Production Q&A #4

1. Can you detail your process for getting big, warm bass, big kick drum, mixing them together and keeping them big without the inevitable frequency conflicts?

I think that a lot of times people struggle with this because they’re trying to fit a round peg into a square hole (or maybe that’s a sine wav into a square wav?). By that I mean, more often than not, when you choose the right sounds that compliment each other in the first place, they fit together in the mix quite easily. So I usually tell people to think up front about what sounds they want to use.

If you want a deep 808-style kick in your song, then obviously you need to be careful about what kind of bassline you write. Either by choosing a sound that sits a little higher in the frequency spectrum, or by writing the bassline that doesn’t sound when the kick is playing. That’s one reason off-beat basslines (one AND two AND three AND, etc) are so popular in dance music, they don’t interfere with the kick.

And the opposite is true as well. If you listen to dubstep or drum and bass where really deep and powerful basslines are more important, more often than not the kick is really bright and short. That way it can cut through the mix still, and not get drowned out by the bassline.

Of course, even if you do pay attention to this stuff, there’s just times when you need to get a little surgical to get everything to sit together perfectly on the low end. Side-chaining the bassline to the kick is a popular trend these days, it just pulls the level of the bassline down some when the kick hits. Done right, it can be a pretty transparent way of getting things to gel nicely. Alternatively, sometimes you can use EQ to notch out each sound so that things don’t clash too much. A few dB reduction in the frequency where the kick and bassline clash can be useful in some cases.

2. Why isn’t stem mastering used more? Does it sound worse than regular mastering?

I think historically stem mastering was frowned upon by mastering engineers for a few reasons. First, because a lot of times it just meant that the client was having trouble making up their mind, at a time when they need to really be getting everything nailed down and ready to release. If they can’t make up their mind if they like a mixdown or not, then likely they’re going to be the same way with the mastering process. Ultimately, it can just mean the client will be difficult to work with.

The second reason is that the mastering engineer is supposed to be looking at the big picture, the album as a whole and how it all fits and sounds together. When they’re stuck having to deal with a lot of stems, it’s more difficult to bounce between songs and get a feel for the songs and how they’ll fit into an album. You can’t get that overview of everything when there’s still so many details to focus on.

From a client perspective, stem mastering takes longer compared to normal mastering, so it’s usually more costly to go this route. Clients rarely like paying more money after all

I think today things are a little different, since so much of the mastering and production process in general is singles driven. A lot of people only get one song mastered at a time, especially in the dance community, so some mastering engineers are more open to the idea of stem mastering. There’s still some ME’s who swear it doesn’t belong in the mastering process, but I know that I personally am fine with it, provided the client is willing to pay the extra cost involved.

As for does it sound worse, I don’t think so. On one hand it gives the ME a lot more flexibility in how they can fix any issues or make improvements, so you could say it could sound better. On the other hand, it also means that the ME is going to be making a lot more of the decisions in how the final product sounds too, so there’s less of the uniqueness that the artists brings to the table.

Generally I think that stem mastering is one of those things better left to the ME to decide. If they hear some issues that just can’t be best sorted in normal mastering, and they aren’t sure the producer has the tools or experience to handle it on their end, then perhaps stem mastering is the way to go.

3. How important is the acoustic treatment of the studio, in particular the treatment of bass? Is it fundamental for the production, or is it something that’s just nice to have if you can?

I’m pretty biased on this, but I think that having acoustic treatment in the studio can be one of the best things you can do for your music making. I’d go so far as to say it can sometimes be more important than what kind of monitors you use even. Everything you do, every decision you make in the production process is going to be affected by what you hear in your studio. When you have all sort of audio reflections interfering with that, or your room is a shape that just doesn’t allow you to hear things like they will sound on other systems, it can be a real problem.

I always tell people who are asking for monitor recommendations to split their monitor budget in half. Spend half on the monitors themselves, and half on some acoustic treatment, and overall you’ll end up with a much better investment of that money.

And the good news about acoustic treatment, is that it often doesn’t take a lot to make a big difference, especially when we talk about early reflections. Additionally, there’s a lot of DIY info available on how to make your own to save some money too. Here’s a good place to start when it comes to understanding acoustic treatment, or how to build your own:

http://www.soundonsound.com/forum/postlist.php?Cat=&Board=DESIGN

Also check these sites as well:

http://www.acoustics101.com/

http://www.realtraps.com/articles.htm

Finally, if you do decide to purchase acoustic treatment instead of making your own, I highly recommend GIK Acoustics:

http://www.gikacoustics.com

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Well, that’s it for this week’s Q&A session, hope some people found this useful. As always, if you have a question you want me to answer, send me an email or post it in the comments below.

Tarekith

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