Posted tagged ‘Sound Mixing’


February 13, 2012

TCM Mastering: Home Music Studio Tips and Information

Part 50 Mixing Piano

Over the last three weeks in the TCM Mastering Home Music Studio blog series, we covered Acoustic, Electric and Bass Guitars in the mix. This week we move onto the Piano.

The piano can be acoustic (grand or upright), electric or software based samples. In addition there are a number of synth keyboards on the market that contain piano presets and samples.

Always Ensure The Piano Is Properly Tuned Before Recording.

We discussed various techniques for recording the piano in this earlier blog. However, some important points worth remembering are…..make sure the instrument is properly tuned before recording, listen to how the musician plays the piano and how he/she wants it to sound whilst making sure any rattles or squeaks from pedals have been dealt with.

The sound of the piano in the mix depends on the type and make of instrument, the player, the room, the mic type and technique used and whether you recorded it in stereo or mono, close or distant? Solo concert grands can often benefit from mic placements a little distant (providing you have a decent room to record in). This allows the sound of the instrument to develop before being captured by the mics, giving a more natural stereo picture.

In A Band Scenario You Can Improve Separation By Turning The Open Piano Lid Away from The Other Instruments And Using Acoustic Panels.

Pianos in a band setup will tend to be more closely miked. To increase separation, turn the open piano lid away from the other instruments as much as possible and place acoustic screens or panels between them.

Bear in mind that even though some recording techniques employ a very close placement of mics, we rarely listen to a piano up close. So try to think about how you want the piano to sound in the mix, as you record it.

Kemble Upright, Steinway Grand & Yamaha Digital Piano.

All pianos have different tonal characteristics which means that some instruments will sound better than others for certain genres of music. It’s not a hard and fast rule. Obviously, you can use any instrument for any song type or musical piece, but some like the grand piano have come to be accepted as the instrument of choice for classical music because of its varied tone, huge pitch range and dynamic response…..the modern concert grand can span 8 octaves and go from piano (soft) to forte (loud), hence its full name – pianoforte.

Is your music mix more Jerry Lee Lewis than Chick Corea, more Diana Krall than Carole King or more Scott Joplin than Lang Lang? The choice of instrument (or sample) and playing style will go a long way to make the mix sound convincing if you’re aiming for a definitive sound. Are you emulating a certain established style e.g. honky tonk, or are you trying to create a completely new sound?

The role of a piano in a mix depends greatly on whether the instrument is the main focus of attention or if it’s merely a supportive instrument along with others to the lead vocal, for example. If you recorded the piano in stereo, how wide and where you pan the piano will depend upon what else is going on in the mix.

Panning The Piano Wide Across The Stereo Image, Can Result In A Distracting, Sometimes Gimmicky Effect.

In a classical setting, the solo piano is rarely given a very wide stereo pan. If the piano is a solo instrument or the only instrument in a rock song you could try panning it, say 11 to 1 or 10 to 2 o’ clock. Panning hard left and right could be very distracting to the listener.

Remember, imaging that sounds subtle over a pair of speaker monitors can become much more extreme over headphones. And many people listen to their music over headphones these days from laptops and iPods etc.

In budget consoles, different pan pots can often vary by up to 10 per cent in their accuracy when setting their positions visually. So, for example, a 10 to 2 o’ clock position visually could actually be more like a 10 to 3 o’ clock spread aurally. Therefore, it’s very important to position your instruments in the stereo picture using your ears and not your eyes.

12 Segment LED Metering – Always Mix With Your Ears And Not Your Eyes.

The same applies to level meters. With budget LED ladder metering you could be persuaded into thinking that two meters peaking to the same visual level are the same aurally…’re more than likely to be wrong. Each LED step or segment could account for several dB gain. So mix levels with your ears too and not your eyes.

If it’s a supportive instrument you could try panning slightly left and right (from say 11 to 1 o’ clock) either side of the lead instrument or vocal. Positioning it in the centre could pose a problem if there is a lead vocal. In this scenario it might sound less confusing if it’s positioned left or right in mono.

And always check for any phase problems if you use more than one mic on the instrument.

Listen to various panning options, compare how the piano is treated on some of your favourite songs and seek feedback from other musicians.

EQ On A Bosendorfer Featuring Piano, Choir & Strings.

When it comes to applying EQ to a piano sound, some instruments will be naturally brighter than others. So you have to use your ears and judgement to determine if the piano needs help in the upper frequencies or suppressing. This applies equally to acoustic, electric or samples.

For example, acoustic pianos vary greatly from one manufacturer to the next. The dampers, hammers and types of strings all contribute to the sound. Some instruments are bright whilst others could sound dull in comparison.

