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Thread: NEWBIES - THE ART OF MASTERING YOUR SONGS (an introduction)

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    NEWBIES - THE ART OF MASTERING YOUR SONGS (an introduction)

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    NEWBIES - SOME STEREO MASTERING AND MP3 audio engineering tips.
    ---------------------------------------------------------------
    I know in my last article i said it was my last, and then realised
    last night i had not covered mastering your opus or mp3's etc.
    so heres a few engineering tips.
    1. What seperates the mastering men from the boys ?
    The really superb masters of the audio mastering craft can be seperated
    from the rest of us by one simple sentence. Their ability to
    make a stereo master sound very good on any playback medium.
    from dollar store earbuds to small and large home hi fi
    and professional speakers and most other formats as well.
    So when should you master yourself versus using a pro mastering engineer ?
    To my mind the dividing line is if you are a name artist with a label deal.
    Until then, in my opinion if like me you are a songwriter/engineer/producer
    with your own small studio the expense probably is not worth it.
    also to my mind you should learn mastering ANYWAY if you own a revenue
    producing studio as it is another tool in your arsenal.
    If you finally do manage to get signed by a large label,
    as a result of sending out your demoes to labels , probably they will want to redo your songs THEIR WAY with
    their own mastering engineers anyway.
    so what do you do in the interim ?, or say you are producing small cd runs to sell
    at markets and/or fairs or from your own internet site ? until you get
    THAT NICE DEAL ? This is what i'm going to cover now.
    2. Tools. There are various tools you can use to learn mastering.
    firstly you well need a variety of playback mediums as i mentioned
    in one of my previous articles. dollar ear buds, one or two old junk car speakers,
    maybe a mono speaker from an old tv set or transistor radio, a pair of pretty decent
    (upper range) AKG headphones. (eg; i use AKG 240's but there are many other good ones),
    maybe a pair of junk computer speakers that came with your computer
    (for folks listening to your songs over the internet), and a pair of
    normal home hi-fi speakers that you would find in most homes.
    supplemented by your own higher end monitors like yorkvilles etc.
    The primary purpose being to have your mix sound good on all the foregoing.
    you will need some sort of switch box to switch between the various speakers.
    radio shack sells one.
    the earbuds you can plug into a cassette deck connected to the output of your sound card (use the headphone jack on the
    deck with a mini jack to qtr inch adaptor).
    Secondly you will need MASTERING SOFTWARE. in your analysis of which software to
    buy you should consider the need for the following features as well
    as the normal audio editing features. noise reduction, parametric eq,
    filtering eq, multiband compression is nice to have but not mandatory
    imho particularly if you mixed correctly in the first place.
    also if you can get down to sample level editing/redrawing waveforms,
    its nice to have. although i find rarely the need to do it with good mixing.
    If you have multitrack software already its likely a number of these features
    are already incorporated, so you might not need to buy a seperate
    piece of mastering software if you know what you are doing.
    In my case i use magix audio studio and powertracks for multitracking,
    and together they provide me with enough tools/enhancers for my
    mastering needs. If you have no money some of the freeware/small shareware payment packages
    have some nice features like audacity, and the original inexpensive
    cool edit 96 or say goldwave. and there are many others. for more money
    you might want to look at sound forge or say dart audio restoration tools,
    and there are many many others. I still - my bias i guess - like some of the
    original tools in cool edit 96. particular a tool called quick filter.
    and the paraeq. because i can compare quickly the effect of some
    quick eq filtering ideas on the master to improve it.
    3. Preparation for mastering. BEFORE you do your final mixdown
    that you will master its IMPERATIVE as i mentioned in one of
    my other articles to CLEAN YOUR TRACKS up to obtain a low noise master.
    for example silencing the sections where instruments arent playing,
    unless your using creative leakage on tracks, and noise reducing say a noisy
    guitar amplifier track, and creating clean vocal tracks that have been tailed (subtle fade outs)
