The Secrets of Audio Mix-Mastering

"The Secrets of Audio Mix-Mastering: The story of a young boy with too many VST plugins"
- or -
"How to mix a record but not spend ten grand on just one album"

Ezra Moon

I was thinking of a couple of projects in the realm of audio production I'm going to be working on in the next month or two. Of course, when I think about the future I end up dreaming of the past and the albums I've had a bit of a hand in. I am going to say that six years ago the only audio production I was comfortable with was in the realm of Voice and Foley (sound fx) work for video games. Back in 1999 I created a fun site called Game StudioSound, which started out as an outlet for my own desires for getting work in games and blossomed into a fully formed talent clearinghouse for VO actors, sfx artists and musicians. I ended up making some actual money, but not much! Even though I worked with some nice companies on my own end with some music, at best I created some cool five second loops, so I did not know much about creating what most people would call a song. Music is a completely different beast than simple voice-overs. There are so many nuances to making something so complex sound good! I'm going to be honest, I kind of sucked at audio editing and recording, but that didn't stop me. You wish!

The first album I co-produced, Grandfather's attic for Autumn Shade was one giant hack job. We didn't have good microphones, my audio recording environment was my computer television input sound card and a four-track analog recorder. We recorded in a kitchen for many of the songs and I soon found out that a refrigerator was my mortal enemy. Half of the work I did on the record was getting rid of that damn hum cycle! Editing was a disaster and it was never loud enough, and when it reached a reasonable level everything loud made a light crackling sound mostly because of my lack of expertise. I used a program for recording and mixing called Magix Music Studio 3. It was not a very mature product at the time, but it was cheap! The process was ridiculous. In spite of all that we released it and people (with the exception of sound guys) were very pleased with its raw, olden sound. We took that album on tour and sold them, gaining quite a few fans in spite of my own neophyte talent. I was never really happy with the final mix, but I refuse to change the old tracks, there's a certain charm that comes from hearing Lilac Glass the way we made it.

Even though Grandfather's Attic was fuzzy-warm and well received, I was determined to understand how things turned out the way they did so I could have more control over the final product, and get rid of crashing audio.

Along the way, Jes and I created a short film called Train Tracks. The entire movie consisted of a sound track and I must say I learned a lot about proper audio production during the creation of the movie, notably in microphone usage.

We never stopped creating stuff which was helpful for someone who really enjoyed audio production. Practice makes perfect and Jes never stopped writing songs; we had a contest for a Smashing Pumpkins tribute album that we covered with SP's Jennifer Ever and I got to work. Jes actually recorded the song just before I met her and entered the song, but to get to the next round of the contest, the contest officials wanted a cleaner version. By that point I had invested in a marvelous audio input device, the M-Audio Fast Track Pro. If you have the money that little device will come in real handy. It's flexible enough to have midi in/out, has two XLR and two line in/guitar jacks, and it uses the power from USB so we could literally use my laptop to record in the middle of a meadow, which we did! In order to clean up, remix and re-master the original Jennifer Ever of Jes', I recorded the original 4-track master onto my computer. I did tons of EQ and cleanup, and then had Jes record a new guitar track and bass track. I ended up taking a 3 track recording and had 25 layers going on, all with slight adjustments and tweaks so I could output to a final mix. By this point I was using a marvelous program called Magix Music Maker 7. Over the years I have bought every version of the Magix line and by this point they had worked some very nice features into the product, most notably in the mastering side of the program. So what made this track (here's the original version) into this track (final version) so incredibly different? Besides the fresh recording, the magic was in the mastering. By this point I had discovered after hours and hours of editing time that trying to make the track as loud as I could before mastering was a big fat waste of my time. I discovered that if I made my mix reasonably loud but made the mix sound perfect, I could bump up levels in the mastering phase and it would sound startlingly better.

But now you ask, "There are two phases of mixing and mastering?" You betcha, and that's what makes the magic sauce that comes together for a good record. If I hadn't learned this I could not have created the album, Ezra Moon. I am very happy with Ezra Moon. I hope you are too. I think there's room to grow, but it was a huge leap from Grandfather's Attic while still maintaining the "style" of Autumn Shade's previous record. I discovered that you must first properly mix each song, and then master all of the songs onto one CD that can be easily duplicated; and it must be loud enough to be reasonably compared to those loud, over-compressed pop CDs you buy at the store and hear on the radio. Making the album loud yet "tender" enough took alot of research and trial until I learned the correct processes, which allowed me to see how alot of DIY bands (including us) failed to grasp the nuances of mixing and mastering. It ain't easy.

But first, let's get recording out of the way! Let's say you recorded in a nice, quiet environment with nice, sensitive microphones and nice, well-tuned instruments in a high quality recording format (better than 16bit). That doesn't happen every day but let's just say that! I'm not here today to talk about recording ;)

Mixing, mixing, mixing. Make sure you mix using the best speakers you can find. Now that you've mixed ten layers into one sweet song, normalized, ect., give the track a listen through some headphones. Now listen through an old speaker system. Now listen through a mono speaker. Always test your recordings through as many sources as you can because sometimes that far-out effect you used that surrounds your head in the studio speakers can positively disappear in an environment regular listeners may listen in, or you may notice that the fat beat you hear on one speaker crashes another sound system! This is the time where loudness doesn't matter as much as the "sound". If you turn it up and it sounds fantastic, you are on the right track. Mix that puppy down to a high quality format (at least 24bit .wav, 32bit float if you can help it) and move on to....

