How to speed up the process/minimize trial & error while mixing/mastering?

Discussion in 'Recording Studio' started by KailM, Jan 28, 2019.

  1. KailM

    KailM SS.org Regular

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    Hello --

    I'm not sure what all to ask, really. At this point, I'm not a newb anymore, but I'd sure like to speed up my workflow when it comes to the finishing touches on mixes/masters.

    I am nearing completion of a full-length album that I began 4 years ago, and it's been agonizing (but also supremely rewarding at the same time). I learned all I know about recording while writing and creating the album, and thus had to backtrack a bit, as I got better and better at mixing and arrangements, then had to go back to "finished" songs and update them with better techniques.

    I'll try not to drag this out too long, so I'll cut to the chase. I have a mastering chain that works pretty well to get the sound I want. It is pretty minimal, just very light EQ, light compression, and limiting (no more than 2db reduction.) On my mixes, I have tried to more or less get them fairly comparable before mixing them down and mastering them.

    The problem is, when I think I've mastered the tracks and then compare them with the truly finished ones, I always go through a trial and error period where I have to go back to the mix, tweak it, then re-master it, etc. I have most of the album ready to go and sounding amazing (to me, at least), but I just finished my last song, and, even though I thought it was ready, after burning it to a CD it sounds totally weird compared to the rest of the songs.

    I'm pretty sure it has way too much low-end in the bass guitars, which is, after mastering, drowning-out the drums. In a way, it almost makes it sound like my riffs don't match the tempo anymore and seems to mess with the timing in other ways. I know that's probably just an illusion created by the compression/limiting messing with the overall levels. But I thought I was pretty light-handed with that stuff.

    I am mixing and mastering with headphones, which I know is not the best, but it's something I'm kind of forced to do. I can only mix and master early in the morning before the family is awake -- that's the only time I have to work on music.

    I always get it sounding good in the end, but I'd like to reduce the number of times I have to put it on a CD, listen in my car, and then go back to the drawing board. My headphones are not ideal for producing music; they have too much bass-boost (however, I still have too much bass in my newest song). Is it possible to get accurate results with headphones at all? Or should I be looking at monitors? Thanks for any help.
     
  2. Synllip

    Synllip Cyan

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    I get what you fell, monitors will help you to get the more transparent representation of your mix as possible but one very important thing when it comes to mixing/mastering is to make everything sound balanced and good in mono, bad speakers, good speakers, headphones, car and so one because that's where most people will hear it.
    I guess you should share a little of your mixing here so we could give more constructed opinions, sometimes when mixing we get the wrong feeling of how things are turning when they are in fact right and we just start messing with the EQ again and again.

    If you have issues with low end especially while listening with high low end speakers, try to cut the bass guitar at 60hz to give space for the kick drum low end, when those frequencies clash together it creates too much energy which translates to our ears as muddiness.

    Another quick tip for your low end balancing is to find the right amount of low end of each independent instrument, kicks are usually at 20-50hz, bass guitar 50-100hz, guitars anything below 100hz is useless as it competes with the necessary low end frequencies go bring energy into a mix.
    Happy mixing!
     
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  3. Cynicanal

    Cynicanal SS.org Regular

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    I'm not sure from the original post, but did you record the songs at different times? Like record a song or two, mix and master, record another song or two, mix and master, etc? That seems like a recipe for having all sorts of inconsistencies across the album; it seems better to have all of your songs and arrangements set-in-stone before you even start your "final recording" so you can get all of your tones consistent during the tracking stage.
     
  4. KailM

    KailM SS.org Regular

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    Yes, I recorded the tracks over the course of 4 years. Instrumentally, I was done with the album 1 1/2 years ago. Then I decided most of the tracks needed vocals...

    That was a good decision, but it ended up taking a LONG time and a lot of re-working of the individual instrument tracks. I also had an amp fail in the middle of tracking guitars for the album, and had to replace it -- and the new one sounded a little better so I went back and re-recorded a lot of the guitar parts. Additionally, I got better and better at writing drum parts, and so had to go back and re-vamp those, etc. So even though some of the first tracks were "done" almost 4 years ago, they've all been fucked with a lot more recently, with a mind to make them sound like one cohesive album. :lol:

    You're right in that it's best to have all the songs mapped out before even hitting "record." On some songs, that was the case -- several of my songs were developed almost 20 years ago, and I've been playing variations of those ideas that long. Others started with more recent riffs, and then I developed the greater songs as I recorded. Actually, I think one of the best songs on the album kind of just wrote itself during the recording process.

