Audio Mastering: Top Ten Tips for Sonic Excellence – Part 3 – Getting Technical

Audio Mastering: Top Ten Tips for Sonic Excellence – Part 3 – Getting Technical


INTERVIEW: Are you recording on the right frequency? Mastering engineer Art Sayecki talks with Scott G about EQ, mixing, samples, wavetable synthesis, dithering, encoding, and what you may hear on sessions using 192 kHz. Yes, it’s an earful.

SECTION SEVEN: Mixes With Too Many Instruments in the Same Frequency Range

G-Man: Let’s talk about how an arrangement can help or hurt the mastering process.

Art Sayecki: Good mastering starts with good production and arrangement. We’ve talked a bit about poor production choices, but a poor arrangement may also limit your mastering options. Let me explain. As you make arrangement decisions, you inadvertently decide about the use of certain frequencies in the sonic spectrum.

G-Man: For example?

Art Sayecki: If you select an electric guitar to carry your melody line, that will use different frequencies and harmonics than if you had selected a flute. Each instrument has a specific tonal and harmonic character that occupies a certain frequency range. The difficulty comes when too many sonically similar instruments are crammed into the same frequency range.

G-Man: What if you want to cram things together? Sonically speaking, of course.

Art Sayecki: If you pack female vocal, violin, flute, alto sax, synth and a clarinet into the same passage, you better have some killer recording and production technique or you will be limited in the mastering because all these instruments will compete with each other.

G-Man: And you can’t grab individual instruments out of that crowded sonic space?

Art Sayecki: That’s right. A mastering engineer will not be able to select a frequency that favors the vocal, for example, because other instruments will have similar harmonics and fundamentals in the same frequency range.

G-Man: Same trouble with the mix?

Art Sayecki: The same thing applies in the mix. It will be difficult to make a transparent mix unless you decide to drop the levels of some of the competing instruments and push them to the background.

G-Man: What happens with recordings where everything is piled into the same frequency range?

Mr. Sayecki says you can call him ArtArt Sayecki: If you absolutely need a bunch of similar instruments in the same passage, then you may want to consider altering your playing techniques since some of them affect the psychoacoustic perception of music by the listener. Also a listener will probably find it easier to distinguish between sounds if some instruments play staccato or portamento and some other legato, rather than if all instruments played legato. Use some of the instruments to accentuate the melodic lines by sporadic chords or passages rather then continuously playing along with the lead voice.

G-Man: So your final advice is that a cleaner arrangement helps you when mastering?

Art Sayecki: In general, keep your arrangement transparent and it will be much easier to mix and master your song. Of course the creative decisions come first, so if you absolutely need a dense arrangement then we will work with what you have composed, but a smart arranger and producer can make a big difference by conscious selection of instruments, playing techniques, and their placement in the frequency range.

SECTION EIGHT: Using Pre-Mastered Samples

G-Man: What happens when using sounds from different sources?

Art Sayecki: In order to understand this point in depth, let’s examine the mixing and recording process. During most mixing sessions, the mixing engineer will try to combine sounds that most likely came from different sonic sources. They may include acoustic instruments such as guitars, brass section, drums etc.; electronic instruments such as hardware and software synthesizers, samplers, drum machines etc.; and others such as human voices, sounds of nature, sound loops, sound effects etc.

G-Man: They would EQ them.

Art Sayecki: Normally, each one of these sounds will be placed in the mix and equalized if needed to achieve the desired effect. However because many modern electronic instruments and sound libraries are already pre-mastered, they will have a significantly different sonic character than acoustic instruments in your mix.

G-Man: For example?

Art Sayecki: Some synthesizers and keyboards, particularly those using wavetable synthesis, sound excessively bright. This is an unfortunate byproduct of misguided marketing that is meant to deliver instruments that produce so called CD-quality sounds.

G-Man: We should cover that in my marketing column.

Art Sayecki: Okay, let’s do it!

