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Creating a Song - Mixing & Mastering (Part Two)

In the second part of this three part Blog, I go over some mixing and mastering processes.

Good or bad, right or wrong, these days I like to bit-part song write - that is, I start a song with no real idea in mind and work on the song section by section. Although this hasn't always been my main mode for composition it's my main approach today. In contrast, while writing songs for my jazz projects (Secret Obsession, In Your Dreams, That Old Feeling, Now & Then, and These Few Moments), I always take an old school approach to writing: guitar in hand, pencil & eraser, notation paper, and creativity.

These days, however, I've embraced the process of writing and recording a verse, then a chorus, then maybe an intro; composing and recording my song in sections and in no particular order. Of course, this writing method is an exercise in refinement and almost always requires constantly doubling back and revising and editing each section. Using this song writing method, I find, my DAW (Digital Audio Workstation) becomes both a compositional tool as well as a recording device.

But I digress. This Blog is supposed to be about mixing and mastering your song so here goes:

Mixing A Song


As I also mentioned in part one of this Blog, I use Apple's Logic Pro X as my DAW. Having tried almost all the various DAWs out there I've found that all DAWs do pretty much the same thing - only differently. Basically, the one you're most comfortable with maybe the one best suited for you. After all, DAW's are just tools to pull your song together and produce something listenable.

1. Volume, Panning, & Placement:

Once I have my song composition and arrangement near finished, typically, the very next thing I will do is establish "levels." I'll normally start by playing the song back several times to dial in some rough volume and panning settings. Once I'm happy with the basic levels and panning only then will I start on EQing each of the tracks.

Volume-Panning-Mixer Board Image
Setting the initial volume and panning for a song. As you can see, I'm also a big advocate for organization and color coding.

Automation Screen
Automating the volume of the Vocal Track near the completion of the mixing process.

2. Equalization:

At the start of the EQ'ing process, I decide what is the most important element of my song. Usually, it's a no-brainer as it's almost always the vocal track and/or the lead/solo instrument. This doesn't mean it has to be the loudest element in the song but it does need to have a special place in the frequency spectrum and mix.

If the song features a lead vocal, I will typically EQ it to sound it's best then build the rhythm section (Drums, Bass, etc.), around it. I won't get too technical here, but as the lead instrument, I want the vocal to come across sounding great and cutting through the other instruments in a complimentary way.

Here's the funny thing about mixing; sometimes I contradict my own methodology by mixing the rhythm section first and fitting the vocal in. Frankly, my approach really depends on how I feel about the song and what my (or my client's) goal for the song is. Either way, I really want that vocal, or main instrument, to clearly deliver it's message. In the end, it really is a creative process. If one method doesn't work for me I'll try another approach.

3. Compression:

Once I have each of the parts and sections of the songs EQ'd to suit, I will typically add compression to help restrain any uneven transients (uneven volume levels), or just too add a little "punch" to an instrument/track.

4. Effects:

Only at the end of the mixing process do I worry about adding effects - like reverb, delay, chorus, etc. For instance, I'll use reverb to add depth to certain elements of the music. I love reverb but I really do try to use it sparingly as too much in the wrong place can quickly muddy up a good mix.

Just as panning is great for positioning your tracks to the left, center or right, reverb (or the lack of), is great for positioning a sound to the back or front of a mix. Of course, adding effects is all about the plan you have for your song and how you want it to sound.

ChromaVerb Screen Capture
Logic's ChromaVerb set to a room environment. Room/short reverbs decay faster leaving things sounding more open.

5. Mastering:

Mastering doesn't mean quite the same thing these days as it did in the early/vinyl years of recording. In the past, and at it's basics, mastering was all about taming a song's frequencies so the stylus/needle wouldn't jump out of the grooves of the vinyl record.

Today, mastering is all about enhancing the and refining the frequencies of a song, much the same as yesteryear, sure, but instead of worrying about controlling the low-end so the needle doesn't jump out of the record's groove, it's about controlling the low-end so as not to blow out your speakers or muddy your entire song's mix. Of course, mastering is so much more than the simple explanation I just mentioned, it's also about adding polish to the song and preparing it for play on the different media delivery systems - CD, radio, streaming, etc.

Each song will require a unique mastering solution; depending on how it was mixed and the target media platform. When I master songs, it's very much about "subtractive" equalization - that is, surgically removing any frequencies that may be causing nasty overtones or generally adding "mud" to the overall sound. In addition to enhanced EQ'ing (subtraction or addition), I will use light compression to add "glue" to the mix. The term "glue" means just what it says, it's a way of making the finished song sound cohesive. Finally, I will add a Limiter plugin to bring the volume up to the recommended standards of a CD, iTunes, Amazon, Spotify, Pandora, etc.

6. Plugins:

In regards to mixing plugins, you can use them to help to sonically sculpt your recordings, and speaking as a plugin junkie who's purchased tons of 3rd party plugins (EQ's, Reverbs, Compressors, Modulation Effects, Delays, etc.), the best plugin is the one you know best. Seriously, they basically all do the same thing and, 9 times out of 10, the only difference might be various features and interface design.

Stay tuned for part three of this extended Blog where I'll discuss package design and distribution avenues.

Thanks for reading my Blog. I hope you found it interesting. Please don't hesitate to write me if I can answer any questions about this song, the recording of it, or any other of my songs. And also, please don't forget to sign up to be notified of new posts.

Sincerely. Bob McCarroll.

As part of my recording business I offer recording, mixing, mastering, photography and design services - hence ""

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