In the Studio, one can be faced with an array of decisions. Especially when we are the ones Producing, Mixing, and Mastering our own material. This experience is quite similar to a Screen Writer who also Acts and Edits their own film. At some point they are going to completely need to remove themselves and take on the role.
This can be arguable. Some people thrive on the chaos of being everything at once. Others prefer to hyperfocus on a specific role or task. For people like me, it helps to fully immerse yourself into a Single Role. This means dividing your workflow into 3 separate mindsets.
The Music Producer
This mindset requires that you are enjoying making music and able to channel your emotions and express yourself using a physical medium. This means doing whatever it takes to take on the role of being an artist. Similar to Acting, this requires that you have Confidence with your Role. This process generally shouldn’t be difficult, or forced. Inspiration comes from all sorts of places, and using multiple Reference Tracks can help you gain new ideas and utilize common structure.
The most thinking you should be doing is determining the BPM and/or Key Signature. BPM‘s can help your track Mix better with similar songs when DJ’s play them live. (If that’s your thing) It can also help you structure your track to the commercial standard. This can be useful if you want to preform Live. Key Signatures are less important, but can be helpful if you want to be played alongside a particular song. (Writing for Performance)
Considering what Frequency Range each Element you add takes up can help a lot with making space. An example would be if you had 10 different Bass tracks playing at the same time, things would get hectic and muddy. It is a good idea to have different octave elements so your Production sounds well balanced. It can help to relate your Sound Design to members of a traditional band. (There is a reason traditional bands don’t have 15 Bass Players and 27 Guitarists!) Additionally, if you are making Cinematic Music, it can help to relate your Sounds to an Orchestra. Every frequency has a balance.
Another important Question to think is where will your Track be played?
(Will your song be played at an Arena, a Nightclub or a Lounge?)
Again, these things are extremely subjective! Find what works for you. Everybody makes Art differently and there shouldn’t be any definitive Rules, unless you are trying to follow a specific ‘Genre’ or ‘Sound’.
Levels shouldn’t really matter at this stage. I would suggest at most using light shelving to remove some excess bass frequencies under 70Hz, as needed. It can help using Native Plug-ins, as they are light on CPU, and keep you in the “Producer” mindset. Obviously seeing red on your meters isn’t good, but your focus should be on developing your sounds, and the structure/arrangement. Try your best to not worry about the Mixing at this stage. Focus on creating. There are times when a Synth sounds more aggressive turned up all the way. A simple Utility Plug-in can help bring the Level back down to a manageable level.
Just remember to bring the Levels down to give yourself a few dB of headroom before you Export your Stems into Audio.
Here is an example of ‘Typical’ Headroom:
Your Exported Stems shouldn’t ever look like this:
They definitely shouldn’t look like this either:
The Mixing Engineer
Now it is time to put on your “Mixing Hat”. This means converting everything to Audio Files. (No more MIDI tracks!) Now it’s time to pull out those fancy Third Party Mixing Plug-ins. This time we are focusing more on cleaning up the mess we made while creating. Similar to a painter washing their hands after they have finished a work of art. The goal here is to Meter everything. Loudness does not matter at this Stage. If you are saddened by the lack of Volume, turn up your Speakers.
The Mixing Engineer is similar to a Video Editor, as now our goal is to remove excess and focus on the important pieces. Most material you are given should get a smaller Frequency Response during this stage. This means using EQing to diffuse low end, and Sidechaining to blend similar energies.
Your goal during this stage is to make the song as best as possible by manipulating the content that you are given. In the end, your track should tell a story. The Mixing Engineer should keep each part interesting, and ensure that the listener is clearly aware of the Main Focus.
It’s also important to be watching Gain Reduction Meters. Blending Digital Processing with Virtual Analog Processing will help give your Mix clarity and realism.
Remember every Mix has it’s Limitations. Not every song is an ideal situation, and there are times when removing information is far more important than adding more. Each Element must be Mixed based on the other Elements within the Song. Sometimes removing excessive bass from multiple elements can allow the song to sound bassier!
– If you have Produced the track, I would NOT suggest going back to the Production Stage and start adding parts. Work with what you have, and if you are that unhappy you can make a VIP edit after you release it. The goal here is finishing the mix.
(Remember your end Premaster goal is somewhere between -3dBFS and -6dBFS)
The Mastering Engineer
Now it is time to be the Mastering Engineer. This means quality control is the first priority. This Mix is now finished and what we are left with is a Single Piece of Audio.
The Mastering Engineer’s job is to bring the Mix to life, while meeting whatever Specified Loudness Standards are needed. If you want to process something, you must remember that every element in the song will be Processed. Everything at this point is a finesse, a little goes a long way.
Ideally, the Mastering Engineers job is to simply adjust the volume.
However, 99% of Mixes are not ideal.
This means you will have to apply some kind of Effect Processing. I suggest first cleaning the Audio (Digital Reductive), then Texturizing it (Virtual Analog Additive), and finally meeting Loudness Standards. (Balancing Levels). Remember everybody has their own way of doing things, and no Master will ever be the same.
The skill of Mastering is best learned over time, by hands-on experience and understanding how things should sound, and how loud levels should be. It helps to know how the Audio will React when you do something to it. This can only be learned with Practice. Visual Meters are your best-friend, but nothing beats Listening with your Ears.
Studio Mindsets play an important role in Finishing Projects, as well as keeping a cool-head during each Stage. At first it can be hard to fully immerse yourself into a Role, however with practice things will start to happen more naturally.
Quick Guide –
Producing: Focus on the Elements and the Structure
Mixing: Focus on Peak Meters, RMS Meters, GR Meters, and Spectral Analyzers
Mastering: Focus on Listening, VU Meters, M/S Meters, Vectorscopes, Spectragrams, True Peak Meters, Phase Correlation Meters, and Loudness Metering
Again, this like all things are Subjective. Maybe you work better doing all three simultaneously. But for somebody like me, this helps me ensure that I’ve given my full potential to each Stage before moving on. Additionally, if you are too OCD, you could hire somebody to Mix & Master your own Productions, or just find Producers to Engineer for. There is nothing wrong with whichever workflow you decide is best for you. After all, the goal is to finish and release the Music. Hope this helps!