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The miracle of masking- How is this possible?

Discussion in 'Recording' started by jmm22, Dec 22, 2010.

  1. jmm22

    jmm22 Guest

    I cannot seem to get my head around how masking can make something out of nothing. When I solo some of my tracks, they are a trainwreck, yet they can sit in the mix perfectly, and the flaws (sometimes major) are entirely concealed. Heck, sometimes the mistakes add something interesting, almost a kind of random musical serendipity that could not be imagined in the first place or repeated again, no matter how hard one might try.

    How can this be? I mean I listen very intently for the flaws in the mix, and I simply cannot hear what I hear solo.

    I keep fighting with my internal instincts to redo tracks that sound great in the mix, so that they also sound right solo, but often the better track does not sit in the mix as well. It's peculiar to say the least.
  2. audiokid

    audiokid Staff

    Hard to say but I do know from experience for my self, the more I redo something the more it looses its organic flow. There is something perfect when it all happens as it unfolds during that creative zone. I don't know how you are recording, what you are recording etc, but when I do it, I get it right before I print it. So that is sits almost perfect without moving faders all over the place. I find that once you start worrying about redoing various tracks after the song has been built, you never get that organic mix and flow like it was , even with mistakes. If it sound good,leave it in. So much crap today that sounds perfectly boring.

    Depending on the music, sometimes you want it perfect, but most of my best work was on the fly where I didn't redo it. Going backwards to redo tracks Follow?

    There is a lot on this topic, many of whom might disagree about moving faders and optimizing everything and so on. I know we do it but there is certain things I personally try to avoid and one of them is, redoing tracks after songs have been built. It never seems to quite sound in place. I definitely redo the same track over and over, sometimes a hundred times but once I have it, I leave it and move on. I don't get the whole thing polished and then start backtracking to redo entire tracks. Levels, vibe, feel, tuning, so much changes...

    Take my suggestions with a grain of salt. There are so many variables. Hope that helps some.
  3. Kapt.Krunch

    Kapt.Krunch Well-Known Member

    The dominant or loudest sound at one particular instant will generally command your attention, even if it's just subconsciously. Say you have a bass guitar and a kickdrum played tightly, and both hitting at about the same time. The bass will, normally, last longer than the kick, but you would likely notice the kick's initial attack more than the bass. It may make it seem the bass is an extension of the kick attack, if played tightly. Say the bass has a little random initial fart on its attack, precisely when the kick hits. You can hear it clearly when soloed, but it's hard to hear when played with eveything else. You do notice that for some reason the kick's are a bit less uniform in sound, and there seems to be some random little differences that make it actually sound less mechanical and more alive...or someting. It doesn't sound BAD..it just sounds interesting. When you solo the kick, it's back to sounding all boring and evened-out, possibly.

    In a case like that, the little fart on the attack of the bass makes it SOUND like the kick drum is doing random little things. You can't really hear the little fart, but it's in behind the kick mixed in with it, and changing the kick somewhat.

    The kick is basically "masking" the little bass fart to make it less noticeable, but it's still there, possibly imparting some small sonic difference. Now, you add up all the tracks you have recorded, and each instrument will likely stand out, somewhat, at some points in the tune. Your attention has gone from noticing that solo little bass fart to the mix of all the instruments, together. The little imperfections have just noticeably livened up your tune, but it's difficult to pinpoint what exactly caused it upon casual listening. You don't tell your listeners the reason, and they think you're a studio engineering wizard to make such an interesting mix that doesn't sound perfectly stiff and boring and sterile like the majority of new music these days.

    Search for the term "audio masking" or some variants, and you'll get an idea of what it is. You may be surprised to learn that the idea of it is even used in some music file compression technologies. Basically, "this sound is much more dominant at this one instant, so this sound "masks" that sound for that instant."

    Is that about right, folks?

  4. Link555

    Link555 Well-Known Member

    think of this way:

    Drop a single stone in calm water, you see clearly defined rings of wave ripple from the stone entry point.

    Now drop 2 stones at the same time, each stone has rings around it, but when the hit each other they change...
    now drop 100 stones so they hit the water at the same time....

    The waves change....
    Just like the solo'd kick versus the whole mix.

    There is no magic only wave theory.
  5. jmm22

    jmm22 Guest

    Thanks for the replies. Still, it takes some will power to overcome the urge to redo something that sits in the mix just fine, but sounds terrible on its own. I am fighting the good fight at the moment.
  6. djmukilteo

    djmukilteo Well-Known Member

    I like to think that a big part of recording new music (as opposed to just playing scored music) is the inspiration and spontaneous feel of what you lay down and hear while tracking.
    A lot of people call this the "magic" that happens during the recording of a multi-tracked and overdubbed arrangement.

