Each piece of the recording studio sums up to one big musical instrument -from the microphone, to the control room of computers and machines, to the facilitating engineer, all the way to the comfy couches in the lounge. Also, let’s not forget the most important part of this musical instrument: you, the creator. At Studio 11, providing the service of a studio session to musicians is a creative process we have optimized through technology, communication, and decades of musically-focused innovation. We’ve witnessed countless Chicago locals, as well as some of the world’s most cherished artists, use the studio at its highest potential. Throughout it all, I can assure one thing: the key to maximizing the musical potential of the recording studio is efficiency. If you’re efficient, you can create more. And if you can create more, your art can impact more people.
Below I’ve compiled a list of tips, insight, and common mistakes to avoid for making the best use of a studio session – from setting up an appointment to walking out the door with an amazing record. Some tips may save you 1 minute, and some may save you 30 minutes.
First, choose a studio with expertise in the music you’re creating.
Do your online research! I regularly meet rappers come to who come to Studio 11 after booking time at facilities with engineers who have no idea how to mix rap music. When this happens, we say welcome home.
When booking studio time, get to know the studio staff.
Believe it or not, even in this fast, modern era of screens and images, speaking to an actual human being on the phone is the best way to book studio time, especially if you have any questions. A brief conversation with professional studio staff will help you get adequately prepared, as well as book the perfect amount of studio time. Schedule your session in advance. Introduce yourself when calling, be ready to discuss what you want to work on, and be ready to make a security deposit. Know what exact dates and times work for you and your team before calling. A good first impression on the phone can go a long way in your musical career.
Arrive on point.
Plan your travels to arrive on time, not early or late. Also, while it may seem obvious, make sure you and your team know exactly where the studio is located. I often see artists arrive on time, but then waste time (or even worse, become interrupted during a good recording) by answering the phone to direct a lost team member.
Make sure your instrumentals are ready for the engineer.
After a friendly welcome, beats are the first thing the studio engineer will ask you for. The most efficient way to provide your beats is using a flash drive or hard drive. Literally, you can enter the studio, hand the drive of beats to the engineer, upon which he or she will load the first beat into Pro Tools, and in as short as 4 minutes you’ll be getting set up behind the mic, ready to rock. If your beats are coming from YouTube, email the links of the beats to the studio before your session. 5 minutes on YouTube finding that “J Cole Type Beat” is 5 minutes less for creating. Moreover, when leasing beats from online beatmakers, its crucial to download the purchased beats immediately. Usually, internet beatmakers provide download links to their beats once a transaction has been made. I’ve been in plenty of studio sessions where clients forward these download links to our email without downloading ahead of time, only to find out that the links have expired or contain a wrong instrumental.
Additionally, if you’re a beatmaker bringing in a tracked-out beat, or even an artist coming in with vocal files recorded elsewhere, always double check that your stems sync up, are in Wav. format (44.1kHz, 24 Bit), and that no files are missing or out of order. Do not come in with a ProTools session or project file. Bringing your computer along to a studio session, just in case, is never a bad idea either.
Ask the studio what resources are available if you plan on integrating live instruments, such as electric guitars.
Be prepared. Trust, but always verify.
If you have a demo track for the song you’re working on, leave it on the back burner.
There’s no such thing as using the studio to make a demo that already sounds bad sound good. Sorry, folks. Parting ways with a demo track can be tough, especially if you’ve listened to it constantly. In reality, if you listen to anything long enough, eventually something that sounds bad can appear to sound good. Using a demo track as a guide when recording or mixing also hinders efficiency, since referencing the demo interrupts more important tasks of the studio session. Ultimately, demo tracks can crystallize ideas and stall the creative, imaginative process. Prepare to re-create and reinvent ideas. One of the greatest assets of the professional recording studio is the ability to create with a fresh slate, alongside an objective engineer who has never heard your song before, therefore acting on instinct from years of experience. Trust that the creatives you hired (and researched before your studio session) will meet your vision without ever needing to hear your demo, or anything for that matter. Similarly, when a mechanic starts working on a vehicle, he or she doesn’t need to know what the problems are. Surely, there are instances where demo tracks are helpful; however, if you do have the condition of “demoitus,” rest assured, the cure is simply entering the studio with an open mind.
