Music Production Q&A With Gary Gray, Part 1

Posted by Aaron Davison on Thursday, August 9, 2012 Under: August 2012

Today’s post is another guest post from producer Gary Gray.  Gary and I recently collaborated on a course all about how to produce music that meets the industry standards for licensing music in film and television.  Based on the feedback Gary has received from the course, Gary has put together a list of the top ten questions he’s received along with his answers.  This is part one in a three part series.  Gary is also offering a free 15 minute phone consultation with everyone who purchases our course by the end of the month. 

Take it away Gary….

The response to the course Aaron and I recently created has been incredible.

Feedback from Producers and Engineers from all over the world has allowed an even deeper look into what problems, confusions, questions, victories and successes are occurring for people like you;  Indie Musicians working hard to make a living through licensing your music.

I’ve culled through all the feedback and have compiled the Top 10 Questions I’ve received, along with my answers.   I’m already receiving success stories regarding improved audio production quality from Songwriters, Producers and Engineers.

If you have a library of workable techniques and tricks that you refer to for your work in the studio, I invite you to add this blog to that library.  If you don’t yet, I encourage you to start a library with this blog.  The top producers and engineers I know and work with all keep such a library; since we are dealing with an invisible subjective art form, susceptible to altered application and sometimes hindered by non-constructive opinion (which can sometimes lead to our own insecurities and lack of confidence in our own productions).

So, without further pre-amble, we’ll dive right in:  (Note:  Further details are covered in the course “How To Produce Music That Will Get Licensed And Make You Money,” and if you have your own specific questions not covered below, you can get those questions answered with the free 15 Minute Consultation I am offering for anyone who signs up for the Course before the end of August.  I am finding that besides being able to answer people’s questions, priceless research information is also being compiled on what Songwriters, Producers and Engineers need and want, thereby allowing us to expand our ability to help the music community through HowToLicenseYourMusic.com and LearnAudioEngineering.net)

QUESTION 1A.  I get to the end of my mix, it sounds pretty good to me, and all of a sudden I look up and notice that my Stereo Out Master Bus is up around 0dB (or even higher – in the red!).  I heard it’s not good to turn the Master Fader down, because it will degrade the quality of my mix, so in order to handle the fact that I let my Gain Staging* get out of control, do I have to carefully lower the levels of all my individual tracks in order to create enough Head Room*? (*Gain Staging: In the Mixing Process, Gain Staging describes the cumulative level of individual tracks and plug-ins to the Master Fader.  *Head Room – Number of Decibels below 0db on any fader marked by the loudest signal on that track.  For example: if the loudest signal on a track shows up on the meter at -3dB, then you’re giving yourself 3dB of Head Room.  In everyday use, this term is applied thusly; you look over your track from beginning to end and look at the “average” amount of headroom, and that’s usually what you are concerned with.  For Mastering a final mix, the Mastering Engineer usually likes somewhere between 4dB to 12dB of average Head Room to work with, because Mastering processes and equipment are going to add loudness and energy to the final mix, and if you gave him a mix with NO Head Room [at 0dB] then anything he would attempt in the Mastering process would immediately cause distortion [clipping] and that’s not good).

Answer: Here is a big Myth which we will put to rest right now.  At times, I have heard the advice that you should never touch that Master Fader – Leave it at 0dB!  The truth is that if you “solve” your Head Room issue by turning down your individual faders after you feel you have a great mix, you could easily be destroying that mix – without knowing what exactly happened.  So trying to solve the “problem” of never touching your Master Fader (which is NOT a problem!) – ends up CREATING a potentially HUGE problem!

