The Infamous Holy Grail Of Printing Mixes
The cheat sheet for printing mixes for mastering is this:
- Use whatever audio processing you like on the mix.
- Get the mix sounding exactly how you want it to.
- If you're limiting the mix at all, send an unlimited one too.
- If you threw a plugin on at the end of the mix instead of the beginning, send a version without it too.
- Don't believe the hype. Use only what helps you, and take the time to test and learn your tools.
Is it as easy as it sounds? Nope. But the aim is to learn more and save more time, kill the technical frustration and just leave the creative turmoil that goes on with making awesome music.
I remember long hours, just trying to get the computer to finish a bounce without a plugin glitch, a system overload, or a hard disk skip. There was a crossover period where analog tape was still considered a bit 'obsolete', though both it and digital tape were so refined and fluid (though still tough to edit) that they were the fastest playback/mixdown methods compared to non linear computer systems. Just like early CD-playback converters, the technology was young and had obvious drawbacks, and tape was just smooth sailing.
These days, even the last tape baron has capitulated and switched over to computer playback, it's just a more robust system, if you don't mind the archiving nightmare that hard disk media is.
I may have lost your interest already, and you're either thinking a) "this is so useless. i make music on a laptop. I just hit bounce and move on with life. Who cares what slow methods people used back in the day " or b) "Analog media is the pinnacle of audio, and I print everything to tape while laughing at the puny mortals and their constantly changing technology."
Well, when you hit play on your mix for the last time as a multitrack recording, you're committing it to playback for thousands (hundreds, millions etc..) of people that exact way, no more changes or tweaks. And that's a very weird thing for a mixer, since you're basically performing thousands of adjustments during the course of a mix, then suddenly stopping and saying "Tweak number 1305 is the last piece of the puzzle, we've achieved the perfect number of tweaks and we're done."
What we're here to talk about is: mastering the art of finishing a mix so you're less nervous about letting go, and doing tweaks that are improving things and making you happier at the end.
Raise your hand if you look back at all your old mixes in a bittersweet, "Oh those old ones are all junk, I'm so much better now and everything I do from now on will have less of those things I don't like in them." A large, large percentage of us mix engineers will feel like that. The people who don't feel like that in hindsight are ones that have very strong opinions about mixing, and also are very comfortable with their tools and techniques. Do you have those two qualities? A strong opinion of how things should sound, and a massive comfort with all aspects of your mixing? If you do, then congrats to you, you must sleep better at night knowing you nailed it. Even still, you may not be a ninja at printing your mixes.
hindsight from mastering
The amount of times I give a master to a client, and they come back with a reprinted mix asking for the 'same settings on this new mix they tweaked' is about 80%. That also has no correlation with how much processing or alterations I did at my end, whether the mixes were awesome in the first place or not, or any other factor involved. It comes down to 'I forgot to add this part', 'I muted this by accident', 'I wanted this track brighter', 'This solo could come up', 'My drums were too dark', 'After hearing it mastered, I....'.
Now this is all good, it's not as if leaving this unchanged after mastering makes for better music at all. A lot of tweaks are important ones. The only time I do the whole forehead palm-slap is when I get 'After hearing the master, I added these instruments to the song.'
But what this points to is lack of focus on the end goal. Or a lack of experience/concerted effort to 'wrap things up', and the implications of not being clear on the finish line means how you run the race will be different too. Basically, if you could hear things from my perspective, you'd tweak the whole mix in various aspects before mastering even happened. That's a big difference for the music, right?
That doesn't actually mean that we need to bring the rig down to the mastering studio and re-eq every track one by one until it sounds the same in a different room. In fact, that would probably be detrimental to the sound you've built for many hours before. We don't want to compensate for your room acoustics, your speakers, or any other 'technical' factor involved with where you're mixing, that stuff for the most part is handled just fine in mastering. We don't want to make you feel paranoid about your room or your skills either. We just want to get great at finishing mixes, and printing them. And that's something that we're probably worst at, since everyone starts a mix, but not everyone finishes one.
