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> Mastering - How To Get A Loud 'commercial' Master
Saoirse O'Shea
post Sep 20 2010, 12:55 PM
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As an ME I'm regularly asked if I can 'make the music as loud as 'X'!' where 'X' is usually a recent commercial CD. The inference is that mastering is essentially about putting a limiter on a mix and making the music sound as loud as possible. If you do that though more often then not you'll end up with a thin, distorted record with little if any natural dynamics left – and there are plenty of this on recent CDs made by some well known groups.

So how do you get level if it's not just a case of slamming a limiter?

Every recording has a volume potential - that's more or less the point to which you can raise the level before noticeable distortion sets in and the dynamics start to be lost. If your recording doesn't have an appropriate volume potential you will not get it as loud as a commercial CD whatever you or a mastering engineer do. So if you want to make your music as loud as commercial releases it´s important that you ensure that it has the appropriate potential before you send it to a mastering engineer and there are a number of things that you can do.

1. The Arrangement
If you listen to a string quartet and a full orchestra playing live without amplification the orchestra should sound louder because there are more instruments. However, the same isn´t true if you record and listen to the recording on your DAW. On a DAW there is a maximum level that you should not exceed because if you do the track will clip and digitally distort. As you add more and more different, simultaneous parts to a recording you reduce the space available to you before the master bus overloads and clipping occurs. So every time that you add another instrument that plays at the same time as the others you should lower the master level. One way around this is to ensure that you arrange your music so that as few instruments as possible play simultaneously. So rather than use as many instruments as you can try to use as few (simultaneous) instruments as possible to achieve your goal.

2. Choice of Sounds/Recording Quality
Some sounds have more natural impact than others so if an instrument lacks punch you may need to consider if it’s the right instrument for your needs and if it has been recorded properly. It´s better to fix any problems by returning to and ensuring that the tracking/recording is correct rather than adjusting EQ and compression settings during mixing or mastering. Quite simply put garbage in will equal garbage out. So spend 80% of your time ensuring that the recording/tracking is good and 20% on mixing and not the other way around.

3. Recording/tracking level
A lot of people believe that they can get their music to sound ´bigger´ if they increase the recording levels but often paradoxically recording hot will instead result in it sounding ´small´ or ´thin´. Record and mix with plenty of headroom rather than just trying to record and mix "loud". You should try to make your mix sound as good as it can but don´t be so concerned with volume. Mixing "hot" will not make your finished product louder.

Having said this many people might say, ´But it says in the manual to record as hot as you can without clipping'. Sadly that isn´t good advice for digital recording. In digital recording at 0dBFS the music clips and digital distortion may occur. If you record and mix hot in digital you try and get the level as high as you can without clipping and so you reduce your headroom. If you look at a lot of recording interfaces, many have meters that consist of between 3-5 LEDs. The LEDs light up one after the other as you increase the level: so they might for instance light up one after the other at –20dBFS, -15, -10, -5 before the final bright red one at 0dBFS. So if 4 LEDs are lit what is your level and just how much headroom do you have? Is it 5dB or is virtually nothing and the bright red LED is on the verge of lighting up? Also keep in mind that those LEDs are not particularly accurate and often only show the average level of 4 sequential samples and by the time the red LED lights up you may have not one but 4 clipped and distorted samples. So what often happens is that the meters and equipment that you use will not show that the audio has reached 0dBFS until it´s too late and the audio has already clipped and all the headroom is lost. Once you have clipped the audio pulling down the master fader will not take away the distortion.

So play it safe: don´t record and mix hot. Turn your levels down so that you peak at somewhere between –20 and –8dBFS rather than –2dBFS. That way you know that you have plenty of headroom, that the audio has not clipped without you knowing and that there is still some room for you to add additional EQ and compression if you want to. A 24 bit recording has a dynamic range from –144 dB up to 0dBFS, try and use more of it rather than just the final 6dB of headroom before clipping. A quiet recording can be made louder later at mastering, whereas a hot distorted one will always be distorted.

