Reverbs for multi-dimensional sound

Reverb is a classic mixing tool for adding width, but also that third dimension to your mix: depth.

By adding depth to your stereo image, you’re also expanding the stereo image as a whole. Reverb will give you more room for every sound to breathe and settle into the mix.

There are many different ways to use reverb and add space to your mix, but any reverb technique will add some degree of depth and spaciousness to your mix. And there are many types of reverb. Each is capable of adding a distinct vibe and depth to your mix.

Choosing the perfect type of reverb to give that extra space without drastically changing your audio’s character will take some practice. But when it comes to width, Hall reverb is a good place to start.

three_dimensional_spectrum_mixed

Don’t stop there though… all types of reverb can do wonders for adding three-dimensionality depending on your mix and production style. It can be useful to experiment with different reverbs for different tracks in the mix, or alternate dry tracks with reverb treated tracks. With small amount of effect, that can add unpredictable and variable spaciousness during the final mix.

Hot Tip: Using reverb with a short decay time will add a subtler reverb effect. It’s great for when you want to add width and depth without changing the overall character of a sound.

Some examples where reverbs are used with a creative and functional approach:

 

Microshifting to expand your space

Microshifting is a clever technique for creating juicy stereo images that allow your channels to sound larger than life and extra wide.

Here’s how it’s done:

Take one stereo track, pan it center and keep it there. Next, duplicate that track twice (so you now have three versions) and patch a pitch shifting plugin inline on both copies.

Now, use the pitch shifter to pitch one copy down a few cents (5-10 cents is common) and pitch the other copy up the same amount of cents. Next, pan one copy hard left and the other hard right. That’s microshifting.

Listen to the three tracks back in stereo and revel in your clever trick and newly widened stereo image!

widening

Article by J’vlyn dj.

Dark Ambient technicalities. Michael Barnett interviews Sonologyst about creating dark ambient.

 

(extracted from the Michael Barnett article: Dark Ambient 101: Understanding the Technicalities – http://www.thisisdarkness.com/2018/03/17/dark-ambient-101/ ).

  1. Analog or Digital?

The mix of both of them is ideal.

 M.B.: What do you see as the differences between analog and digital creations of dark ambient music?

S.: There’s no difference from a creative point of view. Obviously there are a lot from the technical one.

 M.B.: What are some of the key instruments/programs that you use to make analog dark ambient?

S.: Analog synthesizers, electrified string instruments, guitars,  samples, editing software and plug ins, percussions, wind instruments parts (commissioned to other musicians), tapes, pedals, dronin.

 M.B.: What are some of the key instruments/programs that you use to make digital dark ambient?

S.: Mainly plugins to work on noise parts and editing softwares.

 M.B.: Do you see one or the other as being the “better” technique for creation of dark ambient music?

S.: Everyone has to develop the better process fitting with her/him attitude.

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  1. Drones?                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                        M.B.: What are some of the techniques you use to create drones?

S.: There are different ones, maybe infinite. It’s possible to make drones with stratifications of synth pads, by editing acoustic instruments like brasses, winds, string instruments and so on; playing heavily distorted bass and/or guitar; editing samples, using noise from modular synthesizers, editing field recording, recording the washing machine noise and on and on..

M.B.: Do you have a favorite program/instrument to use for creating drones?

S.: Not a specific one.

M.B.: As a beginner did you create drones the same way you do now?

S.: As a beginner I made a lot of mistakes before to find my way.

M.B.: Have you changed techniques/software/instruments for creating drones over the progress of your career?

S.: Yes I did it many times. And I continue to change to make the sound fabric different in any production I do.

M.B.: How important are drones to dark ambient music?

Probably drones are the dark ambient trade mark, as well the violin and piano are in the classical music for orchestra, or the electric guitar solos are in the rock music.

Silencers vinyl group low res

  1. Field Recordings?

 M.B.: How important are field recordings to dark ambient music?

