I'll get to
some cool eq and compression specifics info
in a sec, but first...
Rule #1. There are no rules.
Be creative. Create a major "Wow!" factor. Create something
unique with a twist. Ask yourself, "What is different about
our music?" Imagine the unimaginable and bring it into
Book a pre-mix clean up
session. Take an hour or so to come in with the
engineer, and erase all the throat-clearing, the guitar
clicks, the out-take solos, etc. You'll feel fresher at mix
time, because you can concentrate on the creativity, not the
Allow for more time than you think you
need to mix. There's nothing worse than thinking it
will take 3 hours to mix a song, and it ends up taking 5.
You're under pressure, the engineer's under pressure, and
the studio's next client is pacing back and forth in the
waiting room. Have extra money (if you're paying the studio)
on hand, so that if you go over budget (always the case) you
aren't sweating bullets.
Listen to great sounding commercial
CDs at an equal volume to your mix - compare your mix
to the other CDs and adjust according to what you hear over
your monitor system! For every four hours of mixing, spend
one hour within that time listening to your "competition." I
know, it can be a stretch to listen to the best recordings
in the world up next to yours. So what! Stretching makes us
better engineers! A better sounding mix than yours is not an
insult - it's an opportunity to improve your skills - and
every reference CD you hear is another opportunity.
If you don't like me giving you this advice, take the
advice of Tom-Lord Alge who says,
"...it can help to put up
records that you like, compare them whilst you're working
and try to copy the sound. I've done
Still not convinced? How about when I interviewed
Stephen Marcussen in EQ Magazine/Pro Sound News and he said,
"...just put in a commercial
CD, see what it is you like about the CD and go for it."
(Check out the article on super
effective ways to A-B.)
Make sure your equipment is grounded
correctly (no hums or buzzes) and you are using
excellent cable everywhere
possible and to the greatest degree that is appropriate for
your budget - digital cables - musical instrument cables -
mic cables - even power cables. Buy the best monitors and
power amps you can responsibly afford - the resolution of
your monitoring system is the "lens" you are looking
Q) Will the Nautilus COMMANDER
have dual stereo outputs - one for the mixdown machine and
one for monitoring? -CJ
A) Yes - absolutely.
Q) Will the COMMANDER
have strong voltage and be able to handle slammin
Steve Firlotte at Inward Connections says that proper use of
voltage in circuits affects headroom. All Nautilus Master
Technology equipment is designed for maximum headroom. One
of our co-designers has gear dating back to the vintage days
of Langevin equipment - so the experience and depth put into
this gear is exceptional.
Q) I'm planning to do bangin' hip hop
and slam the thing will all sorts of level.
Just a thought - one thing I recommend, from a mastering
standpoint, is to be careful how much slamming you do at the
mixing stage. Hot levels tend to flatten out the peaks,
thereby adding some sustain to things like kic drums
and bass, so be very careful when you plan your mixes and
sounds so that they stay punchy - if that's a sound you
like. You also may want to do a slammin mix, and then back
down the stereo output for an alternate mix, because you may
find that this opens up the sound. Remember, the mastering
engineer can strategically raise the level as much or more
as you can, and perhaps retain a more dynamic sound.
Ultimately, it's up to what your preferences are - so by all
means, be sure you're happy with your results!
After you've dialed in 90% of your
mix, I do think it's a good idea to make "sample" reference
copies of your mixes using some peak limiting (using either
outboard gear or a pluggin like the Waves L2) or compression
with a fast attack time (adjust the release time so you
don't hear "pumping" or "breathing" of the mix). This
enables you to hear how your mixes will possibly sound after
CD mastering techniques are used to bring up the level.
However, don't try to make every aspect of your mix as hot
as a mastered commercial CD.
After you've checked the sound of your
mixes with and without extra level/limiting/compression,
TAKE THAT LIMITER/COMPRESSOR OFF THE STEREO BUSS - it's
actually better to have a couple dB of headroom on your
mixes! Ok, every Home Studio Addict magazine out
there has got all the cool ads for high-end compressors.