4. The Mix
A mix with lots of impact often has a combination of good clean recording/tracking, appropriate track levels, frequency content and dynamics along with careful consideration of how we hear and respond to the audible frequency spectrum. You can achieve more volume and have a cleaner sounding mix if you reduce or remove unwanted and unnecessary frequency content for instruments and vocals that can reduce the headroom. For example, sub bass frequencies take up a lot of energy and so can have a large impact on the volume potential of a recording. If you do not need sub bass it is therefore often a good idea to consider reducing the amount of it in your recording. Electric guitars, for instance, have little content below 90Hz and so it is normal to cut all frequencies, including the sub bass, below that point.

Whilst it´s important that each instrument and vocal sounds good by themselves what is more important is how they sound together. Don't just EQ each instrument in isolation - listen to how they sit in the mix and interact with each other. Use the EQ to create space around the important focal points, such as lead vocals, so that they don't have to fight to be heard. This could provide some extra headroom and punch at the same time.

A compressor can help both to make the sound more or less punchy and also to even out the level. Compress or limit groups such as drums, etc together as this can help the instruments in that group sound more cohesive. It also helps maintain headroom and increases the loudness potential. Learn to mix into a compressor, particularly if you place one on the 2 bus to 'glue' the mix together. By mixing into I mean that you have the compressor turned on and you adjust it whilst you mix the track, don't mix the track and then apply the compression. Reason - mixing in to takes in to account how the compressor adapts to EQ and other processing and level changes as they occur rather than after the fact.

If you have to use a brickwall limiter use it as the last stage of your insert chain on each channel or subgroup and be careful that it does not take away too much of the music´s natural dynamics. Also, if you intend to send your music for mastering either leave the limiter off entirely or send two takes to the ME, one with the limiter and one without and let the ME chose which to use. If you find that you need to use a limiter during mixing to control dynamics then think about why that is so. If it is, for instance, because of the dynamics of a particular instrument then consider re-tracking that instrument rather than limiting the entire mix.


5. Mastering
Real impact and loudness is achieved in the above four stages. Good mastering enhances that but it's rarely possible to create a lot of impact during mastering if it was not there to begin with. To be continued in part 2 here, which looks at what a mastering engineer may do to increase a recording´s level.




With thanks to John Scrip. More on levels can be found here

This post has been edited by tonymiro: Feb 15 2011, 06:36 PM


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Todd Simpson
post Sep 20 2010, 02:20 PM
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Some great advice as usual. The "Volume Wars" are really taking their toll on overall sound quality it seems. Artists often want their mix to over power any songs preceding or following it and end up sacrificing overall in terms of their sound. I"m all for loud, but dynamics are important too. So slamming it with a limiter at Mastering to make up for not doing the things you suggested, is often the quick and dirty method. It's always obvious sonically when that's the case. You nailed it. Thin mix, pushed way to hard, no dynamics. Thanks for sharing your experience on this one.

Todd


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Ben Higgins
post Oct 2 2010, 09:52 AM
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Tony, that post is incredible.. thank you for that ! I can't believe how much I don't know about this stuff... wink.gif

I only record for my own demo purposes, and also audio for GMC.. but after reading your post, I realise I definitely record signals too hot, and set the volume too high.. regularly over 0.

But I'm glad that there are plenty of people with enough knowledge to counteract this silly 'loudness war' (Death Magnetic anyone ?). This should be mandatory reading for any sound engineer/producer. I'm always hoping that me and my band are going to encounter another Martin Birch.. but it's very unlikely sad.gif

I just hope that the art of engineering isn't dying out.. as anybody can go do a music course and buy Pro Tools (not meaning to criticise anybody for doing so, it still requires a lot of knowledge, more than I have !) But back in the day, I bet a band could walk into a studio and the guy could take one look at your gear and know what mic to use with it and what not to use. That sort of old school knowledge just can't be bought so I hope that people are still putting the effort into the basics because that's the key ingredient. Get it sounding good at the start, or everybody's wasting their time. A bit like having a Ferrari body with an engine from a scooter. Don't matter how much you polish the bodywork, that thing ain't gonna deliver the goods !

Who do you think are the good producers around at the moment, Tony ?


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Jerry Arcidiacon...
post Oct 2 2010, 10:11 AM
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I missed this post. Thank you for all the info here, Tony. This is a very complex topic!


