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Recording Basics

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Whereas the recording process is mostly technical, mixing and mastering are really where art starts to show in recordings (other than the performers, of course). Mixing is a skill that takes quite a bit of time to perfect and the learning curve is pretty steep because you have to get it right. Many mixing engineers will tell you it takes about 1 day to mix one song. 8 hours to mix one song times 10 or 12 songs per CDóthatís a lot of money at $40ó$50 per hour. If you can demonstrate your skills here, you can pretty much write your own ticket.

       If you do decide to mix your own tracks, donít try to mix them immediately after tracking. Fresh ears are what you want when mixing. Youíre going to mix in the somewhat the same order you recorded in so refer back to the Recording Basics page if youíve forgotten. First, take your drum tracks and pan the overheads right and left respectively. The snare and kick tracks should be in the middle. Pan the individual drum tracks according to the relative positions in the kit. Compress each of the individual drums to take out any ring you missed when setting up. Take extra time with the snare and the kick to make sure the snare cracks and the bass thuds. Do not compress the overheads unless you want a whoosh-y sounding drum track. This can be done as an punctuating effect but it wonít sound good for the whole song. When setting eq (another subject entire books are devoted to), keep the whole mix in mind. Each instrument has to have itís own sonic niche, so cut frequencies that other instruments are going to occupy. After youíve got the compression and eq set, work on the individual levels and get the whole drum track to where itís almost peaking out. Add reverb to the whole drum track by patching it through an aux send. Donít just use one of the presets, experiment.

       Next comes the bass track. Pan it down the middle. Compression wonít be big deal here unless youíve got some wildly fluctuating levels (ie, it wasnít compressed properly to begin with). If you do need use some compression, be careful as the boominess of the bass will sneak through if youíre not. EQ is a bit tricky here because the bass lives in same sonic neighborhood as the kick drum. Play around with the low-mids until they coexist happily. The level should be almost as high as the drumsóit will sound loud now but after everything else is in the mix, you wonít notice it. Because bass frequencies are non-directional, reverb is almost never required for bass tracks.

       After bass and drums comes the lead vocal. Compress the vocal to take out any level fluctuations you might have missed during tracking and EQ it so that it sticks out in the midrange (2500 Hz) or so. A trick of mine is to boost the EQ all the way up and then slowly sweep through the frequencies. When you find one thatís objectionable, cut it. Be very careful with volume levels when you do this because you can easily injure your eardrums or your speakers if you come across an especially nasty frequency. You also want to cut any frequencies below 80 Hz and boost the highs slightly. You may have to raise and lower the volume levels throughout the song to even it out. A plate reverb or slap-back delay will round it out

       Guitars come next. The rhythm guitars should be panned right and left and the lead guitar should be a little right or left of center. Guitars have a natural eq peak at about 4000 Hz so keep that in mind. Also, try not to compress too much as you will get some unwanted noise. Reverb should be patched to the same aux buss as the drums and adjusted to sound as though they are in the same room. A good rule of thumb is to bring the amount of reverb up to the point where you can hear it and then back off a bit. Adjust volume levels so that they donít interfere with the vocals

       The rest of the instruments have to be handled carefully because as you add in elements, the natural peaks of those instruments will combine with the other tracks and can produce what is known as muddiness or an inability to distinguish between one instrument and another. As you come across this situation, take your time and adjust accordingly remembering to always preserve the sanctity of the drums, bass and vocals. Also, as you add instruments to the mix, the overall volume can be over 0db even though the individual tracks arenít peaking out. I usually mix drums to one sub-mix, guitars to another, vocals to another, etc so that I can adjust them in groups rather than individually when I get in a situation where I need to adjust the overall volume.

       In every case, listen to each instrument in mono as well as the whole mix. If an instrument disappears when switched to mono, flip the phase on the channel and that should take care of it. It will take a while to get a mix youíre happy with. When you do, either burn it to a CD or save it as a separate project because you may have to come back to it and start over again. After burning it to a CD, take it to your car or home stereo and check it out. Youíll find things you didnít hear before and things you heard in the studio that didnít come through. This is where the fine tuning begins. Keep working at it and donít get frustrated. You are learning how to mix. It will get easier as you learn what translates from your monitors to other systems. For the most part, mixing to the least common denominator is what I would suggest. With most people listening on Ipods and mp3 players, making sure it sounds good encoded as an mp3 and on earbuds is what I shoot for. In fact, most people audition songs on their laptop before they buy them so maybe that should be considered the platform to mix to.

       Once youíve mixed all the songs, the next step is mastering. Mastering is making sure the songs on a CD all have roughly similar levels and EQ. Lately with the advent of single song sales, it mostly means getting the levels as high as possible without distortion. Unfortunately, what results is a highly compressed mix with little if any dynamics.

Multiband compressors and EQís are used to accomplish this task. Itís a highly skilled field and there are studios that are completely devoted to mastering. I would strongly recommend having someone else do your mastering because your ear has been trained by the mix and you wonít hear what someone else who has never heard your mix will hear. There are some software programs out there that claim to auto-master but I donít think theyíre going to replace a mastering engineerís ears.

       After your masterpiece is mastered, itís time for duplication. Iím going to assume youíve already gotten your artwork done and taken care of copyrights, etc. Many companies will give you 1000 CDís with full color art and inserts for about $900 or so. Thatís not too bad but you can do this yourself and save a bundle. CDís in bulk are about $.23 each and you can get a DVD/CD duplicating bundle with a CD/DVD painter for about $800. So instead of 1000 CDís , you can burn as many or as few as you want. It just depends how much control you want of the project.

       Distribution can be as simple as signing up with cdbaby.com. They have a great program that submits your songs to digital download sights like iTunes, Rhapsody, etc. You can promote these sites from your own website and newsletter. If you want to take the traditional route, check out www.indiemusic.com for a directory of record labels, distributors, venues, music publishers, CD duplication companies and so on. The best place to sell CDís, however is at live shows. The changes in the music industry over the last 10 years or so have pretty much dictated that if youíre going to make some money in the biz, youíre going to have to do live shows and use them to promote your band and brand.

Return to Recording Basics

MIXING, MASTERING

AND DUPLICATION

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