The right way to print a mix
The right way to print a mix is to hit 'bounce', whether it's realtime or not, and listen back to the track and feel great about what you're hearing, no concerns. Now, there's TONS of creative ways to 'check' your mix. I read in a Mix magazine article years ago that a pro mix guy would run the vacuum while playing the mix quietly. Another girl/guy would stand in the hall outside and listen to how the mix played out of the room. Cranking it loud for a short bit, turning it way down for a short bit and seeing what pokes out is pretty standard. Some people have a mono button on their monitor controllers, which will definitely tell you what you have in mono. How useful all this stuff is, is, well, up to you and the results you get.
See, I don't know how you're listening to things, and where you're listening to things. That's what makes you as a mixer unique. And it's fantastic. But it also makes finding rules and staples while mixing difficult. We'll go through it all, from big picture deal breakers, to the finest fine tweaks to a mix as it gets.
A mix is a chain, a mix is a ladder, a mix is a...
You get the point. It's a step process, where one 'mistake' early enough in the track can derail your whole idea, and you find yourself completely off in your mix sonics from where you actually intended to be. Example: The song sounds to you like it wants a neutral tone overall, and mostly the vocals are about smooth mids poking out, with darker thicker and duller guitars underneath, and the hihat will be sheeny rather than bright and bitey, the kick will thud with roominess rather than sub-i-ness. Call it an indie-rock vibe, though the genre doesn't matter so much as your intention and idea about the music. You have your vision, and you mix away with the tracks, trying to smooth things out and get space etc... When you're done, it just sounds dull and terrible compared to what you wanted it to sound like, and everything else you listen to just sounds brighter and edgier in comparison. What went wrong?
Well, the tracks came in very dark sounding to begin with. There was a bigger, earlier step to tackle before you just worked on mixing and blending the tracks. You may have carved and smoothed some mids out between tracks, but practically everything you did wasn't useful because the whole playing field was tilted towards ultra-dark to begin with.
What happens next? If you leave it to mastering, you'll end up with a big low cut, or I'll pull out a Sontec-shaped bell (practically a low shelf but not quite), and after just a tiny dip to the lows, or gentle lift of the mids/highs, the whole mix falls apart. Turns out after taking away even a bit of the veil going on in the mix, the tracks weren't really mixed with each other after all. A BIG step snagged progress in balancing everything out, whether it be levels, frequencies, space etc... it all sounds unmixed after you take away a bit of the fog or resonance that was going on from the beginning. All the vocals turn honky sounding, the hihat doesn't sound smooth anymore, the guitars are actually harsh.... it's just a mess.
Maybe it's just bad mastering? Well if your mastering girl does things to the mixes that you completely don't want, or goes in creative directions you completely disagree with, then yep, it's bad mastering. But that's not what we're talking about. We're talking about you getting a mix you like and a sound you want, and how it's really easy to trick yourself into thinking you have exactly that.
In this scenario, you would definitely want to prep the tracks so the starting point was more even, and you could actually 'mix' the song rather than 're-eq' the elements. A couple of ways to go about it: individually eq/shelf things in a tasteful manner so your starting point is way closer to home, throw a shelf or two on the master bus as you start your mix, so you have a better perspective to begin with and still some room later to adjust, though this way is the most tweaky, and any slight adjustment to that eq later is going to REALLY change your mix. But doing this BEFORE you even start mixing saves you SO much time over processing everything, and going back to the drawing board again and again on your mix, or getting a nasty surprise in mastering.
So make sure your steps are lined up, so that you spend less time thinking technically, and more time being rewarded for your creativity. Another example is tracks coming in quite bright, and you're looking for a big low end overall. Tackle these major issues first, and you won't waste any time on the wrong fine details.