Prepare to perform.
Make sure your song lyrics are written down, memorized, or well-defined in your creative mind before stepping up to the mic. Rehearsing ahead of time is imperative. A song full of hot punch lines and riffs may seem well-composed written in a notebook or iPhone notes, but quite the opposite when performed out loud (a microphone will reveal even more kinks). You can write endless punchlines down, but you can’t evaluate their rhythm without rehearsing out loud. Extra, little words which aren’t the rhymes or punchlines are what usually throw things off. Written lyrics also don’t account for the need to take a breath! So, rehearse loudly and fully, again and again, until you truly know the best, most consistent way of performing your song.
Perform with passion.
Perform as if its your last chance to ever record. Perform with every part of your body. Use your chest and diaphragm. Say it like you mean it. Get emotional.
The best artists in the world are shockingly passionate when performing in the studio. Hands down, your performance is the most important part of a studio session. An inadequate performance can’t be fixed when mixing, so take your time to execute at your highest potential. If you want to sound like Kendrick Lamar, perform like Kendrick Lamar. There’s no such thing as a Kendrick Lamar button when mixing. Furthermore, if you want feedback from the engineer, or someone else in the room, ask away. By the same token, if someone is giving a distracting opinion, tell him or her to be quiet – or to leave the studio. Dim the booth lights if this makes you feel creative. Have the engineer put autotune or reverb in your headphones if it brings out a better performance. Make the studio your sanctuary when recording – not only for comfort, but also as a means for stepping out of your comfort zone when performing.
Know your Ps and Qs when in the booth.
When tracking vocals, familiarity with studio lingo such as stacking, in-outs, punching in ,or ad-libs allows for a better flow in the recording process. Your engineer will be happy to explain what these aesthetics are, however becoming familiar with them in advance saves time. Think ahead about the building blocks of vocals you want to make up your record. I/e – do you want background vocals in your chorus, or do you prefer to not have them?
A microphone is also a sensitive musical instrument, making mic technique an invaluable thing to consider. Closer proximity to the mic will have a different sound than performing a step back. If you’re performing at a relatively constant volume, and are about to get really loud, simply back up on the mic to avoid distorting and having to record another take. Rapping toward the phone you’re reading lyrics off of, rather then aiming your voice at the mic, never sounds good, either. The same goes for turning your head back and forth too much. The pretty, pristine, high-end microphones found in professional studios will highlight poor performance qualities as much as the good ones. Great mic technique is another trait among the best artists in the world.
Also, a side note for headphones: cover both ears because the mic will pick up and record music from the phones. When all is done, headphones are rested on the music stand and never on top of the microphone.
When your engineer is mixing, provide input at the right moments.
The moment you finish recording vocals is an excellent time to pop a bottle and take shots with friends – only away from the control room where the engineer is working. The quieter an environment you give your engineer, the better your record will sound. By no means am I saying festivities shouldn’t happen in the studio – they absolutely should; however, keep in mind, mixing and mastering is a task requiring lots of focus and tranquility. If you do have specific, imperative requests for your record, that’s totally cool, welcomed, and expected – but first give the engineer a few minutes after recording to do his or her thing. I promise you, your record will not embark in any sort of wrong direction during this short period of studio time. Patience is necessary for efficiency. Certain aspects of a sound or mix may take a few minutes to become fully developed or understood, so making a premature critique of the sound could be distracting to the engineer, and ultimately unnecessary. Of course, feedback during mixing is very important for creativity in the studio; however, we also must be sensitive about when and when not to speak up. The idea is to be involved without helicopter-parenting the record. Yet, I will say, if you happen to hear a word or line that’s mispronounced, such that you will be unable to sleep at night, please speak up immediately to get back in the booth.
