Mixing, mastering, loudness, and dynamics. This one gets spicy!
Updated: Mar 3
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As an audio producer, it is essential for me to have a deep understanding of audio levels and dynamics. The control and modification of these factors play a crucial role in achieving technical and creative goals in the recording and mixing process. By using standard dynamics tools such as processors (both hardware and software), audio and musical dynamics can be effectively manipulated.
This article will discuss how you can screw up your mastering process by using these tools in a problematic way.
This article is mostly for those who produce and mix their own music, and are currently or hope to work with me or another mastering engineer in the future. This article was read, “approved of,” and lightly contributed to, by my friend Tim Thornton, who has been working high up in the quality control zone of a vinyl record plant for since around 2010. He listens to masters all day, every work day, and determines if they are good enough to be pressed. He plays music as Tiger Village and CDX. He also runs Suite 309 Records.
I have mastered a bunch of albums that have come Tim's way, and he has never complained about my work. If there were anything to complain about, he would tell me, because he's a quality control expert, and he doesn't want problematic material to skirt by him just as much as I don't.
Other mastering engineers will disagree with some of what I’m about to say, in the sense that it doesn’t matter to them how you prepare what you send them. They probably just don't want to make the process more complicated by going back and forth with the client. Like many others, I have the attitude of “the better the source material, the better the final product.” Therefore everyone wins, and you don't sub-par final product while I walk away with your cash. My reputation is on the line too! LOL. I think that everyone winning is necessary for anyone to succeed in this scenario.
Another disclaimer that is quite important… Before you lose your hair, please know that I am more than aware that using transient control or “glue” compression on your master bus in the mixing process is okay, standard, and preferred by many. In fact, I, and almost all of the top mix engineers in the world, use some amount of dynamics processing on the master bus if they know what they are doing, and it is integral to the sound.
Additionally, using a hard or soft clipper on the master channel is fine too as long as it is under the same conditions as above. Your engineer may ask you to change or remove some things if they think it's necessary, but you're safe to at least go with your gut. If you do not trust yourself with master channel processing, or aren't sure if you should be adding what you're adding, err on the side of removing it and letting your engineer take care of those processes.
Note: The shit-talking I’m doing only applies to the master bus in the mixing process. You can compress, clip, and limit any individual instruments, groups, and sub-mixes you want before exporting your mixes for your mastering engineer.
Now let’s get into the nitty-gritty!
The way you finalize your mix can create problems for the mastering stage.
There seems to be a lot of confusion out there about what the mastering stage requires of you. In the DIY world, producers are used to mixing and mastering their songs themselves. In fact, many of them would not even say they master their tracks, because they know that using a little dynamics processing on their master bus is not a full mastering job, yet it gets the job done so that they can save some money and quickly publish their work. This is not a cut-down at all… I did this for many years. Many of my colleagues do this. Many of my clients were doing this for a long time until they decided to hire me to do the work in a professional setting.
That transition from the DIY production to the professional audio engineering world is where issues arise.
Maybe you have been “mastering” your music long enough, and you have realized that you need a trained professional to take over. Or maybe you gained label attention months or years after you’ve released an album digitally, and this label wants to re-release it on a physical format like vinyl. Or maybe they just want it remastered for the re-release. (This is very common in my mastering clientele.)
This year, nearly 80% of the final mixes I’ve mastered for vinyl were very heavily compressed and brickwall limited, AKA compromised!
In these scenarios the artist, producer, or mix engineer either
does not have access to the original project files, making it impossible to remove the absurd amount of compression and limiting from the master bus before exporting the songs, or
does not want to remove this processing because they prefer how it sounds.
Before you lose your hair, please know that I am more than aware that using transient control or “glue” compression on your master bus is okay, normal, and preferred by many.
Though this article is mostly about limiting, I will mention compression here and there. I will however be referring to compression that is heavy-handed and excessive, and prevents other master bus processing from refining your music the way it could.
