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Mixing and Mastering the Easy Way for A Debut Album
By Queenie Sataro - 08/01/2004 - 04:11 PM EDT

What is mixing?

We are all fairly capable of recording dry tracks into a 4 Track, a digital audio workstation, or recording software from Digidesign, Cakewalk, or Sonar. Mixing is what you do after the fact to make the sound better.

There are three main things you are going to do to your sound before you "mix down" to CD or tape. You are going to compress, reverb, and EQ each individual track of music. There are two ways to do this: the hard way and the easy way.

In my mind, nothing short of rocket science is more difficult than plugging in a bunch of cables to holes labeled "aux send" and "balanced line in" and expecting something besides a bunch of equipment-damaging feedback to occur. For this reason, I HATE outboard signal processing units.

First of all, I have someone special to thank. He is Don and he works at my local music store. Without him, I would still be blowing up my own equipment whenever I tried to use an effects rack. Yes, I realized I was audio-challenged and I consulted Don for help. What a guy.

Compression and how it works

There are also differences in the way compression effects a sound versus the way reverb effects a sound. For example, lets take vocals. With compression, you want to send the entire vocal track through the compression unit. So, in recording jargon, you are "processing" the entire "signal" through an INSERT. With reverb, you are not processing the whole "signal". Confusing, isn't it? For compression, you are inserting a cable that forks into a V into your mixing board. The single plug at the bottom of the V is inserted in the INSERT hole in Track 1, your vocal track. What about the other parts of the V cable? Well, the In or "Tip" side goes into the input of the compression unit. The Out or the "Ring" goes to the output of the compression unit. I suggest a nice 3:1 or 4:1 setting for all instruments when you compress, though bass you can go up to 10:1.

Reverb

An effect, or a reverb, is something else entirely. Now, you have a compressed signal that is really a new signal, different from the old one. Hopefully your vocal is now slightly louder and nicer sounding. Now it is time to add reverb and EQ. You do not want to change the signal so much now as you want to add a second and separate duplicate track of the vocal with the effect on it. For this part, I suggest you don't use outboard units. With an outboard unit, you are going to have to use the AUX SEND and two separate cables, not the V cable you used for compression. Instead of spending the time, take advantage of the awesome software that saturates the market. This software (which you can also do your compression with, by the way) is commonly known as "plug-ins".

Why software plug-ins are awesome

Reverb and EQ Plug-ins are everywhere. The most popular brands are Waves and Altiverb. Many, like Waves at www.waves.com, have 14 day demos so you can try before you buy. The caveat is that certain software packages can be pricey, up to $600, and will take up a lot of your CPU power. But once you hear them, trust me, it's worth it. I end up burning any inactive songs onto DVD Rom as backup to save CPU power and hard drive space. Also, I've got a Mac, thank heavens. One of the biggest indie success stories I know is John Bassett, also known as King Bathmat. Check out his site at www.kingbathmat.com. He is a songwriter who hit huge on the net with his first indie release, Son of A Nun, then followed it with an even more successful release called Crowning Glory. He shared with me that his fabulous award-winning sound (which rivals any major label artist except he has more natural talent) was helped by the use of a Waves software plug-ins package.

When you buy a software plug-in or plug-ins package, you simply install it just like any software. Most plug-in softwares are designing to work with Cakewalk, Digi, and the like. Once you are installed, all you have to do is use a drop down menu somewhere on the track to access the reverb. Don't forget to record a new duplicate track to preserve your original when you do reverb.

What is EQ?

EQ works by erasing or squishing down certain overtones in your track. If you've got a muddy or wimpy sound, try to spend a few hours fiddling with the EQ plug ins to fix it. Use your ear and solo 2 tracks at a time, then 3, then four. Twiddle the settings and compare and contrast. It is the aural equivalent of cooking without a recipe. You keep on tasting the batter to make sure you've got it right.

What's left in mixing

The second part of mixing is where you adjust the volumes of all your tracks in comparison to one another. You want your vocal to be loudest so people can hear the words. The rest is up to you. Should the guitar be louder in one section? Then bring up the volume of the Guitar track during the bridge. Can't stand the saxophone during the chorus? Just mute it. For those of you with a good ear, I feel this is the easiest part.

The final mixdown

Time to make a mixdown. This is the "Bounce" option in the File menu on your computer. Bounce to hard disk as a Mono "summed" file. Don't forget to name it something you can find later.

To burn the final CD to be mastered later, use a software program like Roxio Toast. Yes, this is separate software from your song-making software like Digi 001. Burn an audio CD of either .WAV or .AIFF files. Each file is one of your songs.

What is mastering?

Mastering is where the final touches are put on your songs and they are made ready for home and radio play. I highly recommend that you use an outside service, but choose it carefully. You can do this yourself, but it will require more software. For the best articles on mastering that exist, I recommend reading John Vestman at GetSigned.com. In fact, I'd read these before thinking of mastering anything at all. The only people that I know of that guarantee their mastering service is DiscMakers.com.

Mastering will mean also adjusting all the general volumes of your songs so they are relative to one other on your album. Some "sweets" will be added at the mastering house in the forms of compression and EQ. Mastering costs money, anywhere from 600 to 1200 dollars for a 12 song album. That's 50-100 dollars per song when you think about it.

When the mastering service is done, then, you have it. The final product. Whoa. Can you believe it? But before you sit back and relax, realize that the fun has just begun! There is a CD package to design and an internet waiting to be promoted to.

Please tune in for upcoming articles on how to make a splash with your first CD.




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