Nautilus Master Technology

Secrets of Mixing


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 being.

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 housekeeping.

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, " can help to put up records that you like, compare them whilst you're working and try to copy the sound. I've done that." 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 through.

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 levels?

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 changes).

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 you'll get.

Gads.... back to mixing....
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 from.

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 distinguish.

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 Monitor Madness 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 and compression 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 a loud 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 dynamics.

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 to beat.

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 set-up.

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 choosey!

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 effect.)

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). See chart 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 this!

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 vitamins...

© Copyright 1998 - 2004 John Vestman
Created 10/22/98 * Modified 06/30/04

Solutions for how to avoid mix problems!
More on Mixing
Eq suggestions for either tracking or mixing
Gasp! Beware of Hot CD Disease
Info about miking, drum sounds and vocal sound
DAW tips for mastering
Studio Rates and Policies

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Everything sounds clearer, bigger and better, only great comments from all the band members.
More than we expected, a truly wonderful work."

- Cesar - The Blues Buddies - Monterrey, Mexico

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