When the mix is finished, the engineer will bounce or export the song, giving you a chance to hear the final product start to finish on the glorious studio speakers. If there are changes, or sections you want to specifically listen to, let your engineer know before he or she bounces your song.
Be prepared to receive, store and share your music.
At the end of a studio session, you should expect to receive a final product of your song in the form of an mp3 and 16 bit Wav file. Your engineer will be able to return your material by copying these files onto a flash drive or hard drive, burning a CD, or via email. Keep the files you receive safe and organized. I highly recommend backing up all files you receive from the studio on some sort of hard drive dedicated to storing your music. Utilizing cloud storage such as dropbox or google drive also is wise. Do not use your email as a storage locker for your music because emails disappear and passwords become forgotten. When the time comes to upload the music online, or to shoot a music video, always use the Wav file, which has substantially better audio quality than an mp3. Soundcloud and YouTube will compress the life out of any mp3. In fact, some streaming services strictly require wav file uploads.
Reflect on, and learn from your studio experience.
One of the best parts of engineering is seeing artists improve every time they use the studio. Each studio session, I witness my clients create with increased style and grace. Like any musical instrument, practice makes perfect.
Hopefully, this article was helpful to any creator interested in taking their art to the next level by booking professional studio time. I, too, once was new artist who had never been to a music studio, slightly nervous, with no idea what to expect. If you’re reading and have more questions, please reach out.
Chicago artists & boarders Bad Luck Kid (@_badluckkid_) and Lord Jaws (@lord_jaws) have been hard at work here at Studio 11 – throughout 2018 and 2019 with mixer Chris Baylaender. The duo recently came through, and each knocked out a fresh single in a late-night studio session: “Pain and Fear” for BLK and “Nobody” for Jaws. Each of the two artists contrast and compliment one another in style and performance, but ultimately the sound is new-wave hip hop, with a touch of authentic guitar. Each has a method (or lack of) to his musical madness.
For one, Bad Luck Kid regularly comes to the studio remarkably rehearsed, which isn’t surprising for the talented singer, who also has a few rap bars in his back pocket. Capturing BLK’s voice is a Townsend Sphere L22 Condenser mic, positioned accordingly for the upward-projecting vocalist – who sings into the sky, full volume, eyes closed. Passion. The kid is actually lucky if you ask me. Additionally, the “Pain and Fear” single features an original acoustic guitar performance by BLK, also tracked at Studio 11, topped off with crisp, hip-hop drums with the help & finesse of producer-rapper Immanuel OD (@odthatnigga) – a deep voiced, comedic Chicago homie also deserving of respect – recently covered by Elevator Mag .
Lord Jaws is next up to bat, except with this artist, its all about the moment and improvisation behind the mic. Jaws has been pretty influential in the realm of expanding the autotune sound we’ve grown to love. By the same token, we’ve also grown accustomed to tuned vocals, so its great Jaws is brining a new texture to the table. There’s a rock star vibe across the board on all his songs, giving engineer Chris an unlimited approach toward creative mixing, whether the autotune sound is spacey and stuck in a black hole, or in your face – on stage, like a rock star, with fuzzy distortion. There’s no hiding any emotion with this up-and-comer. The music is unfiltered and heavy on the heart, which, is really the only way to go about a proper freestlye.
Go big or go home is the motto here when skaters (how everyone met, many years ago) BLK, Jaws, and engineer Chris cook up in the studio . There’s hard evidence that Chicago skateboarders are coming just as strong in the studio as they are at Grant Park Skate Plaza downtown. Surprisingly, this has become an iconic spot for music videos, where heavy hitters like Young Chop have stopped by to chill. Bangers only, at least if you’re in the camp of BLK, Jaws, and Chris B.
Stay in tune for an official release of both singles in the coming days. For now, I’d encourage the Chicago community to feast on an already-released collab by Lord Jaws, Bad Luck Kid, and OD entitled “Right Now,” also recorded and mixed by Chris in the Studio 11 A room. Without question, the music is only accelerating. It mind as well be 2020 already.