You are a sound sculptor, a composer, and a justifiable control-freak!! You want authority over your sound. Regardless of this professionalism and trained-ness that I am touting, your ears and your desires and your tastes may be different from mine. So it might make you squeamish removing that insane amount of compression or limiting from your master bus before sending it off for mastering. When you do that, depending on your style of music and mixing, the sound may completely fall apart. I get that. But read on.
Some things about mastering are across the board, but the rest relies on the artist’s intention, vision, and taste. In fact, a great mastering engineer is supposed to be able to dial in settings that reflect the artist’s intention, vision, and taste. The mastering needs to maintain the emotion of the piece, or enhance it. Therefore, you need to trust and communicate with the engineer, and the engineer needs to know what is allowed and what they were entrusted to do with their buttons, faders, dials, and knobs.
So what I’m saying is this: You have to let the mastering engineer do their job if you are going to hire them.
You can’t do a lesser version of their job for them, and then send your work off to them expecting them to do theirs. Imagine building a house from the ground up by yourself with little knowledge and experience in construction, and then hiring professional contractors to make it more robust and sturdy without tearing some shit apart first.
Are there exceptions to this? Maybe. Maybe not. I will address that further down.
What is the technical reason why can’t I use heavy-handed "excessive" compression or brickwall limiting on my final mixes before sending them off to mastering? Talk to me like I’m not an amateur music producer.
Often there are processes I execute before the dynamics processing stages in my mastering projects. One of which is having some control over the frequency bands *before* entering the compressor. If you’ve got a bunch of 20 Hz in your song, and you run that signal into a compressor, those inaudible frequencies are going to inform that compressor and make it act like a fool.
Another issue is aliasing, which I wrote an article about. You don’t want to send aliasing into any other processing, if possible, without filtering it out first.
I tend to use multiple dynamics processes throughout the mastering chain to fine-tune the sound. Stacking compressors, clippers, or even limiters can help me fine-tune the material in a way we’re both going to love.
In the event that your preferred compression style is very high, certain moves may still need to be made before that stage. If you’ve compressed your final mixes all to hell, you’ve painted me (and you!) into a corner. So you are really missing out on the quality of refinement you’d otherwise be getting had your final mixes not been so heavily dynamically processed before they get to me.
Are there any exceptions to the "don't put a limiter on the master bus of your mix" rule?
Eh…yes and no.
There aren’t exceptions to the rule necessarily, but in certain situations the rule just has to be broken, or you don’t get your master.
Sometimes I have to master material that has been heavily compressed or limited, because that is all that exists. These works of art have gotta be refined and ready for their intended media formats in the best way possible given the circumstances. So in these situations, I always make do. I have to.
When I work with harsh noise albums (yes, this is a legitimate genre, that I happen to enjoy), the material I am sent might be completely void of dynamics simply because the artist's mixer was maxed out at 0db+ for most of the recording. This is in order to achieve the sound inherent in the style. Recording this kind of music in this manner is sometimes necessary because the master bus clipping is literally part of the instrumentation. It’s the same as playing a guitar in a metal band. You can’t not do it- it is the sound.
This forces me to work with what you send me, or nothing gets released. But I don’t mean “force” with a negative connotation. It’s not much of a problem in this case because there are no dynamics to begin with. Harsh noise masters will suffer so much less because it's not even meant to have any dynamics.
You can’t invite a bunch of bugs to a party and then ask the slug not to be wet. The slug is just inherently wet and slimy, or it wouldn’t be a healthy slug. Weird analogy but I like it. I like slugs.
Other super loud types of music like metal and EDM really capitalize on brickwall limiting and high loudness. We’re talking down to like -5 LUFS. But still…these genres have some semblance of dynamics that still should not be brickwall’d before the mastering stage. The heavy amount of limiting needed to make EDM sound like EDM is still going to be a mastering stage process, even if the mix is super compressed.
What are the vinyl-specific problems that arise from smashing your master bus with dynamics processing before mastering?
In this scenario you actually miss out on loudness.
Even though your intention with your master bus processing is the opposite. Your material will be quieter than other records. It has to be. And this defeats the purpose of you compressing and limiting your productions to be LOUD!