S.: They are another fundamental component in dark ambient music. They are the ingredient to create visual atmospheres, vivid landscapes, even stories, and forge a solid concept when the musician has something interesting to tell through the music.

 M.B.: What electronics do you use to capture field recordings?

S.: I’m not a professional of field recordings, so I use simply an IPhone when I’m around to catch everything could be interesting.

 M.B.: Do you leave the field recordings raw or do you add effects treatment to them?

S.: I usually treat field recordings with additional reverbs. But the most important thing is to find the right level for the field recording layer in the mix. Mixing is by all means a crucial part in the process.

M.B.: Do you use field recordings in the creation of drone or do you only use them as a secondary layer of sound?

S.: It’s a possible choice to use f.r. for drones, why not?

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  1. Vocals?

M.B.: Do you use human vocals in dark ambient?

S.: Yes human vocals.

 M.B.: How important are human vocals to dark ambient?

S.: It depends of the concept behind the work, but I find human vocals important in my music, especially the spoken words.

 M.B.: Do you create your own passages to recite?

S.: Just sometimes.

 M.B.: Do you use your own voice, hire a voice actor, or use samples from films/television/speeches?

S.: Yes, samples from old documentaries, movies, speeches are my favorite. But I also asked singers to send to me parts for specific uses.

 M.B.: Is it necessary to ask permission of the original copyright holder before using samples of vocals in your music?

S.: No, for they are usually very short samples or free samples.

Apocalypse BC cover

  1. D.A.W.

I prefer to escape all questions about DAW, computer and so on, simply because there are not peculiarities for dark ambient music. The logic of hardware and software is the same for all kind of music. Just I can add that I’m a graduated sound technician, so I learned technique of recording, mixing and mastering through regular courses. But as in all studies, the experience is the most important factor. Do it, do it and do it again. And after some years everyone will find the right set up and process. And for people like me, who don’t have big amounts of money to invest in expensive hardware and software, the experience will help to do more, using less. And this is a big advantage for creativity; when you have poor instruments and have to use your brain to find out something good. Take a few small stones, beat each other and record the sound by using some freeware delay and reverb. Probably you will be very positively surprised of the result.

  1. Samples

M.B.: Where do you go to find samples?

S.: Everywhere: everyday life, music, movies, documentaries, vinyl, VHS, NASA web site, specialized platforms for samples sharing…

M.B.: What samples would be off-limits in a legal sense?

S.: There are a lot of free samples around, or simply usable by asking the owner permission. But for more specific knowledge of the argument I suggest to read the related laws of the source origin country.

M.B.: How do you extract samples from movies, games, speechs?

S.: Through Youtube when it’s possible by a software, but for more original sources by connecting the source (turntable, VHS player, microphones,…) to the audio interface.

M.B.: How important are samples to dark ambient music?

S.: Important, but not necessary.

Unexplained Sounds cover

  1. Instruments

    M.B.: When you use instruments in your music do you play a real instrument yourself?

    S.: Yes I do it.                                                                                                                                     M.B.: If you want to have violin, for exampe, (or any other instrument) in a song, but don’t own one and can’t play one, is there another option? (some sort of program that will create violin sounds for you?)

         S.: I prefer to directly ask other musicians to realize the part, so to have a more natural and warm sound effect.

 

  1. MasteringM.B.: How important is mastering in dark ambient?

    S.: It’s fundamental. 

M.B.: Can a musician master their own album with limited training?

S.: It’s not an easy job without a little of training.

M.B.:What programs do you use to master an album?

S.: I prefer to not tell that. It risks to be a commercial advertising for software companies

M.B.:If paying another person to master an album, what credentials should they have? (ie. do they need to make dark ambient themselves to understand how to master dark ambient?)

S.: It would be better if the mastering service comes from a person with a good sensibility for that kind of music. If a musician who plays himself that music, that’s even better.