EQ On A Steinway In A Busy Rock Mix – The Severe Bass Cut Sounded A Bit Harsh In Isolation But Worked Well In The Mix.

The mood of your music is determined to a large extent by chord choice and lyric but can also be enhanced by subtle use of EQ and effects. If your music piece is dark and moody you may want to turn down the brightness of a piano by using a high-shelf EQ between 17-20 kHz. Conversely, if the piano sound is already dark or the song needs a brighter sheen, you can boost those same frequencies.

If the piano is part of a busy mix. you may want to apply a high-pass filter at around 200 Hz to suppress those low frequencies which could interfere with the kick and bass guitar.

Cutting around 3 kHz can help to reduce muddiness and interference with a guitar or vocal part. Boosting around 6 kHz by a few dB will add gloss or shine to the piano – useful for solos.

And remember if you’re recording an acoustic (upright or grand), try the piano in different positions in the room in order to find its optimum sound, before placing your mics and hitting record.

Left: Uncompressed Classical Piano. Right: Compressed PianoThe Waveform On The Right Shows A Piano With A 5:1 Compression Ratio, -20 dB Threshold, Attack & Release Times of 15 ms, Output Gain -6dB.

The piano can be very dynamic. So if it is one of many instruments in a song, you may need or want to even out the levels a bit in order for the instrument to sit comfortably in the mix. For solo classical recordings, little or no compression is normally used.

Listen carefully to the effect of a compressor. Start with gentle compression of around 2:1. Depending on the piece of music, you may want to keep the dynamics as much as possible, without individual notes jumping out. Set your attack and release so that there’s no audible pumping, but smooths out the levels to the point that you feel the compressor is achieving the right effect

For more information on the use of dynamic processing, click here.

Piano Before & After Compression.

This Digirack Compressor/Limiter Shows Input And Output Levels (In Green) As Well As Gain Reduction (In Orange).

For other songs you may want to squash the piano dynamics. Take a listen to the Beatles’ ‘Lady Madonna’. In this song the piano is quite heavily compressed, but it works for the song.

If you are working on a busy mix with lots of other instrumentation, there will be little room for a piano with long reverb. However, if your mix consists of solo piano, vocal and piano or a few instruments that typically do not sustain for very long, you may find that there is plenty of room to add verb and/or delay to the piano.

TL Space Pro Tools Reverb Plug-In.

If the piano is solo or heavily featured choose a reverb with lots of control over the various parameters and don’t forget to EQ the reverb to fit with the dry sound. Choose the size of the room and predelay that best matches the tempo of your song. A dance track with 100-120 bpm can’t support a long reverb decay. On the other hand, a slow ballad with sparse instrumentation might be able to support a decay of 1.5 seconds or longer.

And don’t forget, for each plug-in’s preset room size there are usually variable parameters. Small rooms have shorter decay times than large rooms. But you could try a small room with a long decay or a large room with short decay.

Revibe TDM Reverb Plug-In.

Predelay seems to work well with piano because of the instrument’s percussive characteristics. This parameter makes the reverb more pronounced by leaving a space before the reflections are heard. For a slow ballad type song start out with 120 ms of predelay. Shorten the predelay for faster songs.

In the studio, classical piano performances are not usually recorded with close mic techniques. This means that the acoustics of the room will get included in the recording, giving the instrument some natural reverb.

Sometimes natural reverb is lacking in samples or some digital piano sounds. So providing the song can take it, a little reverb or delay can help. Other effects have been used to produce memorable sounds with electric pianos over the years.

The Classic Fender Rhodes Defined Keyboard Sound For A Generation.

The classic Fender Rhodes piano has a fine history of being used with various effects. The Wah-wah pedal was used in many early jazz fusion recordings by Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea. Whilst Billy Joel and Simon Garfunkel used a phase shifter to add body to their keyboard sound on ‘Just The Way You Are’ and ‘Still Crazy After All These Years’ respectively.

The Wah-wah effect used with the Hohner Clavinet by Stevie Wonder on his huge hit ‘Higher Ground’, was another classic example of a keyboard sound. And Jan Hammer who came to the public’s attention through the Mahavishnu Orchestra and later found fame with Miami Vice, introduced audiences to the ring modulator.

Incidentally, if you’re a Stevie Wonder fan I found this interesting article which looks at how Stevie’s hit ‘Superstition’ was put together using only 16 tracks, 8 of which were Clavinet. It includes mp3s of the various component tracks – drums, clavinet, horns and vocals – a fascinating look at what can be done with a few good instruments and players.

Stevie Wonder & Jan Hammer Made Use Of Classic Keyboards.

