Its really bad.

I used to think it was because I was a bad mixer or because I was trying to make bad mixes etc. The real reason is that I listened to a lot of music when I was younger that had a lot of bass (dance, industrial, death metal etc) so my ears are trained to like certain kinds of EQ decisions (abuse). As such I've developed a good habit recently of placing an EQ on the master channel while I mix that compensates for some of these bad habits by exagurating them. For instance in the image below you can see my basic EQ that I use for this purpose. Its a 3db boost of the bass shelf from about 150, a 3db boost at 400 and then a 3db cut shelf of the hi's from about 10k.

I find that using this method, when I remove the eq afterwards, my mixes hold together a bit better. Then if I need to boost bass slightly when I reference them against other mixes, I have much more space to make that decision.

Thursday, 30 August 2012

The importance of quality at the source

So two things struck me today, until I realised they were actually one thing in two places, my work and my audio. That one thing is the concept of the quality of data at the source.

I used to think that even the grimmest of sounds could be polished into something beautiful in the studio with the various tools and whatnot. I used to scoff at the idea that you had to capture the "quality" performance or the performance with the "best feel to it". My problem was that I felt that that view was restrictive to further processing, chopping and whatever else I wanted to do with the sound later on down the line. In short, it felt like an "old" way of looking at the matter. In actual fact it makes just as much sense for me as it does for someone who intends to leave those takes perfectly alone.

Getting a quality source for a sound will make processing it easier down the line because it gives you more options and more freedom to play with it. A beautiful vocal take will sound better whether it is an opera piece sung from start to finish, and never touched apart from subtle eq, to a screamer that you are going to chop up and make sound like a robot. Better in => better out, whatever you are doing. So in this sense, it really is worth getting the best quality you can at source. And im not talking about gear here, im talking about technique, performance, timing etc. All those age old things that make good recordings from yesteryear sound great, they still make a good recording now. So maybe its worth tweaking that synth on its own at source just a little, or tuning up that guitar, or doing that take again to get it just right. Sure you could touch it up after, but wouldnt that time be much better spent knowing you have a great take and then making it sound like something more creative to you?

It is worth practicing, it is worth playing well and it is worth putting those extra takes and time into each part of what you are doing, regardless of what you intend to do with it afterwards. It doesnt make you some kind of virtuoso, its just a quicker way of getting a better end result than trying to fudge it afterwards (something you will still have to do sometimes, but generally is best kept to a minimum).

Now for the other time this popped up in my life recently, at work. I work on a system where very often large extrapolations and assumptions about data have their rooting in single tables or data points. The point being that often small errors in this original source can snowball, very quickly, into much larger errors from something that at first seemed in no way dangerous to the extent it is.

This is the same issue. It doesnt matter how much work you do with something down the line, its worth doing the leg work on where you get your source from, to begin with.

I guess the moral here is "take it and break it" as always but isn't it more fun to break something truly great? The pieces you get back tend to be so much more interesting that way.