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Dave Carlock - A Day In The Life
Which is which and are they necessary?
Originally Posted: 01-03-2014 3:23 PM
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I've talked to many new artists making their first record over the years and in our conversations, there is one topic that many are confused over. When they ask me if I do "mastering" on the projects I record and produce, I come to discover that they really meant to ask if I MIXED the projects. I was surprised that they'd even heard about the mastering process at all really. So this week, let's take a minute to breakdown the main parts of record production, including mixing and mastering and make sure everyone's got it all figured out.

Songwriting and arrangement are the best first steps to recording something worthwhile. I harp over and over in my column about how success is about the song. Write a great song. Start there. Having gotten a shot at something worth singing about, dressing the song in a great arrangement is the next step. Guitar hooks, backing vocals, drum fills, and bass grooves all comprise the spices that make music interesting and exciting to the listener, but the song itself is the meat. If the meat isn't high quality, there's only so much spice you can add to make up for it.

Songs should convey emotion or a story and give the listener something to hold on to. Sometimes styles like dubstep or jam band music have snuck in and developed a fanbase without strong songs in the traditional sense. But in those cases, the music is often a reflection of a social experience either on dance floors or in camping festivals. Don't discount the impact of drugs and alcohol as a bonding agent in those scenarios as well. If you just tripped major balls in the Magic Forest, making out with a gorgeous half-naked person while jam bands played the soundtrack, you'll probably be buying some String Cheese Incident on iTunes the next week. But my first suggestion is always to try to create music that doesn't rely on substances for a real connection. Make your music great for sober listeners too and you may have something lasting in the minds of a broader audience.

Once the song is written, structured, and arranged, the first step in recording is "tracking". During the tracking phase, the song is laid down in multiple passes, building the arrangement step by step. Depending on the type of producer and studio one works with, it may be cut "live" with the full band, or it may start with programmed drums and layer other instruments over the top saving the final drum tracking till the end. I've made successful records either way, and each approach has its advantages.

Tracked "live", if the band is REALLY good, you can often capture a greater energy in the recordings. But the way it typically works is that the drums get priority. Once drum tracks have been nailed, the rest of the band continues playing with the finished drums so that they can really nail what they're trying to get across. So it starts with a group and whittles down in overdubs till done. Vocals are almost always overdubbed and scrutinized to nail the most compelling performances. Once all the parts are tracked to their best ability, then we move on to the mixing stage.

I explain the mixing process to people as being similar to the job of a stir fry chef. Where tracking is doing the prep work for this stir fry of a music project by choosing the freshest, best ingredients and "cleaning" them up; mixing is putting it all together on the grill and preparing the final meal of sound. Exactly how much of what elements end up in the final is up to the mixer. Reverbs and delays, bright/dark balance, dynamics, and even last tweaks to the arrangement which may enhance hooks and create new ones are all part of what a great musical mixer brings to the table.

Mixing records is a craft that's developed over decades. Some of the best mixers are guys in their 40s and above who've been working on it a long while. They have a huge impact on how a record sounds no matter how much time is put in before they get involved. That's why mixer fees are typically high and also why many mixers also get a royalty on the record. The good ones are worth every penny.

And now to the mysterious topic of mastering. In my analogy, the stir fry chef (mixer) works with all ingredients individually to make the final meal. A mastering engineer's job is to objectively listen to the final product and salt or spice to taste. Mastering engineers work with final stereo mixes and have a few primary technical tasks that they perform: bringing the overall level up on the mixes to make sure that they are commercially "competitive", making sure the levels from track to track are even, and monitoring for level clipping along the way--correcting the clips whenever possible.

On the team side of things, mastering engineers confer with the mix engineer and producer on any particular challenges they might have had on particular tracks. If they can provide a sonic solution at the final stage, that makes them a great source of relief for studio perfectionists still aiming for that something that they hadn't really hit yet.

On the creative side of things, mastering engineers objectively use final overall tweaks of EQ and compression to put the sheen on the top or tighten up bits of mud in the low end from the beginning to the end of your project--whatever's needed to give it the final touches of duplication ready professional product. At this stage, producers and mixers give approvals, but at critical moments usually defer to the experience of a mastering engineer they trust. The listening environment of a good mastering room is also an important perspective before sending the project out in to the world.

So when people ask me if I do mastering, I first make sure they don't mean "mixing". Then I tell them that I have a list of great mastering pros that I can refer them to at the end of our project. Should they pay the expense to have their projects mastered? Absolutely. Music is important and anything worth doing is worth doing well and doing right. Great mastering engineers help us all sound as great as we should after the countless hours that go into our passion: creating music.

Dave Carlock
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