    If I ever do another album, I'm going to use an entirely different process. Basically, I just want to cut down on the time it takes.

    If I do have to keep using headphones to mix and master, I think I'm going to have to step up to some high-end 'phones. Any recommendations?
     
  5. TedEH

    TedEH Cromulent

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    I can see two sort of red flags -
    One is trying to make completely different mixes sound the same, and using the same mastering on all of them. I'm sure it can be done, but not in a way that's efficient in the sense of trying to cut down on numbers of iterations. I always aim for all songs within one project to be made up of more or less the same mix -> Track all of the drums in the same place, same mic placements, etc. If you have to teardown and do a whole new session, it's likely not going to sound the same. Same with guitars - if your mic placement has changed, etc., then you're dealing with two different mixes and giving yourself headaches.

    Secondly, relying very heavily on just one point of reference. It's not a bad thing to do most of your work on headphones, unless you don't compare with other listening environments, and compare against other known-good products. Listen in the car, on your headphones, earbuds, crappy laptop speakers, etc. just everything. I find it helpful to listen to something entirely unrelated for a while - put on an album you like the sound/balance of and listen through a few songs. Then switch to your mix and gauge your immediate reaction. If you listen for too long, you'll get used to your mix again and forget that impression, so shut it off, go fix it, then repeat. Only listen for that first impression and correct whatever stands out - you should be able to pick out something that bothers you pretty much immediately and have a picture in your mind of how to fix it. Do this at low volume. Do it again at high volume.

    I realize that my plan is something that will ADD iterations instead of removing them. I don't think reducing the number of times you have to listen and correct things should be a goal. The only way to reduce that number, IMO, is practice and developing the intuition to fix things before you notice them.
     
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  6. Drew

    Drew Forum MVP

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    First, excellent post from Ted. I have a couple comments to add, over and above his post.

    1) Single biggest observation, by a long shot - the best way to make your workflow more efficient and to minimize trial and error is to get a LOT of experience mixing. An amateur working on decent enough gear with all the time in the world can get pretty "pro" sounding results on an album, given even reasonably decent gear, enough knowledge to not do anything truly stupid while tracking, and countless iterations listening to mixes on a number of different reference systems. A pro engineer will be able to mix that same album to a similar standard in a single afternoon. The difference is the pro's ear is going to be better, he'll know his tools better, he'll recognize problems a lot faster and will know how to address them faster, and he'll have a better idea how a mix will translate on different systems and through a mastering chain. Experience counts - think how long you've spent playing guitar to get to the level you are today, and realize that it's going to take you just as long to get to a similar level as a mix engineer.

    1.) a.) Correllary - there's absolutely nothing wrong with taking a long time and working by trial and error, so long as eventually the results can speak for themselves. In fact, that's arguably one of the advantages of home recording - the only limit to how much time you can spend on a mix is how long you're willing to spend on it. Time doesn't cost money, and there's no studio time budget.

    2) I also think spending some time thinking about your objectives. If you're mixing music recorded in separate sessions over a long period of time, trying to make them all sound the same is probably a fool's errand. Rather, just try to make them sound complimentary. You're not going to use the same EQ settings or the same reverb settings or same compression settings from song to song, but you can probably mix the songs in such a way that when you play one next to the other, they still sound "good" together. Full disclosure - I just finished a project with my dad and uncle that I quite literally recorded over a span of 10 years. Not only were mic positions not necessarily the same from track to track, but mics weren't the same from track to track, mic preamps weren't the same, amps weren't the same, bass preamps weren't the same, recording interfaces weren't the same, etc etc etc. Hell, vocalists weren't the same and rooms weren't the same, for that matter. While it was tremendously helpful that I was using Superior Drummer 3 and could use the same drum sound from track to track, he odds of me being able to mix every track in that album to sound 100% the same were essentially nil. So, I just mixed each track to sound as good as I could on its own, and then ensured the overall balance was about the same from track to track. I then tossed all the mixes into a project to master, built up a mastering chain on the master bus but all did a little bit of tweaking here and there on the individual stereo mix tracks, and did a few iterations where after listening for a while I might change a couple things in one mix, etc. Eventually I hit a point of diminishing returns, and that was that. At the end of the day, I was relieved that, no matter HOW everything was recorded, the whole album managed to sound cohesive, even if the sound of the acoustic guitar might change considerably from track to track - it still worked, because the way that sound fit into other parts of the mix would change from track to track. And, when everything was said and done, we were all surprised just how much like an "album" this sounded, even though the thing was tracked over a decade with three different singers and three different songwriters. It was actually probably an invaluable learning experience for me.

