Saturday, July 9, 2011

Dance Music Mixing & Mastering Theory

Music production in the early 90s and throughout became more and more accessible to the average person, starting with the sampler, sequencer and DAT recorders. Consoles were still as expensive as cars, synthesizers were 1000s of dollars but studios could be built for the production of house, techno and hip-hop production. Computers and Cubase could offered around 6 channels of recording and rudimentary automation and the parametric Eqs ran externally at around 2-6 bands. This was an exciting time for dance music, it had a grassroots evolution that when we listen to classic releases we can hear.

Early digital instruments like the TB-303, TR-909 and TR-808 were cheaper and used in techno in this time. Cheap rack mount processors were also available but would break on occasion.

Keep in mind cell phones were the size of bricks at this time and people felt awesome when they recorded things off the TV onto their VCR. Independent producers and labels were conducting voodoo magic seemingly creating tracks out of nothing on gear that carried the mystique of a jet cockpit. Mastering was done mostly at vinyl pressing companies as a preparation so needles wouldn't skip in the grooves and the record would sound as good as possible in clubs. This was the fundamental need for mastering, to prepare your audio for an analog medium.

Mp3s (as well as mp3 sharing) and the CDJ first came about together in 2001, for the first time you could pitch a CD in real time on a scratch-able platter just like you could on a record turntable, you no longer had to get an acetate pressing to play a song in a club and as a label owner you didn't have to gamble a run of 5000 records. You could promote yourself by putting your songs on Napster, giving music to the masses and in my opinion playing a key part in dance musics popularity world wide. Stores like Beatport, Trackitdown and Junodownload started up in the early to mid 2000's and now today mp3s (digital audio) is the standard.

Then POOF! There was no need for critical mastering!

Modern dance music is 95% if not all digital as a result of more powerful computers, the VST standard, high performance soundcards and firewire/usb interfaces. As a funny bit of irony music is made so much on screen that midi consoles in the spirit of hardware are used to aid in workflow. Now today you don't need an expensive workstation to make music, any computer you can buy at the store can run all the software you need out of the box, a lot of tracks these days are made by djs on the road on their laptops. These advancements have democratized the industry.

The advancement to emulation and digital processing as apposed to analog in a way has separated the artform from on vast polar opposites "Underground vs Commercial"

So what is mastering as it applies in these modern times? How it is done is by artist, its in our hands. We build things from the ground up and its all our own, for example Sander Van Doorn does all his processing and mastering with a UAD card and other plugins all digitally in Logic. He knows what works in a club and uses what he has perfected over the years. He also has his own sound and style because of the instinctual way he routes and processes sounds.

Alternatively, many pursue to get their tracks mastered by a third party or work with engineers to pretty much make the track themselves; robbing themselves of their own styles and the rewarding aspect of making dance music, learning the voodoo themselves. The use of engineers is a hot topic, I feel its a shortcut and all shortcuts lead to dead ends. The discouragement of the discipline of production leads people to resort to these things.

Modern mastering is not about making a track "fit" on a vinyl record but is now about giving a track a shine, grit and loudness comparable to other tracks. It is now possible to "get away" with a lot more these days and the rule now is ; If it sounds good use it. This is not something that needs (in most cases) to be played and sound good next to a Nickleback song on an FM station, TV or movie soundtrack.

As soon as you combine two sounds mastering has begun, mixing should be done as you go. you cant fix a kick and bassline in the master section if it sounds shit, garbage in garbage out. Mastering is not an exclusive end process.

Mastering these days is mostly about compression be it multi band compression, using a maximizer, brickwall limiting. Also added depending on the track you will see an highpass and lowpass EQ, mix saturator, Imager and a maximizer. There is no wrong way to do it in reason, theses mastering effects have been used in extreme values with good results. Examples of extreme compression values would be Justice and Skrillex, examples that would make veterans cringe but no doubt its still musical. See? Special effect.

With sample libraries geared for club music and processed accordingly they pretty much hold our hands, its very hard to make a track sound bad in a club. The key is to be overly critical of your sounds and get them tight in a mix and build a track outwards.
There is a large misconception that mastering will make a dull recording sound good and that it will fix anything. This is impossible and counterproductive, you will waste your time muddying up your track, plugins are not that magical yet. Software is only an algorithm and under the hood it does equations to the signal, it doesn't know what will make a track sound good. It is only a dumb window with knobs, and a tool for you to use in only as much values as needed. It takes a while to find you own way of things but it will pay off when you achieve your own unique style.

The way to do it is to get your naked mix sounding good then add your favorite mastering chain after, slowly boosting compression and loudness carefully and compare it to other tracks, do A/B comparisons on a good set of monitors. Instead of boosting the frequencies of the clap on the master buss you should try boosting them on the channel or reduce a bit from the kick. Too loud and distorted? Pull things down and find a harmony for what you are going for, DJs have a gain knob for a reason.

I was told many times that you should never master your own tracks, that it should be left a professional, you will fail and go to producer jail if you do. There are many peoples set ways and fetishes in dance music productions. There is no right way to put music out, no one really knows whats going on and its a good idea stay away from this elitism. As an example I was told that "trance music can only be made in logic and electro can only be made in windows"...

There are over 16,000 tracks released every week on dance music stores, music is and should be ours.