Mastering and Mixing
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Great News! Musician’s Survival Guide is complete and paperback copies will begin to ship soon.
The following is an excerpt from The Outro chapter. In it, I explain the difference between mastering and mixing.
“Mastering and Mixing
I get many requests from Indie bands who want me to quote them a rate for mixing their records. I don’t even offer a quote anymore. I mean, if a band is crying poor on their introductory note to me, then I’m certainly not going to bother to negotiate against myself. But if you want to make me an offer? I’ll certainly consider it.
I’ve been accepting offers like this for several years now, and the first thing that I do is listen to some roughs, and if I like the music, then I’ll consider an offer. But I rarely take the gig because the large majority of bids come in around $100 for a track. And I get it, musicians are often young and poor. The crazy part? The same people who would offer me $100 to mix their track will pay a mastering engineer (ME) $100 to master it.
I’d like to address this phenomenon by explaining the stark differences between MEs and mixers, how they think, and what they do.
Whereas a mixer employs balance to cause a reaction. The ME merely shapes the EQ curve of the stereo mix and brings it to the appropriate level, as determined by you. The mixer deals with emotion. The ME touches up the sound. She doesn’t have enough control to do much more. She can only adjust internal balances at the margins through the implementation of compressors, EQs, and limiters on the 2-track mix itself. All great mixes were great before the record ever went to an ME.
The world is full of frustrated MEs these days. Many were once mixers themselves who may have had trouble finding gigs. As a result there is a whole class of MEs that seek to fill in their schedules and stroke their own egos by offering stem mixing. Why do I find the concept so offensive? Because stem mixing is wholly predatory in nature. As such, it’s a “service” best avoided.
Stems are basically stereo sub-mixes that make up your mix when combined at unity gain. The stems aren’t for mixing. Stems are for movie directors and television broadcasters who need some modicum of control over the music. Film also has dialogue, Foley, and sound FX, all of which must work together. The stems provide the re-recording engineer control over the levels of your production for purposes of theirs. As important as your music is to you, for the director, it’s just another part of the big picture, and they must be able to fully manipulate the parts.
Your stems depend on your instrumentation, but a typical Stems configuration would look something like this:
Drums and Perc L&R
Background Vocals L&R
Many MEs now offer stem mixing as a mastering service. That sounds kind of weird already, doesn’t it? In reality, it’s neither mixing, nor mastering, because those two jobs can’t be done concurrently. Mixing is an aggressive sport in which you seek to maximize the impact of dynamics and pull an emotional response from the listener by how you balance the arrangement. Mastering is a passive sport in which the goal is to limit dynamics for purposes of level, and tone shape for purposes of translation. You cannot operate from both an aggressive and passive stance at the same time. It doesn’t work. It’s not even possible.
The goal of stem mixing has only to do with balance and sound and nothing to do with pulling a reaction. How do I know this? Because the ME doesn’t have enough control to view it any other way.
It’s the height of arrogance for someone to suggest to you, that she can mix your record better than you, and with less control over the individual elements. No, she can’t. Never. Won’t happen, because it ignores emotional impact. Maybe she can balance the overall sound better than you, but that has nothing to do with a great mix.
If you suck at mixing, it’s probably because you have an issue with your monitoring–typically the room. And if that’s not the problem, then you’re not taking frequency into account, or your productions are too dense, and we have addressed all of those maladies in this Guide. A good mix starts with your arrangement, and with a little practice on that front, your mixes will come together without the help of someone who believes music is about sound. Besides, if you’re so terrible at mixing, then how is it you can even deliver decent sub-mixes? The whole concept is just remarkably disconnected from reality. It’s a service that serves no one, least of all you. If someone offers you stem mixing, run.
The level of competition is actually a problem at this point, with young MEs looking to break into the business with $40 masters that you wouldn’t play for your own mother. If you’re just learning, it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to send your work to someone equally as green because you get no benefit from it. You would be far better off going to a well-regarded ME. At least then you get some knowledgeable consultation.
There are plenty of legitimate MEs in the world who can help to bring your record to the next level, especially if you have it mixed professionally. Unfortunately, the hack MEs outnumber the pros 1000 to one. You can find a successful ME with a hit-laden discography to master a record for $100 at this point. You want to pay the $40 guy, why? Because it’s $60 less, of course, but if the results are unusable, then you wasted $40 to save $60. A $40 per track ME can literally render your record unlistenable. The problem is, there are no guarantees that someone won’t butcher it equally as well for $100.