    People like Fleetwood Mac, Pink Floyd or the Beatles to name a few all had these moments of magic in the studio where something happens....where some part creates a feel or nuance...I've had that happen and I think this is what I strive and yearn for over and over and always come back to...to me there are pieces that sound good, OK, some that sound blah, some that you go back to and feel a need to alter and sometimes it all just melds together.
    I know there are educated people out there that have formulas that attempt to achieve that...my pea brain just isn't smart enough to apply that approach or I'm just not that motivated by it.
    To me and my ears music has to give me that feel first, that magic combination of sounds that stirs some emotion.
    I know there are so many discussions in recording on what signal chain or equipment to be used and all that is the technical basics of trying to capture something "magical" in the studio.
    For me I still believe there is something there that is intangible and "organic".
    Coming across it takes being aware of it's possibility, listening for it and then experimenting with it.
  7. audiokid

    audiokid Staff

    That is one of the best explanations I have ever heard in respect to disturbing/ changing/ effecting the "flow" ( but I don't think that's how you meant it :) ?) I do think there is a magic that has nothing to do with any technical aspects. The magic that is part of the "music" during the making at the moment in time is what we are talking about here. It is something that is not science. It is organic and you either understand it or will never understand it. Its what artists are blessed with and what separates us all. Space and emotion. timing and sonic essence .
  8. bouldersound

    bouldersound Real guitars are for old people. Well-Known Member

    I don't even solo tracks until I've heard a rough mix and already decided what problems there might be in the context of the mix. I don't care what each track sounds like isolated except to focus on something I heard in the mix. As long as the final product is good why worry about things that are effectively irrelevant?
  9. audiokid

    audiokid Staff

    exactly. I think this is where we are all abusing our abilities with these recording and editing marvels called DAW's. Learning to record and knowing when to leave it is equally important. I think the next decade of recording is going to focus on quality more than G.A.S. P.A.S. and now E.A.S.!

    Editing Acquisition Syndrome.
  10. djmukilteo

    djmukilteo Well-Known Member

    Just like to say this topic is really interesting to me! LOL
    I think that is all part of multitrack recording and studio mixing....
    There are a ton of hit songs out there with raw tracks where the vocals, instrumentals sound terrible by themselves.
    I just listened to some raw Stones tracks recently (Gimme Shelter) and it was absolutely incredible and fascinating to hear those raw vocal tracks, bass tracks, guitar and drum tracks...and if you know much about Stones tunes...they are very straightforward simplistic rock and roll compositions. Within that simplicity they have soul, they have energy that is magic..they're not all like that, but many of them are...you should see if you can find that and take a listen for inspiration...
    It is only when they are enhanced and blended in the mix that they become the sum of all it's parts....united they stand...
    Try different enhancements and position of your tracks....sometimes just "sitting in the mix" is boring and sterile.
    Sometimes taking a more unconventional creative tactic and approach will reveal interesting results.
    Talented producers get big money to create nuance and tricks with a track that totally makes the mix!

    One of the things I always find fascinating in listening to major hit records is the simplicity in the spatial positions but the interesting parts and sounds that break in and change the feel...they come in and leave but they tend to create a new space within the song at that time that completely enhances a simplistic arrangement within the mix....to me this has always been a key element. Keeping things simple but molding that arrangement with sporadic interesting sounds.
    This is not part of the actual recording process but rather the composition itself using the recording tools you have at your disposal.
  11. Link555

    Link555 Well-Known Member

    I think soloing is useful to find culprits of weird noises, like someone hitting a mic or knocking the food cart over in a particularly intimate moment in a song (true story). But the mix is its own entity and must dealt with as a whole.

    As for magic, magic is the stuff we haven't figured out yet. Its not magic, its just our lack of understanding. IMHO we are capable of understanding.
  12. audiokid

    audiokid Staff

    hehe, nothing to figure out, its called music including all these:

    • groove
    • inspiration
    • sole
    • organic
    • The moment,
    • creation,
    • timing,
    • pocket
    • feel,
    • dynamics,
    • tone,
    • flow
    • creativity
    • chops
    • style
    • stuff
    • magic
    • the Beatles, Stones ... :)
    • analog

    • good musicians jamming! etc...
    What is definitely isn't is digital and formula.

  13. BobRogers

    BobRogers Well-Known Member

    What exactly don't you like about the soloed tracks?
  14. Big K

    Big K Well-Known Member

    I like working on soloed Tracks because most the time I know how I want the instrument to sound in the mix.
    In one go I can get rid of unwanted noises and do a little editing. By the time I have the basic tracks ready I switch to full concerto and that is
    for me like a little x-mas, most the time ...when it worked well what I did...lol

    Then I usually check Drumset against bass and work my way through to the backing vocals.
    After that ...fine tuning of depth, dynamics, FX and sound... Coffee brake, relistening, last changes...long or short discussion with the band and rendering or tapeing..

    If it only were that easy...
  15. thatjeffguy

    thatjeffguy Active Member

    I think this is why mixing is as much or more art as science. It takes years, even decades to learn how sounds might blend together into a mix. Soloing has its place, but no one is going to hear the track solo... it's all about how it sounds blended together, and nothing but experience, trial & error, can teach you this.
    Many many tracks in a mix might sound less than stellar when soloed, and for very good reason. If, for example, you have an acoustic guitar and a bass in a mix, you will likely eq the guitar track to be a lot less bassy than you would if it was appearing in a mix without a bass. The "tinnier" track might not sound the way you would want a guitar to sound solo, but it sounds good in the mix because the bottom end is filled out by the bass.
    Now expand this concept to many instruments and voices across the entire frequency spectrum and you have the mixing engineer's palette and his challenge, and his art.
    It's my favorite part of the process!

