Preparing mixes for a mastering house?

Discussion in 'Mastering' started by Angstaroo, Jan 8, 2009.

  1. Angstaroo

    Angstaroo Active Member

    Hey everybody, I've got a question that has been asked a few times before, but I've got a few different parameters going on here and I thought I'd post a new topic and ask about 'em.

    I'm recording 12 songs for a friend's band. This album will be released on a small record label, and will be played on satellite and college radio, although it's pretty doubtful that it will get farther than that, but we can always hope. The band, their direction and it's music present some interesting challenges to a mix, and this is where the questions come in.

    The band:
    A five piece band out of Chicago. Keys, bass, guitar, drums and lots of vocals. Three and four part harmonies, lots of co-lead vocals. Best way to describe the style is Queen meets System of a Down meets Ben Folds Five, with noticeable influences of Faith No More/Mr. Bungle thrown in there. The keyboardist tends to play a lot of piano, using a lot of the sustain pedal for a big, sustaining grand piano sound. The bassist uses different levels of distortion and some effects, and the guitarist has a darker, almost muddy sound and also uses lots of delays and reverbs for effect. The drummer is a very hard hitter with a very open, ringy sound and tends to do a lot of single stroke rolls. You might be able to see where this is going: Mud City when it comes to a mix.

    The recordist/mixer:
    I've been into recording and production since I was very little. I'm a musician as well... I play bass, drums, guitar and keyboards. Luckily, I'm also pretty fluent in all of the geekery involved with computers, so the shift from analog to DAWs actually benefits me greatly. I've done a few professional projects, professional in that I've gotten paid for them. I've worked in a couple small studios and out of my own personal project studio. In other words, I'm not a hardened veteran of the music industry, but I'm not wet behind the ears and don't have a clue either. My work always sounds better than what you would expect from what was paid for it, but I'm no arrogant little schmuck that'll tell you I'm the greatest thing since sliced bread.

    The technical details:
    We're recording the album in 24 bit 48khz. We recorded the drums at a separate studio with a nicer room than what we had available. We also were pleased to have some great mics and preamps for the drum tracks. We've been tracking the remaining instruments in a couple different locations directly into Cubase 4 through my Firestudio. We've got a UA LA-610 preamp which helps, but when we're running multiple mics the only other preamp I've got available is a Behringer 2 channel tube preamp... not great by any means, but sometimes it's better than just the Firestudio's preamps.

    Mastering:
    Technically, I can "master" the album. I've done this for my own band's releases and a couple of the lower cost albums I've done for people. I don't claim to be a mastering engineer and I definitely don't claim that what I do is as good as or even close to paying to have a real M.E. master it, but I can get the tracks up to a comparable level, handle the layout and the fades, etc. The band is aware of this, and they know that we can do an okay, passable job at mastering the album if they choose, or they can choose to pay for an outside mastering house to handle it. I personally have never worked with an outside mastering house, although I know of a few because of some connections and of course, hanging out around Recording.org and seeing some of your guys' (and gals') posts. I've recommended to them that they use a mastering house, and we're going to end up looking for one within their budget when we finish tracking (we've still got vocals and some little production elements to do). Here are the questions I have:

    1. Since we're working in 24 bit 48khz, I assume this is how a mastering house would want it so they can work in the higher resolution and dither it down to 16/44.1khz themselves. Is this correct?

    2. I think we have a DAT available, but if not what's the best method of sending mixes to a mastering house. As .wavs on a data CDR?

    3. Should I cater my mix in any specific direction to help the M.E. or at least not cause him/her any headaches with our mixes? Obviously, not overdoing the compression and not compressing the mix itself is one thing, but is there anything else? As I mentioned with the music, there's a LOT going on, and everything takes up a lot of space. I personally prefer mixes to not be very upfront and compressed so that the listener can hear every detail going on without trying too hard. This tends to sound a little flat and less dimensional because nothing is standing out too much more than anything else, but with this band and this music, doing that would probably sound like a bowl of mush. So I can see a fair bit of spotlighting and a lot of dynamic changes going on in these mixes.

    4. Costs. I know, I know... everyone wants to know what it will cost, and every project is different and you get what you pay for, etc. I don't want to ask specifics of what it will cost, but I would like to ask about the method in getting appraisals or estimates from mastering houses. What is the best way to go about asking what the costs will be without being rude or disrespectful?

    5. Loudness wars. As I've told the band countless times, everything is a matter of compromise. They're going to have to make a decision on whether the dynamics are more important than keeping up with the Joneses. Once they make that decision (which will probably be more towards the dynamics side of the argument), what is the best way to convey this to the M.E.? I myself have been measuring the average loudness of the track in RMS decibels, and have compared some of my favorite productions and comparable albums to this band to get a ballpark figure on the numbers (which ends up to -11.5 - -12.5db or so), but the numbers don't tell the story.. or do they? Would we look like complete d-bags to tell the M.E. "we'd like it to be around -12db RMS please"?