    On my own album, after I finished writing everything, then yeah - I tried to record all the similar-sounding rhythm tracks in the same couple sessions, the bass tracks all at once, the acosutics all at once, etc, to keep the peices relatively consistent... But that wasn't an option for this particular project, so I took a different approach. You can make it work.

    Something that maybe might be worth a try - if you can only mix at home on headphones with your family asleep, and if you have the vacation time to burn, maybe take a day or two off, or a couple half days, and with the house to yourself spend a couple unbroken hours mixing?
     
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  7. Drew

    Drew Forum MVP

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    *double post*
     
  8. Descent

    Descent SS.org Regular

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    Maybe think of different ways to mix, or invest in better headphones?

    It might be a good idea to give out the tracks to an outside engineer.

    Might want to invest in reamping gear so that way your sounds can all be the same towards the mixing stage, for continuity sake.

    I've been very happy giving out the mixing and mastering stage to someone else, at least in my current band. The last mix I tried turned into shitfest to where everybody was a professor so by giving it out to another guy, who actually mixed it very close to my vision but got accepted b/c I wasn't in control of it. Go figure :)

    Sometimes a mix might not be great to you, but it is to someone else. In other words, it might be better to call it done and move on new songs that triple and quadruple guessing yourself.

    Invest in outboard gear and commit the sounds going in, so that way you are comitted to the mix.
     
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  9. KailM

    KailM SS.org Regular

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    ^^^Reamping gear is definitely on my short list. Better headphones too. I think the reamping gear will save me a lot of time in tracking because I can focus on just playing the riffs and parts correctly instead of that AND getting tone that works for the mix.

    I would be interested in giving my next album to a mix/master engineer, or at least someone more experienced than me. That said, I'm hesitant to do so because I feel as though most people nowadays would attempt to "modernize" my mixes and make them sound terrible like all the prog/djent/tech death albums that have been released in the last 10 years. :lol:

    I will definitely be returning to this thread as I move into my next album. FWIW, I got my last track for this album almost dialed this week. Turned out to be just a little too much tubbiness in the bass guitar tracks, and drums weren't loud enough. I just need to finish my album art and a final master and I'll put it up on Bandcamp/Youtube.
     
  10. TedEH

    TedEH Cromulent

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    I'm a strong believer in keeping as few people involved in a mix as needed, in terms of the band itself. Mixing by committee is recipe for disaster most of the time IMO.
     
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  11. KailM

    KailM SS.org Regular

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    I agree. And on a related note, I can see why people recommend using an unaffiliated party to do the final production, but at the same time, if you, as an artist know what you want the mix to sound like then I don't see a problem doing it yourself.

    It's in the case where multiple people are involved with the project, then I think the former approach helps eliminate everyone mixing his or her own instrument highest in the mix.

    Since I'm a solo project, I've had to learn to back off on the guitars and mix everything else in a balanced way. I still like huge and aggressive guitars though...:lol:
     
  12. Descent

    Descent SS.org Regular

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    In my case there were 2 things:

    1. I had gotten sick and tired of the songs and didn't feel I could think critically on them

    2.We had the drummer trying to take center stage in mix decisions as well, and he couldn't tell the difference from trial mix, unmastered and mastered mix, he kept complaining the trial mixes were no good to be released (yeah, duh, you're supposed to listen to only a few areas) and so on. It became a drag. So at that point I said "Why am I doing this pro-bono?", found a ME and let him handle the issues as he was getting paid to have his time wasted. It turned out better than I expected, for example I wouldn't have had the bass so high in the mix :)
     
  13. billinder33

    billinder33 SS.org Regular

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    For mixes that span across years of recording or lots of different sources, I would recommend some type of EQ metering on the master bus of all your mix projects. I went through the same experience a while back and it was a maddening exercise.