Here’s the exact anatomy of all of the elements involved in this scenario: 

When you have adjusted all of the volume levels of each track AND all of the plug-in levels and settings and aux tracks and group tracks (and all post-fader settings and any pre-fader settings you may have on effects), you have established very specific relationships amongst and between every one of these elements.  In order to lock-in and maintain those relationships (on some mixes you could be looking at hundreds of relationships, and re-adjusting any one of them could affect the entire mix in immediately noticeable or [and this is why I’ve listed this as the number one question] NOT-SO-IMMEDIATELY NOTICEABLE WAYS), in order to give yourself a bit of headroom for the Mastering process, you simply have to do only one thing: Turn Down Your Master Fader.  “But that will degrade the quality of my mix, won’t it?”  No.  If I could show you the screen shots from many top producers and engineers on their final mixes, you would see plenty of Master Faders below 0dB.  However, since this “law” has become so “firmly established” it doesn’t get fully analyzed or questioned much.  For some reason, this “law” just keeps getting passed around and keeps growing.  Well, let’s weed it out right now.

Imagine solving this Head Room issue by going back, starting with your kick drum track, then your snare, the rest of your drums, the bass track, all the guitar tracks, the keyboards, the vocals, background vocal tracks, etc. and turning each one down; even if you group them all together and pull them down (as is often done), it still spells possible trouble.  Each one of those tracks may have any number of plug-ins and aux tracks connected to them.  Any number of those tracks may have parallel compression or side-chain compression set ups.  All of these settings that you balanced, that you took hours and hours and hours to perfect, will be ruined in less than five minutes, by turning down the individual tracks. 

The most insidious aspect to this scenario is this: Most of the time the Songwriter, Producer or Engineer takes a break just before or after this process is done.  So when the mix is listened to again, it’s not always immediately perceived that this “relationship destroying move” has ruined a good mix, and wasted al the hard work and hours that have gone into it.

Then later, the Songwriter, Producer or Engineer, scratches his or her head and says, “Man, I thought I had a great Mix.  Hmmm, maybe my ear is not so good after all.”   This can be a real mixer killer.  But even more important than that, it’s a real morale killer. 

Note: If an individual track is in the red AND CLIPPING WHEN YOU LISTEN TO IT, then pull that track down, it’s obviously to high in the mix. If the clipping continues when you pull it down – it’s been tracked (recorded) incorrectly and will need to be re-recorded (unless the effect of clipping is wanted).  IMPORTANT: If you see an individual track in the red, but it sounds good (this is possible due to how digital metering is designed) leave it alone.  Follow the musical philosophy of Duke Ellington: “If It Sounds Good It IS Good.” Your EAR and not your eye is the final quality control.

Real-life example:  I finished a mix and liked it a lot.  Looked up and noticed my Master Stereo Out was in the red!  Oh no!  Having been taught up to that point never to touch my Master Fader; to keep it at 0dB no matter what, I thought, ok, no problem, quick solution – I’ll group all my tracks together and pull them down until I’ve got enough head room.  So I did a “save as” and pulled them all down. (That “save as” by the way was a LIFESAVER!)  I then hit “play.”  The mix was quieter of course, but it was different. I couldn’t tell exactly what was different at first.  In fact, I thought that it was simply due to ear fatigue that I was hearing something different so I took a break.  After the break I listened again. And then I realized what had happened:  The amount of signal being fed into every one of my Aux tracks, the amount of signal being fed into each parallel compression set-up, the amount of signal being fed into each group track with effects on it, the amount of signal being fed into each side-chain compression set-up had all changed.

One rule of mixing is to carefully monitor your input and output signals when performing any change in a mix.  All that careful work was, unbeknownst to me, wiped out. 

The result?  My reverbs, compressions, delays, etc., all sounded different.  And though some of the differences weren’t huge, they all had changed.  I had more headroom alright, but my mix was ruined.  So I did an experiment right then and there.  I took my previous “save as” – the mix that was in the red, and simply pulled the Master Fader down until I had enough head room.  I then Mastered both versions and did a very careful analysis of each mastered version. Note: If you looked at my mixer, you could see several individual tracks in the red, but ALL of the tracks sounded great – no audible clipping on any individual track.  When I started apprenticing and training under pro mixers, I started noticing lots of red in many mixes – something schools taught you to “never ever do.”  But not once did I hear any audible clipping in these instances.

