Monday, 13 June 2016

Self-Producing an EP Pt.6: Mastering

While everything was being mixed into the same chain of plug-ins individually, we did at least know that mastering should be a clearly defined separate step. Again, we considered getting it done professionally, but sort of figured if we've made a mess we may as well roll with it, and if we haven't then maybe this won't go so horribly either.
It didn't take long to get this part done comparatively, maybe a few evenings. Having tried out a large amount of presets from various plugins I had a good idea how I wanted it to sound. All the mixed tracks were rendered, aiming for their peak to be around -6db, and dropped into one project. The preset from the tracks was applied, and then a run-through to listen for consistency in volume, sound, etc.
Oh dear. Two of the tracks appeared to have almost no bass in them, while the other three were quite consistent with each other. That had to be fixed and took an evening to identify and correct some high-pass filtering that was too aggressive on the guitars, and low bass guitar volumes. They'd sounded fine on their own, but stood up next to the others were clearly lacking. There was also some fizzing making one of the tracks sound quite bad too, which also got cleared up. Then it was a case of getting the mastering plugins right to allow for the right volume when compared to a reference track, and then varying each individual songs output volume to match the perceived volume.
I'd like to say that was it, but after we had a few reviews of all the tracks we had a handful of issues that were going to need adjusting. Chorus vocals slightly too loud in one place, bass guitar too quiet in another, and a couple of others that required some mix changes, and then tweaking the mastering again to get the consistency back.

Things that were important:

  • It's good that there was a (after that initial bit of repair) consistency across all the tracks, I think the effects chains I made mixing the first song helped a lot here, and having a mastering pre-set applied.
  • Doing them all in one project, as you'd expect, helped put them all together.
  • Using a reference track to check where the perceived volume was good.
  • We didn't destroy all of the dynamics, which we said we wanted to be the case from the start.
Improvements:
  • Maybe get someone else to do it next time, but we'll see.
  • Try and identify the handful of mixing problems before this point so there's no painful back and forth of rendering new mixes.
  • It doesn't sound amazing in mono. It was referenced in mono a fair bit but it's heavily reliant on stereo for space. I'm not sure this is much of a problem but worth considering.

At this point the audio part is mostly complete, but with the intention of making a 'radio edit' as it were of 1 or 2 of the tracks (trim some extended sections and make sure it works in mono, probably) to submit to various places there's still a bit to be done. There is of course now all the other stuff that you need to do. Photos, a logo, all the social media stuff, web-sites, uploading for streaming, and attempting to book gigs. I might post about those when I've actually done them.

Monday, 6 June 2016

Self-Producing an EP Pt.5: Mixing

After some discussion we opted to mix it ourselves for a few reasons.

  1. It's our first EP, it's not going to be heard by a huge amount of people and while it's important that it sounds good, it's expensive to get done properly and we might be able to manage 'good enough' on our own with a lot of work.
  2. Mixing as an online service seems to be the main way to go for small/starting out bands and that seems too creatively detached. There are many stories floating around of people who've sent things off for mixing and the mixer has a much different idea of how it sounds.

Maybe it's not the best choice, but it seemed an acceptable risk that we would at least attempt to have it 'look' how we want and it be a bit wonky than potentially end up with something we're not happy with in a different way. The benefit would have been being able to just ship the stems off and make it someone else's problem instead of weeks of being unsure while swimming in these unfamiliar waters. Someone with professional level skills. Maybe next time.

The most blindingly obvious thing here is that the recording stage should have finished before this stage begun. It restarted a few times due to what was ultimately just me being unhappy with the vocals. What eventually happened after a few false starts was the bit that should have been done before anyway. Editing. Some time was taken to look at the detail of the tracks and fixing some timing issues (but not all of them, just the important ones), removing in-breaths from the vocal tracks, making the volume consistent and some tuning. The first pass of tuning was way too heavy handed. I suspect this was as a result of me editing my own vocals. At the end of a pass of tuning they'd just sound robotic, and I'd end up undoing it all and only tweaking where necessary, and even then 'un-fixing' them later to stop the tweaks from making them perfect.

After the editing had been done the mixing started properly. Through the process of demo'ing and refining, the first track had got to a point where the mixing was mostly done and it was sounding pretty good. Some of this was from testing out general wisdom I'd found on the internet, such as removing bass from guitars/vocals to let it through on the instruments that needed it. I used this to make some track-based preset chains to apply to the tracks that weren't finished and use them as a starting point later and made a long list of things to do to prepare them all for the more detailed and contextual changes. The presets were helpful but needed changing more than I thought. New iterations would go into the bands Telegram channel for critiquing, and listening to on some different devices (good headphones, bad headphones, monitors, an iPod dock) to see where the problems were.

The EZMix mastering preset was removed and replaced with a chain of things I'd put together from Waves Gold (Black Friday Sale win) and some free plugins from the rest of the internet (FerricTDS and Molot, for starters) so everything was still being mixed into something consistent.
There were then a few weeks of successively spotting and hammering all the sticking out nails in. When you fixed the biggest, the next one appears. Eventually we ran out of nails (that we could percieve anyway) that seemed worth fixing. There might be some element of fatigue here having taken a few weeks or more at this point and I sent it to a handful of friends for critiquing further before we locked it down.

Things that were important:

  • The internet is a great resource for learning and I picked up a lot quite quickly.
  • Starting with presets that came with Reaper or Waves plug-ins and then tweaking/adjusting/playing to find what I wanted was quite educational.
  • There's a point where you have to leave it alone and the thing that seems like a blatant error to you after 100 hours of listening is completely inaudible to anyone else.
  • Recognising that even across 3 people there's variations in what they think it should sound like and ultimately 1 person should be driving.
  • Getting external feedback at the point where everyone is too fatigued to hear anything anymore.
  • Having task list and a set time frame (it slipped but it did at least force some focus) to complete by.
Improvements:
  • Given the time and the resources, we'd have someone else mix it, but incredibly selectively.
  • Make sure editing is completed and everything sounds good before getting to this point.
  • Do vocal tuning with context, what sounds bad with the track solo'd might be completely unnoticeable with everything else going on, and tuning it might even make it worse.
  • Avoid tracks that are completely out of genre while doing this, instead of hearing something by another band doing something entirely different and comparing them.