Question from a Audio Masterclass visitor…
One question that has been on my mind for some time is the following. I've been told many times that one should use a CD of say a popular song of a similar style to the material at hand as a reference when performing a mix of one's own material. However, the professional CD is not only professionally mixed it is also professionally mastered. So when using this technique, is it realistic to expect one's pre-mastered mix to reasonably approximate something one is listening to that has also been mastered or is the goal of a mix-down to approach something different that is optimal once mastering is performed. I.e. if it were truly possible for a mixdown to sound like a professional CD, what would be the need for mastering?
Audio Masterclass's David Mellor responds…
This is an interesting question. Clearly it is a good idea to compare your work with that of experienced and successful practitioners of the art.
But also, if you compare your mix with someone else's master, then you are not comparing like with like.
A paragraph for newcomers to recording – Recordings are normally made in multitrack format where each instrument and vocal has its own track. This must then be mixed into stereo. There is usually also a separate process of mastering where the stereo mix is optimized and made as good as it can be.
Suppose you have a multitrack recording with processors and effects used as channel inserts and auxiliary sends/returns, but no processing in the master output.
In this situation, if you compare your mix with a CD, then you will have great difficulty matching the CD. If you wanted to mimic the frequency distribution, then you would have to modify the EQ settings on each channel individually. And then if you moved a fader, the balance would change again.
Also, you would have difficulty matching the loudness of a finished master. Like it or loathe it, mastering these days is all about making a mix subjectively louder. With no processing in the master output, you would have to add compressors to each channel individually.
Notice the phrase, 'you would have difficulty'. I didn't say it was impossible. In fact I think it would be an absolutely excellent exercise to attempt and you would learn a lot.
But it isn't the quickest way to achieve the characteristics of the master you have chosen as a benchmark. The way to do that would be to insert compression and EQ into the master output.
As soon as you do that you are into the realms of mastering. Never forget that mastering is a very powerful process and if you get it wrong you can ruin your recording, unless of course you also save it in unmastered form so you can return later if you want.
So in fact if you do carry out this 'benchmarking' technique of comparing your work to a commercial CD, you will inevitably involve yourself in the mastering process.
Whether this is for good or bad depends on your existing level of skill. But one thing is for sure – you will learn a lot by imitating the characteristics of mixes made by experts.