1. What do you need to mix my song?
I work with my Pro Tools HDX system. If your song was recorded in any version of Pro Tools, it is easy to send me your session. Follow these steps to properly export your session files (These keystrokes are for Mac):
- Open the session you want to send for mixing. Everyone has a different menu of plug-ins for their respective systems. If you are using a plug-in on a track and that plug-in is an integral part of that track please bounce a version of that track with the plug-in. This way, if I don’t have that same plug-in, I will have that sound available for your mix. In general, any midi tracks or soft-synth sounds should be printed as audio files.
- Hide and deactivate any tracks that are not used but are visible in your Edit window. Do this by clicking on the track name and holding ‘Control’ and selecting ‘Hide and deactivate track’. This insures that only the tracks that are in use will be used in the mix of your song.
- Open Regions List on the right side of your Edit window
- Click on Shift +Command + U. This highlights any files that are not in use in your session
- Click Shift + Command + B. Click on Remove. This removes those un-needed files from your session and reduces the overall size of the session folder, which is helpful when it comes time to upload.
- Clean up any fades or edits
- Click on File at the top left of your screen. Click on “Save Copy In”.
- Check boxes ‘All Audio Files’ and “Session Plug-In Settings Folder”
- Click OK
- As a destination, save to your Desktop or anywhere else but where the original session resides. Label something distinctive, such as, “My Song for mix”. This helps eliminate confusion when uploading later.
- Open your browser and paste in this address: https://defyrecordings.wetransfer.com/
- Follow the instructions and upload the FOLDER you just created from the “Save Session Copy” function. Max upload size is currently 2GB per upload. Typically you should be able to send one song at a time. If your file exceeds that 2GB limit contact me and other arrangements can be made.
If you work with another DAW and software some prep work is involved before you can send me your song.
- You will need to make ‘stems’ or ‘splits’ of the tracks within your session. A ‘stem’ for each track is an audio file that is consolidated, meaning continuous with no edits or physical breaks in the file. The key to making stems is each file MUST have the same exact start time. Even tracks that don’t occur early in your song arrangement must start at the beginning of your session as an audio file. What this does is it retains the timings between all your audio, so it plays back perfectly in sync just like it does in your original session. Labeling these tracks clearly is also important. This way if there is a problem I can communicate to you exactly what I need. For example, a track called ‘snare drum bounce’ can be fixed faster than if I said “I’m having a problem with Audio 01-009”.
Once you consolidate your files, BEFORE you export the files as stems, please be sure to disable or bypass ANY plug-ins and automated volume level changes. The same goes for any automated mutes and pans. Only exception here is if the automation or plug-in is an integral part of the arrangement or sound of that particular track. Reason for this is when I’m mixing I’m fighting your automation or sound the whole time by re-automating to REVERSE your original automation. This eats up a significant amount of time that could be spent perfecting your mix.
Once all this is done export your files as either WAV or AIFF audio files. Stereo files for any tracks that have any stereo panning. Meaning anything OTHER than mono. Mono files, such as a lead vocal, individual drums tracks can be exported as mono. If you’re not sure either way, export them as stereo.
2. I don’t have the best recording equipment. How can I achieve the best quality recording that will make mixing and mastering easier?
The recording can only be as good as your source. Spend time making sure your instrument and/or voice is the best it can be. A good-quality signal chain (microphone-preamp) and a nice sounding recording space are also helpful. As most people record alone at home affording a single recording channel (chain) is within reach. Try not to over-process things you record, unless you want that effect. Sounds that are recorded well have no buzz or hum and are recorded at a reasonable level. It’s always easy to make anything louder later on. The better the recording at the beginning the better end result you will have.
3. Are condenser microphones better than dynamic or ribbon microphones?
No, not for every application. As every guitar has a ‘sound’, so do microphones. Condensers are usually used for vocals, but a dynamic can give you a good result too. There are many variables to consider, but the best advice is to use what you have and learn to get the best sound with it than you can.
4. What file format should I record to?
WAV or AIFF files are okay. There’s no quality difference between the two.
5. Is tube gear better than solid-state gear?
Better is not the correct term. Every audio circuit colors your sound. Tube gear colors more than solid state, generally. It’s more a difference in taste. If you have the luxury of trying both, experiment! Rules are made to be broken, and you may come up with a sound that works for you.