M.B.: What are the differences between mastering an album that is digital, CD, cassette or vinyl? Should each have a separate mastering?

S.: There’s a certain difference about mastering a vinyl compared with cd or cassette mastering. It’s related to the output levels that differ, in the vinyl case, depending of the track position (closer to the edge or the center). So as matter of fact, they are two completely different mastering. But for this I suggest to read this article from Sonologyst blog: https://wordpress.com/post/sonologyst.com/168

lexicon reverb1

  1. General Advice 

    M.B.: What advice would you give to a person just coming into dark ambient as a potential artist?

    S.: Just to work with passion and not to be hurry, releasing huge amount of music, just to show the audience what is going on. That is a mistake many people do, while the process to improve the own style should be something private.                                                                                                                                                                                                             M.B.: What are the best aspects of creating dark ambient?                                                                                                                                                                                                            S.: It gives to you the possibility to be in deep connection with you profound states of mind.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              M.B.: What are the worst/hardest aspects of creating dark ambient?

            S.: There aren’t worst aspect to me.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                   M.B.: What are somethings an amatuer should avoid doing at all costs?

          S.: I replied to this question in the previous point.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                           M.B.: How frequently should an artist aim for releasing albums (several times a                   year?, once a year?, once a month?)

           S.: Every artist has to find the own way for that. It’s impossible to give a general                       advice. In my case I found the good and natural rhythm working on one release a                   year. And I don’t exclude to increase the interval between two works. That lets me a              major deepness, awareness and consciousness of what I’m going to do. Basically I                  start a work when I have really something to communicate, and after I’m aware of                  that, I need time to explore how to communicate it.

         M.B.: Should a musician know the history of the genre before creating their own                 music?

         S.: Not necessarily, but it would be a crime to ignore all that beautiful music created in           latest decades.

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Sonologyst-Mixing&Mastering

 

10 Tips for Reverb using

10 Tips for reverb using by John Griffin

Reverb is necessary in order to create the impression of distance and separation between elements, but it also contributes a lot to the ‘glamour factor’ you’ll need for a modern commercial production. Quite simply, making the wrong reverb choices is a strong indicator of a non-professional mix. It is potentially so destructive that many of us are either too conservative when we use it – resulting in no real benefit – or else it’s applied too liberally and smears over all your previous delicate mixing manoeuvres.

What follows then are 10 essential tips to help you steer clear of the pitfalls and build a more effective reverb workflow:

1. Long and Short Reverbs

A good general piece of advice would be to use short reverbs in busy mixes, longer reverbs in music with more space. What can be deceiving though is to judge the validity of reverbs by name i.e Halls and Chambers as long, plates and rooms as short – if you think you need short reverbs you could find exactly what you want from a short Hall and you could find just the tail your after in a mix using a long plate. Rather than thinking purely in terms of long and short, think in terms of the quality of the tails, longer tails can disguise the presence of reverb where short ones can draw attention to it.

2. Pre Delay

Pre-delay is the single most powerful feature in most reverbs, setting a pre-delay allows for a certain amount of dry signal to get through before it is washed in reverb, this means greater intelligibility. It is particularly useful for keeping the attack of words from a lead vocal upfront and clear. In this sense it is much like how you use a compressor, setting a slower attack time or in the case of reverb – pre delay, lets vocal information through which is re-assuring to listen to. Anything from 20ms to about 80ms will be the area you need to work in – beyond this you will create a distinctive slap back effect that could be cool in the right circumstances but less suitable for most.

3. 3D Reverb

For a far more dimensional reverb and richer spaces you should try using multiple reverbs together. For example, using three you can create a much more convincing ambience.
To get you started – first find a small room reverb, this to give a little air around the source, second use a plate reverb and blend it as you might pour sauce into pasta, adding flavour. Third use a hall with a long tail to add ceiling, be careful not to overdo it. How do you know when you’re overdoing it? Read on…

lexicon reverb1

4. How much?

It is a taste thing of course, if the reverb is a big feature of your production ala Phil Spector, you’ll use a lot more than if you were just using it to blend, glue and create a believable ambiance. Remember that a little reverb goes a long way. When it comes to applying reverb, solo the instrument or voice, then bring in the reverb until you can hear it, then back it off a smidge until you sort of feel you want a bit more. That’ll probably be about right.