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Saoirse O'Shea
post Oct 2 2010, 11:46 AM
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QUOTE (Ben Higgins @ Oct 2 2010, 08:52 AM) *
...

I just hope that the art of engineering isn't dying out.. as anybody can go do a music course and buy Pro Tools (not meaning to criticise anybody for doing so, it still requires a lot of knowledge, more than I have !) But back in the day, I bet a band could walk into a studio and the guy could take one look at your gear and know what mic to use with it and what not to use. That sort of old school knowledge just can't be bought so I hope that people are still putting the effort into the basics because that's the key ingredient. Get it sounding good at the start, or everybody's wasting their time. A bit like having a Ferrari body with an engine from a scooter. Don't matter how much you polish the bodywork, that thing ain't gonna deliver the goods !


Sadly Ben I think it's a dying trade. I know too many excellent MEs and recording studios who've packed it in because they were losing money. Whilst there are certainly more people recording many of them believe that they can do it all themselves in their home studio and equal the output of a professional recording. If they do this for their own work and amusement then fine but a lot then set themselves up to do it commercially. We get people asking us weekly to drop our prices because their mate will 'master' their stuff in his bedroom for less then we charge.

BTW - bit like knowing which mic to use - it's also pretty easy to tell what monitors, and often which DAW, were used to mix a take with when they come in for mastering. Similarly it's usually easy to identify the make of processors used.

QUOTE
Who do you think are the good producers around at the moment, Tony ?


Depends on the music genre Ben.

I always like Steve Albini, Bill Szymczyk (producer for The Eagles), Bob Johnston (Dylan), George Avaikan (Blue Note/Jazz), Giorgio Moroder and Nile Rodgers (I like 70s disco ;-)).

From ages ago - Lamont Douzier and Holland. Micky Chapman, Bob Ohlsonn, Chip Young, Scott Walker...


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Ben Higgins
post Oct 3 2010, 09:11 AM
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Wow, that's incredible ! You certainly can't buy that level of experience smile.gif I often read or hear people talking about desks having a particular sound as well (sorry, I know we're going analogue here !) which I find amazing. I hear Neve being mentioned a lot..... I just find it amazing that even these factors can colour the sound of a record !!!

Thanks for your reply !


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Saoirse O'Shea
post Oct 3 2010, 03:44 PM
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Neve consoles definitely have a particular sound that's very distinct from, say an SSL. More a sort of American type sound. I've an old friend btw who can usually not only identify if a mix was done on an SSL but also usually which model. He rather loves SSL - so much so that he bought a G series for his home recording studio for about 150k and then spent about the same getting a room built around it cool.gif .

A bit OT but the first two pro consoles that I worked on were a Trident and an SSL - very different sounding desks.


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Get your music professionally mastered by anl AES registered Mastering Engineer. Contact me for Audio Mastering Services and Advice and visit our website www.miromastering.com

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We use professional, mastering grade hardware in our mastering studo. Our hardware includes:
Cranesong Avocet II Monitor Controller, Dangerous Music Liasion Insert Hardware Router, ATC SCM Pro Monitors, Lavry Black DA11, Prism Orpheus ADC/DAC, Gyratec Gyraf XIV Parallel Passive Mastering EQ, Great River MAQ 2NV Mastering EQ, Kush Clariphonic Parallel EQ Shelf, Maselec MLA-2 Mastering Compressor, API 2500 Mastering Compressor, Eventide Eclipse Reverb/Echo.
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The Uncreator
post Oct 3 2010, 03:54 PM
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Excellent post as always. You never cease to have something new to share.
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OzRob
post Nov 25 2010, 11:11 AM
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Great stuff, Tony! smile.gif

















I wish I'd read this 6 weeks ago. sad.gif

There are so many good tips and gems in your post that could have made my latest work even better. Oh well, next time. :-/

Thanks for the goldmine!!!

This post has been edited by OzRob: Nov 25 2010, 11:48 AM


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Stephane Lucarel...
post Nov 25 2010, 06:49 PM
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I've missed your post Tony! Thanks a lot for all the infos, it's a goldmine indeed!


