Some of you are quite interested to know what we teach in the mixing and mastering module, which is a part of our Online Music Production PRO course which offers 3 months of live online training in Ableton Live. Some of you may have a basic understanding of the mixing process, and if you want to learn it in more detail, then this course is good for you. Now, for those of you who want to know what we offer in the mixing and mastering module, here is an overview.
But before we even start, if you have no prior knowledge about mixing and mastering, then let me give you a brief introduction to the world of mixing and mastering.
Importance of Mixing:
First of all, we are going to talk about mixing. We all know the different stages of music production. The first stage is recording Vocals or Instruments. Once we have the recorded Vocals or Instruments or even both, we start adding some samples and sounds into our DAW by using various third-party plugins, either for sound design or mixing.
The process of music production is very intriguing, but the way we interpret music is very different at the time of production and is very different at the time of mixing and mastering. The whole listening perception changes with respect to mixing/mastering.
Every element has to harmonize with each other. This is not an easy task to accomplish. But it can be achieved with just a couple of tools. There is certain hardware/gear, which is used by a majority of the engineers in the industry. If we could use the emulations of the same hardware, we could get our mixes to sound very close to the industry standard. So, mixing is not just about dynamic processing (compression, expansion, gate, limiting) or effects processing (reverb, delay, chorus, flanger, phaser) or EQ-ing.
It is the amalgamation of all of the things mentioned above and knowing different hardware gear and their harmonic signatures commonly referred to as “Colour”. We have devised our course in such a way that even a novice producer who has just ventured into the world of music production will understand and will be able to make sense of every concept.
Mixing indeed is quite an essential part of music, the main essence of mixing is not only to bring clarity and balancing the instruments well, but also to bring out the emotion of the track which a lot of audio engineers fail to achieve. One should never forget that ultimately music is all about emotions and our connection to it is quite sacred.
These are convenient guidelines to getting started with mixing, the rest of the tips and tricks may vary from person to person and that becomes their signature style of mixing. Some might suggest a few steps to reduce the redundancy in adding plugins but that doesn’t change the whole essence fo mixing. So, let’s start.
Exporting the stems is going to be the first step of mixing, wherein all the tracks which have been used for production (audio samples, loops, or sound synthesized MIDI tracks) all need to be printed in the audio form so that the real-time effects are not in effect when we playing the track while mixing it. This is why it is important to print all the sounds in audio form. Now when you play the track, there are no time-based effects that are active (chorus, flanger, phaser, reverb, delay), which will make sure that there is no constructive or destructive interference (phasing, comb filtering, etc) occurring at any given point.
Importing the stems back into a new mixing session is very important. Once you have imported the stems, the clerical work begins, like cutting the empty spaces of the audio files so you know exactly where the audio is playing which makes it easy to localize the file. Colour code the tracks/group of tracks. This will make your session look more organized and also pique your interest while mixing the track.
Once we have done all the clerical work, we need to leave a bit of headroom as a precautionary measure so that the audio doesn’t clip. For this we need to bring down the volume faders of all the tracks except for the group tracks, down by -14dbs. This will ensure that you have enough headroom and maintain a safe distance from 0dbFS.
Adjusting the levels of the audio tracks is crucial for a clean mix. This is the key ingredient that will make sure that your entire mix cuts through. Now, the most common question that a lot of our students come across is, how do we decide what is the ideal level for all the different elements in the mix? How do we know what is the ideal level of the kick and the bass or the snare or any other element for that matter? And this is honestly a tricky question and to be very honest, there is no single answer to this question. However, there are methods that could act as a guide to help you with rough balancing, for instance, The Pink Noise Method.
Use any Pink Noise generator on a Stereo track and keep the level of the Pink Noise around -14dbs. Bring the volume faders of all the audio tracks down to -inf. Now start lifting each element’s fader one by one till you reach the point where you can barely hear that element cut through the Pink Noise.
Pink Noise has equal energy for every octave frequency. It is said to be the most musical noise to start with. This will not give you the ideal balance of the mix, but will at least give you a rough idea. Another method is the anchor point method, which is quite similar to the Pink Noise Method, but different in only one way.
Instead of using Pink Noise as a ballpark reference to adjust levels, we use the key elements of the song (for instance: kick) as the anchor, and we adjust the levels of the other elements accordingly. This is not going to give you a precise balance either, but will be very close to one. The best method to practice balancing is to follow a reference track. Commercial tracks always sound better and will help you get a better judgment of what the final levels of all the elements should be. Use reference to know the balance between different elements, and adjust them accordingly to match the standard.
A lot of people aren’t aware of the fact that we can get a very wide stereo image just by using Mono Elements and panning them left and right. Also, automating the pan pots helps in adding a movement to the mix and take away the monotony from it. However, panning everything throughout the mix is going to take away your listeners’ attention and may cause irritation at some point so you might not want to overdo this.