    appropriately. In summary you want the cleanest, lowest noise master you can get.
    3. The mastering process.
    3.1. Balancing. bring the master into your mastering software and play it back.
    ask yourself if its balanced. ie: there are no major dips/boosts/weirdness in volume.
    well you should have spotted this in the mixdown phase of course.
    this is different from DYNAMICS. your looking here critically that the song on playback
    is balanced. for example - you decide that instead of careening to a stop suddenly
    at the end of the song, it might be nice to FADE OUT the song as you
    have a nice repeating hook at the end of the song. so try a fade out,
    and see if this sounds natural or say the song you feel needs a fade in,
    instead of careening in or maybe one part of the song is down a bit in level
    more than you would like , so you highlight that part and check off zero crossing detect ,
    and do a subtle (NOT TOO MUCH !) volume boost of 3 per cent.
    or - say you realise you like this one phrase at the end of the song, lets say a vocal chorus,
    but its only sung once, and you would like it to repeat 5 times to fade out lets say;
    well you would highlight it, paste it in 4 more times, then hilite the
    whole shebang and do a fade out to zero volume. Of course you should have caught
    this problem prior to mixdown, but for some new to recording you might
    not have thought about it. actually you should have caught the problem in pre-production.
    In summary balancing is as the name implies doing subtle corrections
    to the mix to balance everything out. A point of note. if your stereo master
    is way down in volume when you play it back according to the waveform display and
    level meters. rather than normalising it might be a good idea to
    redo your mixdown hotter. One more thing one does in balancing is play the song through noting
    the highest peaks. The highest peak i aim for is about -3db.
    NOT RIGHT ON ZERO db. let me tell you why. If you or your label decides to remaster your mix
    this will allow the mastering engineer some room to work in.
    Also let me cover off this term ZERO CROSSING. what does it mean ?
    if you look at a waveform in detail you will see it crossing zero level many many thousands of times.
    if you dont check this option, you could get a POP when editing.
    zero crossing ensures you dont hear pops. if your software does not have this option(some do it automatically),
    when hiliting a part to edit ensure the hilite starts and ends as
    near to zero level(ie; the line across) as you can to ensure no pops.
    3.2 filtering. in this phase of mastering you are trying different filtering/eq tricks.
    for example firstly (actually i do this on individual tracks prior to mixdown),
    look at the very low end below 100 hz. lot of junk down there.
    does your mix sound better by doing selective filtering of the low end ?
    do many tests with different cut off points. now repeat for low mids, mids, upper mids,
    highs, and upper highs. As i said before in another article try CUTS
    before BOOSTS. you dont want MUSH. your aim as far as possible is CLARITY on the various playback mediums.
    for example you find the mix sizzles badly on earbuds. a likely occurrence, so you
    rethink your hi end strategy. maybe at one point in the mix you hear a dominant
    frequency that stands out that you dont like. But you dont know where that
    frequency is. well one aspect i like about cool edit 96 is it will display the
    frequencies of a hilited audio selection for you. i'm sure other
    packages do the same. what you do is look at the frequency graph,
    and lets say you see a highly dominant peak at eg; 2.8khz. really zoom in
    on that bit of the waveform (very fine detailed editing here !)
    and use a para eq with a very narrow Q factor with a frequency of 2.8 khz and try cutting 1 or
    2 db or more without affecting the rest of the mix. I should say this is very very
    detailed editing work, and if you are not experienced it will take more than a little trial
    and error. you must of course use the zero crossing technique again duscussed earlier.
    This is but an intro to filtering. some packages like goldwave for example have very advanced
    filtering algorithms you can custom build for yourself.
    audacity has some prebuilt eq algorithms you can try, and there are a thousand and one other options.
    If you notice this is far more detailed work than just slapping a plug in over a mix.
    but this is the sort of work mastering engineers used to do using
    custom outboard hardware years ago on mixes prior to computers with a lot less control
    than we have today. A LOT of it is EXPERIMENTATION.
