For us to get the most out of your mixes here are a few tips to check before submitting your material. Remember, good sounding mixes make great sounding masters!
There are two primary concerns relating to mix balance. Of course, there are many more little details that are important, but we'll start with these two. They are tone (frequency) balance, and volume (dynamic) balance. These are often some of the first things a mastering engineer will listen to before delving further. This applies to all the individual elements within your tracks and how they interact with each other, as well as the overall 'big picture' mix.
A good mix balance will have evenly set high, mid and low frequencies, or rather, balances set in accordance with the type of music. It's worth checking your mix on a few different play-back systems before submitting to be sure you've nailed what you are trying to do. This can save headaches later and often means less corrective work is needed in the mastering process. This also applies to the relative volume of each part, or instrument, within the material.
We know sometimes mixes are not ideal ones even though you've spent countless hours on it. Personal experience, there! So if you are unsure, or stuck, feel free to upload some alternative versions of the track, for example with the track names "songtitle_vocal_up.wav" and "songtitle_vocal_down.wav" etc. We'll often be able to help you choose which one to use. Failing that, you could give us some information about the troublesome part of the song and supply it as a "stem" so we can slot in in the mix for you.
Compression in the mix refers to the use of dynamics processing on individual channels, and sub-groups also. This is absolutley commonplace and perfectly ok. Naturally, we are big fans of compression in the creative process. Mix engineers do very creative things with compression on individual elements inside a mix. It's an irreplaceable part of modern music and we DO NOT want to tell you how to engineer your mix!
However, it's worth keeping in mind that if you 'wipe off', or 'squash' all the attack transients your sounds have, when it comes time to master, your track really has nowhere to go in regards to compression. We might even need to reverse engineer it. If it sounds great, then we might not need to compress, using instead gentle limiting and volume matching - but that's a rarity.
When we bring a track up to its final volume, an already heavily compressed sound-scape will generally become too processed, or fatiguing and harsh-sounding, lacking transients and punch. Little errors lurking in the mix can become bigger problems. Further problems can arise when some sounds need heavy compressing and others are too compressed. So be sure to pay attention to the balance of different instruments' attack times and volumes, if you can. This just comes down to a blend of creativeness, common sense and careful listening. No problem!
This is a BIG one. Experienced studio engineers nearly always use some type of what's known as 2-buss compression (and sometimes EQ, too). Generally, they use carefully chosen units that - with judicious application - gently 'gel' things a little, as the track is recorded down to a stereo mix. Engineers finesse this technique until it becomes second nature and a part of 'their' sound.
With the advent of the modern DAW however, and a plethora of companies claiming to have the 'perfect solution', the temptation for many people is to work with one or even a multitude of plugins strapped across the 2-buss, often from the very beginning of a songs creation. This gets to the point where the mix is completely reliant on what plugins are across the master section (often not in a good way) and if one were to remove those plugins the sound completely changes. When trying to make critical decisions about a mix the sound being heard is not at all what the mix truly sounds like, which is being masked.
We are not against using processing on your main output or 2-buss, rather we are of the opinion that the best place to get a mix right is before it hits the main output. This often leads to the most translatable sounding mix. But again, you may supply two versions - one with 2-buss inserts and one without. Just be sure to name the file/s legibly and clearly.
Though at the end of the day we strongly suggest leaving off ALL master insert or buss inserts and programming unless you are absolutely sure - especially if the plugins are altering the sound in a noticeable way. If you can hear what it's doing, it's probably too much! In such a critical last hurdle our general advice is - if in doubt, leave it out.
Without going too far into the details of how digital audio files work, generally if you are (and you should be) working in a 24-bit environment and supplying us with 24-bit files then it is fine to mixdown (or bounce) your music to a stereo file with plenty of headroom. Mixing to peak at around -6dBFS is ideal for mastering.
With the advancement of digital mixing systems, there really is no need to push signals hard like you would analog tape, for instance. Irrespective of what word-count length and sample rate you are using (and indeed whether you are using analog or digital systems), unity gain is important. If nothing else it's good engineering practice to keep your arrangement at unity gain. Be sure to check that your individual channel faders, inserts and all the rest of it are not clipping the master output when combined. Simply turning down a clipping master output so you can bounce at -6dBFS is not the way to go. Instead try to leave plenty of headroom on each channel (the space between the highest levels on the channel and 0.00dB) so that when combined the master output level is not too hot. This does not matter in some circumstances - but as mentioned, it's good practice and good habit for making clean and clear mixes.
Once you've mixed your stereo audio file, please listen (and look at it) very carefully to ensure a clean file. This is what it should look like:
Too quiet mixes will inevitably raise what's known as the 'noise-floor' once the track has been mastered. This is not good:
This is too hot:
Finally, and VERY important - please DO NOT apply any kind of normalisation or peak-limiting to your file before submission. This not only degrades the audio signal but it makes undoing any damage impractical if not impossible. For example:
Supplying 16-bit files is okay if you absolutely must, however we do strongly recommend 24-bit word-length files. Acceptable file types are WAV or AIFF files at sample rates of 44.1, 48, 88.2 or 96kHz and please ensure there is no kind of 16-bit dithering going on.
Finally, remember that this is not a test - this is a fun and creative exercise! We look forward to working with you - The Humble Grove