As you know, I’m in the middle of mixing and mastering 11 hours of new music. It’s taking a long time, but the results are some of the best audio work I’ve ever done. So let’s have a chat about audio recording.
My thesis: The received wisdom of how and why things are done is, it seems to me, based on a resource equation that exists in a paid studio environment.
The factors are time, budget & complexity.
The assumption is that if a project is simple it’s because the budget is small and therefore time will be tight. Thus mixing from the multi-track to 2 track without getting too fixated on the final version maximises time in the studio, doing what studios do best. You make it sound as good as possible through the speakers there & don’t worry too much about continuity between tracks, consistent leveling etc. Those wouldn’t be a productive use of mix time.
Thus you send the 2 track to a mastering engineer, who has the tools to deal with that. She doesn’t have to worry about multitrack issues, and has a fair chunk of pragmatic resignation written into the job spec. The task is one of polishing and refining, not undoing and deleting. But she can also assume that the basic sound is the best the mix engineer could do in the time available.
If the budget is big enough to not have the time constraints that lead to this particular set of assumptions about the process, it is further assumed that the project will increase in complexity to the point where trying to do any mastering type tweaks using the studio outboard gear will result in a signal path of such fiendish complexity, the risk of losing all perspective and not getting a great record out of it is too great. You also have the issue of limited numbers of each compressor / preamp in the studio…
However, the ratio this is built on is completely broken by recording at home. Suddenly a project can be simple, can take ages & can be done with the very best of equipment, or at least equipment of such quality that the combination of skill, vision, time and resources makes other kinds of process that exist outside of conventional orthodoxy useful & even preferable.
All this is to say that my reasoning for mixing and mastering my own albums in Reaper in the same session, non-destructively, is that I have the space, time, resources & equipment to do it very effectively, sharing mixes around the globe, listening on different systems and tweaking elements of the mix in relationship with the mastering processes that are happening on the stereo buss.
The recordings for FingerPainting involve:
- one stereo bass channel,
- one mono loop channel
- one stereo loop channel (through the Kaoss Pad),
- a stereo pair from Daniel
- a vocal mic channel from Artemis on the tracks she sings on.
So Daniel is already submixed, often requiring a fair amount of plug-in automation to treat the uke, gravikord and percussion separately.
But with the set of UAD plug-ins I have I can emulate different brands and speeds of tape for each instrument – something that would be almost impossibly complex to do with hardware. I can balance the relationship between the compression on Daniel’s channel with the one in the mastering set, tweaking them for optimum interaction. And I can listen and compare the mixes as I go along on myriad systems, take them to friend’s houses, even bounce a low res MP3 to see what’ll happen if someone downloads it like that. I have maximum malleability.
And the result? You tell me. I *love* the way these recordings sound. I’m SO glad I did Ian Shepherd’s mastering course, and learned about signal path, phase, perceived loudness, and all the other invaluable stuff I picked up. Because, of course, the bit of the standard equation that is irreplaceable is skill. New toys don’t replace learning, they replace overly complex and expensive practices required to act on your learning. I took the wisdom and learning of orthodoxy in mixing and mastering – as gleaned from two decades of making records, watching, listening, learning, making a bad noise, watching other people make a bad noise, watching some people make a really great noise, noting what they did, and finally doing a mastering course that stuck all those pieces together – and applied it to a very different time, budget, complexity ratio.
(…do I really have to say this? …obviously, this isn’t suggesting that studios are useless/dead etc. or that some kind of mythologically brilliant DIY ethic and process will now replace all other forms of music making. Of course not. Lots of projects – perhaps most pop music projects – still broadly fit that initial ratio. And not everyone has the chance to develop the skills required to be able to operate the tools at home (don’t gloss over the fact that most of my formative practical learning happened in traditional studios!) – that’s why I called this Expanding Audio Orthodoxy – I’m not trying to do away with it, I’m applying the same wisdom to a different ratio. And noting that the margins are growing, at a disruptively fast pace …more on this soon)by