    One final tip, compare frequency analysis of your own mixes to commercial major releases
    of CD's in a lot of different genres. from old orchestral recordings right through to present day.
    you can learn quite a bit this way. But if you think rigidly copying
    eq curves will work , its unlikely because every piece of music is different.
    and probably you might do more harm to your mix than good in some cases.
    3.3 Compression. This is a whole book in itself. i dont use a lot frankly.
    at most i use very mild compression. One of my songs at soundclick.com/bmanning called
    "Key lime pie" used quite heavy compression because i felt the song
    sounded better pumping away because it was that type of song.
    and on this one song it seemed to work. but its the exception rather than the rule.
    for ME anyway. some people imho go too hog wild on compression of the whole mix.
    I come from the old school of everything in moderation. i would suggest
    if you MUST use compression to start of with very mild settings, and back off
    when it just does not sound good on your various playback mediums.
    BE CAREFULL. heavy compression might sound great on one pair of speakers but not on
    another. On slower and particularly orchestral type songs i would try the mildest compression settings.
    on faster songs and say heavy rock you can try and see if heavier and tighter compression works.
    BUT ONE THING NOT TO DO is compresss so the natural dynamics of the
    song are affected. Now lets talk multiband . if you have one, certainly try it.
    for those who dont know. its all about affecting certain frequencies while leaving others alone.
    frankly every time i tried it , it didnt do too much for me. i prefer selective filtering
    as discussed earlier. but if it floats your boat - give it a try and see if your mix is better
    on ALL playback mediums. you will find - like in magix that i use,
    included with the compressor limitor is a noise cut off control often.
    many other packages have this feature as well. if you have done your
    track cleaning/noise reduction work prior to mixing, eg: if you have a noisy sound card,
    you shouldnt really need this. so you can set it very low like say below -40 db.
    a word of CAUTION. dont set it so high that you hear music cutting out.
    if you MUST USE IT, do several tests until you reach where the nusic cuts out then back off down by say
    10 db.
    Once again this is but a basic introduction. One last tip, and its a trick to try,
    sometimes it works sometimes it doesnt - try a bit of mild compression sometimes on the fade out or fade in to a song.
    soometimes i find this can be a tad PLEASING.
    3.4. Other tricks/enhancing the master. There are many other tricks you can try on your mix.
    Maybe you have a very dry mix BUT you want it to sound more spacious.
    in essence you realise your mixdown is not all it could be or lets say a client brought
    into your studio a mix to improve. There are many tools once again at
    your disposal. You could try adding dimension to your mix. for example the free sound engine editor
    you will find on the internet has a 3D type effect you might want to try.
    BUT DONT OVERDO IT. various packages like cool edit, and sound forge and many others have hall, cathedral,
    and all sorts of "space designer/room designer" type simulation/enhancer effects.
    when i'm in a mad crazy experimental mood one trick i do is open up a new project in my
    multitrack software, import my stereo mix as track one, then import
    as track 2 my effected mix (eg: a hall lets say) then carefully play with
    the volume on the effected mix - track 2 - putting it at various levels
    under track 1 and seeing how pleasing it sounds. or say i want the effect on the
    whole mix for just one part of the song, say on a distance fade out using volume
    automation on track 2 and even pan automation if say i want the mix to
    pan off to one side in the distance at the end of the song.
    you can hear this effect on my song "squirrels" , but in this case the mix fades pretty down centre of the stereo image.
    "woohoo" also fades the same way with a fading guitar lead effect.
    Sometimes though it just doesnt work ! but sometimes it does. on my song "missile" - the little missile fades off into the distance
    at the end of the song. all these are little tricks you might want to think about in your own productions.
    I find they are most effective when not used on the whole mix, but maybe a small part of the mix to paint a different sound
    picture for the listener. Once again a LOT is trial and error.
    4. creating the mp3/cd production.
    I'm just going to cover the basics due to time/space cobstraints.