5. High Pass Filtering

Hopefully you are aware of the benefits of high and low pass filters, and you’ll have been applying these to instruments in your mix already to keep low end rumble and other toxic frequencies at bay. The same wisdom works on reverb, high passing reverb with an EQ – i.e. rolling off its low end will keep the space open. Leaving the low end in, could mean you lose definition as you add more reverb to more channels.

6. Brightening with Reverb

Reverb can be especially useful for brightening vocals where you might feel that EQing the vocal directly is working against you. This same approach can of course be used on any instrument, the trick is to identify the presence EQ range and then boost that in the reverb. For example, vocals usually have a strong presence around 3K, so, rather than EQ the vocal audio, instead, insert an EQ after your reverb and push that in the 3K area to get a more airy, transparent lift.

7. Impact with Reverb

Snare drums can regularly benefit from gated reverb, whereby a half second or so pre-delay followed then by a reverb that is gated, i.e. cut short abruptly – creates an un-natural, but useful artefact that might be described as smashed glass. The effect if used proportionally and blended well will give dimension to the snare without adding body. Used heavily it is a very distinctive effect brought to popular consciousness by Phil Collins and David Bowie, however, despite how dated it can make a drum sound, it is still used a lot for sound re-enforcement even in today’s most cutting edge productions.

analog

8. Grouping Reverb

A useful tip for gauging the effectiveness of your reverb, especially if you are using multiple reverbs is to group them together so you can then solo or mute them with a single mouse click. Being able to A/B processing in this way can be very informative and help you reign in your levels or feel confident about adding more. Having control of all your reverbs on a single fader will allow you to fine tune how you want them, plus you can of course apply EQ as mentioned in tips 5 & 6.

9. Springs and other ‘Dirty’ Verbs

Certain instruments take better to reverb than others, some don’t play so nicely. Often we like electric guitars to feel upfront, but regular reverb tends to soften their impact. Spring reverb and certain other lo-fi processors work especially well, the harshness of them can add body and presence to the audio, don’t discount cheap sounding processors and springs for use on vocals either, for a vintage lo-fi vocal reverb springs are extremely fashionable right now.

lexicon reverb2

10. Mono Reverb

We often think of reverb being stereo but there is huge benefit to setting up mono reverbs. Mono reverbs are great for spot lighting or where you want to draw attention to an instrument without swamping the mix. If you wanted to spot light a keyboard solo that was panned off to the right, setting up a mono dedicated processor and then the pan to match the pan setting of the keyboard, will really help retain the dynamics in your production.

renaissance-reverb

Summary

Reverb fashions come and go and presently we seem to be in a phase of rediscovering reverb. Reverb today is generally very musical and subtle: We want it, but we don’t want it to be over bearing. Modern vocal tracks and spot FX will tolerate a good deal, but we like drums to feel natural, textural and upfront. The main thing to keep in mind is that successful reverb should enhance the mood you are aiming for; it is not just about adding size, but embellishment of your central theme.

Compression and Parallel Compression

Basic considerations on compression and parallel compression.

COMPRESSION

 The first thing to establish is what a compressor of any form actually does, and the answer is that it reduces the dynamic range of the input signal. Whether it’s configured to make the loud bits quieter, or the quiet bits louder, fundamentally it exists to reduce the overall dynamic range from something large and unmanageable to something smaller and more appropriate for the intended application.

The vast majority of compressors apply ‘downward compression’ which means, in essence, that loud stuff is made quieter. More specifically, signals below the threshold level are left alone, while those above are ‘squashed’ by an amount determined by the ratio setting.