You will also miss out on the general sonic quality of the pressing. There will likely be unintended distortion in playback. In some cases it may be unnoticeable, but not the nerds, audiophiles, and even artists. Listening to vinyl and using needles is noisy and prone to distortion enough as it is.
With too little dynamic range you increase the risk of needle tracking issues. Vinyl does not take well to brickwall limited recordings. (It doesn’t take well to extremely dynamic material either…there is a balance needed! A sudden silence-to-square wave can knock the needle right out of its track.)
Even if your music is noisy or lo-fi by nature, you still want your noise or the lo-fi quality to translate as clearly as possible.
Make your mixes noisy or lo-fi. Don't compromise the mastering process by making it the process that makes it noisy or lo-fi. What you want to do is paint something ugly, and then have it displayed on a high-quality canvas that is hung well in a room with proper lighting.
In the mastering-for-vinyl process there tends to be a lesser degree of dynamics processing. Limiting is either not used, or it's only used to catch peaks. So if you limit the hell out of your music before getting it mastered for vinyl, you’re compromising the quality and listening experience.
Some pressing plants will contact you before attempting to press the records to request that you do not use a limiter on your final mixes. This should be proof enough that brickwall limiting before the mastering-for-vinyl stage is problematic.
You’re not going to put one over on the engineer doing your cutting. They’re only going to push the levels as much as they feel safe doing. Cutting too loud can do expensive damage to a lathe, so no one’s going to risk that for you. If the master is brickwall limited, therefore too loud for vinyl, the vinyl manufacturer is going to make some compromises or call your ass up.
I can still compress audio for vinyl a pretty heavy amount. There is a high degree to which compression isn't a problem for vinyl. Most of the problem with vinyl is limiting.
Do the exceptions you discussed apply to vinyl though?
I will always be able to adjust audio to be vinyl-safe. Just know that vinyl-safe is not the same thing as mastered for vinyl. It’s not that your compromised masters cannot physically be pressed. It's just that you’re shooting yourself in the foot if you have the ability to remove the limiting before mastering and decide not to.
I am too anxious to remove this dynamics processing before I send you my mixes! What if you’re a more conservative engineer who gets nauseous when things are compressed more than 3db?
Removing any compression or limiting from your master bus, as someone who is new to hiring a mastering engineer, can invoke a special kind of anxiety.
So as I said before if you are concerned that you are going to lose that tight, intense, claustrophobic sound that you worked hard to sculpt, all you have to do is communicate with the one doing the mastering.
Send a demo master, screenshots of your settings, or even video of your compressor plug-in while jamming the loudest part of your songs. Explain how important it is how your transients are treated, and how loud you’d like the final product to be. Send reference tracks by artists who make similar music and who produce albums you think sound awesome.
Any professional mastering engineer is going to prefer to get this stuff from you than take shots in the dark and potentially waste yours and their time. As long as your engineer isn’t so old-fashioned that they are afraid to make aggressive moves to get your master to really hit hard, you don’t have to worry.
Many mastering engineers who have a sticks up their butts about loud-as-fuck productions are stuck in the past, or doing their jobs based on how they *feel* about *numbers.* I’ve seen engineers get antsy when they see the needle on the compressor acting crazy. Numbers are guides and measurements. They are no match for your ears.
It’s possible these antsy mastering engineers simply don’t like the sound of modern music production. There’s nothing wrong with that, but then those engineers shouldn’t be mastering your noisy hyper-pop single.
The modern sound of produced music in general is much louder than it was in the 70s. Unless it’s lounge jazz, it’s pretty damn rare to see a recording maxing out at -14 LUFS.
But you don’t have to worry when it comes to my work. I like loud. I will make it loud for you, and I will do it safely. I won’t smash your transients to the point where they don’t have any impact, nor will I make your ambient record sound like it’s stuck in a literal vacuum. I won’t allow your dynamic jazz record to sound like it’s pressurizing inside your brain. I let the music that needs to be dynamic breathe, and the music that is meant to be loud, LOUD.
