For my AUS230 Major Project, I decided to test and hone my mastering skills by mastering three pre-mastered songs as well as produce, mix (both in stereo and in 5.1) and master a dubstep track titled “Phoenix”. The aim this trimester, was to learn how to master music both objectively and subjectively and also have a look at 5.1 mixing.
The Mastering Project
One of the main things I wanted to learn in the degree was mastering. Prior to this unit, I did not know exactly what mastering was other than that it is the final stage in the studio production process. I also thought that mastering simple made a track sound louder. After understanding the basics of mastering, I realised I had to be more gentle with my masters to let the dynamic range of the songs breathe (with the exception of EDM, which I will get into soon).
For this part of the project I mastered three already mixed songs, “Sweet Aunt of Mine” by Tom Fisher & The Layabouts, “Blister In the Sun” by Palm Soma (the version which I recorded live and mixed at SAE last tri) and “Movin’ On” by Emuzen & Nerdology. After I mastered all three songs, I put them into a DDP through the software Triumph. Here’s all three songs below. “Sweet Aunt of Mine” and “Blister in the Sun” were mastered completely in SAE’s Mastering Suite via Pro Tools while “Movin’ On” was mastered at home via Ableton Live on my JBL LSR 308 monitors. In addition, I referenced on my Sennheiser HD 380 Pro Headphones, my car speakers as well as the Focal speakers in the mastering suite.
Overall, all mastered tracks sounded good, they both registered around -12 LuFs on iZotope Insight. In fact, my former AUS220 lecturer sent the “Sweet Aunt of Mine” master to Tom Fisher himself. Fisher didn’t like the mix (which was done by another student) but loved the master and I may be redoing the master once that student submits a better mix.
The “Blister in the Sun” master was purely subjective and as such I didn’t use any reference tracks. The goal was to make it sound as good as I, the producer wanted. My peers thought it sounded good, but looking back with hindsight, I could have made it a bit louder to capture the raw enmergy of Palm Soma.
“Movin’ On” did sound a bit overcompressed especially to my peers, but after doing research, realised that it was appropriate given overcompression is part of the EDM sound, especially because it contributes to the punch and impact of the song. (Minnick 2013). I also used Boyz Noise’s “What you Want” as a reference and felt I could have made the master wider, but it still sounded good nonetheless.
Ultimately, I enjoyed using the mastering hardware particularly the Dangerous Compressor and Buzz Audio EQ, and seeing I can master at home, I can see myself doing mastering as a profession in the future.
Dubstep Project (Phoenix)
The vocals were recorded by Tri 4 student Danielle Carlow (a.k.a. Emuzen who gave me “Movin’ On” to practice my mastering on) in SAE’s Custom 75 studio. As usual, I chose the AKG C414 XLS to record her vocals as that has worked well with female vocalists in the past. Interestingly we worked very well in the studio and as she is a producer herself, she knew what I wanted out of her performance i.e. I was able to give her advice on how to sing the lyrics. Here’s the song below:
The song was produced, mixed and mastered at home using Ableton Live and my JBL’s as monitors. I used VST plugins, Serum, FM8 and Massive for the synths, and some drums I made and sampled. I used ValhallaVintageVerb as my reverb and Dubstation for my Delay as well as Fabfilter Pro-Q2 as my main EQ. All plugins were used in conjunction with Ableton’s stock plugins. I also used Illformed Glitch to make some weird ‘glitchy fx’. I used Virtual Riot’s “We’re Not Alone” and Seven Lions feat. Fiora “Days To Come” as references for production, mixing and mastering.
As for mastering, the mid-side EQ plugin, Bx Digital V3 was the main weapon in my mastering chain and it helped create space and depth in the master; I learned that mid-side processing can help with “challenging mastering sessions” (Volans 2013). I used Fabfilter Pro-Q2 to slightly notch any unwanted frequencies and finally used Fabfilter Pro-L as my limiter. Surprisingly, adding Dada Life’s Sausage Fattener before the limiter actually helped give the track more impact (often in EDM, Sausage Fattener has a pretty bad reputation, especially in mastering). Compared to my reference tracks, the master sounded pretty good and I was pleased with it. My peers noticed that the drums were punchy and the track didn’t sound too overcompressed.
After the stereo mix was complete, I exported the individual tracks to mix them in 5.1 surround sound. I used SAE’s C24 studio via Pro Tools HD with the aim of creating a wide an immersive soundtrack. For some unexplained reason (which may have something to do with how I exported it), some elements like my “glitch fx” and filtering on the synth leads didn’t show up. But as I was nearing the end of my tri, I decided to mix in 5.1 anyway as I was more concerned with how to use Pro Tools HD’s 5.1 surround panner.
Having no experience in mixing 5.1, let alone a track, I was given the advice of just doing what sounded good i.e. panning where it suits me and also using the stereo mix as a starting point (Gearslutz 2010). I had fun sending the sub bass to the subwoofer, sending the various reverb and delay busses to the surrounds, putting the vocals in the centre and just moving things around to create space. Eventually, the track started to sound as deep and wide as I wanted. Although my 5.1 mixing still needs some work, it was fun learning more about it in depth and the mix sounded good given it was my first time. I may pursue 5.1 mixing in the future, maybe even in post-production (which I am typically not a fan of).
Overall, I feel in this trimester I have become more effective as an audio engineer. Through doing this unit, I am now able to create a track from the production and recording stage to the final mastering stage. I will now be working on my major project: completing a four-track concept EP using the skills I’ve learned during my time at SAE.
Gearslutz. (2010). Anyone mixing in 5.1.? Retrieved 24 August, 2016, from https://www.gearslutz.com/board/so-much-gear-so-little-time/542151-anyone-mixing-music-5-1-a.html
Minnick, P. (2013). The Loudness War in EDM. Retrieved 24 August, 2016, from https://roboticpeacock.com/the-loudness-war-in-edm/
Volans, M. (2013). 5 tips for Mastering EDM. Retrieved 24 August, 2016, from https://ask.audio/articles/5-tips-for-mastering-edm