The more conventional way of illustrating compression is with a ‘transfer plot’, which is a graph with the input level on the horizontal axis and the output level on the vertical axis. The graph in Figure 2 was obtained by measuring the amplitude response of a ‘hard-knee’ compressor plug-in in a DAW, using an Audio Precision test system. The dotted straight red line at 45 degrees shows the response with the compressor bypassed — clearly illustrating that what goes in comes out, unchanged in level!

The different coloured solid lines were obtained with the compressor switched in and the threshold set to -20dBFS. The light-blue line is the result of a 2:1 ratio, and it clearly shows that when the input is 10dB above the threshold (ie. a ‘Generator Level’ of -10dBFS on the horizontal axis), the output or ‘Measured Level’ on the vertical axis is at -15dBFS, which is 5dB above the threshold. In other words a rise of 10dB at the input results in a rise of only 5dB at the output — which is half as much, and hence a compression ratio of 2:1.

diagram

The other traces show progressively ‘stiffer’ ratios, of 3:1, 5:1, 10:1, and 40:1. Anything above 20:1 is generally referred to as ‘limiting’ because the output level barely rises regardless of how much the input level exceeds the threshold.

Incidentally, a ‘hard-knee’ compressor, like the one used for these measurements, switches abruptly from doing nothing to squashing the audio, and that is revealed by the very distinct change of angle on the transfer curves. A ‘soft-knee’ compressor moves more gently from inaction to action, so its transfer plots would curve smoothly away from the 45 degree linear slope instead of diverting abruptly.

Dynamic Range Reduction

Now let’s imagine a musical signal where the quietest element measures -35dBFS and the loudest is -5dBFS, so that we have a starting dynamic range of 30dB. If we were to pass that signal through a 2:1 compressor with a threshold at -20dBFS, the output signal will range between -35dBFS (this level is below the threshold and thus unchanged) and -12.5dBFS. The latter figure arises because the source peak level (at -5dBFS) is 15dB above the threshold, and thus will be reduced by half to 7.5dB above the -20dBFS threshold, which is -12.5dBFS).

Therefore the dynamic range has been reduced, in this case from 30dB to 22.5dB, and at the same time the peak level has been reduced in level by 7.5dB. To help illustrate those points, I’ve added coloured bars to the previous plot to illustrate how the dynamic range and peak levels have been reduced.

 

Useful though this form of compression is, often we want to reduce the dynamic range without reducing the peak level. In other words, we want to raise the level of quieter signal components rather than turn down the loud ones. The usual way to achieve this is to introduce ‘make-up gain’ at the output of the compressor. A good way of understanding the concept is to return to the ladder diagram.

I prefer to call this ‘uplift compression’ to avoid confusion with true ‘upwards compression’ (which I’ll come back to in a moment). As the lowest ladder diagram in Figure 1 shows, the input signal is first downwardly compressed in the usual way, but then the output is raised in level by a fixed amount of ‘make-up gain’. The overall result is that the dynamic range has been reduced, again, but this time the peak level is restored to the same as the input while lower-level signals have been raised — so the quiet bits have been made louder.

However, this diagram reveals clearly that it is still the louder elements that have been ‘squashed’ — the quieter signals have simply been raised in level. That’s the key difference between ‘uplift compression’ and ‘upwards compression’. By the latter term, I mean processing that squashes the quieter elements while leaving the loud bits alone, as the final diagram in Figure 1 illustrates.

Upwardly Mobile

Normal downward compression — whether it’s used on its own or with make-up gain — inherently changes the character of loud signals to some extent by squashing them. Rule number one for any downward compressor is to squash anything loud! However, the action of turning the level down (and back up again afterwards) isn’t instantaneous; it takes place over a timescale that is governed by the compressor’s attack and release time constants. The inevitable result is that the sound and shape of complex but delicate and loud transient signals can be altered quite drastically. This is a significant part of the reason why different compressor designs can sound so different from each other, and why one compressor may be preferred in a given situation over another.