Ah! THAT'S how to get my home studio to sound like Ocean
Way! Nope. Use compression, eq, limiting, reverb, etc.
on individual tracks in order to achieve the sound you want.
Leave the "mastering" processors off the stereo output, even
if it means you have to work a little harder to get
everything sounding the way you want it. Never mind if your
audio CD copy isn't as hot as commercial CDs! Mastering is
the best place to get more level by using strategic high-end
compression and limiting. Overly compressed mixes box the
mastering engineer into a corner, reduce the openness of the
mix, and lower the number of enhancement options.
If one mix is very compressed, and several others are not,
guess what? I have to jump through hoops to make things
sound consistent. In most cases, when I have the artist or
producer with me, we end up wishing that the mix wasn't
pre-compressed. When I master, sometimes I compress,
sometimes I limit, sometimes I do both, and sometimes I
leave well enough alone! I can bring more musical
consistency to your CD if you give me a bigger range of
options in this area.
Keep clean copies of
all versions of your mix, or consider making
"alternate" mixes. After you get the mix just the way
you like it, mix another version with the vocal up 3/4 dB.
Mix another version with the kic up 1dB (a good option to
have). Mix another with the guitars or the backup vocals up
1/2 dB - you get the idea. Whenever you have doubts about a
certain instrument or vocal, make an alternate mix and then
let the final choice be made in mastering. This is becoming
more of a common practice due to the "hot CD" game. The
hotter we're being asked to master, the more the mix will
change slightly as everything level's out toward the top.
That's when you very well might want that kic hotter than
you would have liked it in the studio.
CD mastering levelling practices have
changed and we've been engaged in a level contest to
see who can cut the hottest CD. So given that CDs have
become so loud, and many prefer volume over more natural
(and lasting) dynamics, there is another element to mixing
that can be helpful - I'm going to call it "pre-limiting."
What you do is start your mix in the normal way, get it to
sound great without compressing the stereo buss - the CDR
copies you make should sound good musically, but they won't
sound as loud as newer commercial CDs. That's OK!
Don't worry about the volume right now. Keep this version as
a master mix.
Next go at your mix again but insert a limiter (not a
compressor) over the stereo buss (limiters are fast,
compressors are slow). Crank the output of the limiter so
you can now make a hot CDR copy, getting closer to the level
of newer CDs. This is just to pre-test how the kic, snare,
vocals and instruments start to blend when the tops of the
peaks are cut off, which is required to make a hot CD.
Listen to the hotter CDRs again to see if there's enough kic
punching through the mix. You may have to bring it up...
more than you expect.... Get this version to where you like
it, and keep it as another master mix.
Now once you are hearing the kic more like you did on the
original non-limited masters, go back and remove the limiter
and keep this as a third master. Note: By removing the
limiter, you may have to bring down the overall mix level,
but that's ok. Keep the overload lights OFF. Digital
clipping (on any system) is not your friend. Now when you
submit your mixes for mastering, include all the mixes:
Normal dynamics, limited dynamics, and non-limited 3rd mix
(exaggerated kic, trimmed bass and whatever other
This gives you more options at mastering time. First you
have a regular mix that sounded the way you liked it in the
first place. Second, you have a mix that's geared for hot CD
levels with the needed compensation for the limiting that
packs everything into a fatter package. Third you have a
non-limited but compensated mix that could possibly be the
one used for mastering... but... you're using the concept of
taking out that limiter so that a more precise level
of limiting can be chosen at mastering time.
This whole technique really wasn't needed back in the
mid-'90's because the labels and major artists weren't
pressing the volume so far beyond normal... as they are
doing now. We are really not hearing pop music in a normal
dynamic context anymore... and most mastering engineers
aren't very happy about it. But... we're here to please our
customers, so if level is what you want, level is what
Gads.... back to
Bring in a few commercial CDs with you to the mix.
