Audio Mastering: Top Ten Tips for Sonic Excellence – Part 2 – Recording & EQ
INTERVIEW: Getting superb sounding vocals, drums, and bass involves good recording techniques and proper use of equalization according to mastering engineer Art Sayecki. In an interview with Scott G, he freely provides advice to artists and producers.
SECTION TWO: Burying Vocals in the Audio Track
G-Man: Okay Art, let’s discuss the art of letting the lead vocal truly shine.
Art Sayecki: Vocals can be overpowered with excessive high frequencies, and other frequencies as well. It’s a question of emphasizing just the right parts of a lead vocal. People forget that the human voice has mid and low frequency content. Some frequencies of female vocals can go as low as a bass guitar.
G-Man: Even if the vocal itself is mid-range?
Art Sayecki: That’s correct. It is true that the most critical range for vocals is in the mid frequencies, and very often what happens is that the vocals are mixed too low and buried too deep in the track. This creates certain issues at the mastering stage because it forces the mastering engineer to apply EQ in the midrange to bring the vocals to the forefront, and even though we do it on a daily basis, sometimes there is a small price that has to be paid, and I’m not talking about money.
G-Man: When you boost vocals, what happens with other mid-range material?
Art Sayecki: As with the high frequencies, whenever I boost the midrange on vocals, usually some other instrument that occupies the same frequency range also gets boosted. Again I have some secret weapons in my arsenal to deal with those situations and still make the mix sound really good, but it can always sound better if the vocal is free of obstructions in the midrange and/or well placed in terms of loudness in reference to the rest of the mix.
G-Man: So, ‘turn up the vocals’ is a rule?
Art Sayecki: Now you’re jumping ahead. But, yes. If you think that the vocal is loud and clear enough in your mix, then you probably can turn it up 1 to 2 db and be even better off. For the most part, the listener’s attention is focused on the instrument that carries the main melody. It could be a vocal track, or it could be that the lead instrument is a guitar, keyboard, saxophone, etc. Whatever it is that carries your song, don’t bury it too deep in the mix. It is probably better to have it stand out too much than to be buried too deep.
G-Man: It seems that one needs two mixes, one to play for the client and another to send to the mastering engineer.
Art Sayecki: Sometimes two or three mixes, if you like, but the one with the vocal or lead instrument up front in the mix will be your best choice in a business sense. When you send a track to a record label, the first thing that they will listen for is quality of your vocal and your ability as a performer. If they can’t discern a clear and engaging vocal, then it is a major drawback and usually your music will not be able make up for it.
G-Man: And that comes back to recording and mixing before the mastering studio ever hears the track.
Art Sayecki: Correct. Use the best quality microphone and preamp you can afford. These days there is a whole range of great affordable mics and preamps out there. My favorite affordable mic is the Rode NT1, and my favorite mic-pre is the FMR Audio RNP8380. And my favorite high end combo is a Neumann U87 with an Avalon 737sp. I’m talking here about general all purpose vocal mics and preamps. For certain voices and some specific applications, another mic and another mic preamp may be more appropriate.
G-Man: So, the bottom line advice for this section is. . .?
Art Sayecki: Mix the vocals too loud rather than too quiet and record them to the best of your ability. This is critical part of your mix that can make or break your chances of success.
SECTION THREE: Excessive “EQ to Disk”
G-Man: How do you feel about the use of equalization during recording sessions?
Art Sayecki: Equalizing while recording, also known as EQ to tape or EQ to disk, has as many proponents as opponents. It is definitely a viable method and I use it on occasion but it also has its pitfalls. One problem is that if you make a mistake and boost or cut the wrong frequency then you may be stuck with it for good. In addition, many EQs apply their own sound signature to your material which may undesirably color your sound.
G-Man: That’s especially bad when your studio monitors lead you to make choices you regret later.
Art Sayecki: Exactly. So unless you are 100% sure of what you want, and you know how to get it, then be cautious. You can always apply an EQ in the mixing stage and that will probably give you more options. It is difficult and sometimes impossible to undo EQ coloration, which is why pros use EQ to disk with great restraint.