    6. The most important question: Let's say we hired you to do our mastering: What can we do to be completely prepared to bring things in for you? What do you need from us? These guys are like most musicians: flaky, disorganized, procrastinating, forgetful, even clueless at times. What can we do, or should I say what can -I- do to make sure the mastering house gets what they need?

    7. Time. Again, I'm sure this is a "your mileage may vary" situation, but what's the time frame on the turnaround for getting 12 fairly intensive songs mastered?

    In advance, thanks so much for your help. I hope this isn't too much here to scare the busy folks away!
     
  2. Cucco

    Cucco Distinguished Member

    Wow!! Lots of questions.
    At least it's easy to read.

    Well, here we go - I'll answer by number:

    1 - Yes - give it to the mastering engineer in the resolution in which you've been working. Let them do the SRC and dither.

    2 - No, don't send it in DAT. DAT's fine, but if you can, send it on CD or DVD (or even FTP) in the native format (24 bit 48kHz).

    3 - Just mix it and make it sound as good as you can. Try to avoid over limiting or over compressing. I'd rather get a "flat" sounding mix with plenty of room left for me to work with than a flat mix that has no room for adjustment. That's generally a pretty easy fix.

    4 - There is no disrespect in asking costs. This should be a very simple and upfront question. If someone has a problem answering the question, then they're not the engineer for you. Prices run a large range for mastering. If it seems REALLY cheap, it's probably too good to be true. There's a shop around the corner from me that does "mastering." They have a pair of Alesis M1s, a cracked copy of soundforge and some cracked Waves plugins. They charge $10/hour for mastering. They basically just limit the heck out of everything and call it a day. Look for places with dedicated rooms/environments, dedicated mastering equipment and look for musicians - people that have studied and dedicated years to their work. The business is hurting right now - you're likely to be able to find people willing and eager to work with you.

    5 - You wouldn't look like d-bags. You'd look like, either someone who has done a little homework, or someone who's only partially informed. Coming in and saying "I want it loud enough to compete but don't squash it." It's pretty common to tweak the loudness for clients. In fact, it's pretty common to put out a few different versions of tracks of varying loudnesses. When I have a client who doesn't sit in, I usually make a track or 2 that I give to the client with different loundesses so they can make up their own minds.

    6 - Just make sure to get the media to the mastering house by the time you say you will. Nothing's more annoying than hearing "We need this in 2 weeks" and then I don't get the tracks until a week later. Other than that, make sure you respond to communications quickly. If you're local to the mastering house, drop by the studio as soon as possible when requested. If you're out of town, keep your eyes on your e-mail and your phone. Communication is key.

    7 - It depends upon how busy the place is. Sometimes, I have a month to two month back log. Other times, I can get it turned around in a couple days. I know of others that get even more back logged. This is a simple question to ask the mastering engineer. If you don't get a clear answer....back out. Of course, it also depends on how big the house is. If you go to Sterling, you can probably get in and out in a week or so. If you go to a small shop, you may find longer back logs. To crank out 12 tracks, it takes me about two solid days. Technically it only takes about a day, but I always listen to the whole project the following day to make sure my ears weren't nuts.

    Certain mastering royalty may take a month to master 12 tracks... (There's a joke in there for some people who may recognize it.)

    Cheers and best of luck!

    Jeremy
     
  3. Massive Mastering

    Massive Mastering Well-Known Member

    Mostly just side-noting from what's already there...

    1) As mentioned, no doubt - 24-bit in the project's native sample rate if you're supplying digital data.

    2) I'd just pitch the DAT machine... If you're summing in analog and need a DAT to capture, that's one thing (although you could easily route back to the DAW and do the same thing with probably better converters and almost undoubtedly better resolution). Data CD-R/DVD-R is more than fine (as would be delivering the files via FTP or what not if you're working non-locally).

    3) Again as mentioned, but it's worth reiterating - Get the mix to where you're happy with it. If you need to "play it safe" as opposed to not being certain, sure - Play it safe. But don't "fix it in the mastering" either. Do nothing for the sake of playback volume (excessive compression - *any* bus limiting, etc.). If the mix is asking for more than a dB or two of bus compression (if you're even using bus compression) then find out why. There's probably something in the mix that needs it more than the mix itself.

    4) Geez, just ask. Many have a rate card or their sites. Some have hourly rates, some have "package" rates -- I have both hourly and package rates based on hourly rates that need to allow for a little flexibility on both sides - So it's helpful to have a budget in mind also. You can get a (usually "rough") quote from anyone based on the average amount of time spent of a project - But let him/her know that your definitely trying to stay *under* $(x-amount) so he/she knows how to concentrate efforts.

