Production Q&A #1

One of the ideas I’ve been toying with is a monthly Q&A on the blog, where I field questions from people on different aspects of the production process. Who knows, if it gets popular enough, maybe I’ll do it every week. And of course, these answers are just my own personal opinions based on my experience. I’m in no way suggesting my thoughts are the only way to approach things, so be sure to experiment and find out what works best for you too.

So, to kick things off, here’s some of the questions I received this week:

Q: What level should bass and kicks be compared to the rest of the song in a dance track? How do you EQ or master bass? – Bobby Benninger

A: I don’t really think that there’s a set in stone level that one can aim for when approaching this sort of thing. There’s a ton of different kicks out there that you’ll use in writing music, and they all have different levels of their own. An 808-style sub kick is going to show a different reading on your meters than a miked and recorded acoustic kick drum, even when both are set to the same track volume fader setting. And some styles of music have different focus points as well. The bassline in dubstep might be really loud compared to the bassline in a downtempo track for instance.

I think the main thing to worry about, as always, is that you’re not clipping your master channel first and foremost. So you need to set the kick and bass at a low enough level that you can add all the other instruments during your mixdown without seeing clipping on the master. I cover this somewhat in my mixdown guide:

http://tarekith.com/assets/mixdowns.html

Generally I like to start with a nice kick and bassline balance where the master meter is peaking about -8 or -10dBFS. Generally that seems to leave me enough headroom that when I add the rest of the instruments, I still have plenty of safety margin on the master channel. If you see clipping on the master though, then just pull all of the channel faders down by the same amount and keep working.

As far as EQing and processing bass parts, again it depends a lot on the type of bassline. A recorded bass guitar part generally can use a bit of compression to even things out and add a bit of weight, and sometimes a tiny bit of EQ boost from around 300z downwards to beef it up to the standards we’re used to today. Not a hard and fast rule of course, just in general.

Synth basses on the other hand I think people try to treat the same way, and more often than not it’s really not needed. In general a synth bass is much more consistent level wise, so you don’t need as much compression, if any at all. EQing synth bass is usually the opposite of acoustic or electric basses, they generally have too MUCH low end. Especially in the subsonic range below 30-40Hz, you can get a lot of energy down there that’s not doing much but eating up your headroom, so it’s worth using a spectrum analyzer to take a look. Sometimes a simple high-pass filter on this one part means you don’t need to high-pass the whole track later on, and can generally sound better.

Q: In which Parts/ Instruments of a track do you normally use Compressor-work and where do you work with side-chain in these compressors? – Andi Grenze

A: Usually I only compress the parts of a track that I feel are just too dynamic to sit well in the mixdown. Vocals tend to be prime example, unless the artist already volume matched and leveled all the different phrases, so I like to reach for some optical style compression to even those out as cleanly as possible. Every once in awhile I’ll hear a bassline in a mixdown I’m working on that needs just a little bit more solidity to it, and some compression to tame the peaks can offer that. Guitars and lead synths are another example that comes to mind, things that people have played by hand in a really dynamic fashion, intentional or not. I don’t try and compress everything that’s dynamic though, as this is one aspect that gives music a lot of feeling and emotion. But if I think some of the quieter notes are getting lost, or some of the louder notes are just peaking too much for the mix, I’ll use as little compression as possible to try and reign those in.

I’ll be honest, I’m not really a fan of side-chain compression myself. It’s a useful tool when trying to get certain elements that don’t want to gel (or weren’t played/recorded well) to fit together. But as a “sound”, I think it’s getting as played out as the AutoTune thing is, in dance music especially. It’s been many years since Benny Benassi made it so popular with “Satisfaction”, and people are still chasing it down like it’s a magic element they HAVE to have for a good and loud mix.

I think my biggest issue with it is just that so many people don’t have accurate enough monitoring to do it right, and the second I ask them to remove it (in the case of my clients), things often sound 10x better. So much of that technique is governed by really low frequencies, that all too often people think it sounds pumping on their speakers, but when you hear it on higher range monitors or in a club, the really low end is moving all the wrong ways at the wrong times, or it’s super muddy. Kind of the opposite of the intent then.

So in general I would say first do your best to just record and mix the low end elements well on their own, more often than not you can get the sound you’re after that way much, much easier. I’m probably not the best person to ask about this I guess :)

Q: With so much of the production process being pushed back on the artist these days, why is mastering still the one area where people are increasingly told to seek a pro? – Tom Fordi

A: Yeah, it’s been interesting the last couple of years how it does seem that more and more people are recommending professional mastering compared to earlier years, I’ve noticed this too. In the past it was something that was almost exclusively done by those releasing albums or with a label paying for it, but it seems more and more individual producers are turning to others for help with singles and solo projects as well.

Regardless of my own views on it, I know that there are some people out there who will never, ever have someone else master their music. Whether it’s a cost issue, or the fact that they want to handle ALL aspects of their music, some people just don’t see the need. That’s fine, it’s one reason I wrote a mastering guide even though I do this for a living:

http://tarekith.com/assets/mastering.html

From talking to my clients, I think these are the main reasons more people are recognizing the benefit of getting someone else to fine-tune things at the end:

– Poor monitoring. People realize how much their monitoring or acoustics are affecting what they do. Or all they have is headphones to work in, for various reasons. They don’t have the time to try their songs out on lots of other systems and try to fine-tune the mix, so they go to someone who already has this covered.

– Loss of objectivity. As an artist writing your own music, you NEED to be in the moment and worrying about the feeling of what you’re writing. Focusing on each minute aspect, tweaking every little thing, it can be hard to step back and look at the big picture of how things sound overall. Especially when you’re talking about a release with more than one track where you want some type of coherency.

– Pride in their work. They may not have a record deal yet (or ever), but people know once something goes online it’s out there forever. You never who or when someone will listen to it, and some artists don’t want to look back on their earlier works years later and think “eek, nice ideas but it sounds awful”.

– Lack of skill. It’s not a bad thing at all, but some people are just really good at writing songs but know they lack the production skills to present them in the best way possible. It takes years and years of daily practice to get really good at this, and they’d rather continue to focus on the writing aspect.

– Learning opportunity. Some artists might not always use a mastering engineer, but they like to get it done professionally every now and then as a sort of yardstick to see where their own skills are. They’ll try self-mastering it, and then compare the results with a professional job to see what the differences are and learn from it.

– To compete. As more and more up and coming producers are trying to break into the scene and get signed, they’re realizing that they are competing for label attention with producers who may have a lot better gear and a lot more experience. So they want a professional master just to make sure their writing skills and the song itself are what get noticed, not the overall sound quality.

Anyway, I could write pages and pages on this as it’s important to me obviously, but I’ll just leave it at those few reasons for now. Broadly, I think that as more and more people do most of the writing and recording process themselves, there’s a realization that there’s still a place for someone more experienced to help them out. Mastering just happens to be the cheapest and usually the most convenient place to get that sort of help in this day and age, definitely the best bang for your buck.

Ok, so I’m realizing that my replies to these questions are running longer than I intended, so I think I’m going to stop there for this Q&A session. If you like this sort of thing, please let me know in the comments and I’ll continue to do these on a regular basis. Feel free to send me questions via email as well for next time.

For those of you following my adventures preparing my new live set, things are almost prepped and ready to record (finally)! I hope to have something for everyone to listen to in a week or two at most, so stayed tuned!

Don’t forget you can also follow me on Facebook and Twitter now, links to which you can find in the upper right hand of this website.

Thanks, and as always, peace and beats.

Tarekith http://tarekith.com

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