These days here in Studio 11, one major misunderstanding we’ve heard from our clients is what exact role a music producer and audio engineer play during a session in the studio. This encompasses everything from the concept, writing and arrangement phase of the song, all the way to the recording, mixing and mastering process of the song. Though the trend amongst newcomers to the music industry lately has been a blending of the audio engineer/music producer job description, it is important to understand the specifics in duties for each profession so you can get the most out of your session in the studio, whether it be with us here at Studio 11 or somewhere else.
Generally, the biggest misunderstanding people usually have is what the music producer does. If we were to ask 10 clients what the producer does exactly, 9 out of 10 would say “Thats the genius who makes the beats!,” to paraphrase correctly. Though this can definitely be part of what a music producer does or is involved in, usually the job of music producer is much more involved in all aspects of creating the final product of the song. Some of the most sought after music producers in the world don’t even make beats, write the music, or for that matter, touch the mixing console or software. Its the advice, knowledge and understanding these people bring to a project that makes them sought after. Jedi warriors they are. Wikipedia defines the music producer as:
A music producer (also known as a record or track producer) overseas and manages the sound recording and production of a band or performer’s music, which may range from recording one song to recording a lengthy concept album. A producer has many roles during the recording process. The roles of the producer vary. They may gather musical ideas for the project, collaborate with the artists to select cover tunes or original songs by the artist/group, work with artists and help them to improve their songs, lyrics or arrangements. A producer may also be involved with selecting musicians for accompaniment during recording, co-write music, coach musicians and singers during recording, and even advise the engineer or engineers during the recording, mixing and mastering process.
Also check out the additional article “The Music Producer” written by our in-house engineer Kris Anderson, which touches a little more in depth on the different kind of producers that exist in the music industry.
So with this understanding, the music producer is really the one with the overall responsibility of ensuring that the artist’s vision is transparent in the final product released to the public. From concept to commodity, whatever it takes, the music producer makes it happen. The producer’s role is generally the same over the course of different genres and sub genres of music. Its generally in hip hop, rap and r&b where their title is misconstrued as the person who only makes the beat. This mis-generalization has been in large part shaped by the trend of how hip-hop, rap and r&b are produced, especially over the course of the last 11 years.
In the beginning back in the late 80’s & early 90’s, it was definitely not as easy or affordable to make beats as it is now. Gear for music production was ridiculously expensive and you had to be both musically & technically skilled to use it. Unless you were in a major city, finding the stores to buy the right music production equipment was tough. Studio time, which was the only way to make your music sound good unless you had the gear, technical knowhow and space, took up lengthy time because of the tools used and cost a fortune. Remember, this was back in the day when computers weren’t really used in the studio. Not many people had the access or money for proper equipment or studios. So to be someone who made beats was a rare commodity. Artists’ in the hip hop, rap and r&b genres generally had their own team of people who provided the beat or music for each song. This person was generally referred to as the beat maker. The artist and beat maker would work together to come up with the song while the producer over saw the process, advising in the concept, direction, color of the song and lyrical content. Sometimes, the beat maker and artist or artists would team up to form a musical group like Arrested Development, De La Soul, Digital Underground, Gang Starr, Public Enemy, and Run-DMC, just to name a few.
Urban Beat making at Studio 11
By the early 2000’s, as the power and use of computers increased in music, affordable easy to use beat making software that was competitive to the early standards began to reach the market place. No longer did a person need to spend tens of thousands of dollars on production equipment to just make a beat. They could now make music affordably on their desktop computers in their homes. These ‘In The Box’ or ‘Desktop’ producers began to change the philosophy and approach for artists in the music industry. No longer did an artist have to entertain using beats and music from one single source or person. And no longer did the artist have to spend a lot of money just to get a beat made specifically for them. They could now utilize beats to rap on or music to sing over from multiple sources and beat makers anywhere in the world. In affect, this would dramatically change the role of the beat maker and their involvement in the process of a song’s production.