G-Man: As a mastering engineer, do you want to receive recordings that have been done without EQ to disk?
Art Sayecki: Well, that depends on the mix. In many cases, people EQ to disk to get a brighter or more punchy sound. Very often EQ is applied to electric guitars, kick drums, snares and cymbals. Engineers who apply EQ during recording rarely cut it back in the mix, so the finished mixes tend to be very heavy on the low end and very bright on the high end, and this brings us back again to the previous point about NOT making the mix sound like a finished CD in the mixing studio.
G-Man: Because that’s your job, right?
Art Sayecki: Right, it is a mastering engineer’s job to make it sound like a CD. So if you like to apply EQ during recording, then go for luscious and silky high frequencies but not too bright and use extra moderation with low end.
G-Man: Does this apply to both analog and digital EQs?
Art Sayecki: Definitely. Both analog and digital EQs may add shrill, harsh high frequencies, boomy and sloppy low frequencies, and cloudy or muddy mid frequencies.
G-Man: What about plug-in EQs?
Art Sayecki: Actually, some of the nicest recording EQs are often already included with many software packages. For example the Sonitus EQ that comes with Sonar or the stock EQ that comes with Nuendo are both excellent recording tools that don’t cost you any extra money.
G-Man: So what’s Art’s Advice #3?
Art Sayecki: Be moderate while applying EQ to disk, or entirely refrain from it unless you are 100% sure of what you want and know how to get it.
SECTION FOUR: Pumping Up the Loudness and Clipping the Peaks
G-Man: Who among us hasn’t occasionally exceeded 0db and clipped the peaks while recording or mixing?
Art Sayecki: Probably everyone has done it. I’ve done it, but then I’ve gone back to get it right. It is not a crime if it is accidental but it shall be punishable by ridicule if is done on purpose. If you resort to clipping to get more punchy bass or more loudness than you may be inflicting irreversible damage to your tracks. By clipping the peaks you’re throwing away some of your music because the clipped peaks are gone and can’t be restored unless you have the files from the time before the clipping occurred. But you also limit your mastering options that could have been potentially available to you later on.
G-Man: Why is clipping worse on some pieces of gear?
Art Sayecki: Some converters are more forgiving than others and will play clipped material without severe audible distortions or pops but on some other converters, every instance of clipping will sound like an unpleasant noise or crackle. And maybe one of those converters is installed in a CD player at a record label where you just sent your demo. Guess what, after a couple of crackles, your demo goes into the circular filing cabinet and that’s that.
G-Man: Artists should rely on mastering for bringing everything up to the proper level?
Art Sayecki: Correct. A skilled mastering engineer has many options to make your material sound punchy and hot without clipping. And if you absolutely want clipping, then a mastering engineer can do that, too!
G-Man: Okay! So, you can provide punch but without clipping or distortion?
Art Sayecki: High-end mastering EQ, coupled with a good compressor and/or limiter, can pack so much punch into the music it will make you sick, and all that while preserving the smooth undistorted waveforms and ensuring a good play on any converter. A clipped track will sound cheap, amateurish and wimpy. Additionally, if your material is already at 0db and on top of that is clipped, a mastering engineer probably won’t be able to give you much of a boost without first dropping the level and smoothing out the square waves, and in many cases the material is already so handicapped that it can’t be helped.
G-Man: And if you want that clipping sound?
Art Sayecki: If you are a really hard case and prefer the clipping sound, then you can always inflict it at any time or I can do it for you, totally free of charge but please don’t give me a credit on your CD.
G-Man: Bottom line advice number four is…?
Art Sayecki: Watch your meters and don’t clip the material.
SECTION FIVE: Using the Volume Maximizer Plug-in
G-Man: We’ve all noticed that a lot of artists, managers, and record labels seem to be in competition to make songs sound “louder.”
Art Sayecki: These days, many artists want their material to sound loud in comparison to other songs on the market. Whether you like this trend or not, it is a fact. There are several ways, both good and not so good, to get loud sounding tracks.