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audiopaal
post Dec 17 2010, 02:53 PM
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Awesome post (this and Part2)!!!

Thanks Miro, you're a hero biggrin.gif
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JamesT
post Dec 19 2010, 07:35 PM
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These articles are excellent Tony. I hope that they are getting archived somewhere on the site for reference. Maybe we should have a Mixing/Mastering section somehere within the Knowledge Base.

I'm getting your points about not recording as hot as possible especially with digital equipment. 24 bits gives a tremendous amount of dynamic range. But what about the processing of a signal? ... are VST's not generally designed to utilize an "optimal" signal level at their input? Take for example an amp model, to get the desired behavior (e.g., distortion/overdrive characteristics) should the signal be optimally within a certain range? Say you record a raw guitar at -18dB and then use a guitar amp modeller VST to process it. Maybe the better plugins have a trim at their inputs, but it still would seem better to capture the guitar hot, or at least a certain optimal level. Thoughts?

These articles are excellent Tony. I hope that they are getting archived somewhere on the site for reference. Maybe we should have a Mixing/Mastering section somehere within the Knowledge Base.

I'm getting your points about not recording as hot as possible especially with digital equipment. 24 bits gives a tremendous amount of dynamic range. But what about the processing of a signal? ... are VST's not generally designed to utilize an "optimal" signal level at their input? Take for example an amp model, to get the desired behavior (e.g., distortion/overdrive characteristics) should the signal be optimally within a certain range? Say you record a raw guitar at -18dB and then use a guitar amp modeller VST to process it. Maybe the better plugins have a trim at their inputs, but it still would seem better to capture the guitar hot, or at least a certain optimal level. Thoughts?


Edit: Nevermind that first part. I see that we have a whole forum section deicated to recording. Cool. cool.gif

This post has been edited by JamesT: Dec 20 2010, 01:39 AM


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Saoirse O'Shea
post Dec 21 2010, 01:18 PM
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QUOTE (JamesT @ Dec 19 2010, 07:35 PM) *
...
24 bits gives a tremendous amount of dynamic range. But what about the processing of a signal? ... are VST's not generally designed to utilize an "optimal" signal level at their input? Take for example an amp model, to get the desired behavior (e.g., distortion/overdrive characteristics) should the signal be optimally within a certain range? Say you record a raw guitar at -18dB and then use a guitar amp modeller VST to process it. Maybe the better plugins have a trim at their inputs, but it still would seem better to capture the guitar hot, or at least a certain optimal level. Thoughts?


...


Yes with 24 bits you have a 144dB dynamic range [a Cd is only 96 dB] so there is more than enough to allow you to record with the peak dBFS a few dB below 0.

There are standards for i/o levels for professional hardware set by the AES and EBU so you can link up pro end gear and trim the signal to properly gainstage it throughout the signal path including the input in to a DAW. Most mastering engineers and pro mix engineers calibrate their hardware and so we know precisely how to gainstage it to achieve an optimal signal, what the working range is for our hardware and where the sweet spot is. I'm not sure though that many home/project studios do this however.

Once in the DAW you would think that a vst would not add gain to the signal unless you chose to adjust the i/o. This is the case with some vsts but not all. There are sadly a lot of vsts that sum digitally and so add gain to the signal. If you're recording hot then the internal summing can easily drive the signal in to clipping without you realising. There's a little bit more on this here btw.


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Get your music professionally mastered by anl AES registered Mastering Engineer. Contact me for Audio Mastering Services and Advice and visit our website www.miromastering.com

Be friends on facebook with us here.

We use professional, mastering grade hardware in our mastering studo. Our hardware includes:
Cranesong Avocet II Monitor Controller, Dangerous Music Liasion Insert Hardware Router, ATC SCM Pro Monitors, Lavry Black DA11, Prism Orpheus ADC/DAC, Gyratec Gyraf XIV Parallel Passive Mastering EQ, Great River MAQ 2NV Mastering EQ, Kush Clariphonic Parallel EQ Shelf, Maselec MLA-2 Mastering Compressor, API 2500 Mastering Compressor, Eventide Eclipse Reverb/Echo.
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