Now flipping forward to 2018, the beat maker has been granted the magical title of producerOne ‘could’ say that they are the producer because they made the beat. They chose the tempo, the key, the sounds and color of the instruments for the beat. But unless they are involved personally in the project an artist has chosen their beat specifically for, from lyrics to cadence, layering, arrangement and mix, essentially they offer no other relevance to the project. They are just someone who made the beat who has zero opinions or say on the final outcome or direction of the product. So in reality, the beat maker is exactly what that name means, a beat maker. This isn’t a discredit to their service in the project. Without these fine folks and the creativity they bring, todays artists wouldn’t have such the wide selection of instrumentals to chose from. And because of that, not as many people would have the ability or chance to be the recording artist that they maybe could be.
So now that we understand what a music producer and beat maker exactly do, along with the few similarities and major differences between them, who exactly is this audio engineer person that we spoke about earlier and what role do they actually play during the process of making a single or album? Obviously, the engineer is an important person involved during the production process. Just take a look at the credits for any single, album or mix tape. They are almost always credited. So who are they? Once again, we will consult the wise scrolls of Wikipedia for the definition.
An Audio Engineer (also sometimes referred to as the Recording, Mix, or Mastering Engineer) helps to produce a recording or a performance, editing and adjusting sound tracks using equalization and audio effects, mixing, reproduction, and reinforcement of sound. Audio engineers work on the “…technical aspect of recording – the placing of microphones, pre-amps knobs, the setting of levels. The physical recording of any project is done by an engineer …the nuts and bolts” Its a creative hobby and profession where musical instruments and technology are used to produce sound for music, film, radio, television, and video games.
So in a nutshell and for the sake of our discussion about the people involved in the music production process, the audio engineer in this case is the person responsible for every technical aspect of the sound on a music single, mix tape, or album. From the selection of microphones used to record the individual tracks, to the gear and plugins each of those tracks will run through, to the editing and fine tuning of each track, and lastly to how each of those individual tracks sound when balanced together to create the mix, this overall is what defines the audio engineers life. The engineer is probably the least sexy and thankful job title between all the people involved in the production process. These individuals (the engineers that is) usually work long long hours in the studio to capture the perfect amalgamation of performance and sound that defines the artist. In some cases, the engineer is also directed by the producer to help realize a specific color and sound in mind for the artist. Whether this be from recording techniques, to equalization and effects, to mix balance and stereo imaging, the engineer is the one trusted to make it all happen sonically.
In summary, the beat maker, engineer, and producer are all equally important to the production process of a single, mix tape or an album. Each role filled in a specific part of the equation, especially back 15-20 years ago when each of those job titles were a little more separate from each other. These days in our studio, many of our clients come in with beats either leased or purchased from a beat maker. Unfortunately, most of these same clients usually don’t have a producer with them to help guide the project along or to offer the proper advice needed while recording. So in essence, we at Studio 11 take over the role of producer as well as our usual job as the engineer, offering guidance on performance, arrangement, color and anything else the song or project may need to be the best it can be.And I do say, we are quite good at doing it!
Mixing in the Box Start to Finish: The Master Channel
The Master Channel is the last channel of the signal path – where all audio is finally summed together and output. This channel is used for monitoring and adjusting the whole mix in its entirety. Final equalization, compression, harmonic enhancement, and even de-essing plug ins can also be integrated into the Master Channel. After these plug-ins are put in place, the final tool to utilize is a limiter, which can be inserted as the last plug-in on the Master Channel chain, or rendered into an audio region using Pro Tools’ Audiosuite. Importantly, sonic errors within a mix should be fixed before touching the Master Channel whatsoever. Correctly using the Master Channel requires an understanding of its utility as the last channel in the signal path, along with programming plug ins selectively, precisely, and free from error. Arguably, setting the plug-in chain of the Master Channel is the most scientific, and least artistic procedure of a mixdown. Not only is the Master Channel the last channel of a signal path, it also is the last channel before the mix is introduced to the world – and expected to sound good – whether in a car or auditorium, or out of an iPhone with a cracked screen.
