Expanding Audio Orthodoxy – Recording, Mixing, Mastering

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.

And won 🙂


(…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)

6 Replies to “Expanding Audio Orthodoxy – Recording, Mixing, Mastering”

  1. hey steve, excellent article. long time no see!

    there’s some really interesting points here. I also think it’s easy to get bogged down in the ‘plug-in blunderbuss’ trap and i’ll be honest, there’s been a few times on a mix where i’ve just got to final mastering and gone back, stripped every plug-in out, and started again, which I know would be pretty much impossible in a conventional setting.

    hope you don’t mind but i just linked to it from my own music tech blog.

  2. I’m a big fan of keeping things, as Albert Einstein said, “… as simple as possible, but not simpler.”

    You’re absolutely right that there’s a lot of gratuitous complexity in the recording process, both in the recording industry (which is, I suspect, driven by a desire to suck as much available cash as possible out of the recording budget) and in home recording (probably due more to a fascination with technology).

    My own philosophy as an amateur musician and home recordist is to minimize the necessary technical involvement and focus on the performance. In my experience, it’s darned near impossible to do a good job of playing and engineering at the same time.

    1. Yup, the origins of all my recent recordings is have a set up of sufficient complexity to get everything recorded to individual tracks, and sufficient simplicity that I can set it up, hit record, and forget about it at every gig. Then I can come back and mix later.

      “Everything is possible in this best of all possible worlds” 🙂

    1. Hi Rainer,

      I’m not sure what it is you disagree with, after reading your post – you highlight all the same caveats I do (the requirement of skill, the simplicity of the mix) – your reasons for getting someone else to do the mastering are all excellent, unless they aren’t true for the person doing the job. I have many other pairs of ears available to help, I have the technical skill and tools to do what needs to be done, I have a very efficient workflow (far more so than when I had separate mix/master processes) and do a demonstrably better job on my music than any other mastering engineer I’ve ever given my work to. So much so that I’m about to remaster the album of mine that was done by the most celebrated (and expensive) mastering engineer I ever worked with.

      While I do factor in the cost of doing the work (I pay myself out of the profits on the project rather than someone else – it’s my job, after all 😉 ) I also spend a as much time on it as I need to to make it as good as I possibly can because it’s my art. It’s part of who I am. To reduce the time it takes to create that art to an economic equation would be insane, as would surrendering it to the time-scale of a mastering job. The last time I sent a project to a mastering engineer, I was offered one set of revisions as part of the cost. With this approach, I can revise it as often as I want, and even remaster it as I learn new skills, or change my mind about how I’d like it to be. Thanks to the joys of digital media, I could even offer a number of mastered versions for my audience to choose from, if that for some artist reason became desirable (I can’t imagine it would, but I’m open to all possibilities)

      So the expansion of orthodoxy (it’s not a different orthodoxy, just a broader tent for the same one) is done with all the same requirements as the old othodoxy, there just aren’t the forced compromises of the old system. It’s not that relying on experts is a compromise – of course not – just that before, even if I had the skill to do all of this, the cost and the logistics of doing it all myself was far out of the reach of almost all projects.

      The reason for listing the nature of the recordings I’m dealing with was to highlight the shifting ratio of complexity to time (and the change in budget by breaking the typical scaling of the two). If I was to suddenly do a project that was using hardware synths (I’ve never used a hardware synth in my life, and don’t own a soundcard that would make it possible) I’d be straight back into the situation described at the start – where my requirements would be as they were in the studio days – the complexity of the mix would be such that I couldn’t do the mix and mastering at the same time efficiently, not could my laptop deal with processing power required.) And thanks to my desire to make great art over make great money, my time is a currency I’m willing to invest in making the best music I can. It’s not endless, obviously, but then my skill level as a mixing and mastering engineer is such that it doesn’t take my significantly longer to do than it would anyone else who was making the kind of decisions about the project that I was.

      I guess the bit I left out of the list that I should have included in the article is that the other massive bonus of this is that it enables me to release WAY more music than I ever could before. The old year-to-18-months gap between albums while the first one recouped and the next one went from conception to finish is no way fit for purpose in my creative world. I record everything I do, and a surprising amount of it is stuff that I want to release in one form or another. So much so that I end up gifting some projects to the people I did them with so I can get on with making new ones and they can make some money with it…

  3. A definite +1 on Ian’s home mastering course, it has made an enormous difference to how I work. I’ve gone from “mastering” basically meaning boosting a couple of levels or trying some presets to really understanding how and why to process the sound. I’m a Reaper user too, but I tend to still seperate the mix and master stages. I find it easier to have all the tracks in the same session when I’m mastering so I can try and get continuity across the project. The great advantage of home working though is the ability to pop back into the mix if I decide it’s going to be better to tweak it rather than iron something out via mastering, then export a new file back into the mastering session.

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