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  • Rexinator
    Posts: 43
    Joined: May 30th, 2009, 10:56
    Mixing/mastering strategy
    OK, folks. I've got another complex series of related questions, so I apologize in advance for the length. I'm basically looking for some feedback on my mixing and mastering strategy, which I know is largely unorthodox (and probably yielding suboptimal sound). I'm working in Logic 9, and my interface is an Apogee Ensemble. All of the songs I've been making lately have very few live audio tracks and are mostly composed of MIDI regions that I generated (with associated digital synths and sampler instruments) and various audio loops, all in 24-bit/44.1 Hz. The track count is usually high (more than 20, sometimes ~40 or so), and the mixing work is often daunting. I have found that it is most efficient to slap a good limiter (such as Waves L3) on the Output track in the very early stages of mixing, sometimes even during song construction. With the L3, I set the Output ceiling to -0.2 db to minimize intersample peaks above unity, and I disable the Dither and Noise Shaping functions. The reason why I adopted this process is because I would spend loads of time on mixing, and then have to go back and make numerous adjustments after applying mastering plugins, because the final compression and limiting alters the relative balance of instrument/tracks. It's even more time-consuming for me if I produce a bounce with no compressor or limiter on the Output track and then migrate the song into another project for mastering (or into Waveburner). I was spending a lot of time going back to the mixing stage after applying mastering plugins. The other reason for handling it this way is that I am not being super-careful about individual tracks spiking over unity. On most tracks, I have many regions with variable volume, such that it is difficult to control this completely. For those tracks where it's happening frequently, I apply a compressor with the limiter engaged. But on some tracks, I let it bounce over unity, mainly because I have heard that this does not yield clipping artifacts at the track level. And I don't hear any clipping as long as I have a limiter in place on the Output track. I'm worried about my tactic of allowing tracks to exceed unity, because I keep seeing comments about how this is a bad thing, but I'm not sure if it's true. [FYI, all of the audio recordings are made at appropriate levels without clipping.] The overall strategy results in a project that is at full CD volume and pretty well mixed as a first pass. I usually go back and add other mastering plugins, such as EQ, more stepwise compression (if needed....I usually maintain a lot of dynamics), stereo spread, exciter, tape emulation, etc. But in most projects, this doesn't change the overall sound a whole lot, and so I don't have to dig back into the mix all that much. I know it's unusual to combine song construction, mixing and mastering together, but I like to be able to hear how a new sound element, FX or other tweak (such as panning) is going to impact the final rough master. I've been pretty happy with my final masters, but, of course, I'm paranoid that I'm compromising how good it could sound if I took a more stepwise approach. Any comments would be greatly appreciated.
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  • BenB
    Posts: 501
    Joined: Feb 14th, 2011, 04:27
    Re: Mixing/mastering strategy
    I was always taught that if it doesn't sound good without effects, if the song can't stand on it's own without a lot of compression, EQ, then I need to rethink my song construction. I'd use compression on the individual tracks and get them to work together in the first place, before compressing the final output. Just to make sure things are cleaner from the start. But if you like the results you're getting, it obviously works for you.
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  • Rexinator
    Posts: 43
    Joined: May 30th, 2009, 10:56
    Re: Mixing/mastering strategy
    Those are good points, Ben, and it's pretty much the way I've always handled recording and mixing. If I was currently working with standard instruments and audio recording, I'd probably still be conforming to a more traditional stepwise method. I do use compression on individual tracks, especially vocals and anything that I record as live audio. But I find that a lot of the loops I'm using are already highly compressed. I've also come to appreciate how any effects that alter timbre or tonality affect how the track sits in the mix, so if I wait until later stages to apply such effects, I often have to re-work the volume automation and panning. Also, I find that applying effects early helps me make better decisions about what other sounds/instruments fit well with the existing tracks. I use a lot of volume automation, sometimes in lieu of compression, as it seems a little more natural sounding to me. I've watched a lot of tutorials (some from MPV) about producing modern types of music, and I've noted how mixing engineers tend to use compression during recording, on the individual track level, on a group bus and again on the stereo output channel (sometimes multiple compressors). To my ears, this can sound way over-compressed and highly unnatural, to the extent that I've developed an aversion to heavy compression. It just immediately turns me off when I hear something that is processed to the max like that, but I realize that it's a marketable sound. I guess I'm just not in tune with current music production trends, which is OK because I'm not looking to market my stuff. Anyway, I'm getting off on an irrelevant rant that doesn't have much to do with my original post. Thanks for your comments.