    5) I get those a lot... Sending a reference track can help also though - -12dBRMS in one DAW isn't necessarily the same as another. KEEP IN MIND that not every mix has the potential to hit "x" volume -- Back-stepping a bit - During mixing, it's not the worst idea in the world to temporarily strap a limiter across the bus just to see how the mix will react. Of course, remove it when you render the files. But it can reveal things that might get past you otherwise...

    6) I keep a "checklist" on my site that covers most of the necessary specs and at least what *I* would want to about a project (feel free to DL it if you like and use it as a guide of sorts no matter where you go as long as it doesn't get "handed off" anywhere... :lol: Seriously though - I've found my checklist on more sites than I can count. Some used to just take the word "MASSIVE" off of it and replace it with "(whatever)" - Not fun. But it covers the basics and opens communication.

    7) 5-8 hours most likely. If attending, you can bet on something like that. If not attending, well, it'd probably take about the same, but I'm also with Jeremy - I tend to have a listen the next day just for the helluvit. You can also add that day in there for approving test files (if unattended).
     
  4. Angstaroo

    Angstaroo Active Member

    Yeah, I'm a bit verbose.. but at least it's clean English right? :D It's rare to see things things that you can understand on the internet these days!

    Thanks for taking the time to answer :) Most of it confirms what I was assuming, a lot of it seems like common sense stuff to me, but not knowing that realm of the business, it's nice to make sure we're not looking like knuckleheads or wannabe know-it-alls when we talk to someone.

    Man, I'm in the -wrong- business. Can someone here teach me how to lose all of my integrity and not have any scruples? Is there a book or DVD for this? ;)

    Excellent, this was a biggie for us because we're already behind our ideal schedule and it helps to be able to figure out what our time budget -has- to be in order to get this thing released on time.

    I totally understand this, I go through the same thing with mixing. If I mix too long, I find that the later I go, the less confidant I am in what I'm hearing. Things sound great, but the next day I hear all sorts of things that I didn't hear the night before. I find that my ears get fatigued pretty easily at consistently loud levels and I need a break to make sure I'm not just wasting my time mixing absolute garbage and thinking it's great.

    I don't have one, but I think we have one available from a friend of ours who has a ton of equipment over at the band's house. There's a massive Tascam M3700 board and a full rack of stuff, including a Mackie HD24 just sitting there collecting dust from when they recorded their 5 song demo a year or two ago. I don't remember if they mixed it down to a DAT or Masterlink, but for some reason I thought it was a DAT. I know back in the day, they were used a lot more.. didn't know if they were still used or just taking up space like floppy disks these days.

    Generally speaking I don't compress the mix at all, except after rendering things down to a two track and giving the guys what I call "quick and dirty mastering", which is just using a limiter (PSP Xenon mainly) to bring it up to level for them. I don't like brickwalling things, but I did do this recently for them as a comparison and everyone agreed that the brickwalled, loudness war version just didn't sound as good as a more "normal" limited version. Besides some individual track stuff, I'm really only using a little compression on the drum bus, none on the master bus itself.

    Well, the reason why I asked is because I don't know how touchy of a subject this is. If someone just randomly came up to me and asked me how much it would cost to record their band, I can't just toss out numbers because the factors vary too greatly. And then when you're dealing with the music industry, you're definitely dealing with egos. Although it seems like the less someone does, the more important they think they are. The mix engineers I've met have all been mellow, but the sound guy at your average crappy dive bar with a Behringer PA? What's that dude's deal? ;) I just don't want to make a bad impression or rub someone the wrong way. I try and research whatever I've got to do so I'm doing things right, but I don't want someone to think I'm a know-it-all and I'm trying to tell them how to do their job. And since money's a touchy subject in any business, it's usually the quickest way to piss someone off.

    Yeah, I've been finding the differences between what I used to use and using Cubase now. I actually usually do keep a limiter over the bus for the playback tracks while someone is overdubbing parts, just because it tends to be a little easier for them to hear what's going on in headphones without blasting their ears out. And, of course I tend to be forget and forget to take it off when rendering down.. and have to go back and render everything twice :p

    Thanks again for your responses, they really are a great help. I gave the band the link to this post as well because we were just talking about this situation tonight. Massive Mastering is actually one of the places I mentioned to them ;)
     
  5. Michael Fossenkemper

    Michael Fossenkemper Distinguished past mastering moderator Well-Known Member

    Looks like you have all of your questions covered.

    A good way to keep costs down and quick turnaround is to really have your mixes "done". Sending everything to the ME and then realizing that a guitar part is missing or you hear a cough etc... and have to resend some of the mixes can really drag out the process.

    contacting a ME early doesn't hurt. Let them know where you are at and when you need it back in your hands. This can be a little tricky on your part as the process of mixing for a band never seems to stay on schedule. The ME will be able to tell you the best way to deliver what he needs and when they need it to meet your budget and timeframe.
     

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