Knowing the sweet spot of saturation is the biggest challenge of mixing engineers because people tend to overdo things. The last thing you want to do is make everything sound distorted and then things start to sound harsh when you listen to your mix on headphones. Add subtle Saturation, just to get the warmth, add some colour, and make the RMS values pop a little.
Compression, Expansion, Gating, and Limiting, are the dynamic processors which are going to be used in this stage. Including the advanced compressors (FET, Tube, Opto, VCA, OTA) the compression techniques (serial or parallel compression) also play a vital role in achieving the desired sound. Not just compression but gates and expanders also play a vital role in this stage.
Additive and Surgical are the two methods of EQ-ing which we use to make things sound better. We first apply surgical EQ-ing, to take away the resonating or harsh frequencies if any exist (using Notch Filters) and then enhance some of the frequencies by using Analogue Modeled EQs (Neve 1073, API550, etc.)
This is where you are going to set up all the return tracks and start adding time-based processors. Remember, while exporting the stems, make sure to turn off all the time-based effects from the inserts and also from the synths. There are certain tricks that you can use to make your reverbs sound much better (sidechain compression/decay modulation).
It is used to glue things altogether, especially added on the group tracks. This is one of the ways to ensure that no single element is overpowering the group of elements, and also to retain consistency throughout the entire track. As a thumb rule, 4db to 5db of gain reduction can be safely tolerated without adding artifacts and audible distortion. This can be helpful to glue all the elements together. You can compress the signal even further to control the energy as long as you don’t over compress it.
As cheesy as it sounds, Analog color is the most essential part of today’s sound that we hear from the tracks engineered by the pros. It is impossible to do Analog Summing in the digital domain, but we are only interested in getting the colour from the plugins. Virtual Analog Bundle from Slate Digital and NLS from Waves audio, helps us achieve the same thing in our DAWs.
Make sure to select the sample Rate as 48KHz and 24bits of bit depth and export the file in “.wav” (RIFF) or “.aiff”
Voila! Your mixing is pretty much done here, the next thing to do is to master the track. Let’s get onto that now, shall we?
Importance of Mastering:
A lot of people have a common misconception about mastering music. They think that mastering is all about loudness, but… it isn’t! Making your track loud is a part of the mastering process but it is solely not just that. The track also needs to be compatible with CD or Vinyl players, this is where making it compatible with the medium comes into the picture. For CD the Sample Rate should be 44.1KHz and bit depth should be 16bits. If not done in this way, the CD players won’t support the audio. Making it compatible with the streaming platforms is also very important and here comes the introduction to another meter called LUFS (Loudness Unit Full Scale). Different streaming platforms support different LUFS ranges for loudness normalization, but the sweetspot should be around -12 to -8 LUFS. Mastering is essential to make your track compatible with the medium, don’t forget that!
Clipping is important because there are some pesky peaks that may cause some distortion in the final stage of mastering once we are done limiting. To avoid those peaks touching the ceiling of the limiter, we intentionally clip the signal and, in that process, we also tend to increase a little bit of RMS value as well.
The final step to correct your mistake. If you get the urge of increasing the frequencies way too much (above/below 9db/-9db), it is advisable to solve the problem in the mixing stage itself rather than having it done in the mastering stage.
Multi-band compression is most essential to make sure that every band is consistent enough and no element in the pertaining frequency band is overpowering other elements in the same frequency band. A general rule of -2db of compression is acceptable. Beware of the compression that you do in this stage. Do not overdo it.
To increase even more RMS, we add very subtle Saturation here. Not much, just a little amount. Exciters play a vital role in this.
This reverb is used to glue everything together, obviously, we are not going to have a heavy reverb with a long tail. The dry/wet percentage is going to be around 14% to 15% and the decay time to be around 600ms. Make sure to cut the low frequencies inside the reverb and keep the pre-delay as short as possible.
Mp3 (CBR – 320kbps, AAC – 128kbps, Wav – 44.1KHz/24bits, are the audio formats which you should export and keep ready, and make sure that it sounds good even after the audio quality compression.
Stereo Imaging is very crucial and this is going to make sure if your track sounds much better on mono-compatible systems. Make sure to keep an eye on the correlation meter and then adjust the width. A thumb rule is, the correlation meter should not go below zero, in fact, it shouldn’t even cross 0.5 it is should always be in between 0.5 and 1.
It is best to add an LUFS meter so that we make sure the loudness stays between -12 to -8 LUFS, before increasing the gain using limiters.
These are the steps that we follow and preach. This is an overview of the mixing and mastering module taught over a month as a part of our Online Music Production PRO course which offers 3 months of live online training conducted using Zoom. The course also covers music production, music theory, sound designing, and track arrangement in great detail.
The course also includes free Hooktheory membership for 3 months, 1-year free membership to recorded live sessions, and our latest offering “All Access Pass”, an online learning platform in offering recorded courses, audio podcasts, ear training games (in English, Hindi & Gujarati), access to forum and sample banks.
To know more about the course, please log on to https://www.loststoriesacademy.com/live-classes/.
Thank you so much for reading this one, I’ll see you in another blog.