Night and Day.  The master from the previous “save as” version, where I had simply pulled down the Master Fader sounded awesome.  The other one (where I pulled the individual faders down) sounded bad.  I started asking around and a few of my colleagues whom I trust highly pulled me off to the side and said, “look, I don’t go around blabbing this because I know you’re ‘not supposed to do it,’ but I always do that and I’ve never had a problem.”  The truth is, if the Master Stereo Out degraded sound quality when pulled down below 0dB, it wouldn’t have a fader on it! 

QUESTION 1B: Then why not just let the Mastering Engineer pull down the volume of my mix to where he’s comfortable with the head room?

Answer: Because we are talking about the Mixing Process here.  During the mixing process, you want to be able to ADJUST your mix while listening to the proper relationship of every track to every other track and to every plug-in and effect while in a range of acceptable headroom. This will allow you to make immediate adjustments and any needed future changes without audio degradation.  We are talking about the action of adjustment all the way down to the last second when you finally have achieved that sweet spot in your mix, with enough head room existing at that moment.  If you gave your Mastering Engineer (even if it is you) the mix that was in the red and if he pulled it down manually before mastering, THAT would be a degrade in sound quality, because the waveforms on your Stereo File would be clipping and at that point, there’s no turning back.  Pulling down previously recorded clipping audio tracks does not solve the clipping.

QUESTION 1C:  In the course you mention the practice of pulling your “faders to zero” in order to get a good mix.  How does that relate to questions 1A and 1B?

Answer: Good question. In the course “How To Produce Music That Will Get Licensed And Make You Money” a technique called “faders to zero” is explained.  This is another secret of getting great mixes, but this process is done before you are certain that you have achieved that final “sweet spot mix.”  This is earlier on in the mixing process when you are still making major adjustments and feel that you are “in the ballpark,” but you know there’s more work to be done.  At THAT point, it’s sometimes a good choice to pull your faders to zero and basically start from the beginning, because if you’ve lived with a track for hours or days or weeks up to that point, you can develop ear fatigue and/or “mind fatigue” where due to psycho-acoustic reasons (described in the course) it’s a good idea at that point to start your mix over – aux levels, plug-in levels, side-chaining levels, etc., everything from zero.  More often than not, this process SAVES YOU TIME and INCREASES THE QUALITY OF YOUR MIXES.  Questions 1A and 1B refer to the END of the mixing process.  Question 1C refers to the middle of the process, while you’re still working out the meat and potatoes of your mix.

Note:  This blog, because of the amount of detailed information contained in the answers, is being presented as a three-part series. So stay tuned for questions 2 through 10 and the answers in Part 2 and Part 3, soon to be published.  The entire blog pertains to the course “How To Produce Music That Will Get Licensed And Make You Money,” put together by the founder of HowToLicenseYourMusic.com, Aaron Davison and myself,  which includes a 90 minute audio course and a 6 part 1 Hour Video Series showing you actual mixing and mastering sessions where you will learn how to immediately increase the quality of your mixes and speed up your workflow so that you can get more work done with the end goal of ultimately making money as an Indie Musician by getting your music licensed!   

Testimonials:

 

"Thanks for the advice on mixing the bass and drums using sidechain compression. I've never had it explained so clearly. I immediately started using it on my mixes... The main thing that has held me back is trying to get my music to broadcast quality...The simplicity in which you teach really inspires me to learn."

Javier Silva

 

“Hi Aaron!

Thank you for your wonderful courses. Your latest collaboration with Gary Gray is truly a Godsend. For years I have struggled with producing my own tracks. Gary's insights have really helped me have much more confidence in my home studio. I'm having a blast writing and recording new songs and so grateful to you both for helping me follow my dream of getting my music licensed.  

Thanks again,”

Mary Shaw

 

To find out more about the course visit this link now:

http://www.howtolicenseyourmusic.com/production-course.php

In : August 2012 



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