6. Does it matter what bit rate I record my project to?
Bit depth DOES make a difference in sound quality. 24bit is preferred. Sample rate should be at LEAST 44.1k. Its up to you how high of a sample rate you want to use. Anything higher than 96k is a waste of hard drive space. Only time I would use rates that high would be for classical music with very high quality microphones and preamps.
7. I want to record my album on tape. What are the pros and cons?
Pros: “Warmer” sound, softer transients, “infinite sample rate” compared to digital. Cons: Expensive, limited recording time, inter-channel crosstalk, tape hiss; machine you record on must be properly maintained to gain the benefits of the sound. Personally the only thing I miss about recording to tape is the smell of a freshly opened reel. The ‘benefits’ always had to be compensated for with equalization because high frequencies physically evaporate from your tape within hours of recording them. The tape machine has to be in good shape. If the studio you want to record at doesn’t know about de-magging, azimuth and zenith adjustment on their tape machine I would go somewhere else. Originally digital got a bad rap because engineers used the same practices they had always used with analog to compensate for the deficiencies of analog tape. (Yes, original A/D converters were not the best, but that was only part of the problem)
8. What sort of budget should I set up to record my album?
That question is too general. There are so many factors. Some thoughts for any budget: It will take twice as long and cost twice as much as you think. Plan in advance; includes songwriting, rehearsing, instrument maintenance, equipment and accessory purchases and travel arrangements. Studio time is expensive so make sure you have everything you need in order to maximize your efficiency for the session. If you’re trying to save money the worst thing you can do is be unprepared. Don’t “figure out” arrangements while the studio clock is ticking. Hopefully you have recorded your rehearsals before the session so any arrangement issues have already been resolved. Make sure all the tools you need are accounted for. I’ve seen sessions stop because someone needed photocopies of the music or a guitar cable was needed or drum heads, drum sticks, 9-volt batteries, guitar picks, etc. Thinking in advance will allow you to record or mix with ALL you scheduled time. And if you’re recording digitally always make sure to show up with at least one external Firewire drive. There are studios that won’t keep your session data on file after you leave. So be sure you take it with you when you leave. If possible include in your budget a second hard drive. ALL hard drives, no matter the quality, WILL die at some point. If you have your project backed up on a second drive you are covered when that first drive fails. Notice I said, “When”. Data storage is so economical these days. Spend an extra $100 bucks today rather than paying the studio and musicians AGAIN to replace what you just recorded. Don’t take this lightly. Data recovery from a dead drive can cost up to $5000.
9. Can I get a good mix with headphones only?
If you’re comfortable with them, of course. See # 11
10. Monitoring in the real world
As more traditional studios close their doors more project and personal studios open theirs. As nice as some of these studios can be, there is a limit to how extensive the listening environment can be compared to a traditional studio. Proper acoustic design and construction can be very expensive and take up a great amount of space. So as a studio owner you do what you can to have as accurate a room as you can. But there is a vast amount of ‘studios’ that have been set up wherever there is room, and often times the positioning of the speakers is less than ideal. There are many places to find in-depth discussions of acoustics and how they relate to your room. We won’t go into that here, what we will talk about is how you can make do with what you have and allow you a chance to get a mix out of your studio that actually sounds like you intended. We’ll assume you have a matching pair of speakers that are in good shape. The goal with these speakers is to have them in a place in your room where they will sound good. Having them on a sturdy set of stands or on a table is a good start. It’s important that they be at the same height and ideally the same distance from any walls. If they can be at ear level that helps a lot too. If you have the luxury of setting up in an empty room audition the speakers in several locations. Play back some music you know intimately and you will have a good idea of where it sounds best. What I mean by ‘best’ is it will sound like the music you know and not some distorted (meaning ‘untrue’) version. Once you find a place that sounds good, position they speakers so they are matched. Meaning don’t have one speaker in a corner and the other on a flat wall. The one in the corner’s bass response will be DOUBLE of the other speaker, therefore wiping out any chance of you accurately gauging your overall bass level. Get as picky as measuring the distance between each speaker cabinet and the adjacent wall. Get that distance as close to the same for each speaker as you can. Once that is in place just listen to music you know and to tracks you’re working on. It can take a little while to “know” how your new setup translates in the room. Do some test mixes and listen in your car or any other place you know. You will hear right away if there are problems with the mix. I would recommend using some kind of speaker selector switch that allows you to have a second set of speakers and plug in any other kind of speaker as an alternate listening perspective. When I am mastering I can always tell if the engineer mixed solely on one set of speakers. There are always issues that would have been caught if there an alternate listening choice is part of the equation. If you can’t set up another set headphones can be a second choice. Either way, my mixes are always 100% better when I’ve switched between speakers. I know my mix is “done” when my mix sounds the SAME on both sets of speakers. “But what if I have big studio monitors and little computer speakers for my alternate set?” What I mean by the “same” is the relationships will be retained from speaker to speaker. The volume of the snare drum compared to the lead vocal will be the same no matter what speaker you switch to if your mix is right. Or at least it will translate that way to the real world. And the real world is some one listening on a laptop from down the hall, distorted ear-buds, a car stereo, or a boom box playing low-res mp3’s. One test I always do is step away from the speakers, walk down the hall, sit in the next room, etc. We as engineers are the only ones who will listen to your mix between two matching speakers AND be paying attention.