    Firstly try various mp3 conversion software to see what sounds good to
    you. you basically want a wave format to mp3 convertor software.
    There are many available. if your stuck for money try the free lame encoder.
    and there are many others available. basically an mp3 encoder software
    realises a smaller amount of space. different ones might use different algorithms -
    so its best to try a few. after encoding its a good idea to play
    your mp3 back both in windows media player and other mp3 player software.
    to see if the mix STILL sounds good.
    if you upload your mp3 song to an internet music site for musicians its also a good idea to play
    it back in hifi and in lofi from the site to see how well it sounds coming off the site.
    you might find that a new round of mastering is in order !
    Ideally your mp3 should be free of artifacts, but this is sometimes impossible at lofi playback.
    You might also be carefull of the bitrate you select for encoding.
    some sites only like certain bitrates. you might also consider how you store
    your mp3's. some store them off to CD. two hard drives is usefull because
    then you can put a folder on each to store all your original mp3 songs,
    so if one hard drive goes bad you have the second hard drive as back up.
    another way to back up is to store say at a relations
    house your CD's of your songs in wave and mp3 format. I call this offsite backup.
    A trick from the computer industry. You might also consider if you have a minidisc
    recorder playing out your mastered mixes to the minidisc. or say in worse case,
    if you dont have any money to a cassette recording. best to do two cassettes in case one goes bad !
    another storage/backup possibility is a vhs hifi recorder, or if you have an old tascam half inch 8 track recorder
    you dont use much maybe backing up to a reel of tape or even a normal stereo reel to reel recorder.
    If you are producing your own CD's. at home say. I might suggest
    one tip. remember we talked earlier about the -3db mastering level ?
    If you have done your mastering correctly its nice if there is some consistency on levels
    between the various songs on your CD , so the listener does not have to keep changing the volume of
    his/her receiver when dfferent songs of yours are playing. ie: you dont want one song ultra loud, and the next ultra soft.
    something to think about. Once again playback your CD through your
    different speakers and even earbuds to search for deficiences.
    If you are serious about selling on CD an album of your songs,
    also think about the sequence of songs you want on the CD,
    and try to ensure a logical flow if there are themes or stories to the
    songs that interweave. maybe you want a fast paced song followed by a slower song as an example.
    5. Some TIPS if you are using on board sound or a cheap consumer sound card to record songs.
    As you are aware - some on board sound chips and cheap consumer sound cards can be quite hissy and noisy.
    i often get asked by newbies how to cope with this when they just
    see no way to shell out for a pro sound card. they simply must use what they have for multitrack recording/mastering.
    If you are in this situation, and ive done it to show friends,
    you CAN actually get pretty decent (NOT PERFECT !) but pretty decent results if you follow these tips.
    firstly watch your line in levels. some cards seem to work better at stronger line input levels,
    other with weaker. so do some tests. NEVER USE MIC input. ONLY LINE INPUT.
    next after each track is recorded. do this RIGOROUSLY. NOISE REDUCE each track.
    using noise prints. Many editors have noise reduction features.
    like cool edit, sound forge,goldwave as examples. audacity has one but
    ive not had a chance to try it. after getting the noise print from the beginning or end of the track,
    where there is no playing or singing, try MILD noise reduction , around 10 per cent, NOT EXTREME
    levels of reduction, BUT try multiple passes.
    this is one of the tricks i used to help our fellow bbs member
    magichord out awhile back. luckily i could get a noise print off the master where there was no music playing.
    I dont know if its still up , but go to nowhereradio.com/attaboy/singles to hear the before and after.
    a sweet acoustic guitar piece that i liked a LOT.
    so you see you CAN get a pretty decent result with cheap sound cards
    PROVIDED you carefully clean up each track afterwards.
    once again with cheap sound cards watch the high end from 2k to 7k.
    some can be quite shrill. just do subtle cuts of this frequency range on your tracks and/or master if needed.
    some mics can be quite shrill in this range as well.