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  • GaryHiebner
    Posts: 1434
    Joined: May 6th, 2007, 12:54
    Re: Mixing/mastering strategy
    It all depends on the style and genre. With most electronic dance styles there is a quite a bit of compression going on form the individual tracks, to the buses, to the master output. It all lends its self to the style. But with more acoustic sounding genres such as folk and classical less drastic forms of compression are needed, as the music lends itself to the natural dynamics of the acoustic instruments. But in general too much compression is not a good thing. Its all about a balance. If it sounds like too much, you have probably added too much.
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  • Rexinator
    Posts: 43
    Joined: May 30th, 2009, 10:56
    Re: Re: Mixing/mastering strategy
    I appreciate your comments, Gary. Did you see anything in my original post regarding my mixing and mastering process that is clearly unwise, in your experience? I'm just looking for someone to tell me that I may be screwing up my mixes or that this method might be reasonably sound.
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  • GaryHiebner
    Posts: 1434
    Joined: May 6th, 2007, 12:54
    Re: Mixing/mastering strategy
    Hi Rexinator, I would say from my experience using a hard limiter such as the L3 on your master out is not such a good idea. It can color (I don't mean it adds a color to the sound, but more in that it doesn't give you a real impression of the mix) the sound of your mix, especially if you put it on before you even finish the mix. I would recommend rather putting a compressor on with a very small ratio, and long attack and release times. This will tame any big peaks, but still keep the overall dynamics as they are. Rather get the best mix you can. If there are any clips on the master output rather just lower the master level instead of using a limiter to tame the peaks. When the track is mixed. Pull it into a new Logic (or Waveburner) project and do the mastering separately. Also give your eyes a few days grace before you master it. You might notice a few things when you come back to it, that you can fix quickly in the fix before you begin to master it. The whole idea is that if your mix is great, you won't even need to add much mastering to it, except maybe a limiter to raise the overall volume (and don't become a slave to compete in the loudness wars) I used to mix and master in the song Logic project for a song. I thought it was all good until I started separating mixing from my mastering. It made the world of difference. You approach each stage with a different frame of mind. When you mixing, you're mixing. And when you're mastering, you're mastering. It's too easy to get the two to become one process.
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  • Rexinator
    Posts: 43
    Joined: May 30th, 2009, 10:56
    Re: Mixing/mastering strategy
    Thanks again, Gary. This is exactly the feedback I was looking for. As I explained, I used to process my songs in the more traditional manner, with mixing and mastering as discrete steps. But I found that the application of the L3 at the mastering stage was 'coloring' (as you say) and affecting the relative balance of instruments/tracks, such that I would have to go back into the mix and make changes. I therefore reasoned that it was easier just to slap it on early, so I could hear what things would ultimately sound like and minimize the back and forth between the final mix and the mastered versions. In a sense, I'm not really performing a mastering process per se but rather combining mixing and mastering into one stage. I definitely concur with the importance of steping away from the mix or final master for a good while and then listening with relatively fresh ears. I have done this many times over for every song. And I understand the value of relying on someone else to perform the mastering step, as we can never hear our songs naively if we have created and mixed them. To that end, I actualy paid some money for a guy with good mastering skills to give me some feedback on the final masters. Interestingly, most of the comments I received were diected at the mixing level, and could not be addressed with mastering moves. I would have off-loaded the mastering entirely if not for the fact that I paid good money to own a number of mastering programs, including the Waves suite, Ozone 4, all of Logic's plugins, and several tape/console emulations. My final mixes/masters sound pretty good, but I will consider your advice and try reverting to the original traditional process.
