Three Lies That Could Be Ruining Your Recordings

Posted by Aaron Davison on Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Today’s blog is written by HowToLicenseYourMusic.com’s resident producer/engineer Gary Gray from Los Angeles. Gary’s recent successes include 14 of his last 14 submissions being accepted by publishers and supervisors, including an exclusive paid publishing deal with Megatrax, one of the largest and most respected licensing corporations in the U.S. 12 of the 14 tracks have resulted in checks-in-hand already.

In addition, the Music Supervisor for A&E used Gary’s latest submission as an example of music production standards for other composers working for A&E.

Gary and I have also been busy on two projects recently, one, a revolutionary new course on music production which will be released on the 21st of July called Music Production FundaMENTALs, and the other, a collaboration in the studio on several songs which has resulted in our first track already being accepted by the Music Supervisor for A&E. Stay tuned on that front. More good news on the way.

Check out the trailer for our new course here:



Gary took time out of his busy schedule to write the following blog to help anyone starting out with music production -- or anyone wanting to increase their chances for landing licensing deals – by laying out simple, effective actions you can take right now to make your mixes sound better.

Over to you Gary. . .

Thanks Aaron!  There are three misleading “facts” (lies) that I run into over and over while teaching, while collaborating with other composers and while shopping music for licensing deals. All three lies deal with music production. These three topics, along with 6 others, are taken up in great detail in the upcoming course Music Production FundaMENTALs, which will be released on the 21st of July.

It’s an 8-part course, with 10 videos, lots of photos, screenshots, pdf’s, and sample recordings – including mixes, masters and stems for you to mix per the instructions on the course, and reference mixes, masters and stem files of tracks that are license-ready – so that you’ll never again need to ask “What does ‘radio-ready’ quality mean?” Or “what should I listen for when I’m mixing?” Or “How do I get my tracks to sound like they should sound to get licensed?”

Unacceptable music production is the number one reason tracks get rejected and great music production is the number one reason tracks get accepted, so I’ve gone over this curriculum with a fine-toothed comb. Where did I get this information? From music supervisors that I collaborate with in my studio.  

This course is the result of 8 years of work and 30 years of research. After watching over 400 tutorials myself during the course of my research, and after spending the last year beta-testing the curriculum on my students, I am very excited about the upcoming release.  Anyway, more on that later.

(You can find out more about the course by watching the Trailer Video for the course below)

For now, let’s get into three areas that can help you improve your mixes right now. This blog will deal with number one, and the next two blogs will cover points two and three.

1.    Watching meters and levels and paying close attention to the exact “headroom” on the faders in my mix is vitally important to getting good mixes.  I need to maintain -12dB of headroom at all times while mixing, or the quality of my mixes will suffer and the Mastering engineer will get mad because my mix won’t sound good. Mixing is a Science.

Wrong.

The Truth: Mixing is an Art. An extremely emotional and passionate art which is facilitated by scientific tools. Art by its very nature is exploratory and its procedures are not always predictable or “cookie cutter.” And one gauges the art of Music not with his or her eyes, but with the ears. Watching meters once in a while to side-check things is ok, but mixing by the eye and by numbers can suck the emotion and passion out of a track.  Especially when someone has convinced you that it IS important to “keep your eyes on the meters.” If you believe that advice, then anytime you take your eyes off the meters, your confidence will go down. Especially if the advice is from someone you consider an “authority.” You’ll make bad choices with your mix. You won’t be able to hear your mix objectively. You’ll go further and further down the rabbit hole of no sweet spot possible and the point of no return long gone. Your confidence will be transferred from you to a meter, when it belongs 100% inside of you – not in objects and procedures.

The best way to mix is with your eyes off the computer screen or closed!

This is one small example of how mixing is a MENTAL sport – how bad advice can cause a mental block to hearing your mix accurately – hence the title of the course: Music Production FundaMENTALs.

Yes, you should know the Science well. Very well. Those are your tools. The better you know your tools, the harder it is to fool you and suck away your confidence with misleading “facts” (lies) and bad advice.

For example: Did you know that all modern DAWs use a special technology on the individual faders in your mix (floating point technology) which allows you to hit the “red” as much as you want on any individual track WITHOUT any audible distortion? The clipping light on individual tracks does not mean audible clipping. Pretty weird, right? Yes, it’s pretty weird. But totally true.

Now, the best way to manage your mix is to have all of your levels averaging roughly half way up your meters.