G-Man: But what about wavetable synthesis?

Art Sayecki: On many wavetable synthesizers as well as samplers, the sounds are boosted by equalization and compression in the high and low frequency range which results in an increasingly aggressive sound of each new generation of synths. Even modern analog synths often have an EQ curve applied to the output stage. If you try to combine those instruments in the mix with acoustic instruments that were recorded in your studio, the discrepancy will be very apparent.

G-Man: So now the mixing engineer is working to bring everything in line with everything else.

Art Sayecki: Yes, in a way. To compensate for it, the mixing engineer will have to apply EQ-cutting on the pre-mastered instruments or EQ-boosting on the naturally sounding instruments. Whichever you do, make sure that your mix is well balanced, otherwise you will end up with a “mixture” of excessively bright or bassy synthesized sounds that overpower relatively duller acoustic instruments and vocals.

G-Man: Which makes mastering more difficult?

Art Sayecki: Such a combination is more difficult to master because the overlapping and competing frequencies are more difficult to control. If details of your instrumental solo or vocal performance are overpowered by a super bright synthesized string section, it may be very difficult to add or restore shine and presence to the leads and vocals and tame the synths.

G-Man: You should be able to hear this problem in the studio.

Art Sayecki: Yes. So keep your ears open when you select the sounds for recording and when you mix. Select the right instruments and compensate your mixes for excessive brightness and bass of pre-mastered sounds.

SECTION NINE: Re-sampling, Dithering and Encoding

G-Man: You are adamant about not having artists or mixers perform resampling?

Art Sayecki: Do not re-sample the material before sending it for mastering. There is no need to re-sample, up-sample or down-sample. Whatever sampling rate and bit depth is in your final mix, keep it there.

G-Man: People think they’re helping their mix.

Art Sayecki: Most re-sampling and dithering algorithms alter the sound in one way or another. A professional mastering studio can handle almost any standard sampling rate and bit depth. The common belief, that higher sampling rates mean better sound quality, may only be applicable to the original recording, but does not apply to up-sampling. If you recorded and mixed your tracks at 44.1kHz, then up-sampling to 96 or 192Khz will not add any details that are not already present in your recording.

G-Man: What about dithering?

Art Sayecki: Some dithering algorithms may also add artificial brightness or presence that occasionally may be perceived as beneficial, however in most cases you are better off leaving the material at the original sampling rate and bit resolution.

G-Man: I’ve worked on projects where the client has specified a different sampling rate.

Art Sayecki: If the final master needs to be at a different or higher sampling rate, perhaps because you’re preparing a soundtrack for a DVD, then let the mastering engineer resample or up-sample it for you.

G-Man: How do you feel about 44.1kHz vs. 96kHz or higher?

Art Sayecki: In theory, the higher the sampling rate the better the quality. However I have heard some rock and pop mixes that sounded more interesting when mixed at 44.1 kHz or 48 kHz rather than at 192 kHz. It’s a little surprising and even counter-intuitive, but when you realize that switching the sampling rate in a converter is technologically quite complex and involves not just the switching of clocking frequency but also combing filters, cut-off filters and other algorithms and circuits, then you can easily see that in some cases this may cause certain variations in how the material is reproduced.

G-Man: Don’t the plug-ins also change their sound when you alter the sampling rate?

Art Sayecki: Correct. Various aspects of software programs and plug-ins may exhibit various sonic properties at different sampling rates. For example, if you are applying a distortion plug-in, it may turn out that it actually sounds more distorted at 44.1 than at 96K. Or if you are mixing grunge-rock, then the sonic details and pristine sound quality may actually be entirely undesirable for your material and thus make it feel like it has less energy or guts. So listen to it first before you decide to switch to a different sampling rate or bit resolution. Trust your ears and consider the technology second.

G-Man: Do you get material submitted in MP3 or AAC formats?