    Well thats about it. I'm sure when i go to bed tonight i'll realise ive missed some vitally important point,
    and kick myself appropriately for being a dummy.
    but i hope ive covered most of the bases to help newbies.
    ONE FINAL TIP. through all this make sure you check your masters to see how well they playback in MONO.
    I'm guilty of sometimes forgetting this myself !
    Please note, i dont consider myself an ace mastering engineer,
    but i HAVE picked up a lot of tricks along the way over many years.

    best regards to all, and i hope this all helps newbies just a tad.
    bmanning.
    PS - to GIDGE. i just dont have time to edit this. so feel free.
    your a good editor !!

  2. #2
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    Thanks again manning1!

    On this topic - what are people's experiences with T-Racks? I've seen and heard it used but I'm not experienced enough to rate it...
    [url=http://www.thesoundofglass.com]The Sound of Glass[/url]

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    Some good information Manning1, but let me present my opinion on why DIY-mastering really doesn't work.

    The most critical part of the mastering process is to be able to really listen to a mix and objectively analyze what, if anything, needs to be adjusted.

    There are some fundamental requirements for this analysis to be successful.

    1) You have to have an ear for audio detail -- if you can't tell the difference between an overcompressed signal and an uncompressed, you might as well forget mastering.

    2) You have to have objectivity -- if you've tracked and mixed a song (or album), do you really think you're in a position to be objectively critical of your own tracking and mixing? The fact is your ears have grown too accustomed to the project and you're unlikely able to distiinguish subtle audio anomalies in your work.

    Of course, the opposite it also true - you could also be so overcritical of your own work that your overanalzye and attempt to correct problems that aren't even an issue.

    3) While it's often true that gear doesn't matter, in the mastering process - gear DOES matter, at least as far as requiring an environment that lets you hear what you need to hear to critically judge the sound quality of an audio work. If your signal chain, monitoring system or room is deficient, you will not be able to differentiate between a mix that needs adjustment, or a mix that is fine but is simply being colored by the signal or monitoring chain.


    So while there's nothing stopping you from going the DIY route (hey - knock yourself out!), there are also concrete reasons why you shouldn't expect to acheive results that come close to mastering done by a professional.

  4. #4
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    blue bear. your points are well made.
    particularly about the objectivity a seperate mastering engineer
    can bring to the table. the article is meant for the person that
    simply has no other route money wise.
    but i think youll agree if your a basement band starting out, maybe spending 10k on mastering by an ace is questionable.
    ive seen many aspiring artists spend a lot of money only for their tapes to STILL not be listened to by A and R at major labels.
    thus my comments.

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    Originally posted by akpcep
    Thanks again manning1!

    On this topic - what are people's experiences with T-Racks? I've seen and heard it used but I'm not experienced enough to rate it...
    I can usualy tell a mile off if someone has used T-Racks. It's very easy to over use it. I think most newbies see mastering as another "effect" they can plug in to polish their turds with.
    I'd rather get the best recording to tape and get the best mix from that than waste time on a job for the true profesionals.

    Like BlueBear said, it's very difficult to be subjective with your own mix.

    Instead of mastering I say people starting out should finish a mix and leave it. Then return to it a few weeks later and see what it really lacks or has too much of.

    P.S. How about a new forum on the board. The MANNING1 Forum. Over the past week or so I've seen a lot of newbies (myself included) post questions in here and seen them been burried without a single reply because of all his postspushing them off the front page. Give it a rest already man. If people have problems they ask, that's the whole idea of this BB.

    As my old grannie used to say "Nobody likes a smart c~~t!"

    Alec.
    Lemontree Studio
    Not bitter, not twisted!

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    You guys can check out mannings music here and "hear" his final product.

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    Originally posted by Kramer
    You guys can check out mannings music here and "hear" his final product.

    LMFAO!!!!!!!!!!!!

    Is that really your work Manning1? did you use your "mastering tecnique" on those songs? I could have sworn I read in one of your posts about being in the business 20+ years. I listened to the first three tunes and the mix in all of them was...let's just say substandard. I've only been at this game the past 3 years. If you wanna have a listen to a selection of the stuff I've recorded maybe you could share some of your vast knowledge and let me know where I'm going wrong. There's a small selection up ....HERE

    Alec.
    Lemontree Studio
    Not bitter, not twisted!

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    Damn Lemon. That's pretty tight. I love the guitar tone on New York.

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    Thanks Tex. That's a behri V-Amp 2 for all the guitar work. The bass was DI'd, drums done in fruity loops and imported into cubase. Vocals goin through a Studio Projects B1. All out through the Delta 1010 (in groups) back to the board...A&H Saber
    Lemontree Studio
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    I think you're being a little unfair, lemontree. Speaking as a newbie, I can say reading manning1's articles answers many of the questions I would otherwise have asked.

    Why don't you share some of your experiences on how you got your mixes so much "better" than his?
    [url=http://www.thesoundofglass.com]The Sound of Glass[/url]

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