Talk to me about multitrack recording/mixing/mastering

Any sound engineers here? Anyone ever been through the whole process of going from recording to pressing a professional CD?

Years ago I produced my first CD. I thought it sounded fantastic, and I sent it off for copying. Then I listened to a commercial recording of a professional band, and was blown away by how much better it sounded. The sound just popped. It had depth. It was incredibly dynamic. I felt like Dorothy stepping into Oz for the first time.

I’m now producing a new CD and want to improve my mixing and mastering techniques as much as I can without going back to school and selling a kidney to buy more equipment.

Any tips, techniques, URLs, or book recommendations?

FWIW I currently have Korg D8 and mix directly to CD-R. Yeah, that’s my first problem right there.

I’ve been producing and recording songs for about 10 years now, and I still have issues when comparing tunes I’ve worked on with other songs out there, regardless of where they were recorded or who recorded them. I’ve come to the realization that other people’s music will probably always sound better to me, only because when I listen to stuff I’ve done, I notice all the little things - tiny mistakes, compromises, and sounds that I just couldn’t get exactly right. I just don’t notice that with other engineer’s stuff. They always sound better. Well… not always… there was that one Metallica album that was just Og awful (St. Anger I think). :smack:

That being said, there’s a lot of things you can do to get your mixes sounding more professional. Some of them require a little extra cashflow, but it may be worth it to you:

  1. Have your mixes professionally mastered. This is huge. Find a good local mastering house with a good reputation and hire them. If that’s not an option, go online. There are a lot of online mastering houses that will get it done for you. Not only will they make your music sound more professional, they can give you constructive criticism on how to get your mixes up to snuff. Self-mastering is an option, but a dedicated mastering house will likely have much better equipment and a much better ear for it.

  2. Have somebody else who you trust and is knowledgeable listen to your mixes before they are mastered. Your ears become fatigued from listening to the same stuff all the time and the might get used to hearing that little peak at 2.4kHz at 2:13 into your song that throws things off. A fresh pair of ears can help discover these things. I usually send some .WAV files out to local musicians I know and have them listen and critique my mixes. They sometimes find things that I have totally missed.

  3. Listen to your mixes on several different sound systems. I’ve got my near-field monitors in my studio that I mix on. When I think I’ve got a mix close, I’ll go listen to it in my car, then on my cheap boom box, then on my main entertainment system in my family room. Listening on different systems in different environments can reveal a lot of things, from crappy equalization to errors in stereo field placement of certain elements.

  4. Equipment doesn’t matter as much a one would think. There are guys out there that make incredible sounding stuff with very minimal equipment. I was always a firm believer in making do with what you have and exploring your rig’s possibilities. Learn as much as you can about what your rig can do and make it second nature. Once you’re at that point, then you can start looking into buying more stuff to expand your sound. I currently have a very small setup consisting of my Mac, some near-field monitors, a small two octave MIDI keyboard/audio interface, some software and my guitars. I’ve worked with this setup for years and I still learn knew tricks and things all the time.

There are other things that will help, too. A good, responsive room to record in, bass traps, good mics, sound proofing, good near-field monitors, etc. However, these can all cost a good deal of money. I was trying to keep my suggestions down to the procedural stuff.

That’s all good stuff, thanks.

Do you have a website? Some of your suggestions are almost word-for-word what I was just reading!

I had no idea that I could send stuff out for mastering until a few hours ago. I didn’t even know there was a difference between mixing and mastering.

As for miking, I’ll probably just plug everything into the board, as my living situation will make open-air sound not much of an option. Even open-air monitors might piss off my neighbors a little, but I’m aware of the dangers of mixing through headphones.

One thing I’ve read is to picture the soundspace as a three-dimensional space. Not just left and right, but up and down and front to back. Apparently the up and down effect is created with varying amounts of delay. The idea is to fill up that space without having any two instruments occupying the same part of it. Listening to some really good mixes on great equipment, I can totally hear what that means.

Yes, 3D soundspace is very important. You need to create depth. Mostly, this is done through the use of reverb, but be careful - too much reverb can ruin a mix.

I just started using Soundcloud to get my mixes out there so other musicians can give me some comments. Here’s the link:

I’ve read that it’s reverb and volume. And yeah, too much sounds horrible. I’ve played with this a little and couldn’t really get anything good going with it. I guess that’s where practice comes into play.

Cool! I want to listen to that later tonight.

Since it seems you’re on a budget and space might be a concern let me just give you one of the better hints I was given: Resist the urge to mix using headphones. Or at the very least, try to minimize it. With headphones (as opposed to speakers) your stereo spread will be different than what you hear once there’s some “room space” in the equation.

Like **BigShooter **says you should also listen to test mixes in various environments–including mono. I am the proud recipient of an absolutely beautiful piece of work a close friend did. He only made one mistake–he never checked the phase relationship and somehow reversed one side. When played in stereo, it sounds fine. When played in mono, his voice (center channel) cancels out completely. I’ve given him all kinds of grief about the unintended instrumental he sent me.

(Some combination of NoScript and AdBlocker is keeping me from hearing your samples, BigShooter. Darn. I’ll have to try from a different PC later, too.)