Note: Neutrality is definitely not the goal all the time in mixing. Be creative and crazy, but you'll hear the term 'neutral' a lot, because you need a middle ground to compare the extremes.
the big picture, and the big pitfalls
Rightaway, you have to be rock-solid confident in your levels. HOWEVER, just about everything else affects our perception of the levels, so you have to absolutely love them, then take them with a grain of salt. Whew! You need playback systems that don't exaggerate frequency ranges too much, so you can actually pay attention to the levels and not the tones of the instruments. Dull sounding headphones, boomboxes, mono speakers, car stereos without all the enhancers, laptops that aren't completely devoid of low end are cheap and available options to make sure you really love your mix.
The whole substance of a mix and how it impacts people depends on how much of what they're hearing, and that can change throughout a song. You may have a great verse, but the chorus sounds weak, or the bridge falls apart a bit, or just one instrument or vocal doesn't feel right. This is very common when you're at the 'end' of a mix, and this kind of stuff and how you treat it (or don't) is what will snag you up and have you regretting the mix.
If you like your mix, but then catch something you don't like, only treat the part you don't like! If the drums sound great where you worked on them for hours, don't change the big picture drum bus settings because a fill or two isn't working. If the bridge needs work, automate your levels. Split the tracks to new ones and process those differently just for that section. It's SO easy to be 'happy' with your progress, then as you 'finish' your mix you tweak every general setting on every bus and master and before you know it, you basically have a new mix.
You probably started mixing by working very fast ---- tweaking lots of settings ---- throwing on new processing like crazy ----- refining settings ------ doing more listening between sections ------ slowing down and more refining ------ until deciding you're close to done. There's a 'slowing down' that happens where everything you do isn't as volatile, because you're liking what you hear. Thus, when you decide it's 'finishing the mix time', don't go back to volatile mode where you're changing 30 settings in 30 seconds. That's a great way to topple the ladder. It takes a LOT of discipline to figure out when you're making progress and not just lateral shifts in the sound near the end, and that's the whole point of this article.
So Big Picture. Is it happening? Do you truly have your levels where you want them? The right emphasis on the right parts, and de-emphasis too? Having to turn up a snare drum 6db later on will rock the foundations of everything you've built, so get it right before moving on.
Tones and masking
Still bored? Have so much opinion that you set levels exactly where you want them, and have a powerful balance to your mix? Great! There's still a ton of things that can snag you up. Tonal balance is one of them.
Masking in frequency balances is ridiculously frustrating, because it directly affects the levels. You hear the bass and kick fighting a bit, and the bass gets lost. You turn up the bass. Not bad, but then the kick is lost. You turn them both up. There's a sweet spot you find where everything sits right with the vocal and you can hear them well. All's well? Nope! BAM! The electrics were wooly in the lows and the bass and kick are way too loud now, and any eq'ing of the mix throws all your levels out of whack. You didn't know it was a problem, because you didn't go looking. Again, that's not bad mastering, it's bad mix finishing. You're the one who's unhappy, and would have been unhappy if you knew what to look for.
It's VERY tough to teach and explain frequency masking, because it all depends on what tracks don't sound nice with which other ones. There's no such thing as a 'bad solo track', but 10 tracks together might not play so well. Never mind 80, 100, 150...
This is the biggest surprise for mixers in mastering, because it wasn't expected when you were fiercely eq'ing, compressing and levelling things. You have to catch it from the start, with all your tracks in place. As soon as you tweak some tracks because they're interfering with each other, your levels are off, other eq might be off or unnecessary, same with compression and automation etc... it's a Big Picture thing, for sure.
It's an acquired instinct, thinking big picture tonality, but it's not impossible. There are more common problem areas, and at least dividing the frequency spectrum can help narrow down what might build up within a mix.
Starting at the very bottom of the spectrum, everything up to 40hz contains information that seldom actually pertains to music, more visceral feel to the body. It's not an automatic cut territory necessarily, but it's very easy for a microphone or pickup to have artifacts down there that aren't part of the performance. Multiply that 30 times, and your subwoofer is in for some work.
Fundamental tones of instruments like pianos, basses and kicks start at 40-80, and this is generally a bit of a 'sacred' zone that only a few tracks are allowed to occupy.
From 80-200 you get the fundamentals/octaves of most bass notes, and the fundamentals of a lot of other things less bass-like. The bass can get crowded out by other things easily.