G-Man: What are the good ways to achieve louder tracks?
Art Sayecki: A good way to achieve it is to have a well balanced, moderately loud mix to begin with, and then have it equalized and appropriately compressed, and if necessary further processed, while using the best gear money can buy.
G-Man: Can this be done by the artist?
Art Sayecki: This is usually done by an experienced pro who has done it many times before. You don’t have to give me loud mixes in order for me to turn them into a hot-house. Actually I prefer only moderately loud but well balanced mixes. I can make almost any well mixed material sound so hot that your amp will sizzle. And even mediocre mixes will sound better and louder by the time I’m finished. But I can’t undo the sonic-mud or clipping that is introduced by some maximizers.
G-Man: It’s how well you mix, not how loud?
Art Sayecki: Right. A quiet but good quality mix will always beat a loud and sloppy one. Whatever you can do with some maximizer on your mixing workstation I can most likely do much better on a mastering workstation, so don’t muddy up your mixes, don’t clip, don’t artificially over-compress with maximizers. Send them unaltered and the mastering lab will do the rest.
G-Man: You’re very opposed to volume maximizers.
Art Sayecki: Yes, because most of them color or muddy up the sound and they add no value in terms of mastering. If you are a producer or engineer and your client expects a hot mix, then give him/her a hot mix but keep a second, clean and unaltered version for mastering. Feel free to use mixing plug-ins but apply them in moderation and if you are planning on mastering in a professional studio, then definitely refrain from using mastering plug-ins because in many cases they undesirably alter the mixes and close your options.
G-Man: Art’s Advice #5 is…?
Art Sayecki: Don’t use volume maximizers or mastering plugins, or if you do, keep a second unaltered version of your mix for professional mastering.
SECTION SIX: Punch-Drunk Kick Drums and Sloppy-Floppy Bass
G-Man: Let’s talk about drums. In pop, rock, hip hop, even a lot of jazz, artists want a kick-ass drum sound.
Art Sayecki: Kick-ass kick can kick your ass. Excess in any aspect of mixing is undesirable. As with excess in high frequencies, the excess in bass tones will most likely adversely affect the quality of your masters. If your kick drum or bass is overpowering the mix and you have some shortages in low frequencies of other instruments or vocals, I will have less room to help you.
G-Man: Are you talking about bleed on the mics in recording?
Art Sayecki: Excessive EQ to disk, mic bleeding, low pass filters, however it gets there, it’s bad. For example, in many cases an electric guitar or a male vocal can tremendously benefit from skillful boost in low frequencies between 80-500 Hz. Even a small boost in this area often can add a nice roundness to the mix, but if you have the kick-drum-from-hell pounding in the same range, I can’t boost the low end of your electric guitars or vocals because this will also boost an already offensive kick.
G-Man: I sometimes receive beats that use compressed samples and I always thought they sound a little weird, what’s your take on that.
Art Sayecki: Right, pre-compressed and pre-processed sample sounds will behave differently during mastering then those recorded by you during a session. If you use loops or pre-made grooves, in many cases they have already been pre-mastered, compressed and equalized so don’t push them any further because there is no need. The less dissimilar they sound in relation to the rest of your mix the better and the more chance you have of getting a well balanced uniform mix and a smooth professional master with great punch.
G-Man: Well, you know how I sometimes process the hell out of some sounds.
Art Sayecki: Of course if you have an artistic need for making the kick sound weird or dissimilar and if this is a desired effect, then that’s great, but if it was made to sound that way to get you a little closer to the sound of a finished CD, then it is a mistake. The mix should sound round and balanced, but the final sheen, punch in the bass, and high end sparkle is best added during mastering and not during the mix.
G-Man: Your Section Six advice?
Art Sayecki: Advice #6: Keep your basses and kicks tight and well defined but not too excessive. Bass quality before quantity.
[tags]gman, G-Man, Scott G, Music Critics Must Die, music rants, mastering, Art Sayecki[/tags]