The first thing you should know with a domain like mixing and mastering is that everyone’s process is different.¬† While there are things that you pretty much should do (like using a limiter, checking your track in mono while mixing, etc), there is no one way to do everything.¬† Which for some people is scary, that there is so much room for uncertainty.¬† So that’s why I’m writing this, because there are things I wish I had known¬†years ago.
Over the course of recording, mixing and¬†mastering in Ableton with my last album, I learned a number of things that I didn’t know at the start. ¬†These are ten of those most important ‘rules’ I came up with based on my own experience.
10.¬† Export All The Tracks In Your Song
Did you know Ableton has an “All Tracks” option in the Export menu?¬† Really?¬† Because it took me 6 years to notice that.¬† When I would export song stems for remixers, I used to solo each track and export it manually, and it took hours.¬† No need to do that, you’re not a dummy.
If you have effects on the return tracks, choosing this option will export these as WAV or AIFF files as well. Choose All Tracks and then hit Export.
Make sure you have at least a few gigs of space on your drive, as this will get big.¬† Oh, and create a folder with your song name first (so you don’t have these files just floating around). Since the WAV files take up a lot of space, I usually like to zip them up with the Ableton .als file I used for mixing / mastering, and store them somewhere else.
9.¬† Compression Is A Cheap Shortcut
If you just compress everything and call it a day, then you are shorting yourself by not giving your track the care it needs.¬† You may also be bringing up frequencies in a track or sound that muddy up the track by interfering with other sounds.
For example, you may have a synth pad that has a lot of low frequencies, which will interfere with the bass line, the snare or vocals in a track.
Pianos also dominate a huge range of the frequency spectrum, so you have to make decisions on what frequencies to cut and what to leave in (unless your track is only Piano, where it accounts for the bass line and the melody and rhythm of your song).
Each track / instrument / sound in the song should be cared for and kept in a range where it is effective.¬† Any range where it isn’t needed should be cut (gradually).
How do you do that?¬† With the EQ Eight and sliding the EQ nodes around, finding the best frequencies of each sound and boosting them, cutting the unnecessary ones, then constantly balancing this within the mix, volume-wise.
You Can Ignore The Loudness Wars
The best part about recent trends in music is that there is an appreciation for subtlety now.¬† In the early to mid 2000′s the ‘loudness wars’ as the corny term goes, reached their peak.¬† Everyone wanted to make hard hitting stuff, like electro.¬† There were too many Sebastians out there.
Everything was brick wall compressed and fighting for ear attention –not just songs fighting with other songs for attention, but elements within a song fighting against other elements for attention.¬† The result was kind of abrasive, insistent music that was the equivalent of a guy spraying himself with too much cologne or becoming obsessed with building muscle in order to appear strong and to cover up for some insecurity.
In a way, I think people started to learn that you can have intensity and power in music without just compressing everything to hell.
So knowing that, I think it means there are more possibilities for how your track sounds.¬† I almost feel like the true test of a good song and its power is in how good its sounds without compression.
8. All The Power Is In Your Equalizer
Well, not all the power –but much of the power of a sound is in how you treat it with EQ.¬† If it’s a kick or a snare you might try boosting the 200hz and balancing an effected (wet) version of the sounds against the original (dry) sound.
Just because a kick drum is mostly bass doesn’t mean you should boost the sub (below 100hz) frequencies on it.¬† There is a delicate balance in the bass region, and I’ve found that the hardest-hitting kicks actually are boosted in the higher lows (200-300hz) and that you can even hear them on nearly bass-less iPhone speakers.
7. Imagine Your Song Is A Room
Sound is very much a three dimensional experience, especially on headphones.¬† We only have two ears and yet we are able to perceive sound in three dimensions.¬† Close your eyes and you can hear when something is behind you, in front of you or however many degrees to the left or right of you and how high up it is.¬† You can EQ and balance sounds and figuratively ‘place’ them somewhere in the four walls of your song.
You can make sounds feel like they are flying over your head, if you’re creative and patient enough.