Setting Up a Master Fader or Master Auxiliary Channel in Pro Tools
Either a Master Fader or an Aux must be manually created when using Pro Tools. DAWs like Logic Pro X are friendlier to the average music maker, with a Master Channel and other busses preset and ready to go when opening a blank project. The basic procedure when using Pro Tools is to create a Master Fader.
Option 1 – Use a Master Fader
Bouncing to Disk
In the Toolbar, select “Track,” then “New” (An even faster way is to use the key command: Shift + Command + N). Next, in the box that pops up, change mono to stereo, and select Master Fader, found under “Audio Track.” A maroon Master Fader will now appear in the Mix and Edit windows of Pro Tools. Note that manually routing signal is not needed after activating a Master Fader. The Master Fader automatically is receiving the output signals of each channel in the mix, and automatically outputs to “Built-in Output 1-2,” or the stereo out to the speakers. Furthermore, when a Master Fader is in use, a mix may be bounced out of Pro Tools by horizontally highlighting the entire project in the Edit window and Bouncing to Disk (found under the File menu).
Option 2 (Best) – Create a Master Auxiliary Track to Print a Mix on to an Audio Track
My professional recommendation is to create a Master Auxiliary track, rather than a Master Fader. Using a Master Aux is more conducive for printing mixes, or actually recording the entire mix on an audio track within the session. The newly recorded audio region, or print, can be examined as a waveform, rendered using the Audiosuite, and exported out of the DAW. Creating a Master Aux and Print Track requires a manual set up in the signal path routing.
All channels are output to Bus 3-4, which inputs to “MASTER AUX.” A send is placed on the MASTER AUX (Bus 5-6), which arrives on the “PRINT” audio track.
Begin by creating two new tracks: 1) a stereo aux for the Master Aux, where the plug ins will be inserted, and 2) a stereo audio track – where the mix will be recorded, or printed . The Master Aux’s input should receive all the output signals from the proceeding channels using a designated bus. The Master Aux’s output will be stereo 1-2 (the speakers for monitoring). Finally, on the Master Aux, create a send to the stereo audio track, where the mix will be printed as a region (See Bus 5-6). The signal gets to the stereo audio track using this send. This send’s fader must be set to 0 dB, and the stereo audio track must be muted. To print the mix, arm (record enable) the stereo audio track and record the mix in real time. After recording, or printing, export the newly recorded region by selecting the region and Exporting Clip(s) as Files (found under the clip menu, but simply use the quick command Shift + Command + K). Be sure to name your region!
If you’re in school as an audio student, printing a mix within your session, followed by exporting the printed region (rather than bouncing to disk), will help you stand out to your professor. If you’ve already dropped out of school to sacrifice your life to making music, still do the right thing by printing your mixes.
Monitoring a Mix Using the Master Channel
First and foremost, whether it’s a fader on a plug-in, channel, aux or Master Fader, signal should never clip 0 dB, entering into the red. The rule of thumb is to keep the fader of the Master Aux or Master Fader set to 0 dB, at unity gain. In turn, if a Master Channel is ever clipping, gain must be reduced in the signal path preceding the Master Channel, and never on the Master Channel itself.
An important concept to understand when mixing in the box is that unlike with analog equipment, signal above 0 dB does not exist in the language of the computer. Simply put, the binary computer of the DAW cannot even process a digital signal exceeding 0 dB. Mathematical inconsistencies ultimately occur, which is why digital distortion sounds so terrible compared to analogue hardware, which in some instances create colorful timbres. Moreover, while the digital medium can be unforgiving toward the slightest amount of clipping, anything below 0 dB will maintain sonic integrity. DAWs like Pro Tools are not biased when crunching the numbers of a signal at -20 dB or a signal a -.5 dB, the point is that the signal is not clipping at 0. Still, many digital plug-ins, including ones used on a Master Channel, may respond best when input with a healthy amount of gain. Ultimately, gain staging in the box should be executed as one would with analog gear, just without ever exceeding 0db. Before any printing or final limiting, also pay attention to the overall level. A Hip Hop mix peaking in the yellow should be just fine, but consider maintaining adequate headroom for genres such as jazz or classical music where dynamics are especially important.
