Nautilus Master Technology

Technology for Super-Effective
A-B Techniques


"...wide, deep, rich sound quality. I could easily hear deep "inside" dense mixes."
-Mitch Gallagher - EQ Magazine Sept. 2004
"[The DMC-8] makes A-B'ing actually possible. This is my next purchase."
-Scott Gordon - engineer for Alanis Morissette, Ringo Starr, Aerosmith

I've used the A-B method practically all my career - and it makes sense given my orchestral background. Actually, any musician knows that when you perform in an ensemble, you are constantly A-B'ing your pitch, rhythm and vibe with the person next to you - it's automatic! We just don't think of it as A-B'ing, but that "auto pilot" comparison is always going on - at least if you want to be in-tune or in the "pocket" with the other players. The fact that musicians in a group listen to each other helps the whole thing sound better. When it comes to mixing or mastering, I think it's a great way to get your bearing, or at least be more certain that what you're doing is on target.

Remember that the context of mastering is song-to-song-to song and album-to-album.... vs. snare-to-kic-to-vocal etc. When you apply the more wholistic context of mastering to your mix.... it can start to put you ahead - put you in the setting of the entire album. A-B'ing is a great way to stay fresh and to keep out of SPL-overwhelm. So let's get down to business and see if all of this fits your style....

Focus is the key: Listen to the frequencies - the impact - the spatiality - the balance of different sounds within each mix. Focus on just the kic on one CD and then the kic on yours. Focus on the kic on another CD, and then yours. How loud do those kics sound within their tracks - compared with how loud does yours sound within your tracks? Check the focus and punch of the bottom and mid-bottom and compare. Listen to the presence in the mid-range for clarity and articulation. Perhaps consider standing in different places in your control room, (if you have a home studio) to hear different components of the low end (the farther back you go - even to the back wall - the longer the low frequency waves can develop). Now the snare - within the tracks of that commercial CD, how easy is it to hear the snare? How about in your mix? Just as easy to hear it? Is it just as clear? Does your snare sound better than theirs? What is the balance between the snare and the vocal? Remember, if you bring something up (like the snare) something else may appear to get softer (like the guitars) - I call this the teeter-totter effect.

Important: A-B short portions of music, perhaps 20 seconds or less. This keeps your memory fresh around the sound that you're focusing on. For instance if you're comparing your lead vocal with a hit CD, listen to that CD for 10 to 20 seconds in a verse, or a part of the song that's even and consistent. Then switch back over to your mix. If you need to change the CD level on the DMC-8, go back and do it - then go to your mix. Keep using short sections of music, and when you're ready to listen to something else, shift your awareness - listen to the guitar smoothness and presence - stereo spread of instruments and effects.

Keep A-B'ing short sections listening to each aspect - using the DMC-8 to level-match the overall output of each source. Don't raise your mix signal into square-wave city in order to match the output of a mastered CD. Include in your reference CD collection some older albums that have been well mixed and conservatively mastered. This is so you can hear music with musically-based dynamics vs. the sound of some modern-day squashed (but loud) CDs. Here are some great reference CDs that I recommend you check out.

As you're going along, burn reference CDRs of your mix, observing how your mix progresses (the slower the burn speed the better). Keep observing how the commercial CDs and your CDRs sound on consumer systems - but remember to lower the commercial CD's volume! Mix time is not the time to achieve a "mastered" volume level.

Come back in the studio to discover more. With the DMC-8, different CDs will start sounding more different to you than they did before. That's because the DMC-8 defines and resolves the sound more. There is now less of a "cloud cover" or a "mask" caused by those chips that are in the typical monitor path. It's easier to make changes that otherwise you wouldn't have made.

You will find that in time, the more you listen, the more you will hear things you didn't notice before over your system. Particularly if you use excellent cable to connect everything (and if you use a high definition headphone system like the DMC-2 it adds yet another advantage.) I prefer high-end cables like AudioQuest and other audiophile cables over other good ones like Mostercable.

"We went through great expense to make sure that, even for the shortest runs, the wire is the best possible. It really is surprising the difference a cable can make."
-"Big Bass" Brian Gardner - Bernie Grundman Mastering

Today the face of the music industry is changing - record companies are being swallowed up by large corporations - indy labels have smaller budgets - studio gear is evolving every year - and the independent artist/engineer/producer must consider more ways for the artist to get noticed, get signed, and get independent sales.