In this niche of progressive, experimental, eccentric, challenging, unpredictable, weird, innovative, forward-thinking music, I’ve got to be able to adapt. If I can’t adapt to what you’re going for, I am doing you a disservice and you’re wasting your money.
Back up your fucking data I SWEAR TO GOD MATE!
I cannot stress this enough. I know hard drives die, I know files get accidentally deleted, and I know that projects are saved over unintentionally, forcing you to only have access to the most recent versions.
Here is your simple, inexpensive, no-brainer solution. BACK UP YOUR DATA!!! It is astounding how uncommon this is! I do not understand it! I would be so screwed if I didn’t do this. The amount of times I’ve lost something I needed, for myself or a client, is embarrassing. If I wasn’t using Backblaze, for a mere $6 a month, it would’ve caused me to start from scratch more times than I can count on four paws!!!
When you're finished producing or mixing your track, sometimes bouncing out stems and storing them on a backup drive allows you to easily go back to them for remixing for re-releases. This is especially convenient if your old project file won't open anymore due to software updates.
Okay, you’ve carved how not to screw up my songs with dynamics processing into my skull. How do I prepare my mixes for mastering correctly? How do I make my music loud in the mixing stage without garbling it up before it gets to the mastering engineer?
Many will disagree but most loudness is achieved in mixing!
If any of you have ever had a wonky mix, and tried to fix it with your master bus, you're skirting around a problem. You've loaded your tour van with gear in an impractical way, therefore taking up way more space than you need to, and now you're using bungee cords to try and keep the back doors closed while shit is spilling out the back as you go down the highway.
It's really best if you go back to your mix and work on the problems you're facing there. Master bus dynamics processing, and master bus processing in general, is not a cure for your bad mix.
You can use compression or soft/hard clipping plug-ins on the master bus of a mixing project as I mentioned. Most mastering engineers are okay with receiving final mixes that have been passed through compression, possibly with some saturation built-in, because most of the time this compression acts as “glue” or transient control/enhancement. It can round things off, establish some cohesion and consistency, control wild fluctuations in a subtle way, and give your mix some warmth. This is okay. But it requires that you know what you’re doing, and it requires that you don’t do too much of it.
(How much is too much? It really depends on the production. I can help determine this when you hire me.)
"But how do you do that?" That's actually a discussion for a future article. Sorry! I'm tired of typing.
"What about a soft clipper?" you ask. You're pushing it, kid!!! Just let me do it. I have great clippers in my arsenal, and I don’t usually like to use them too early in the mastering chain.
This write-up may seem like a big subtweet to some of my best clients! Well, it kind of is, although most of them have heard this rant before because we’ve talked about it. They are aware, but they want to put that old 2015 Bandcamp release on a triple LP set because it’s a legendary album that is in demand, and the original files are all lost on some old broken laptop. So like I said earlier, I will gladly do the job. It will be a compromise to some degree, and I will be skirting around problems instead of solving them, but we can make it work.
So often, the artist, mixer, or producer does not even realize how much better their production could sound if they didn't compromise their mixes before the mastering stage.
Sometimes I am told, "I just slam it with compression and limiting and call it a day. Sounds good to me."
And I guess, in some cases, that can be true. But if I had a dime for every time an artist was so grateful they listened to me when I explained why I needed an export of their project without all that dynamics processing, I'd have like... maybe $46. I still made their productions utterly slam, but I did it properly.
TL;DR: Avoid at all costs putting any limiting whatsoever on the master bus of your pre-masters if you have a mastering engineer working on your material. If you must compress your mixes, do so lightly, as long as it’s integral to the song’s sound, and you understand how much is too much for a mastering engineer to be able to do a quality job. Communicate with your engineer so that you get the sound you’re looking for. Your engineer will communicate back what is possible based on the material provided. And if they don’t, please hire someone else.
Hit me up if you need some mixing or mastering work done. I'll make it sound lovely.
Angel Marcloid at Angel Hair Audio, LLC