Obviously, a great track is more than just great mixing and mastering, a great track has interesting melodic and harmonic content, it draws you in, it creates rhythmical interest and suspension, it makes your body move, and you smile and feel something. This is the foundation of music!
This article is about the engineering of that track, detailing how to present it in a way that makes the best use of the loudspeaker technology used to recreate your track for your listeners.
A great-sounding master track relies on a good instrument arrangement followed by great mixing, without this foundation in place the mastering engineer will struggle to achieve the track's full potential. For example, if the track has a cluttered arrangement with multiple instruments fighting for the same frequency space, your mix will lack clarity and you will struggle to manage the dynamics of each instrument. This will have a negative result on the quality of your final master.
So starting with the most important;
"Without your instruments arranged in the best way possible, you will struggle with the mix and therefore hold back the potential of your master"
The word arrangement in music can refer to multiple parts of the music creation process, such as the song structure, the musical note arrangement, and the arrangement of the instruments playing together. This is all relevant to achieve a great mix and master.
The note arrangement and the octave the instrument is playing in is an important factors in the way the instruments are arranged. To have multiple instruments playing the same notes in the same octave at the same time will prevent clarity, cause possible muddiness, prevent the character of the individual instrument from being heard, and can cause chaos with the dynamics of each overlapping instrument.
Proper instrument arrangement decisions should be made depending on the frequency range the instrument is occupying and the dynamic timing of the instrument. Some of the most common and damaging arrangement decisions happen in the lower frequency range. A problem you’ve likely come across is when mixing a kick drum and a bass instrument. In electronic music Kick drums with long bass tails are very common to find in sample packs, the problems can occur when adding a bass or sub that occupies the same bass frequency range at the same time as the kick, although mix tools are available to help fix the issues, arranging the kick and bass is far more effective than having to use hard compression, eq, or side chain. Some ideas to fix this issue at the arrangement stage would be to play bass at a higher octave range, tighten the tail of the kick with a quicker release or decay time and move the bass so it hits slightly later. Anything you can do to ensure both instruments aren’t playing the same frequency range at the same time.
The mixing engineer’s role is to ensure that the instruments and sounds are presented in the best way to enhance the sound of the track with the arranged instruments working creatively together. The goal is to end up with a sonically pleasing track with a well-balanced frequency range, and a favorable dynamic range, so the track is primed for the mastering stage. The main processing tools used by a mixing engineer are EQ to cut out any unwanted frequencies, and compression to tame any dynamic spikes or to enhance the instrument's perceived volume. This is done by controlling the transients and is detailed below.
Other tools which can be used at the mixing stage could include saturation or distortion to add richness and extra harmonics to the sound, reverb and delay to give the mix more depth, and stereo imaging to make more room in the mix for other instruments.
Controlling your transients
The following shows the waveform of a percussive sound, the first is an unprocessed recording whereas the second has been compressed. As you can see the first sound has a large transient attack which peaks at -3 db, and the second is the same sound that has been compressed to bring down the volume of the transient. This allows the mix engineer to bring up the body of the sound making the percussion sound louder even though the audio still peaks at -3 db. I have included some audio samples to demonstrate. For a fundamental understanding of a compressor.
This is the raw uncompressed sound, it has a loud attack but not much body.
The attack has been lowered in volume and the body of the percussion is much louder. I'm not saying you should compress to this much but you can hear resonant and un-disable frequencies popping through, this allows you to make good EQ decisions.
3. Parallel Compression
Both audio files have their own benefits which is why parallel compression gives amazing control over both options. The downside to compression is when you compress the transient you also increase the volume of undesirable sounds as well as losing some dynamic range, so parallel compression is like having a mix knob which gives you greater control. Here I have mixed the compressed audio with the uncompressed to achieve the exact dynamics to match the rest of the track.
Controlling your frequencies
The following shows the same percussive sound which has been run through a frequency analyzer. The first shows the microphone has picked up a lot of low-end rumble most likely caused by reverb reflections in the room. The second shows the same sound after applying a High Pass Filter. As you can see the low-end rumble has now been filtered out, this will allow more room for any bass instruments that need to take up that frequency space.
I would suggest that you check your mixes in mono as large PA and club systems will likely be set up in mono or at least the bass will be mono. If your making electronic dance music then having your mixes translate to a mono system is crucial, however, it would be silly not to make the most of the advantages stereo has to offer. By simply panning selected instruments to your left speaker, you are making room for an instrument of a similar frequency range in your right speaker. This allows for a cleaner mix as well as creating a larger field of sound.
A great Video example on using compression
The Mastering engineer's job is to quality check the audio, correcting any imperfections in the track such as untamed frequency and dynamics. The mastering engineer will match the track to the dynamic standards of the genre which is especially important to DJs who will want to mix your track with similar-sounding tracks.
Making a track loud while retaining the dynamics and punch is a difficult job, If you've tried 'Mastering' your own tracks and end up with a harsh or flattened sound, then you'll understand. If you've managed to master your own tracks without creating harshness or deadening the dynamics, this is likely because you have mixed the track really well, as a great mix allows the mastering engineer to add his or her stamp without making drastic changes with EQ or major dynamic corrections.
I hope this gives you the vision to take the right path for a journey showing the importance of each stage of the music production journey.