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What is production? Part 5: Mastering
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How do you know when you have got a good mix? Can you trust your monitoring and acoustics? Well, unless you had an acoustic designer set up your studio for you, you can't really be sure that your monitors are telling you what is really on your recording. So even if it sounds great to you, your recording may not be all that good.
And can you trust your own judgment?
Top mix engineers are paid up to $1000 a track, or more, and to earn that kind of money that have to be darn good. Are you, right at the beginning of your career, that good?
(By the way, the answer is "no"!)
But there is one way you can eliminate most of the doubt caused by less-than-perfect monitors and acoustics and get the services of a top mix engineer working for you...
The answer is in a technique called benchmarking, and it's really easy. Unless your music is so original that nothing on earth like it has been heard before, you probably have a favorite artist or track in mind. Not that you are copying them of course, but even the best and most original musicians have influences.
So, what is the sound you are aiming for in your mix? Can you identify one track from a CD that has the same sound that you want?
It shouldn't be too difficult to come up with a favorite. Now, what you have to do is arrange things so that you can listen to this track and flip back and forth between your new benchmark, and your mix. Usually the best way is to copy it to two spare tracks in your multitrack recording.
Now, you can go through your tracks one by one. Get as close to the kick drum sound of your benchmark, then go for the snare, then go for the other basic instruments. And don't forget the vocal.
It should be obvious that there is no way you are going to get the same sounds, but if you can get in the same range, then your chances of getting a mix as good as your benchmark are vastly improved.
When you have worked on your individual sounds, work on the mix as a whole. You will find that some EQ and compression will be necessary. It's an interesting problem to get a mix to sound as loud as a commercially released CD too.
Maybe the benchmarking technique won't get you all the way there, particularly if the playing isn't too hot - there's no substitute for great playing and singing. But I can guarantee that your mix will be very much better than it would have been otherwise - don't forget, you are matching your work against a $1000 a day engineer. And the learning experience will be significant.
Hey, suddenly your mixes just got a whole lot better!