Parallel compression

Using compression effectively is fairly easy once you get your head around the principles of what it does to your signals, and it’s the simplest way to give your sounds some of that elusive pro punch.Parallel compression is one technique that can help here. It sounds complicated but it’s not – you simply duplicate your drum track (or any other type of track), and then heavily compress the duplicate, leaving the original uncompressed. When you play them back together, you get the powerful ‘breathing’ dynamic sound of the compressed version, whilst still retaining the detail, brightness and clarity of the uncompressed version. The best of both worlds…

Parallel-Compression_large

Try this with a track and enjoy the result!

Mastering for vinyl

Obviously a vinyl record is a different thing from a CD or a WAV file, but does it require a separate, dedicated master, or are the two formats basically made from the same mastered file?

The answer is YES! Making a mix post production for vinyl means to make an alternate version after the digital one, with little to no digital peak limiting, and a little more headroom in the analog domain. Sending a loud and aggressive CD master to a lathe will only cause the cutting engineer to have to turn things down significantly, and in many cases they’ll be forced to cut an even quieter record than they would have with a more dynamic premaster. Your mastering for vinyl doesn’t need to be as loud as your CD master because the volume of your vinyl will be determined by the length of the sides, which means to keep louder more aggressive material near the outer edge of the record (early in the side sequence), and the more subdued and less aggressive tracks near the inner grooves (where noise and distortion become more of a consideration). 

vinyl lathe

A digital master for CD has to have a 16-bit word length, and it can be as loud and as limited as the client’s taste or insecurity dictates; with the vinyl master there is a physical limit to what can be fed to the cutting head of the lathe, and so heavily clipped masters are not welcome and can only be accommodated, if at all, by serious level reduction. For vinyl, the optimum source is 24-bit. Things can get more tricky if the primary focus is the digital master, and especially when that is required to be fairly loud. You can’t simply take an unlimited file and add 4 or 6 dB of limiting without sonic consequences, and so for loud CD masters, we normally add another step of gain-staging and include some light limiting during the initial processing run, the result being a louder master to begin with for the second stage of adding gain. In this case the difference between CD/digital mastering and the vinyl one will be more relevant.

So before to go on with an alternate version for vinyl mastering, think about what’s the priority in your music distribution strategy and then talk about that with the sound technician who will care about your project.

 

Mastering: how to master your tracks like a PRO

Producer Jon Griffin presents a straightforward guide to ensuring great results, and avoiding the many pitfalls, when mastering your own tracks.

Overview

Mastering is essentially the process of preparing your song, or collection of songs, for the commercial market. The aim of mastering is to present a coherent final product that translates well onto all kinds of listening systems and environments in the real world, beyond the relatively pristine confines of the studio.

In practice, mastering is primarily about fixing troublesome frequencies, lifting detail, balancing and enhancing the stereo image, and of course making the work competitive in terms of overall loudness. Of course, mastering can also involve more than this, but here we are going to focus on the essential processes that can be undertaken in your own studio, particularly when hiring a professional ME (mastering engineer) is not cost effective.

Your Pre-Mastered Mix

The more familiar you are with the mastering process, the more this can help you make good mixing decisions. Mix balance is king here, and so is maintaining headroom and a good dynamic range. Make sure none of your individual instruments or vocals go beyond 0dB where they will clip or distort: Even if your mix overall has good headroom and is well short of distorting, any peaks caused by tracks spiking above 0dB may become more apparent while mastering and severely compromise the mix.

brainworx bx_meter

Keep control of your mix dynamics by adding small doses of compression at different stages rather than heaping it on in one sitting, so a little compression while tracking, a little while mixing, a touch of limiting here and there and maybe even a touch on the mix buss itself. By the time you are printing off a mix, those compression touches will add up to a mix that is solid, without being lifeless and have just about the right headroom and dynamic range left that you or your ME would need.