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  • GaryHiebner
    Posts: 1434
    Joined: May 6th, 2007, 12:54
    Re: Mixing/mastering strategy
    Well then you can go the quasi-mastering method. Which is pretty similar to what you doing? add the L3 limiter onto the master output to give you an idea of what it will sound like when it hits the mastering stage. Are you adding any other effects to the master output? (compressor, EQ, reverb?) Just remember to bypass the limiter on a regular basis to compare it before and after during the mixing stage. Mixing and Mastering together is a tricky subject to discuss. It work for some while others completely disagree with it. But in the end whatever works for you. Just make sure, you're not applying too much mastering in the mixing stage as I said it can color the mix quite drastically
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  • Rexinator
    Posts: 43
    Joined: May 30th, 2009, 10:56
    Re: Re: Re: Mixing/mastering strategy
    I know my methods are strange, but they generally seem to work pretty well. I am just a little worried that I'm compromising my mixes somehow, but they are sounding as good or better than the ones I use get before I started mixing with the L3 in place. I may add some other mastering plugins to the stereo output channel, after I'm largely satisfied with the mix. I almost never add reverb, as there's enough of that on the individual tracks (via aux sends), but I may add some 'air' or bottom with Logic's linear phase EQ, or some transient enhancement, and/or maybe a multi-band compressor in the chain (+ or - mid-side processing, if warranted), while keeping the L3 last. But these are usually subtle modifications that don't drastically alter the balance of instruments (unless I go heavy on the MS processing). Truth be told, I do lots of other things that I've read are not advisable. In particular, allowing transients on some individual tracks to exceed unity (as previously described). Unless I'm not getting good monitor feedback (my monitors are decent, but not top of the line), I'm not hearing any digital artifacts. The other thing I do routinely that some people say is masochistic is to rework mixes numerous times (I'd like to say 'refine') over a couple of months. I've heard all too often that your initial mixes are usually the best, because your first instincts are superior, and that repeated tweaking is unproductive at best and can potentially corrupt a good mix. But I make bounces from each round of mixing and burn these to CD so that I can play them in my car (the 'driving test') and elsewhere, and I've saved the series of bounces. I might be biased, of course, but it seems there is substantial improvement over time as a result of obsessing over the mix. Another thing I commonly do is to automate some parameters on mastering plugins, so that they are variably applied over the course of a song, sometimes even bypassing them for parts of the song (but I have to be careful about audible clicks when certain types of compressors kick in). Most of the tutorials I've seen on mastering show how the plugins are instantiated with specific fixed settings that are unaltered throughout a song. On one song, I have a console emulation plugin on the Output track that cuts on only during the choruses. How weird is that? I make my decisions based on how it sounds and not according to orthodox principles. Most of the material I'm currently producing is rather 'experimental' (duh), and the mixes are quite dense. I use a lot a sampler instruments, although I typically have to bounce the regions for CPU-intensive sampler instruments like Kontakt, to prevent Logic from crashing (or freeze tracks). Well, I guess I've gone on long enough about my weirdness. Thanks for listening. I'm pretty much working in a vacuum without anyone to bounce my ideas off, so I greatly appreciate the dialogue.
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  • GaryHiebner
    Posts: 1434
    Joined: May 6th, 2007, 12:54
    Re: Mixing/mastering strategy
    I don't see anything wrong with spending months on mix, if thats what is needed as long as you keep comparing them to your other mixes to see if the results were better or worse. I find the same when I am writing and producing tracks. I'll spend hours on a synth, tweaking its settings and plugins only to realise hours later that my initial idea was better. But only by going through that process would you have figured out through the journey that your initial attempts were the keeps. So its works either way. Sometimes the spontaneous initial attempts are great, while other times ater hours of tweaking and editing those results are better. Each to their own I'll leave you with this comment from George Massenburg: âA mix is never finished, you just have to abandon it!â It sums it up great. I mix while I write. But I think the key is to set yourself a deadline or else you can keep mixing a song for months or even years. I found a song of mine that that was about 3-4 years old. The space was actually good, as when I opened the song in Logic it was to fresh ears. I remixed the song in an hour or two and it sounded so much better that the original which I has spent countless hours over getting it to sound right There's nothing wrong with automating mastering processes in a song. If thats what it requires and its sounds good, then thats the way it is. I'd recommend that if you're adding mastering processes on the master output during mixing thats fine. But when yo done mixing, bypass the master effects. Bounce the track out without the mastering effects. Then save the Master output as a channels trip preset. Then open a new Logic project. Import the unmastered bounced track. Load up the mastering channelstrip on the master output. Then check the mastering effects against this stereo file. I find this separating form the mix can really help with the mastering of the song. It stops you from trying to fix the mix, and to focus on the mastering. It may sound like a few extra unnecessary steps, but I find it works for me But like I said, what ever works for you, just make sure to do lots of comparisons with your previous mixes and to reference material to see that you're on the right track.
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