But not doing so on your individual tracks won’t necessarily ruin your mix. The one thing you’ve got to listen for (LISTEN – not watch) on individual tracks is this: certain plug-ins, if you hit them too hard with too much volume, or turn up the input volume too high on the plug-in, the plug-in itself might distort. However, when dealing with guitars, certain synths, bass and even vocals, that type of distortion sometimes sounds GREAT in a mix. It’s how many analog recordings in the ‘70s and ‘80’s sounded so good. So, trying to follow advice of paying close attention with your eyes to levels just sabotages the art of mixing. And it’s not even good Science!

The Stereo Buss out is a different animal all together. Red means clipping means audible distortion on that channel. There is no floating point technology on that fader. You can learn more about that by researching the subject, but there’s really no need to if you follow these two simple rules.

Following these simple rules will give you excellent sounding mixes that can be mastered to radio-ready quality:

1.    When recording, set your input gain so that the average level rides about half way up the meter on that track in your DAW. Make SURE that you hear no audible distortion while recording. And by the way, since there is virtually no noise floor with digital recording, you can even allow the average level to ride below half way. And it lowers the stress level while recording because you never have to worry about anything clipping. When you get to the mixing and mastering steps, that mix is going to sound awesome.   

2.    When mixing, set your various track volume levels so that the Stereo Buss Out (the Main Stereo Out Channel) rides about half way up the meter on that channel. (Managing your levels is called Gain Staging) If it sounds too soft, simple solution: turn up your speakers. Try to mix with an average level of 85dB – which is not very loud at all. You’ll save your ears and the human ear/mind can perceive the best balance in any mix at around 85dB. Although this sounds too simple to be true, here’s the bottom line truth about mixing: If it sounds emotionally pleasing and there’s nothing distracting about your mix (including distortion from clipping), then it’s a good mix. Nothing more scientific than that.  How much headroom you have when you give it to the mastering engineer actually means nothing, as long as it sounds good and it isn’t clipping. He or she can adjust it from there before the mastering process begins.  On the course Music Production FundaMENTALs, you’ll learn what “sounds good” really means.

Trying to get your levels as close to red on the stereo buss out without clipping is a stressful way to mix in the digital domain. That was exactly how you had to mix with analog tape because the tape and machines and outboard gear were so noisy, but, without getting too technical, there was a lot of headroom available above clipping in case anything went into the red back then, so stress levels were low. Now, with digital recording technology, if anything goes into the red on the Stereo Buss Out – chances are it WILL audibly clip (distort) and you don’t want that.  

If you follow the simple rule of keeping your Stereo Buss Fader riding an average of half way up the meter (notice I’m not worried about any numbers – there’s no need to get all exact and precise with this) you’ll never be stressed out and therefore you’ll be able to hear your mixes more objectively.

High Confidence, Good Organization and Low Stress equals masterpiece mixes.

Again, mixing is a MENTAL sport. Bad advice or incomplete research can cause you to mix with a lot of stress and confusion. When that happens, it’s hard to get out of the “amateur sounding mixes” mode. I learned this the hard way. I had to research and experiment my way out of it. I discovered that the best “meter” you can pay attention to while mixing, is when you get chills. Now that’s a reliable meter. 

Your tools also include music theory (that’s right – it’s a vital tool for mixing – after all you’re mixing MUSIC not just sound). There are two great music theory sites and an app that can help anyone increase the quality of their mixes right now.

NOTE: When you hear someone say that they don’t want to “limit” themselves by learning music theory, tell them this: Music theory is a step by step education on what gives people chills and how to create those chills on a consistent basis.  Maybe they’ll change their mind.

A.   Mugglinworks.com/chordmaps – A brilliantly simple yet thorough approach to music theory. I’ve had students become quite advanced with music theory within 6 to 8 months using that site.  I use it all the time myself.  http://mugglinworks.com/chordmaps/

B.   HookTheory.com/theorytab – An amazing site that allows you to reverse-engineer thousands of hit songs in many styles, including EDM. There are plenty of free services on that site, and if you can afford it, there are extended services with their paid membership.

http://www.hooktheory.com/theorytab

C.   The Mugglinworks ChordMapMidi App. Here’s a very cool description of the app from their website: “A music teacher enters a classroom and says, “many songs have been written using simple chord progressions. Today we’re going to play I-V-vi-IV. A few minutes later, every student in the class is able to explore I-V-vi-IV in all 12 major keys, using a variety of instrumental sounds.”




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