  16. Link555

    Link555 Well-Known Member

    But Science is Art ;)
  17. jmm22

    jmm22 Guest

    I trust this was for me. They can appear out of time, and even sloppy, with flaws or mistakes, and most precisely, they could hardly stand on their own. I still find it astonishing that many of the flaws present in the solo track completely disappear in the mix, and I am beginning to appreciate that one has to be able to look beyond the solo track, otherwise one would likely never be satisfied. Still, it will take some getting used to.
  18. Jeemy

    Jeemy Well-Known Member

    I'd suggest that a way of looking at it would be that the 'out of time' sections should be audible if your mix was clearer - in fact the masking effect is actually revealing - it just reveals a lack of clarity.

    With regard to mistakes they again can be 'out of gamut' as we say in photodigital terms - i.e. if you suddenly hear a clattered low note solo, it will almost certainly appear in an alternate frequency range to the remainder of the solo'd track - so any perception will not be able to switch fast to pick it up and yes, its masked by the other track.

    There's the old adage of 9 points in your mix:

    Front Left - Front Centre - Front Right
    Mid Left - Mid Centre - Mid Right
    Back Left - Back Centre - Back Right

    ....with front and back being delineated by reverb depth, or EQ, or volume - each of these adding another dimension.

    So L - C - R is one dimension, Front - Back takes you to 2 dimensions, Reverb Perceived distance High to Low takes you to 3, EQ to 4 or 5, and by the time volume changes are added in we are working in a 6-dimensional matrix! No wonder we all have bags under our eyes. And thats before we add any dynamic or time effects.

    Each one of these points in the matrix has a limitation and this depth of field is determined by the response rate and accuracy of your monitoring chain. So if you have all 9, or 27, or 729, points filled to the bandwidth limitations of your monitoring chain, adding more will simply max out in a pleasant or unpleasant manner, your reproduction. No wonder things disappear.

    I don't think its anything you get used to, rather its something you get more familiar with. The development of this as you expand your palette in terms of listening capability, or audio front, middle or back end, is a completely analog process with infinitesimal gradients to be picked out; and the pleasure is in selecting them. Its completely analog, like Chris has been saying all along - enjoy!

    Merry Xmas.
  19. Davedog

    Davedog Distinguished Member

    Great topic. I try to never get into the solo'd tracks until I have made at least three copies of the song to a stereo rendering as things are being added as overdubs. And then I'm looking for the little inconsistancies I'm starting to hear. I dont think you can fully be locked into these things without some time with a mix no matter how basic. I take dailies and listen on as many systems as I can reach. It doesnt matter how basic these may be. Could be the klik, the guide vocals and the first bedded guitar....its going to start somewhere and thats what I am traiing my ear to hear as the songs progress in their growth.

    Its the main reason I stay away from the solo button until I've had a chance to discern the limits of particular sounds within context.

    At a certain point I am very much like The BigK. I want to know exactly what the individual instrument sound is at that certain point. I already know by now where I want it to sit and how I want it to affect the song emotionally, physically, and stylistically. Its then and only then that I will start to solo things up. Call it fine tuning and remember that I've already spent a lot of hearing time without detail other than what I dial up as the song tracks build.

    Its my favorite part of digital recall. Thats why I'm building towards that system. I want the mix to come back to me another day just as I left it.

    You are right about the mistakes being masked and Jeemy makes a good point on some of the reasons for that. There are other reasons and they are deeply psychoacoustic in nature. "The ear can only hear so many notes"....to quote a great movie (quick: name of movie and the character that said it) It was said in a certain context there but the truth is, the mind has a way of filtering and dealing with sound in a way that keeps things more towards the 'pleasant' side of things.

    A good test of this is to sit with your back to someone at a piano and have them hit a huge amount of random notes simultaneously. The first reaction is to squirm a bit and then in a minute span of time you find yourself reaching unconsciously to hear the notes that are actually parts of rudimentary intervals. The rest becomes background noise even though these tones may be as loud and upfront as all the others.

    In a mix, the brain does the same thing in filtering out mistakes if the rest is pleasant to hear. Also the focal point of a piece of music can always overcome or mask if you will, any improprieties present that might threaten to undermine the sound.

    Its why it so much work to mix something to a high degree of finish, ESPECIALLY if you arent using digital tools to draw things out on your screen. Its also a reason that so much music sounds way way too perfect to be interesting at all.

    Sometimes its finding and hearing those things and electing to leave be and concentrate on the rest of the task at hand.

    I ALWAYS leave stuff for the headphone bunch.

    Makes it fun.
    1 person likes this.
  20. BobRogers

    BobRogers Well-Known Member

    The first thing to be aware of is that the racks aren't meant to be listened to soloed. Each musician is reacting to the tracks that were laid down before. If you leave out the foundation tracks that a track was built on, the reactions can sound disjointed. This is especially true if you are not using a click (where playing with the time can compound).

    Of course, it could just be sloppiness as Jeemy says.

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