Applying Plug-Ins on the Master Channel
Plug ins such as EQ and Multiband compression can help glue a mix together within the Mastering Chain. Tasteful boosts and enhancement also can come from proper equalization, along with harmonic plug ins to round out the edges of a mix. Analyzers and Limiters are used to attain appropriate loudness when mixing in the box.
A gentle boost restoring 440 hertz.
Final equalization on the Master Channel may be used to shape and color the mix’s frequency spectrum. Any and all Master EQ should be dialed in wisely – remember, by the time the Master Channel is touched in the mixing process, the mix should already be shaped and colored as effectively as possible. In turn, most of my mixes do not include a Master EQ, since one is not always necessary. When I do apply a Master EQ, I usually apply it as the first plug in on the Master Chain, and approach the EQ as I would approach an EQ in my car: maybe the mix needs just a slight boost in the bass, or slight high shelf for treble, or even a mid range boost or scoop. Boost what sounds good, but never excessively. Moreover, avoid surgical EQ work like narrow notches on the Master Channel. If reductive shaping, or even a simple roll off in the low end, must be applied, experiment with a Linear Phase EQ or an EQ with smooth curves that will not introduce sonic inconsistencies, or a “phasey” sound. With a Master EQ, the Q factor and bandwidth can drastically alter a mix’s timbre with even slight adjustments, so make sure your ears are considering the entire frequency spectrum with every move.
The Waves C4 Multiband Compressor
Over the years, multiband compression has become my best friend for gluing a mix together. For Hip Hop and R&B, a multiband compressor is a plug in to regularly try out. Two of my favorites come from Waves: the purple “C4,” which compresses fairly aggressively, and the Waves Linear Phase Multiband Compressor, which is extremely transparent. Logic Pro X also includes a stock “Multipressor,” which contains up to 4 bands. I tend to avoid multiband compressors with more than 4 bands, as they can skew harmonics within a mix. 4 bands is usually sufficient for achieving a glued, cohesive sound.
Regularly, I will apply the Waves C4 after any of my Master EQ. I begin using the default C4 program, with each band’s threshold set back to 0 dB. Most of the time, I do not compress the low-end band at all, although I may apply a touch of make up gain for extra fatness. For the other 3 bands, I adjust the threshold to gently kiss their respective peaks. The attack and release of the Waves C4 default usually don’t need to be changed. Since I am using multiband compression in my Master Chain as a means to gently glue the mix together, I rarely reintroduce more than 3 dB of make up gain to any single band. Remember, the tool is primarily for compressing, not EQ. Overall, handling dynamics with a multiband compressor also polishes the mix, defines the mid range, and livens the pulse. Along with any Master Equalization, beware of the temptation to blindly apply preset settings found on multiband compressors. Starting off using the default setting, with each band’s threshold set at 0 dB, is the best strategy for actually listening to how the sound is changed by the tool.
Harmonic Enhancement and Analogue Emulators:
The Waves Kramer Master Tape
Pleasant mid-range boosts, high-end smoothing, and an overall rounding of edges on harsh frequencies can be achieved using newer plug-ins emulating yesterday’s colorful, gritty tools, such as tubes-based hardware or tape machines. A few gems do in fact exist in the contemporary plug-in repertoire, including the Kramer Master Tape, the J37 Tape, and the Abbey Road Vinyl from Waves. The nostalgia of yesterday is real, and the sound is actually better with the new technology. These plug-ins are a huge factor in giving my mixes a warm, colorful essence – even when using the defaults. Unlike EQ and compression, these particular Waves plug-ins have stellar presets that are safe to test out. Do note, however, almost all of today’s plug-ins emulating old gear has a “noise” parameter, which I’d recommend silencing. If Waves plug ins are not in your collection, a touch of distortion on Logic X’s stock compressor or on Lo-Fi from Pro Tools also does the trick. Applying these plug-ins on the Master Channel often yields a night-and-day difference in the sound and happiness toward the mix among all listening in the control room.