    What I did to help get through the problem was I used iZotope's Tonal Balance Control on the mix buss of each mix, to make sure all the EQ'ing was within a similar range before rendering mixes (pre-mastering). When a mix was out of range, rather than EQ'ing the mix buss, I addressed the problem at the source tracks. Typically the issues it helped me resolve were either too much low cutting below 80hz, too many instruments piling into the 2k-4k range, or too many highs rolled off above 10k.

    Please note... you can't rely on metering of this sort to make your mixes sound great, and it's certainly no substitute for your ears, but it can help you from going too far out of bounds and tightening your mix consistencies between a wide variety of songs, especially when radically different instrumentation and tracking techniques are in play. But I strongly recommend you fix these issues in the individual tracks if possible, and not in mastering or with mixbuss EQ.


    There are probably other solutions aside from the iZotope TBC, but you can hit their website to learn what the plugin does, and then probably find an equivalent freeware plugin out there in the wilds of the internet if you're operating on a tight budget. Good Luck!!!
     
    Last edited: Feb 4, 2019
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  14. Gmork

    Gmork SS.org Regular

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    I am SSSOOOOO far from being good but i try to learn as much as possible. Anyway, i just recently upgraded and bought a set of yamaha hs7 monitors as well as a pair of audio technica ath-m50x headphones.

    Im absolutely loving both and find the m50s to sound incredibly similar to hearing my mixes coming from the monitors!

    Highly recommend the m50s! Theyre like $200 canadian
     
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  15. KailM

    KailM SS.org Regular

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    Thank you— this sort of confirms what I’ve learned the hard way: If you’re trying to fix a song in mastering, you’ll end up chasing your tail.

    My take on mastering is that it needs to be pretty light-handed. I try to get the song as perfect as possible in the mix and then try to get it louder and gelled together slightly more in mastering.

    When I’ve tried to match two songs in mastering it has never worked. So now I keep the same plugin chain in mastering and only make tiny tweaks here and there depending on the mix that goes into them. Any corrections, I go back to the mix, tweak it, then send it back to mastering.
     
  16. billinder33

    billinder33 SS.org Regular

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    You definitely have the right idea. It's a PITA to go back into mixes, re-mix, re-render, and re-master, but it's really the only way.

    Best thing you can do is thoroughly QA each stage so you don't need to ever go back... or at least make it good enough that you can be satisfied enough with the end result so you can put it behind you and move onto the next project.
     
  17. TedEH

    TedEH Cromulent

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    I also have to m50x. They're good, but they're not without their blind spots. Don't forget to reference against other stuff at the same time.
     
  18. Drew

    Drew Forum MVP

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    Devil's advocate - if you're looking to speed the process and minimize trial and error, I'm not sure reamping is the way to go. This is going to depend in part on your workflow, but for me, I've found that committing early on and minimizing the number of decisions you have to make down the road can do a lot to speed your workflow. Being able to go back and fundamentally change the sound of your guitars midway through the mix can definitely lead to analysis paralysis where you can waste whole days doing sliiiiightly different sounding reamps, and every time you change your guitar tone you change how everything around it needs to sound, so scrapping a tone halfway through a mix can lead to a lot of rework.

    I've always forced myself to commit up front, and print final tones to tape while tracking. When working on my last album I did that, and only on one rhythm part ended up going back and overdubbing an extra layer because I wasn't happy with the tone. Everything else I found the decisions I made in tracking worked just fine (and in that one particular example I kinda knew I was taking a chance tracking with lower gain than I usually do, so I'll call that one a straight-up mistake that a more experienced me would know to avoid).

    Idunno... if you want to make your process more efficient and involve less trial and error, adding MORE things you can experiment and change into the picture isn't really the greatest way to do it, IMO.
     
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  19. KailM

    KailM SS.org Regular

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    Great points, and duly noted. I guess my desire to try reamping gear though is to solve an issue I have with monitoring.

    When I’m tracking guitars, I do it with headphones and I really struggle to hear both my playing and the drums, since I generally record at a pretty high volume. I was thinking that if I could just dial in a decent virtual tone, then track it 2-4 times while listening in a very clean environment (aka- NOT while sitting in front of a 5150 that is on the edge of feedback). Then, I could go back and just run the DIs through my amp and mic setup, which I’ve dialed to perfection already.

    Maybe that’s wishful thinking on my part though.
     
  20. TedEH

    TedEH Cromulent

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    This sounds more just like you need to plan out how you place things a little better. Put the amp and the PC in separate rooms and get some longer cables so you don't have to literally be sitting in front of the amp.
     
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