But first, know your market. What radio station would play
your music? What are the CDs they play often? Which music
sounds good over the air? Who's drum sound do you like?
Who's vocal, guitar, string, piano sound do you like? Your
idea of a big sound may be different from your engineer's,
so if you bring in a CD, hand it to him/her, and say, "Check
out cut 5 for the vocal sound." he/she knows exactly what
you like. "Put in this other CD and listen to the guitars."
You get the idea. For every 4 hours of mixing time you
spend, ONE of those hours (spread out during the four)
should be listening to other CDs when you begin using this
level-matched A-B technique.
This is also cool at tracking time. You have an abundance of
material in the form of commercial CDs to get ideas
NOW HERE'S THE CATCH - CDs have
been mastered - which is good, because mastered
CDs have all the adjustments and goodies on them - right
there at your listening disposal - and with the NEMO DMC-8,
you will be able to level-match so that the tones, the
frequencies, the spatiality, the balance is easy to
When listening, I recommend that you audition some older CDs
as well as newer ones. Why? Because the older CDs haven't
been compressed and limited as much as the newer ones have,
and this gives you a truer sense of the dynamics you hear in
a mix. Your goal is to compare the sounds and tones of the
CDs as a guide during your mix. For instance, you may be
used to hearing the bottom end of group "A" sounding great
at home. You may have heard the guitars of group "B" on the
radio sounding rad. But since the studio monitoring
environment is different, your impression won't necessarily
translate into the mixing room exactly the same.
The characteristics of the studio speakers will be
different. So when you bring in those CDs, you now hear what
impressed you in the real world right there in the studio
next to your mix. If your mix doesn't impress you as much
when you first A-B to a cd, don't rag on your engineer! It's
just a process, and being diplomatic will save you time and
increase the creative flow. Just say, "I like a lot of what
we have now, and I'd like to get a little more of [fill
in the blank]. I'd like to listen to these to get some
ideas." Be sure to check out my page on commercial
CD references, and see Studio
for more info about the actual speaker system and it's
effects on mixing.
Quick tip: Keep any
paper labels off your master CDRs - they inhibit the
rotational balance and can cause the player's error
correction to work harder. Tip 2:
Only write on the top of CDRs with a soft
felt-tip pen prior to burning the CDR, not after. The
top is more fragile than the bottom! ...and here's even more
mixing tips on bass/drums/vocals/de-essing,
and some great EQ
suggestions but in the meantime...
There are only so many one's
and zeroes on a CD. There are no "bonus" +1dB +2dB or
+3dBs available like on analog. So when the peaks (like kick
drums, snare drums, etc.) hit the top of that digital
ceiling, that's IT. There are no more numbers. In order to
make the CD appear louder, the only thing left to bring up
is the quieter non-peaky stuff.
Now I'm perfectly happy cutting
CD for you. Just
know that the problem is that all the transients take on a
different shape and sound when we do this. For instance,
many musicians like punch. Well, think about it. The punch
you feel from the bottom or mid-bottom comes from the
speaker excursion. The cone moves forward a certain amount
and then moves back, and so forth. When we limit/compress
the peaks, we are able to bring up the body of the music
(the non-peak stuff) higher. That's what gives you that
louder, RMS level on a cd. BUT THE RELATIVE DISTANCE THAT
THE SPEAKER MOVES IS LESS. That means that the over-all
sound is louder, but since the speaker doesn't push the
sound wave forward as far, there is less impact from the
movement of the air. (Unless you turn it up to
glass-shattering levels, in which case the sheer intensity
creates the impact.)
Ah, the old school... Competing
for level is an old trick that dates back to vinyl, but with
vinyl, there was a different reason for cutting a hotter
lacquer. Since vinyl inherently had surface noise to it, the
hotter the sound (and therefore the wider and deeper the
grooves), the less you'd hear the surface noise. Also, if
the song come on strong, level-wise, it seems more exciting
right out of the gate. (You never get a second chance to
make a first impression, right?) Vinyl is an analog medium,
and it is a flexible medium, in that there is an acceptable
range where the signal can be increased depending on the
dynamics of the music.