Art Sayecki: I get material in every format. But I don’t recommend encoding your material using MPEG, MP3, AAC or any other algorithm until the mastering is completed. Even though a mastering lab can easily decode your previously encoded material, many encoding algorithms cause sonic losses and thus shall be applied only afterwards.

G-Man: So, your list of “dos and don’ts” continues with…?

Art Sayecki: Don’t re-sample, up-sample, dither or encode your mixes if you don’t have to. Wait until the masters are completed or even better tell your mastering engineer to upsample the material during mastering.

SECTION TEN: Not Consulting a Mastering Engineer Until the Mixes are Finished

G-Man: How important is it to contact a mastering engineer before completing a mix?

Art Sayecki: Making a hit record is a team sport. The more synergy and cooperation you develop between the creative talent on the project, the better are your chances of success. Sometimes you may hear those stories about how difficult it is to break into the music business…well…it is true, and not because people in the business are mean (at least not all of them) but because quality matters. Big bucks are at stake, entire careers fall because of making wrong choices, so music pros tend to work with people they know and trust. The same applies to mastering, if you don’t have a trusted mastering lab that you like to work with, then you need to go and find one.

G-Man: Part of the networking process?

Art Sayecki: Exactly. Building a strong professional network may take a few months, even longer, but in my opinion you will be much better off for a long run. And look for people that are smart but modest and are not afraid of constructive criticism.

G-Man: Hey, what are you saying?

Art Sayecki: Yeah, I know, sometimes it seems there are no such people in the music business. Be more positive, there are a few.

G-Man: Adding a mastering engineer to your team may seem odd.

Art Sayecki: Most artists understand that if you involve a great producer in your songwriting you may benefit from his/her input in terms of song structure, melody or lyrics. But they don’t understand that involving a mastering engineer in the mix may have a similar positive effect on the mix.

G-Man: This can lead to arguments.

Art Sayecki: Yes, I know. Egos are at stake here. Recording engineers don’t like to be corrected or told what to do, but you the artist are the one who has to pay the price and then live with the final product. So be open-minded and assert yourself. Break away from conformity and complacency. Reach for the ultimate sound and don’t be afraid of some sweat. If you become the statistic and do what everybody else does then you will end up with only one released CD which will be mediocre and it will be your last one because this is the case with most indie productions. Some of the world’s greatest music is buried in the graveyard of bad releases.

G-Man: Well, I am a producer and I like your advice. But for some people…

Art Sayecki: It’s normal to have a producer work with the artist and with the recording engineer while producing the tracks, it is not common that a mixing engineer will work with the mastering engineer on making the mixes. I know. There are over-inflated egos involved and the pride becomes blinding. But it still should be done. I wouldn’t give you this advice if not for the fact that before I got into mastering I spent 15 years mixing and producing and I have made my own share of mistakes which taught me what it takes to release a good album.

G-Man: How would it work, exactly?

Art Sayecki: My advice is very simple. When you get the initial mixes ready, run them by an experienced mastering engineer and ask for his/her input. In most cases it only takes one to two hours to go into details over every song on a CD. So you are looking at $75-150 for this service, but it can save you a ton of grief and money later on.

G-Man: You’re saying that this will save you from many of the problems normally encountered on music tracks?

Art Sayecki: You can avoid most of the problems described above and many others not mentioned here if you only follow this simple recipe. And whenever you involve a second pair of experienced ears to get a fresh opinion about your mix, you have another chance to fix something that you may have missed because you are too close to your work.

G-Man: This would mean that Art Mastering gets a lot of repeat business.

Art Sayecki: The artists, producers and mixing engineers who use our consulting services always come back because they value the extra edge that they get by working with us. Whenever I’m invited to listen to a session, I never critique, I only support it and my input is totally confidential.

» Continued and concluded in Part 4

[tags]gman, G-Man, Scott G, Music Critics Must Die, music rants, mastering, Art Sayecki[/tags]