Headroom

You want to keep your loudest peaks with at least 1dB of headroom below zero, but really you can comfortably aim for greater margins, -3dB below zero would be even better. You don’t want to worry about ensuring your mix is loud – that is what mastering is for. Some engineers are even printing mixes at -18dB because they feel there is some sonic benefit. Your mix file can easily be brought up in level without issue with gain plugins or the clip gain functionality in most DAW’s. What you want to avoid at all costs are peaks above 0dB. It is far better to maintain headroom by printing a quieter mix than to squeeze every possible decibel out of it and risk going over before it even gets to mastering.

Dynamic Range

Dynamic range is the difference between the loudest and quietest moments in your music, and is also essential to preserve. A track with good dynamic range feels musical and exciting, whereas a track with poor dynamic range feels tight and fatiguing. How much dynamic range you build into any given mix is largely a judgement call you make based on taste, style and genre. Genres like pop and electronica tend to have less dynamic range than jazz, classical and other acoustic music. As a mix engineer you don’t necessarily want a mix that is too dynamic, but you certainly don’t want one that has no dynamics either! Meters like the Brainworx BX Meter that give real-time visual feedback on the dynamic range are popular tools and can help guide you in this respect.

Mastering Signal Chain

There are of course exceptions, and there are occasions where you have to do things differently, but the rule of thumb ME’s tend to agree on would be that a mastering chain should run something like this…

  • Gain Plugins
  • EQ
  • Stereo FX – such as widening or mastering reverb
  • Compressors
  • Limiting

Gain

You want to avoid using your limiter to deliver lots of gain at the end of your mastering chain. Ideally you only want to lean on them for a few dB, so make sure your audio file is at a good starting level either by using a gain plugin or, using the clip gain feature in most DAWS. Gaining will not affect your dynamic range only your headroom, you still want to keep enough headroom to apply your processes, but you don’t want the file to be so quiet that you are cranking the limiter to take up the slack.


Phase

Check a phase meter for good stereo representation: a nearly static line down the middle of the meter suggests there is little to no stereo quality; the result can be a lifeless, congested sounding mix. The solution could be as simple as inserting a basic widener and opening it up, fanning the mix out like a deck of cards. This leads to possibilities for additional surgical processes.

EQ

Well-known and highly experienced mastering engineer Craig Anderton preaches that EQ is 90% of the mastering process. If you are boosting or cutting EQ, a great piece of advice from Craig is to push the EQ frequency gain to where your ears want it…then halve your move. If you are boosting 3kHz by 3dB, bring it back to 1.5dB, that will probably be enough. In terms of EQing the mix generally, take time to listen first for the obvious things. Purposefully listen to the bass, the mid range, upper mid range and the highs. While trying to detect faults may seem like looking for a sonic needle in a haystack, start broad and you’ll gradually zero in on any issues if there are any. If you can’t detect anything you know you could improve, don’t EQ anything.

Waves S1 Stereo Imager

Stereo Enhancement

Stereo enhancement, or “widening”, involves spreading the various elements of a mix out over the stereo spectrum, pushing more sound to the extreme left and right.

This can be a significant and satisfying part of the mastering process, often transforming a track with a single turn of a knob. The downside is that it can also destroy a mix by either creating an un-real sense of space or by introducing phase issues and compromising energy levels.
The temptation can be to widen as far as your plugin will allow, but a more sensible approach is to apply it only to the point where you miss it when you take it out.

Widening to lift detail

Wideners can be especially useful for songs where a certain instrument or the vocal is getting lost in a busy mix. This is commonly because of an excess of information focused in the same ‘space’, either in terms of frequency or panning. Mixes that lack stereo information will be worse for that. Use a widener to fan out the mix, followed by an EQ boost to the fundamental frequency of the instrument or vocal you want more of. Typically you could look at boosting a vocal in the 3-4kHz range.