In the analog world, we watched levels to reduce or
eliminate tape hiss, keeping our eyes on how much headroom
we had above zero VU to avoid distortion. With CDs, it's
different. We set the high peaks right at "0" and bring up
the rest of the program material (as desired by the client)
to make the product hot, but still maintain some degree of
HEY...MIX TO ANALOG
TAPE on an excellently maintained machine! The vast
majority of projects do not need the hiss-less format of
digital, and the bottom is so much better on analog! There
is just a "hole" that is hard to describe in digital audio.
For some reason, the extra thump that analog has (or holds
onto) is great and the top end has a silky sound that's hard
Plus people sometimes don't realize that those good old
analog machines were loaded with high-grade electronic
circuits that your favorite DAT machine or even Masterlink
doesn't come with. Typical stereo digital machines are
low-priced because the emphasis is on a semi-pro buyer, not
the ultra-high end recording studio.
Analog tape recording has a "sound shape" almost like a
processor. When you put in a square wave test signal into an
analog recorder, the output looks different - the "hard"
edges are smoothed out - they are less square, which
accounts for the silkier sound, the wetter edge and woodier
sound to acoustic instruments. Ideally, record on both
analog and digital mediums, because it's a great way to have
more options with just a bit more involved in the
Since the good old days of having a couple of brands of
analog tape to choose from have gone away, I highly
recommend Quantegy GP9 - it's really an old 3M formulation
(but it's not intended for +9 elevation). Quantegy 499
sounds better than 456 by far, so don't be afraid to be
I don't recommend elevating your level above +6dB. Why?
Marketing hype has made the overload capabilities of modern
tapes overrated. There's a lot to consider about the plus'
and minus' of tape saturation vs. signal-to-noise vs.
print-through, etc. Take print-through for instance: Tape
machine heads pick up magnetic signal, and the stronger the
signal (louder you've elevated the tape) the easier it is
for the adjacent tracks to pick up what's recorded. Result:
more crosstalk, especially from 500 hz down. That means that
all the low end will bleed slightly from track to track to
track. At +9, track 5 "hears" more of track 4 & 6 than
if you elevate to +5. All that low bleed makes for mush in
your mix. You'll have no hiss, but the bottom will be tubby
and slow sounding.
Trick: If you don't mind
breaking the rules, align
your machine so that you set 1K at -2 (using an NAB 250
nW/M alignment tape) and 10K at -3. That way you have to
elevate the high end more. The tape can handle the extra
high end level, and it doesn't mush up the bottom. It's not
enough to saturate the highs, and it's not dangerous enough
that if the tape goes to another studio people will faint.
Think of this trick as a broad-range, simple form of noise
reduction (which is the whole goal of tape elevation,
anyway!) Now you get the hiss reduction of a +6 master with
the clean bottom of a +5 master! Voila! (Or just use IEC
(CCIR) equalization instead of NAB. It's a standard, and
it's reproducible and accomplishes the same noise reduction
Ok, so you don't want to use analog.... the next best thing
is a Masterlink at 96k or 88.2k 24 bit, or a 24 bit AIFF
(WAV is ok too) file - the higher the sampling rate the
better (and remember to stay a couple dB under clipping).
on the studio rates page for another look.... and when
you're ready to see how 30
different digital systems stack up sonically next to
each other, read
Meanwhile, give yourself some slack at
first. Group "C" may have had a $50,000.00 budget for
their mix alone. Mix so that when you push the
cd-player-button, they sound great, and when you push the
stereo buss button, YOU sound great too, in the context of
your music and the tools you have to work with.
And remember - have fun! Stay fresh, take breaks, go look at
girls (or guys ...ya know, whatever).... take
Copyright 1998 - 2004 John Vestman
Created 10/22/98 * Modified