Where to start?¬† Ableton’s Filter Delay is a good start to understanding Mid/Side EQ.¬† The average person is already attuned to three dimensional listening, just by passively having heard this done before in music, and so they almost expect this in music.¬† Placing your sounds and tracks deliberately in different parts of the track spatially will be what makes people perk up and comment on how professional your music sounds. ¬†‘Placing’ sounds¬†in virtual space¬†requires a mix of EQ (controlled here with the filter) and delaying sounds by milliseconds, which you can control in the box next to Time, under the Delay Time section.
6. When In Doubt, Turn It Down
Its hard to know something doesn’t sound right when you aren’t listening closely, when you haven’t heard or imagined what it should sound like.¬† Its hard for you to know the flaws in your mix just like its hard for you to know your personal flaws.¬† And nobody will tell you, so you have to just try stuff.¬† When you go through a song, as you EQ a certain track / sound / instrument against the rest of the elements playing, turn the volume down incrementally, until it is blended / obscured by other parts of the track.¬† Then bring it back up until it’s too prominent.¬† In between there is your sweet spot.¬† And keep asking yourself ‘Does this really need to be this loud?’ as you are mixing. ¬†When mastering you will be compressing the whole track, so be radical with turning stuff down, if possible.
5. Experimentation Is The Best Policy
If you rely on a tutorial for every single step of learning music, I think you are both incredibly disciplined (because tutorials are often boring) and also afraid of experimenting to find out stuff for yourself.¬† Maybe you’re afraid of wasting time or messing up.¬† Not to get too deep, but if you are afraid to experiment in the early stages of making music, it will always be a struggle to experiment.¬† And I know, it’s a struggle to remember to push yourself to experiment.¬† With something like music, it’s easy to fall into habits of what you are already good at instead of pushing yourself into unknown territory.
Why should you experiment?
That unknown territory is where so much of the good stuff comes from.¬† Just try to make a habit of experimenting, with everything.¬† Not just in the writing / arrangement stages but throughout the whole track.
Anyway, I think you got the idea.
4. Compress At The End
When your track is balanced, EQ’d and you’ve put things in their own space in the three dimensional room that is your song, you might find that it sounds so good that you hardly need much compression.¬† Compression should just give things a little extra push.¬† In the final stages if you use a site like LANDR to master your song, then you can choose between three versions of your track, each compressed slightly more than the other.
3. Consider Keeping It Dynamic
What you might notice when compressing the whole track is that compression boosts the quieter parts.¬† You have to ask yourself if you want that, as boosting everything means taking away the dynamic range of a song.¬† Dynamic range just means having a variety of loud and quiet parts.¬† The loud parts will sound more powerful if they follow quitter parts.
If People Want It Louder, They’ll Turn It Up Themselves
Remember that the better your track sounds, the more people will want to turn up the volume.¬† You don’t have to do it for them by pushing everything up in the mix using compression.¬† If you entice people with dynamic range, they will take the reigns and turn it up in their headphones or in their car.
2. Compare Three Mastered Versions In Different Environments
I recommend having three versions of your song, mastered / compressed at different levels of intensity, on a playlist or CD.¬† Spend a week playing each version back to back on different speakers –car speakers, iphone / computer speakers, in a big room or club, listen to it on different headphones, etc.¬† You should be listening for the different parts of the song you balanced, to see if anything sounds too faint or too overpowering.
1. Test It In Mono
Club sound systems sometimes are hooked up in mono.¬† Does your track still sound good in mono?¬† Grab the Mono Utility preset and stick it on the end of your mastering chain, switching it on and off.¬† Are parts of the track disappearing?¬† It might be necessary to experiment here to make sure things stay intact.¬† The biggest rule of thumb is that bass sounds, the sub frequencies in particular, should be in mono.¬† If they are separated via stereo delay of some kind, the sound waves can phase each other out.¬† If you want to avoid confusion, stick the Mono Utility preset on your kick(s) and your bass sounds / instruments.
This is part one of a two part series on mixing and mastering, stay tuned for more.
Until then, grab this free EQ rack for Ableton!
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