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Archive for July, 2007

What is Mastering?

Wednesday, July 25th, 2007

adapted from the iZotope Ozone guide to mastering.

Graphic EQ

UPDATE: This article is merely a brief introduction. Here are a few links to check out for more detailed information:

  • TweakHeadz Guide to Mastering in the Home Studio
  • WikiPedia entry on Audio Mastering

Mastering most commonly means the final step in the recording process, before the music goes off to be pressed into CD or vinyl format. It is a process that involves creating consistency among all of the tracks on an album so that they fit cohesively. This process is typically carried out by skilled audio engineers who have very trained ears. All record companies employ professionals who master all material, even if the mixing is spot on.

It is important to note that mixing and mastering are worlds apart. Recording and mixing all occur within the sequencer of choice, but mastering is applied to an audio file that is already mixed down, outside of the sequencer. My personal favorite choice of mastering tools is izotope ozone, because they offer the tools you will need: equalizer, reverb, multiband compression, volume maximization, stereo imaging, and harmonic excitation.

More and more today, bedroom producers are emerging, and they are taking on many roles, including songwriters, producers, recording engineers, and they are even mastering their own material. When you are on a tight budget, it’s impossible to afford the high prices of mastering services, so many of you would like to learn to master on your own. However, mastering is best when it is done by someone other than the producer, because you as a producer are too close to your own music. You won’t notice things that another pair of ears will notice, and therefore you may improperly master your own material without realizing it. If it’s possible, always get someone else to master your music. That being said, if you’re not going to get your music professionally mastered, at least learn how to mix and apply mastering effects to get the best sound possible.

First, what’s wrong with my song?

  • It’s not loud enough. It sounds wimpy next to other CDs. Turning it up or mixing down at a higher level doesn’t solve the problem. It sounds louder, but not, well LOUDER.
  • It sounds dull. Other CDs have a sparkle that cuts through with excitement. You try boosting the EQ at high frequencies, but now your song just sounds harsh and noisy.
  • The instruments and vocals sound thin. Commercial songs have a fullness that you know comes from some sort of compression. So you patch in a compressor and turn some controls. Now the whole mix sounds squashed. The vocal might sound fuller, but the cymbals have no dynamics.
  • The bass doesn’t have punch. You boost it with some low-end EQ, but that just sounds louder and muddier. Not punchier.
  • You can hear all the instruments in your mix, and they all seem to have their own “place” in the stereo image, but the overall image sounds wrong. Your other CDs have width and image that you can’t seem to get from panning the individual tracks.
  • You had reverb on the individual tracks, but it just sounds like a bunch of instruments in a bunch of different spaces. Your other CDs have a sort of cohesive space that brings all the parts together. Not like rooms within a room, but a “sheen” that works across the entire mix.

Don’t worry. It’s not that you’re doing anything wrong. There are just some things you still need to do to get that “sound”. You just need the right tools and an understanding of how to use them. You won’t become Bob Ludwig overnight (or probably ever) but you can make dramatic improvements in your master recordings with a little work.


Transitioning from triplets to sixteenths

Wednesday, July 18th, 2007

This is a trick that you can use with any quantizer that provides the ability to apply a range of strengths of quantization. In Reason, there is a dropdown bar next to the quantize button that gives you a list of percentages ranging from 5% to 100%. What we are going to do is create a length of triplet notes on a hi-hat or any instrument, actually. In this case, let’s use 4 bars. For each bar, you should have 12 notes (the grid on the sequencer is labeled 1/8 T). And it helps to accent (apply a higher velocity to) to the first of every three notes. This creates a more natural, less robotic sound. For the first bar, leave the notes as triplets. On the first half of the second bar, apply a 1/16th quantization at 5%. On the second half, quantize the notes at 10%. Then at each additional half-bar, you will apply 25, 50, 75, 90, and 100 percent quantization. At 100%, you will have groups of three notes that are aligned to the 16th note grid, which is 16 notes per bar. It sounds kind of like a shuffle. You can also just leave out the 100% quantized triplets, and just fill in more bars with 16 notes per bar, with the first of every four notes accented. Listen to the included demo sound to hear this effect.