Here is a guest post by Fred Kevorkian as the second in the series of helpful hints for mastering.
QUESTION: How do you get the best mixes out of a project studio?
As technology gets better and more affordable every day, it is unfortunate that the overall standard for sound quality is going down.
Today everyone has the ability to create music. Anyone can be an artist... just like anyone can be a sound engineer! And that is our problem here.
Software companies are telling kids that their latest programs can turn their computers into world-class recording studios... and they can become audio engineers overnight!
Yes, home studios have evolved quite a bit since the famous 4-track cassette "Portastudio" days. It is also true that digital audio has come a long way since it's debut in the 80's. Combined with today’s modern computing speed and power, there is without a doubt some very impressive tools are available. (Even analog products have become more affordable, e.g. microphones, speakers, outboard gear...etc.)
At this point, technology cannot be blamed for poor quality audio. To me, it is simply “operator error.” The lack of experience, engineering knowledge and acoustical environment issues are the main causes.
I must say, once in while I get some amazing stuff coming from a "laptop studio." There are some incredibly talented young engineers out there working with practically nothing! They just have a great feel for the music and know their room so well that they can come up with some amazing mixes! Sometimes, I am very impressed but I don’t see (or rather hear) it every day.
Remember, you cannot buy or substitute experience but you can avoid making some basic mistakes. Here are a few suggestions I hope will help clients get the best possible mixes while working within a limited budget.
First, make sure that you are working in the best acoustical environment you can afford. You really need to feel comfortable with the space you are going to spend most of your time in. It all comes down to how good your room translates to the real world. If you need help from a professional to make some adjustments, this is the best place to spend your money.
Then comes the monitoring system. This process can be very complex and confusing. Most engineers rely on small, powered near-field systems. I think it is a wise choice because at moderate levels they take most of the room coloration out of the picture. But there are so many options to choose from. I would suggest you stick with what is popular in most recording studios. Try a few of these speakers and pick the one that works best in your space. I wouldn't experiment too much anymore with the NS-10s with tissue in front of the tweeters! There is only one Clearmountain, and it is time to move on! A subwoofer can be a nice addition but make sure it’s calibrated right.
Once the room feels comfortable, listen to all the records you're familiar with. Listen to them over and over. Get yourself to feel "at home" and make some more adjustments until you're happy with the results. Again no one has a perfect room. The key is to learn the room’s imperfections and work around them.
Next step is dealing with the metering system. Digital peak meters seem to be a problem in the wrong hands. Besides showing “overs”, they are useless and misleading unless you can monitor the average level of the program at the same time. Most software will give you that option but you might have to look for it. You can always get a nice pair of analog VU-meters. They always tell the "truth". (Nobody cares about what's going on at -90dB unless you're measuring noise)
Another important thing is when you start mixing, always reference your work to similar types of recordings you are familiar with. You can check the overall tonal balance, the vocal levels, and the dynamics.... anything that will tell you that you are going in the right direction. You will also become more familiar with your monitoring system as you go along. I am shocked to hear some of the mixes that I have to work with. I sometimes need to add 9dB here and cut 12dB there... how can someone be so off?
If you're going to mix in digital, try to use a high-resolution format like 24/96 or 24/88.2. The most important thing is to use all the bits available. I rather have masters with a few light overs than mixes that only peak at -18db or so!
Print multiple versions of the mixes (memory is cheap) - Main mix, Vx up, Vx dn, …etc. But please do not ask the mastering engineer to listen and choose from 8 different mixes. Pick the best one and save the alternates for emergency purposes!
Stems are great for recalling mixes in a flash but I don't think they belong in a mastering session. There are exceptions when they can be helpful but most of the time they are annoying and distracting. Keep the stems to yourself in case you need to recall a mix.
If you are going analog, make sure the tape machine is properly maintained and aligned to the desired calibration. Print tones and document them properly. Too many times I had to use the digital mixes instead because all 27 reels of 1/2" tape were unusable. What a shame and a waste of money!
As far as the equipment goes, choose what you like and what works for you. In terms of plug-ins, hardware … try to get a few good ones and learn them inside out. Avoid changing equipment all the time.
As you can see, this is not rocket science. You just need some common sense, determination, a bit of talent and of course a lot of passion!