Limiting and Peak Value
As an engineer working with many beat makers, I am regularly surprised regarding the amount of confusion around limiters. In reality, the tool is simple and does not involve much tweaking or experimentation. In a DAW’s list of plug-ins, a limiter designed for a Master Channel will be specified by a title such as “UltraMaximizer,” for limiters from Waves, or the “adaptive limiter,” found as a stock plug-in in Logic Pro X. Without applying a limiter, the uncompressed mix will sound too quiet when played outside of the DAW, or at least too quiet for the new generation – who are bumping the Migos and “passing the aux” as a sharp turn is made in the car. Skrrt!
With this in mind, the most common use of limiter on the Master Channel is bumping a signal as close to unity gain (0 dB) as possible. Therefore, the first parameter to change on the limiter is the “out ceiling,” which should be set to -.1 dB (this ensures the signal will not actually hit 0 when played back on any type of system). Secondly, ensure the limiter is quantizing as the same bit depth of your DAW session, which should be 24 bits (Importantly, any final product for release needs to be exported, bounced or converted down to 16 bit). The last parameter to set is the threshold, which will determine how much attenuation, or reduction of amplitude, is applied by the limiter. The red, downward-moving meter on the limiter monitors attenuation. Do not attenuate past 6 dB, I assure you.
Limiting in the box involves monitoring the overall peak value and RMS value (Root Mean Square) using an analyzer. I prefer setting the limiter threshold based on the peak value of the mix, more often than the RMS value, especially for Hip-Hop tracks where loud information such as bass is being chopped in and out. Here, the threshold of the limiter should meet the peak of the mix. In other words, if a mix is peaking at – 6dB, the limiter’s threshold should also be set to at least – 6. Furthermore, if a mix peaks at -6, a threshold set to –7 dB will result in 1 dB of attenuation; -8 dB will yield 2 dB of attenuation, and so on. Back off on the threshold if the limiter attenuates more than 6 dB, to avoid a mix that sounds too compressed.
Wave’s PAZ Analyzer and Logic Pro’s Multimeter
I make use of Waves’ L1 UltraMaximizer and L3 for transparent limiting in my studio sessions. Both tools are great for making my mixes appropriately loud without changing color and timbre. The L1 is great when applied last in the Master Channel plug-in chain, and the L3 has a processing algorithm suitable for Pro Tools’ Audio Suite. Since I print my mixes within my sessions, I choose to apply the L3 to the print using audiosuite, but first I use an analyzer through audiosuite to determine the peak value of the print. Once I note the peak or RMS, I undo the rendering of the audiosuite (Command+Z). The threshold setting on my limiter is usually this peak value minus 6dB, resulting in exactly 6 dB of attenuation. 6dB of attenuation seems to work well on most popular music containing a full frequency spectrum, and I award you this magic number for reading this far. Your ears will likely agree attenuating beyond 6 dB is pushing it too far. At the end of the process I still like to check the overall RMS of the “bumped up” region (which is now much louder). For Hip Hop with bass, and overall RMS of -6.5 dB is in the ballpark of what we are looking for. Certainly, using your ears is important when limiting, so trust them but also verify.
Waves’ L1 compressing in real time.
Experimentation or using presets are also risky moves when using a limiter, and some of the newer limiters on the market, such as multiband limiters or multimaximizers, are wild, CPU-hungry animals I would also avoid. In a nutshell, peak value limiting is a great method for in-the-box mixing. The peak approach is formulaic, logical, and precise when using an analyzer.
The philosophy of the Master Channel is simple and intuitive, but only because it is approached with perfect accuracy. While the Master Channel still can welcome creative decisions, it is a channel for finishing touches, and not taking risks. If there is a place in audio engineering where technique matters most, it is certainly on the Master Channel. With that said, I can recall countless moments watching veteran Chicago engineers make absolute magic happen using the Master Channel, mysteriously, crazily, and unconventionally. All in all, think outside the box, but pay attention, and trust your ears – but also verify.
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