11. What’s the most important piece of gear to consider when setting up my studio?
It depends on your focus. If you are an instrumentalist you most likely have already made the investment in your instrument(s) and now you are ready to have your own recording system. Ultimately what you get next has to do with the goal of your studio. Are these recordings for your own use? Will you be hiring out your studio to outside clients? Figure out what you want to do and then ask as many questions as you can think of before you purchase anything. There are many forums available online where you can gather information and decide what you really want to do.
12. How can I make an instrument stand out more in a mix?
The first thing I reach for is one of my “harmonic enhancers”. Also called ‘tape simulators’ etc. There are too many to list, but all do the same thing to various degrees. Some adjectives of what these do would be “bigger” “more body” “more low-end”. It’s easy to over do it, so be sure to listen in the context of your mix rather than just soloing the sound. Most have presets, which can be a good place to start.
13. When I mix a song with vocals I can never get the vocal loud enough. Is there an easy way to do this?
An old method of mixing I have never understood is when someone mixes a song and the vocal is put in last. They spend all kinds of time working on individual sounds and then when they turn on the vocal there’s ‘no room for it’. Try this: Open up your session and mute all the tracks except the vocal. Work on the vocal sound. Equalize, compress, add effects, the whole deal. When you love how that sounds un-mute an instrument. Say a piano, or a guitar. Work on the sound of that WHILE listening to the vocal. Adjust the level so that it makes sense with the vocal sound. Do this with every instrument. You will notice that the vocal will NOT get buried. If it’s a pop song, the vocal is more important than anything. Hate to say it, but no one ever hums the bass drum part.
14. Mono and stereo
I know, I know, who cares about mono? It’s some old-time retro thing, right? Well, no. Experienced engineers understand the importance of mono and how it relates to recording and mixing and mastering. Here’s the deal with mono. The loudest things in your mono speaker are the elements that are panned straight up the middle. The farther from center the sound is the softer it will be. When I mix I get a sound together on my studio monitors (speakers) and headphones. When I feel like everything sounds good I will switch over to my mono speaker. In EVERY mix I have ever done I will hear ‘problems’ with my mix in the first 30 seconds of playback on a mono speaker. There are a variety of reasons for this, but it illustrates the importance of your mix being MONO COMPATIBLE. In mono I will hear equalization and level (volume) issues. Meaning that if any two sounds are ‘stepping on each other’ it will be clearly audible. An example may be that taking away some of the low mid-range of an acoustic guitar will give more room for the vocal. What I like about mono is that it simplifies my listening and allows me to focus on what’s important in the song. Two of the trickiest things to conquer in a mix are the level of bass and vocal. When I listen to my mix in mono I get those two levels right every time. After listening in mono I will switch back to my stereo monitors and headphones. Anything far left or right may need some further adjustment, but other than that the levels and relationships are exactly right.
15. Should I or should I not compress my sounds when I record?
Compressors and limiters get a bad rap because people overuse them and kill the music rather than enhance it. I use them all the time when I’m recording and mixing. Keep in mind that when you’re recording THROUGH a compressor that that sound is forever married to the recording. So if you don’t know what you’re doing leave it off. You can always compress in the mix later.
16. Can I get away with a virtual piano sound versus a real piano?
It depends on the song. If it’s the focus of the song, it generally won’t be as convincing as a real piano. If it’s a full band track and the piano just one instrument in the mix a virtual piano will be fine.