200hz to 400hz is crazytown in a mix. Just about every track or instrument that isn't a triangle has either their fundamental or first few overtones in here. This is literally where the most energy of a bunch of raw tracks will be. Skipping this area for some eq work will leave you either with a very blurry master, or some massive surprises later.
400hz to 800hz is the heart of the mix. It's just an octave technically, but again it has most of the meat of almost every sound. Here especially you'll find keyboard pads take up a ton of space, drums have weird overtones that mask other important elements, and vocals really carry their weight.
800hz to 2khz is the honk. What do you want to honk out at you in a mix? Pick your lead sounds, and make sure they're here. If anything is honking when they shouldn't, check this out first. It's pretty tough to have a vocal or snare with no energy here and still have a punchy mix. As well, too much energy here in general and you'll be dropping your lead instruments' volume quieter, and they'll disappear if tweaked later.
2.5khz to 4.5khz is the presence and proximity of a sound. A vocal or snare is crisper when boosted here, and things also sound piercing when ringing. Shure microphones and most dynamics have had a healthy boost at 4k for a while, so it's no surprise when this area gets a bit crowded. If something is tearing your head off, there might be a notch to do in here. The tendency to want to have things heard well will also have people boosting this area a bunch, but as always, not everything can live in the same spot.
4khz to 8khz is the prime territory of esses, richness, and 'harmonics'. All your distortion and tube gear start to show their colors here, because you either like all the overtones they're adding, or you find yourself wishing for a bit more purity in the high end.
8khz and up is a strange place. Cymbals and high end still have relevant data here, but other instruments sound like 'sweetening' when boosted, or just uncomfortable with too much level. You'll also hear 'aliasing', folding back of bad digital calculations take up space here, and other artifacts that have not much to do with music. Old video monitors, electronic hash, noise... again things may have to make a case for themselves to belong up here. We're not talking sharp cutoffs at 8khz, of course. But it becomes apparent what instruments pop into focus when you get rid of some distracting material on a track or two. NS10's aren't very smooth up here, and I don't trust them with this range, as well as most modern microphone designs or ones on prefab circuit boards. Their response is frequently either hyped, jagged, or both. The high freqs remain the kingdom of the vintage and analog enthusiasts, although EDM done right can hit some pretty sweet freq ranges with style.
So what do you do? Stare at a graph and watch for bumps while the music plays? Well the ramifications of trying to pull the eyes in to do work the ears should be doing can radically change how creatively and instinctively you mix, so that's a big nope. There's no set eq technique either, because blanket processing like high and low passes on every channel will hurt as well as help in some cases. You don't need to go through every track and have notch reductions ready either. It's not about just cutting things out.
I'm not going to tell you how to eq. There's no right way. There's just the principle that crowding of information distorts what we hear and how we process, so reducing that as much as possible means better playback in all systems, less surprises, and more control for you in how your mix sounds.
So: you have to build this instinctively into your ears and mind/body/soul. You throw up some tracks, you hear buildup, you learn to deal with it. Not just to make instruments more flattering, but to make a good mix. There's more space, things are heard better, you can hear more quickly if you want to compress something more, or distort it, or turn it up/down, and less chance of coming back to tweak because it just isn't sitting right.
Learn to hear a track and know its sonic footprint right away. If you need to stare at a graph to learn what a track 'looks' like sonically at first, go for it. Think things like 'Ah yes, this sine-wave pad track is very pure, and mostly has fundamentals, so it might railroad a ton of other tracks at 300hz, then completely disappear after that.' If there is a problem, sometimes adding harmonics to it and cutting out some fundamental can be great. But solving the problems to have more room for punch and important elements is far easier than learning to adapt right away to what you hear.
Wait, this sounds more like mixing 101 than how to finish a mix! And you're right. If you get all the Big Picture stuff nailed, and truly nailed, no fooling, then the rest of the fine tweaks can usually be left to debate on internet forums for everyone's amusement.
The earlier an issue you miss or neglect, the more you fool yourself later on. Which gets complicated...