Avoiding Crimes Against Speakers: 3 Tips from a Mastering Engineer

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In this classic Trust Me, I’m a Scientist post from August 8, 2011, Scott Craggs of Old Colony Mastering provides an easy pre-mastering checklist to help improve any mix.

Scott Craggs of Old Colony Mastering Studio at work, Boston MA. Photo by Lindsay Metivier.

Scott Craggs of Old Colony Mastering Studio at work. Photo by Lindsay Metivier.

As a mastering engineer, I’m pretty convinced I have the best job in the world. I get to sit in a comfy chair in an air-conditioned room, listening to cool new music on really expensive speakers. And I get paid for this! Amazing!

But just because it’s a great job doesn’t mean it’s an easy one. Every record is a new challenge. Over the course of mastering lots of them, I’ve noticed certain problems that come up pretty regularly. I want to briefly outline a few of these, with the hope it will result in better sounding records for you, and less hair-pulling for me.

Lest I come across as a cranky old guy, I just want to start by saying that the vast majority of mixes I get are really great. I’m continually impressed with the work people are doing; there’s a ton of terrific records being made these days. The point here is just to illustrate some common issues that you can easily solve in mixing.

Ok then, our number one offender:

The God-Like Kick Drum

I get a fair number of mixes where the low end is dramatically out of proportion to everything else. It sounds like a 40-foot tall bass drum surrounded by a team of midgets playing microscopic instruments.

This is almost always the result of mixing on small speakers that don’t reproduce the bottom octaves well, if at all. And this is nothing new – people have been mixing on NS10’s forever.

The key is to know your monitors. If you have to guess at the low end, you at least want that guess to be an educated one. Listen to lots of commercial CDs on your monitors to get a feel for how ‘proper’ low end sounds on your system.

Checking your mixes on (good) headphones can also reveal low-end problems that your monitors don’t show. In many cases, the kick drum/bass guitar are simply too loud in the mix, but the problem can also be a buildup of sub frequencies (say 20-50Hz), and/or the octaves above that (50-200Hz). A judicious cut/roll-off of these frequencies can dramatically clean up your mix without sacrificing impact or power.

On the other end of the spectrum, we have offender number two:

S’s as Weapons

Ouch. Stop it! You’re hurting me! I’m trying to listen to what the singer is saying and I keep having to duck to avoid the S’s, T’s and other hard-edged consonants that come flying at me like laser beams.

In the digital world most of us live in, a de-esser can be your best friend.

Yes, they can be employed fairly transparently in mastering to help tame sibilants that jump out, but as with all things, it’s better if they are used on just the offending vocals in the mix. You may even want to chain a couple together, each targeting different frequencies. And they can be very useful on drum overheads and percussion tracks as well, to tame cymbal crashes and other spikey transients.

What’s that? You’re a broke indie rocker and can’t afford a de-esser plug in?

Nonsense. Go to http://www.digitalfishphones.com and download the Spitfish. It’s free, sounds great and couldn’t be easier to use. Don’t thank me, thank Sascha Eversmeier, the genius who made the thing.

The last of our big three offenders is:

Flat-Out Bonkers Levels

Many times mixes come to me heavily clipped and/or limited. This really ties your mastering engineer’s hands as it has a seriously detrimental effect on any processing (EQ, de-essing, etc) we may need to do.

If your record needs to be super cranking loud, clipping/limiting will surely play a role, and that’s fine, but this really needs to be done at THE END of the process, after EQ and everything else.

If you like to mix with a compressor on the 2 buss for tone/glue/vibe/whatever that’s fine. Just make sure your overall level stays well below 0dBfs. If you aim for peaks between -6 and -3dBfs, you’ll avoid any clipping and leave some headroom for the ME to work with.

Extra Tips:

Contributor Scott Craggs at his other job. Photo by Tom Gilmore.

A couple other common problems worth mentioning: Watch your midrange. Low mids (say 200-400Hz) can build up easily and leave you with a cloudy/muddy sounding mix. Conversely, too much of the high mids (say 1k-4kHz) can make a mix sound harsh and unpleasant. Be careful when boosting in this area, a little goes a long way.

Before sending your mixes off to mastering, I recommend going through all the tracks (especially the vocals) to double-check for any pops, clicks, bad edits, and the like. All this stuff tends to get magnified by the mastering process, and can become distracting.

Also, be sure not to cut the ends of the songs too short! I frequently get otherwise excellent mixes that end abruptly, where the reverb tail gets cut off at the end. Again, we ME’s can kludge a fix for this but it’s so much better if things just fade out naturally.

To that end, when you’re nearing completion of your mixes, try this: open a new session and import all your mixes. Line them up in sequence and listen to them like a finished record. This is exactly what your ME is going to do when they first get your tracks. Doing this can give you a great overview of your whole record, and can really help with things like keeping a consistent vocal level from one song to the next, relative kick/bass levels, stereo width, etc.

Alright, now get off the damn internet and go make some awesome music. If you’d like to discuss any of this stuff further, feel free to drop a line at scott@oldcolonymastering.com.

Scott Craggs runs Old Colony Mastering in Boston, MA. He also plays a variety of instruments and is an occasional contributor to Tape Op magazine.

  • Billy Stull

    On point Scott! These are some of the major reasons that I developed I.C.E.(In Case of Emergency). I.C.E. will easily cure these common problems in Mastering (and/or recording) http://www.legendaryaudio.com http://www.sonicstudio.com

  • Nathan

    This is hilarious. I was just trying to address my God-like kick drum issue. Mixing on Equator d5’s and my sub freqs are pooping everywhere.