Given this, how do you choose an ME? I don’t know that you do.
Look, if you’re putting out records, and you’re hiring professionals such as myself to produce and mix them, it only makes sense to have your record mastered. You’re going to spend good money on a mixer only to skimp out at the end? But really, if you’re just starting out, or if you merely want to focus-group a new song, I don’t think it makes much sense to pay to have it mastered.
That said, you do need to get your record to level, or no one will be able to turn it up loud enough to hear it in their car. So, at this point–and I can’t believe I’m about to write this–it would seem to make more sense to use an automated mastering service.
The problem with automated mastering is that there is no notes process. You can’t just call up the bot and ask: could you add a little top? And you most certainly don’t want to try and chase the algorithms of the automated mastering system with changes to your mix. So, you get what you get and that’s what you get. But if the song is unproven, then what exactly is the point of having it mastered other than to give it some level? Because if you don’t have it mastered, the production won’t compare? What about the mix? I mean, that’s where we derive the emotional impact. There just seems to be quite a bit of confusion in regards to what a mixer actually does.
As your mixer, I will spend an average of six to eight hours mixing your production. It could go days. It could go for an hour. There are many factors that go into how long a mix will take me, and the price isn’t really one of those factors.
By the time I make my initial print of your mix, I’ll know every nuance of your production, I’ll know what parts come in where and why. I’ll underdub parts that aren’t serving the production. I’ll maximize the payoff. I’ll automate the parts so that the balances push the listener forward through the song. I’ll be able to explain every arrangement decision and every pan decision. I’ll recognize where you may have gotten confused along the way and will have addressed those sorts of issues. And all of this will be based, not purely on what I think is best, but on what you reveal to me through your recording. Your decisions in recording the track will dictate my decisions in the mix. My goal throughout will be to maximize impact in order to cause a reaction from myself in the hopes of causing the same reaction from the listener.
After the initial print, we will go through a notes process in which you tell me the issues you’re having with the mix. I’ll listen to you, share my thoughts and offer you my consultation, and then I will implement your first set of Notes. We will go back and forth once or twice like this, which will include a negotiation and pushback from me, because I’m not there just to do what you want me to do. I’m there to provide my expertise, my consultation, and ultimately a mix.
Ideally, by the time we’re through the second or third round of notes, I won’t even be able to get through the song because I’ll keep forgetting to listen to it as it causes me to react. Same with you.
That sounds downright valuable. Now, let’s evaluate what the ME will do.
The ME will spend at most twenty minutes with your mix, she will apply some processing to the track–some EQ, perhaps some compression and probably some brickwall limiting for purposes of level. Somehow, that has equal value?
This idea that the ME is somehow as important as the mixer is nothing but a crock. And if you can’t pay a mixer, ostensibly because it’s too expensive, then why on earth would you pay an ME? The ME can’t deliver you a mix. The ME can only master what you give her. And if you give the ME stems? Not only did you retard your own progress, you got ripped off to boot. Rather than to complete your record with intent, you will have passed it to someone whose only goal is to make you dependent upon them.
Until you have a fanbase, and until you’re putting out records on a regular basis–until you’re making money from your music–I wouldn’t bother mastering your records. Just run your production through an online automated mastering service and be done with it. Or get yourself a good brickwall limiter and bring it to level yourself. That suggestion alone will cause people to pull their hair out. You have to hire a mastering engineer! No, you really don’t. If you’re going to hire anyone, hire a bona fide mixer.
Let me just be perfectly clear, because I’m sometimes paraphrased poorly on the Internet. My records are mastered by a professional mastering engineer. I’m a professional producer and a mixer, and I intimately understand the process. I hire people who hear like I do, and whose consultation I trust. I know what the mastering process does and, as a mixer, I automatically compensate for what will happen in that process. While the difference between what I deliver and what I get back from an ME is nothing short of subtle, it often feels like the biggest difference in the world. So, a great ME can bring a great mix up another level.
That said, unless you’re paying to have your record mixed, you shouldn’t pay to have it mastered either.”
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As is usual when I finally complete a book (because I apparently can only do one thing at a time), I have some mix time available. If you have some tracks that need mixing, reach out. email@example.com. If you merely want your tracks mastered, send me the stems. I kid! I kid! I don’t do no stinking’ Stem Mixing. Neither should you.