I’m definitely going to have to invest in some monitors, no doubt about it. I don’t have a car, so no car stereo. I’m sure I can pick up a boombox for cheap.

What would I use for mono? I’m trying to think of anything I have that even is mono, other than my guitar amp.

Many mixing devices have a switch for it. A simple way to do it is to just set all your pan pots to center. If any instruments drop out or decrease levels substantially, suspect something is up.

If you’re careful in all your cabling phasing usually isn’t a concern. Also, if you close-mic your instruments and don’t use multiple mics at the same time, you shouldn’t have too much of a problem. Still, my friend is an expert and still managed to screw up, so …

If you have two speakers that get the same signal, that’s mono. Combine L+R and send it to all speakers.

I don’t know of any way you can create up and down with stereo or quad channels. And with stereo, there’s no way to create front and back, unless you mean the illusion of distance – more reverb tends to make the sound retreat from near to far (from close-miked small room to distant large hall), but it’s always in the direction of the speakers. No back speakers, no back sound.

My understanding of front to back is that yes, it’s more reverb and less gain. The up and down illusion supposedly comes from the amount of delay. I have a book that descibes this, and has an audio CD that demontrates it, but I can’t find the book.

That’s a new one on me and I can’t imagine how that would work. Let me know if you find the book and/or can quote info about this from it.

I will. If I can find the book. I gave up on searching for it, and so I ordered it again. It arrived last night. Except it was the wrong book!

I know that the effect works, though. Whenever I listen to well-mixed music through a halfway decent system, I alway perceive certain instruments coming at me from all different directions, not just left and right.

OK, I found it, read the relevant section, and listened to the CD.

You can put an instrument on various places on the vertical plane by adjusting the delay. Examples were given with 17ms, 15ms, 11ms, 7ms, and 3ms. The longer the delay, the higher up it seemed to be. Shorter delays not only lowered the sound in the vertical plane, but thickened it up, almost to the point of being muddy and unlistenable. 3ms sounds pretty crappy!

This is very true no matter what you’re recording. I’ve done a lot of voice recording and mixing, and I can always tell when I’ve had headphones on because my voice sounds flatter and the background music is too loud or too soft because I can’t get an accurate picture of what it sounds like until I’ve mixed it and it doesn’t sound like what it should.

That’s such a good point.

Years ago I recorded a synth part that was four long notes in succession, repeated through most of the song. One of those notes was so incredibly resonant that it buried the other instruments and just created noise. In the final mix I had to pull the volume way back every time it came around then push it back up on the next measure. I’m really curious if it would have still been like that though speakers vs headphones.

And there used to be a cassette tape series called Walkman Classics. It was orchestral music mastered specifically for Walkmans. I tried playing some on my stereo and they sounded like crap. Flat, dull, and a little distorted.

One of the big mysteries for me has always been the use of compression. It seems like a common engineering tool and I’ve fiddled around with it but never felt comfortable using it.

One of the more interesting parts of the Classic Albums series that VH1 put out is when they get the engineers back behind the mixing boards with the multitrack tapes (the only ones I’ve watched are '70s albums). The raw tracks don’t sound like anything special - just well-recorded basic tracks. The magic is in the mixing and application of effects.

Not sure that it would create the illusion of up or down, but there’s a reason that 3 ms would sound crappy. What you hear is a classic example of comb filtering. Delay a signal for 3 ms and it’s going to cancel out at 166 Hz, 500 Hz, 866 Hz etc… while having a 6 dB boost at 333 Hz, 666 Hz, 1kHz and all multiples. That’s pretty bad.

Compression is definitely a big part of mixing, because it doesn’t just create or alter dynamics, but can radically change the sound of a drum set or even introduce (wanted) distortion. There’s really no short way to learn it other than spending time listening to different settings and finding out which knob affects what.

Also, when I was beginning to learn about sound engineering I had all sorts of hopes and dreams about how important ones role is in the process. I’ve found out, though, that the hierarchy for a great song goes something like: composition - artist - arrangement - sound engineering. There are a lot of things that mixing just can’t fix if it’s not there in the first place - if your arrangement works with all the faders at 0dB, then you’ll have a pretty hard time making a bad mix.

That makes sense. I need to play with this some more.

I’m reading an interesting book about mastering. There are a couple of things I’ve read already that are worth noting.

For one, solid state is not always the way to go. Tubes still have value in that part of the process. A good engineer will try both.

For another, Monster Cables are not just overpriced crap. They really are worth the extra money. The book comes with an example on CD. I haven’t listened to it yet, but I think it’s interesting that novice engineers will spend thousands on fancy machines without paying much attention to their cables.

Makes no sense. If the delay time controls the “height” of the sound, how do you control the “distance”?

Two channels can make a sound appear to come from anywhere between the left and right speakers in a single plane (horizontal, unless the speakers are stacked vertically). It would take 3 or more to break out of that plane.

Someone is pulling your leg or you are a victim of the power of suggestion. If you have an example, I’d like to hear it. Can you link to a MP3 sound file?

You have just crossed into woo land. Claims like that can be tested, and yet the claimants refused to submit to such tests. Also note that stereophile magazine(s) are notorious for subjective claims with no proof, possibly to support their advertisers. What is this book you are reading?