Waves SSL G-Master Buss Compressor

Compressors in Series

A useful technique to keep compression transparent and yet still achieve lots of gain is to use two in series, thus halving the workload on each. You get a cleaner, less obviously compressed sound because the circuits in each are being driven less and recovery times are near instantaneous.

Limiting

FabFilter Pro-L

Izotope Ozone

However, there is a trade-off here: the more you flatten the peaks, the less dynamic range you end up with. Mixes with too much limiting may appear loud, but in truth they feel flat, lacking dynamic energy and excitement. The trick is to be careful – a little limiting goes a long way, and heavy limiting very quickly gets ugly and amateurish.

And Finally…

One last point worth mentioning as a word of warning: you could hypothetically set your limiter to 0dB, thereby thoroughly exploiting any remaining headroom, and achieving maximum possible loudness. After all, you would think, if you have a limiter in place, you should be fine right? None shall pass and all that?
Well, yes, but there are certain digital processes that are required to smooth audio and in so doing they can add an additional thin layer of gain after the limiter: this could be enough to clip the master buss if your mix is already running right up to the limit. Therefore, it’s far better practice to allow perhaps 0.5db to act as a super safety net.

Mastering Advice for Beginners

What’s your best advice for a beginner who is just starting out mastering, and wants to develop their skills?

  1. You have to start by listening: Listen to lots of very good recordings and become familiar with how they sound on the finest reproduction systems and compromised systems. Become familiar with the effects of PLR and PLR reduction and make sure you can identify when transients have been deleteriously affected (e.g. overcompression). Then try to obtain well-made raw mixes, which is the hard part. — Bob Katz, Digital Domain
  2. Spend all your initial efforts to create an accurate and high resolution monitor/room situation. That will enable you to refine your listening skills and eventually make good judgements on what may be needed. — Dave McNair, Dave McNair Mastering
  3. Do lots of ear training. EQ will be your number one tool, so get to know those key frequencies inside and out. — Ian Stewart, Ian Stewart Music
  4. Mastering is all about listening. The more variety of music you can listen to, the better foundation you will have. Listen with Purpose. Listen to the work of “the masters” and DO NOT get hung up on what type of gear they used or why it’s unfair that they got great mixes to work with. Study and learn – a lot – before you start turning knobs or clicking a mouse. — Scott Hull, Masterdisk
  5. Develop your skills on as many styles as you possibly can doing both recording and mixing for as long as you can before trying to make the jump to mastering. This is both art and science and besides technical and people skills you need to develop your ears, instincts and of course your own professional criteria but that can only be properly developed thru time. — Camilo Silva F., CamiloSilvaF.com
  6. Practice on a variety of local bands for no charge. Then listen to your results on a variety of real world playback systems. Find out what your monitors are doing to your masters. — Don Grossinger, DonGrossinger.com
  7. Pick a reference with an ideal 1) tonal balance, 2) density/punch, and 3) volume for your genre and tastes — and stick with it! Your job is to match your material to your reference in those three areas. Anything else is best addressed in the mix. — Brian Hazard, Resonance Mastering
  8. Mastering a song to match a reference song is like carving a block of wood to match a reference block of wood. Learn all the tools and techniques it takes to match a reference, and you’ll master anything for anyone (provided that the mix is decent and allows for that). — Janne Hatula, Fanu Music
  9. Embrace the mistakes you will inevitably make, and learn from them. Be gracious and generous to your clients whose music they entrust to you. — David Glasser, Airshow Mastering
  10. You can’t polish a turd… you need to learn how to mix well before your masters will start sounding good. Mastering can fix some mix errors, but if your mix has a lot of problems mastering tends to only exacerbate them with compression and limiting. My practical advice would be to try to master a new song everyday while watching YouTube tutorials and comparing your masters to professional tracks in your genre. If you keep this up long enough you’ll get very good eventually. — Zach Caraher, Big Z Mixing & Mastering Services

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