17. Can I add effects to my electric guitar sound AFTER I record? Or should I use them when I record?
You can add them at any time. Some producers don’t like to be boxed in by effects pedals if ultimately that sound isn’t right. Personally I prefer to commit to the sound and record with the pedals. The guitar reacts differently with pedals when they are used as originally intended. But that’s just me. If you want both options you can do it with a direct box. What you will be doing is plugging your guitar in to the direct box input BEFORE your pedals. Most direct boxes have a parallel input called ‘Thru’. Take a second guitar cable plugged into this jack and plug it into the first of your guitar pedals. In your DAW setup 2 tracks to record to. Plug the output of the direct box into channel 1 and the microphone or amp simulator output into channel 2. Play a bit and make sure each channel is recording properly. Once that is sorted out feel free to mute the output of the ‘direct’ channel, as that will probably sound quite uninspiring, and monitor the track with the pedals. What this allows you to do is get an inspired performance from the great sound AND have a dry version of the performance that you can manipulate later if needed. In your mix you may even find using both channels gives you even more options.
18. In a recording session with live players how important is the headphone mix?
It is the MOST important thing during a recording session. This is because when the players hear how great their instrument sounds they will be inspired to play and sing better. They will be more in tune and concentrate on their performance instead of worrying about their sound. Be sure to ask how the mix is for everyone and make any requested adjustments. This goes a long way to having a great day in the studio instead of a bad one.
19. When recording real drums should I be concerned about the ring of the snare drum?
Sometimes. Personally I like some ring in the drum. When I’m mixing, a snare with some ring stands on its own in a mix. Without the ring I end up adding more upper mid frequencies with eq. What I find is that once you pile on guitars, bass, keyboards, etc, that ring disappears. If the ring is just too much you can experiment with a bit of tape on the top head. Don’t choke off the tone of the drum completely, you just want to tame the ring a little.
20. Cables. How much should I spend on them?
Another area of hot debate. Cables are the ‘plumbing’ of your system. You wouldn’t build a house with the cheapest pipes out there, and you wouldn’t be able to finish building that house if you bought the most expensive ever made. There are good cables out there that won’t break the bank. The ‘sound’ differences are highly subjective. Personally I don’t buy into those ultra high-end cables. Electricity travels in very known and documented ways and a well made cable will more than do the job. One idea I do believe in and practice is to keep your cable lengths short.
21. Distortion is the key
This applies for so many things. What people love about analog is the way it treats distortion. In this digital world there are many hardware and software distortion simulators. Any time I want a sound to ‘stand out’ I will apply a little distortion before anything. Works every time. What do I mean by this? Open a song you’ve been working on that has drums. If you have one where the snare drum has never been great to you, even better. Insert an amp simulator on that track and set it to something mellow, like ‘clean rhythm’ or something. Listen. How’s that snare drum for you now? You’re welcome.
22. Mixing in the box versus on a console?
This is always a big debate. Old timers will tell you it can’t sound good mixing in the box. I’ve done mixes on every kind of console and mixed in the box too. One thing I learned long ago was to embrace whatever the system you have to work with at the time. When the work needs to be done just get on with it rather complain how hard it is because you don’t have that _____ piece of gear.
23. I don’t have Auto-tune. Do I need to Auto-tune my vocals when I mix?
You don’t NEED Auto-tune, but I can tell you the number of pop albums released without some amount of tuning is very few. Its become so common that it has a ‘sound’ all its own. I will often use it as sparingly as I can to make the mix more current than actually forcing every note in tune.
24. Should I compress the stereo buss when I mix?
Only if you know exactly what you are doing. It’s very easy to destroy a mix with an improperly set compressor on your stereo buss. Used the right way a compressor can give you great results. There is a reason why so many of us do it. Use your ears.
25. The drums we recorded sound terrible, is there a way to fix them?
It depends on how they were recorded. You also need to factor in the room they were recorded in as well as the quality of the drums themselves. Were the heads in good shape? Was the kit properly tuned? Did the studio room sound good? There are many drum replacement tools out there, but your success with them will be affected by the quality of the original recording.
26. When I record at home the sounds I get are never that good. How can I improve them?
Software can only do so much! First make sure your source is the best it can be. Is your instrument in good shape and playing in tune? If your instrument is sub par than that is the best your recording of it will be. Do the maintenance to make it sound great and then proceed. Next step is if it’s an acoustic instrument make sure it sounds good in your recording area. If it sounds bad THAT is the sound your microphone will pick up. Find the spot where your instrument sounds the best and put your microphone there. Do a test recording and play it back. If you like what you hear than you have an excellent place to start. When you do start recording be sure to not to record too hot. It’s very simple to enhance a sound recording cleanly than one that is heavily distorted. If you are recording yourself and need to hear yourself more turn up the MONITOR channel you’re listening to instead of the recording level to ‘tape’. That way you’re not degrading the recording but getting what you need as the player.