Artists at every stage of development are producing CDs and so the competition has more tools available than ever before to make amazing recordings with fewer restrictions. No wonder many studios have high-end all-in-one mic-pre/eq/compressor units in order to get better sound right from the get-go. Since your monitors tell you everything about every channel in your system (not just one channel) - doesn't it make sense to have the highest resolution possible to make the best decisions about all of those channels - at every stage of the process? One of the assumed advantages of a personal studio is that you can equip yourself to have an edge in this competitive market. Part of the edge you have is you can take your time to evaluate and refine your mixes - especially when you can really hear what's going on with your sound.

In the past, many recordists were frustrated that they couldn't get great mixes in indy studios. Sometimes the thought of "I'm making a digital recording" seemed to offer the potential of perfect sound. But digital recordings don't address the acoustics of your control room, or the audio signal path that you're listening through. If anything, digital is less forgiving than analog! Plus if you've ever experienced Studio Monitor Madness (why doesn't my mix sound the same in the car as it does in the studio) you're one of many studio owners who have been looking for a way to really grasp what changes are needed to make to their mixes sound pro.

Key: Keep in mind the "teeter-totter" principle - when you bring something up, something else will drop back. Ok it's weird, but if you bring up the bass, sometimes the vocal will seem to sit farther back in the mix. If you bring up the low-mids in the guitars, it may seem like the vocal is more dull. Helpful: "Feather" your frequency selections. If you're trying to get more clarity in the bass and the kic, add mids around 1.2k Hz to the bass and 2.5k Hz to the kic. Want more clarity in the keyboards and the vocals? Try 5k Hz shelving on the keyboards and 3.5k Hz peaking on the vocal with a mid-tight Q (bandwidth). (Sometimes less is more, too. I suggest putting away that 31-band eq...) Using subtractive eq works well too - want less muddiness in the kic and bass, cut somewhere around 400 to 600 Hz and vary the Q in a way that feather's the sweet spots that they occupy (and go easy on the 35 Hz and below - lots of sub-bottom can teeter-totter out some punchier 70 to 125 Hz). Notice that certain frequencies will affect the apparent level of the sound without making the VU meters change much. This is a great awareness that expert engineers have. (More about meters here.)

Rise above discouragement. If you're new to A-B'ing on a level matched system, you may not like what you hear at first. Frankly, commercial productions can have a lot of time, money, and engineering sophistication behind them. So what. If the commercial CD you're comparing with sounds much better than your mix - look at it as an opportunity - not as an obstacle! It's an opportunity to adjust your mix with a real reference, a real guide that is accurate with the NEMO series of monitor controllers. The level-matching controls keep you from being distracted by a difference in volume that is the main source of discouragement that I've seen.

I've seen guys throw their hands up and go "what's the use - that blows me away" when really it was sheer volume, not really tonal quality that was dwarfing the live mix. A good part of mastering science is to know the art of level matching so that volume doesn't fool us into thinking something is better, when it's really not. Sometimes you'll be surprised to see that your mix actually has better qualities than other CDs when you bring down those loud references.

Since many CDs today have different overall levels than before, it can be awkward to get centered listening strictly to the tone, balance, and texture of different recordings - that awkwardness (or call it inconvenience) is why most engineers don't do a lot of A-B'ing. Also, some monitor paths are so clouded with an overall "tone," you can't really hear through the "mask" in order to make more precise and specific adjustments. If there is too much common masking tone in a system it can make you spin your wheels searching for a subtle change that could make a big difference. Mastering engineers know through years of experience and detailed listening how to more exactly pick up on the differences in sound. It's the context of their job.

A great bonus can be that using effective A-B techniques in the studio will help keep your mastering bill down! It's almost ironic that I'm a mastering engineer, but from my viewpoint, it's all win-win because mastering to me is just as rewarding when I do less to a mix! I find that the better the source is, the easier it is for that source to really come alive in mastering!

Now that Nautilus Master Technology puts part of the context of mastering at your fingertips, you can begin to discover the differences in sound that were covered up before. You'll hear more width and spatiality, you'll hear a more solid bottom and faster top end (not that much brighter... faster... more immediate), you'll hear better separation between instruments and phase characteristics, and you'll hear "blacker" digital silence - which enhances the musicality and emotion of the music. While emotion may not seem significant in terms of the sound, think about it - what is music for in the first place?

Music is indeed a meaningful part of everyone's life, and that's part of the charge we get from doing it. It's our hope at Nautilus Master Technology that after all of the gear has been utilized and the players and singers have gone home after many great sessions, we all can enjoy the craft and spectacle of music and the enjoyment it brings to many. We're here to support your dreams in any way we can, and we look forward to hearing how our products assist you in making hits that make people smile and dance and take on life at it's fullest.

Best wishes!
Great reference CDs for A-B comparisons
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