Question & Answer #1
This is a collection of questions received by readers of the blog. All questions are securely submitted anonymously and will be answered with no judgement. Questions will be added as they are received, new editions monthly or when applicable.
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- Question: Mastering. Should I pay someone else to do it? When I tweak things myself it sounds decent enough. Or should I just sit down and really learn it?
Answer: I always recommend diving in and learning some of the finer points of mastering, even if you do choose to work with a dedicated mastering engineer at some point.
For whatever reason, a lot of engineers will tell you mastering your own work is a rookie move, and I honestly just think they’re afraid of losing business.
In reality, there are pros and cons to both situations; going at it alone can mean limitless creativity and an infinite time limit, or an endless loop of minor revision after minor revision. Whereas hiring a dedicated mastering engineer can give you an ally on your side who’s able to tell you when enough is enough— or you may feel shortchanged when they deliver a finished master within 48 hours.
With most things, balance is key. Learn the process. That way you can be your own ally who can say when enough is enough yet also identify that the process doesn’t have to take ages and a fantastic finished product can be finished in 48 hours by the right engineer.
At the end of the day, if you’re confident with your monitoring situation and the master sounds good while meeting the technical standards of your intended release medium, you can do it yourself. If your monitoring system is less than ideal, or you’re still learning the sound of your room/equipment, a dedicated engineer is always a safe bet.
On that note, don’t be afraid to ask for a free sample, any mastering engineer worth their salt will offer you a sample.
- Question: I master loud, like really slamming the limiter. What’s your opinion on that & could you explain deeper what the difference actually is in the result? Only thing I know is that my master/mix comes out way too quiet when I don’t.
Answer: With most modern master limiters, you’ll have the option to preview the “delta” signal— the information being lopped off during the limiting process— In Pro-L2 (a common limiter) the option is represented as a headphone icon in the lower right panel. I highly recommend reading the literature with your limiter and checking to see if it has such a feature, if so, definitely utilize it.
Hearing limiting requires listening beyond the volume difference which is pretty tricky, so employing a way to match the volume of the limiters post and pre signal can help illustrate the actual affect the limiter is having aside from volume increase.
In regards to the delta signal preview, this signal is interesting to say the least— it revels a surprisingly full range of audio and could easily pass for a soft mix in heavy limiting applications. You’ll hear a skew towards a lack of low end and also perhaps an over or under pronunciation of high frequency content dependent on the source material.
Interestingly, the attack and release effects will appear reversed, as is to be expected, but interesting to hear nonetheless.
So what are ways to achieve that same loudness without necessarily slamming the limiter? Adjusting the mix to create a lower crest factor (the difference between peak and RMS levels) can certainly help, at a cost of dynamic range.
Which brings me to the final kicker— any type of limiting will apply *some* reduction in dynamic range, even at gentle settings. Natural recordings tend to have a high amount of dynamic range, however that’s the beauty of music, especially mastering, it’s all subjective. What sounds good at the end of the day, sounds good. In regards to adhering to specific loudness standards, well… sometimes you have to really push the limiter. In those cases, a high transparent limiter is best to not impart too much unwanted distortion.
One final nugget, be aware of your inter-peak samples, and always leave at least 1dB of headroom in your masters!
- Question: How should I EQ in the mixing and mastering processes?
Answer: I like to think of EQ as the perfect tool. To me, it has 2 main fundamental uses, both of which are directly applicable in the mixing and mastering process. Within those 2 main uses are different techniques and methods but generally the principals remain the same.
Correction - HPF & LPF filters to isolate a track or recording to a specific range. Typically removing frequencies below the lowest fundamental (usually room noise). With correction, most types of EQ moves are subtractive— deresonance is a great method to bring a track to a good starting point by removing muddled areas or harsh spikes. A truly “deresonated” track will appear considerably more flat, which is not always ideal. By keeping your filter Qs gentle, you can avoid phasing issues when dealing with high and low pass filters.
Enhancing - This is entirely subjective, and the fun part of EQ. During the mixing process, if +10dB at 15kHZ sounds good to you (and your monitoring system isn’t lying), then there’s nothing wrong with that. Don’t get caught up in numbers or if a curve looks too basic or too complex. Each program material requires its own massaging, and it’s own contouring. It’s up to you to suss that out, regardless of what Mr. Youtuber says. If you know and trust your monitoring situation (regardless of how good it is) and what you hear sounds good, it is good.
I understand EQ isn’t the most flashy of tools, but it’s fundamentally important. Thinking outside the box, it can become more of a tool than you’d thought before. Consider using an EQ to boost a range of frequencies into a saturation or clean delay plugin and then simultaneously cutting those frequencies by the same amount directly after. You’ve effectively prioritized that range of frequencies over the rest, resulting in a saturation that breaks up in the low-mid only, or a delay that repeats the mid-range pick attack of a guitar rather than the whole signal.
Directly applicable to the mixing process, employing HPF and clever notches can carve spots away for elements to sit in. Instead of bumping the volume of the snare up, consider making a cut on the bass guitar around the range the snare tends to sit. Considering the stereo placement also helps optimize this process. Looking back at the snare drum: perhaps the low chords of the Rhodes are muddying it up a bit— instead of applying a cut to the entire stereo rhodes signal, you can make that same cut only on the rhodes mid channel, as the snare rarely will have stereo information (aside from busses).
In terms of mastering, I prefer EQ to play more of a utility role with subtle additive boosts tastefully placed throughout the signal chain. Very rarely do I find myself applying more than 3dB of gain at any one point, but will happily stack effects to achieve the same result over time. Typically I’ll use an eliptical filter to force content below 100hZ to mono, and slowly lower the side channels below 300-500hZ until the eliptical kicks in. If you lack a dedicated stereo imaging plugin, EQ can also help here. Boosting side channels above a certain frequency can make a track sound wider, while cutting or forcing to mono in the mid range can make it sound narrow yet punchy.
Thanks for submitting your questions!
As long as people keep sending them in, I’ll keep answering to the best of my abilities. If you’d like to touch on a subject further, please don’t hesitate to contact me. Or, if you’d like to anonymously ask a question of your own to be answered on the next Q&A post, feel free to ask here.