27. Equalization. Cut or boost?
Cut first. This is a lengthy discussion, but a quick answer is its better to take AWAY parts of the sound you don’t like with an equalizer than to add. Adding or boosting uses up the headroom of your overall system quickly. One thing you will learn with experience as a professional is that headroom is one of the most important things in any audio system. A usual culprit of bad sound is usually lack of headroom.
28. What do you need to master my song or album?
A high-resolution stereo audio file is optimum. WAV or AIFF file is preferred. Don’t send an mp3 for mastering. Its already a degraded version of your original mix. When exporting your file be sure to make it a ‘stereo-interleaved’. Also, be careful compressing your stereo buss. If you are using a compressor or limiter print a version without it as well. A totally maxed out audio file leaves little room for a mastering engineer to do their best work for you. Most likely the equipment and expertise they have are better than yours for this stage. And if it’s not GO SOMEWHERE ELSE.
29. Do I need to master my project or song?
This is a great question. Finding the right person to master your music is essential. Whereas many facets of the music and recording industry are relationship based, mastering had to be the one that is the tightest. Most often clients will use the same mastering engineer forever, but won’t think twice about using different places to record or mix. This is because once you find someone that makes your music sound better and NOT screw it up, you stick with them. For the bulk of my career I used the same guy too. Once he closed his studio here in NYC I had clients take their mastering to other places. There are many reputable places and engineers, but my clients weren’t going to them! Cost is a big factor. By the time mastering comes around, oftentimes the budget is almost gone. Recording and mixing may have gone longer than expected, and then there’s always the question, “What is mastering? Do we really even need it?” The answer to this question is always “YES”. 99.8% of albums and songs you have ever heard anywhere have been mastered. Mastering takes a collection of your mixes and makes them sound like a complete and cohesive body of work. As you were mixing over time there are differences between each mix. Some subtle, some not so subtle. Some of these differences will be magnified within a project if there are different artists, producers, mix engineers and studios contributing. Mixing is ‘an opinion’ and everyone will have his or her own. So those three songs mixed by one guy will most likely sound COMPLETELY different then the other mix engineer’s work. Mastering ties them all together. Differences in opinion, volume and tone will be made to work together. Once an album is mastered you will not have issues of each song being at a different volume, or have to manually adjust your tone controls from song to song. In the old days we often would go to mastering. As the playing field of professional vs. amateur has been leveled more or less, there are many places that offer mastering for a very cheap rate. What I was finding is my mixes would get into the hands of a non-professional (even in some reputable mastering houses!) and be totally destroyed. They would insert a “mastering” plug-in, call up a preset, oftentimes without even listening to the music, and surf the web while my mixes were being processed down through their plug-in. After this happened too many times I decided to take matters into my own hands. As I had the privilege to sit in on sessions with nearly every major mastering engineer in NYC over the years, I knew what the process was. I supplemented my studio gear with some pieces that every mastering house has and offered to master the projects that I had spent so much time on. This way my work and the artist’s vision are presented in the way we intended.
30. Is the mastering process to put my album or single on vinyl different than cd?
Mastering for vinyl is a different process than mastering for any digital medium. There are physical limitations with vinyl such as overall loudness and phase that have to be considered. That super hot kick drum, or maybe that really loud piano only in the left speaker will wreak havoc in mastering for vinyl. If you do plan on releasing your album on vinyl I would strongly suggest finding a mastering house that will make your vinyl master for you BEFORE you mix. Do a test mix and give it to the mastering engineer for review before you sign off on your mix. Any problems with your mix can be identified and corrected before you leave the studio. Nothing worse than nailing your mix and finding out at mastering that you have to go back and fix something. FYI any mastering house with a good reputation will be happy to assess your mix before your mastering session. It makes everyone’s job easier if the mix is the best it can be.
31. What are ISRC codes?
ISRC stands for International Standard Recording Code. Defy Recordings is an authorized ISRC Manager. It’s a number that is assigned to a song or more specifically a sound recording. Every recording gets its own unique number. This works like a UPC code when you buy something in a store. That number underneath the bar code allows the item to be tracked. Works exactly the same with an ISRC code except the code is embedded. More information can be obtained here: https://usisrc.org/