Mastering! Unless you are just recording one song, mastering should be done at the end of a session and all of your tracks are ready to be compiled into a master playlist. This is the very, very tricky part and a good ear is required. When mastering I always take breaks and compare my recordings to other artists songs to check if it's clear and equalized properly, while still checking on different speaker systems. It's a great idea to reference against some quality material you yourself are inspired by or want to get a "feel" for in the final album. For reference, I used a lot of Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd, Cat Power, and old Bob Dylan albums for reference when mixing and mastering Ezra Moon. Crazy, huh?

There are three general tricks in my bag for mastering that I always make use of (sometimes I use other tricks but I'll spare you); the Limiter, Compressor, and the Equalizer. The limiter keeps the songs from peaking at loud points, eliminating that dreaded crackle, but should be used sparingly or it will make everything sound odd and artificially loud, even when your track is at a quiet point. A Compressor is a very valuable tool for raising the levels but should also be used very sparingly, because the harsher you make it the more "lifeless" the sound can come out as. I find it nearly impossible to use compressors with violins and pianos because heavy compression makes them sound like a cheesy keyboard trying so sound like a violin. Some instruments were made to be recorded quietly so use that compressor with ease. The Equalizer if used properly will allow the tracks so sound like they belong together, even if three out of eleven tracks were recorded on a four-track and couldn't be recorded any other way. It's important when using EQ that all of the tracks on your playlist sound like they would not only belong together, but sound great on their own compared to any song you would hear on an ipod. This step is what makes a song sound like a real song and not some demo tape. If you don't get it right nobody will want to hear some broken song that sounds like trash compared to the rest of their music library. Would you? Heck no.

So now you've mastered an album! Good job, but you are not done yet. You've got one more thing to to. Can you easily duplicate that master? I always recommend creating a true master CD, a golden reference CD. I compile the CD (I use Magix Music Editor 2.0), burn it, test it on different machines to make sure it plays properly, and then I create a master .ISO file that I can reuse and backup. Duplicating a CD using simple CD copy software is a bad habit and let me explain why. If you have a small scratch, you duplicate the scratch and then you've just lost data. Now do that twenty times with a CD burner that's got a dirty lens. You cannot guarantee the data will stay optimal. So please, create that Golden CD Master and keep a tight hold of it. Protect it and use the .ISO duplicate to create your copies. Read up about .ISOs and you'll thank me later. There are free .ISO burning programs out there and it's hard to mess up burning a perfect digital copy.

So, let's recap. Record, Mix, Master and Duplicate responsibly. Mixing is not the same as mastering. Both are just as important. Now go do it, and remember that I believe in you!

Here's the gear I used for creating Ezra Moon:

M-Audio Fast Track Pro (recording input)
Several Sony ECM 44b Condenser Mics
Roland 635a Directional Mics
Crown PCC Supercartoid Condenser Floor Mics
Guitar, Violin Pickup
Jes' old 4 track tape recorder for a couple of tracks, notably River and Evelyn Star

Magix Music Maker 9 and 10 Deluxe edition (for some recording and most of the mixing)
Audacity (free recording software, fabulous)

I don't expect you to use the software I did, but the concepts of mastering roll across different programs very easily.

(8-25-08) I thought I'd add in some reviews of the album. Like I said, I was very pleased with the final product, as were it's reviewers...

Tiny Mix Tapes

Albums and other fun I've worked on and published, in chronological order:

  • Counter Strike / Redemption Video Game - 1999 Box Set ~ Barney (VO)

  • Game StudioSound Game Audio Site Creator, Voice Artist

  • Grandfather's Attic - Autumn Shade EP - (Co-producer, engineer)
    listen via

  • Adam and Evette - A Short Film by Captain Chambers (Video Editor, Audio Cleanup)
    More info and view movie

  • Train Tracks - A Short Film by myself and Jes Lenee' - (Director, Co-Producer, Video Editor, Audio Producer) - runner-up, people's choice award at Blue November film fest
    View Film tomorrow :)

  • Jennifer Ever (re-mastering, recording engineer) - Single for SP Compilation Album with Autumn Shade

    Original Mix Sample

    Remastered Song, FULL MP3!

  • Ezra Moon - Autumn Shade's first LP album, published and available worldwide through Strange Attractors Audio House (Co-Producer, recording engineer, mastering, editing)
    Purchase and listen to Ezra Moon via Amazon

  • Unreleased tracks for a TBA with Autumn Shade album

  • A Lady In the Forest / Live Album - Autumn Shade (remixing and re-mastering the marvelous original live recordings done by some very nice people) This album was created for a fundraiser for Autumn Shade's current European tour. Please contact me for a copy, this is a limited release.

    Sample One:

    Original Mix

    Sample Two:

    Original Mix

Here's a bit of a medley from the album!

Note that the Train Tracks Soundtrack may be available in the near future. It was a beautiful creation of piano music by Jes Lenee'. If you enjoyed the music of Amelie I think you would enjoy the music of Train Tracks. If you are nearby me I'll play you a track at my house, or just watch the video tomorrow when I upload it.

I'm currently working on some new recordings with a few people, as well as a fun little project I'm creating for myself. I'm recording accordion, hand drums, guitar, keyboard and vocals for an untitled project. Imagine an accordion in the center of a band. Remove any thoughts of Polka from your mind. Can I do it? Can you still imagine something good? We'll both find out soon enough!

Learn more about audio post-production:

Audio Post Production
The Compressor / Limiter


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