As a song or piece of music develops, you may find that EQ or effects settings that worked well at the beginning of the piece, don’t work as well as the track becomes more busy or powerful. Adjustments will need to be made. This can be done manually as and when required or by using the automation in your software programme to adjust panning, EQ or effects.

So play around with EQ settings, effects pedals and plug-ins that come with your software until you create a combination that works for you and your music.

Next, we’ll look at Horns in the mix.

TCM Music Group and TCM Mastering provide full recording, mixing, mastering and production services from their facilities in the UK and Nashville, USA. For more information, click here.



January 30, 2012

TCM Mastering: Home Music Studio Tips and Information

Part 48 Mixing Guitars – Electric

Last week in the TCM Mastering Home Music Studio series, we discussed Acoustic Guitars. This week and next, we’ll continue looking at Electric and Bass guitars in the mix stage.

There have been many signature guitar sounds – a couple that spring immediately to mind are Hendrix and Santana. But there are several other musicians who have developed their own sound and style…..Les Paul, Eric Clapton, Joe Satriani, Mark Knopfler, Django Reinhardt, Bert Jansch, Segovia, B.B. King, Chet Atkins, Pat Metheny or Paco De Lucia. Whilst bassists like Stanley Clarke, Jaco Pastorious or John Myung stand out in their field.

Each of the players above have acquired their own sound and style of playing in their chosen genre, over several years.

To achieve your own sound/style, you have to be prepared to experiment and make your own mistakes. Persist with the things that you like and drop the contributing factors to your sound that you hate and replace them with better elements until you eventually end up with your unique signature.

In other words, if you’re an electric guitarist don’t settle for the first sound that comes out of your amp. Try out as many different guitars as you can, effects pedals and amps, try different gauge strings, pick or fingerstyle…..there are so many things that make up a guitar sound.

When it comes to recording, there are also a whole host of factors that determine the sound of electric and bass guitars – the instrument itself (pick-ups and construction both contribute to the sound), the amp, the player, various DI techniques, how the amp was miked and how much processing was used.

Recording engineers favour recording a clean signal separate from any processing, because it allows more control in the mix. However, guitar players usually want to hear something that comes close to the final sound as they record – what they hear affects how and what they play.

As the performance is always the most important aspect of any sound, whenever possible, it’s advisable to record the clean guitar signal on one track and record any processing on another, whilst feeding the player a mixture of whatever combination he/she needs to hear in their headphone mix.

It’s important to try to capture as close to the raw sound of the guitar that you want in your recording, before you add any effects. Electric (and bass) guitars are often processed quite heavily in modern music genres, but you still need a good raw sound to work with. We covered recording electric and bass guitars in this blog.

Weak, Clipped & Good Signal Level.

It’s also imperative that the guitars are in tune, as free from noise as possible and at a healthy but not excessive recording level. The electric (and bass) guitar can be a very loud instrument, especially when used in conjunction with certain effects like overdrive/distortion etc. So any unwanted source noise generated by the guitar (even with noise-cancelling pick-ups) is going to be amplified too. Get it right in the recording stage and it’s less to worry about in the mix.

If you decide to use a gate to remove noise from the signal, make sure you place the gate first in the chain before reverb or delay effects. If you position the gate after the effects it will undoubtedly cut off the very effects you’re adding.

High & Low Pass Filters.

Low-pass filters can help enormously to reduce unwanted hiss/noise from electric guitars, high-pass filters are good for getting rid of rumble and low hums – just take time to set them up so that only the offending parts of the signal are attenuated without detrimentally affecting the sound of the instrument. For more information on filters and EQ, click here.

An Example Of An EQ Curve For Electric Guitar.

As a general guide, use a high pass filter to cut out mains hum at 50 Hz (UK) or 60 Hz (USA) and anything up to around 80 Hz. Cutting at around 100 Hz can reduce muddiness. Fullness and warmth can be added by boosting between 150-250 Hz, but this range is also prone to boxiness so listen carefully to any adjustments. Whilst attack or punch can be added at 2.5-4 kHz. If you need to add brightness to the electric try a little 7 kHz.

If you’ve been following this blog series you’ll be fully aware that I regularly impress the importance of getting it right in the recording stage. It’s especially important if you’ve recorded other musicians who you cannot simply call up and ask to come back to redo a badly recorded performance.

Fixing it in the mix is not always an easy option.

Logic’s Guitar Amp Pro Plug-In – Used As An Amp Simulator And Reverb On Lily Allen’s Second Album, By Producer Greg Kurstin.

To give yourself more options in the mix, record your guitar through an emulator or basic amp/mic configuration (so that the player can get a good idea of what the guitar really sounds like) whilst splitting the signal to a DI box. Record the two signals to separate tracks.

Then when it comes to the mix, you could feed the DI’d track back through a much better tube amp (maybe hire or borrow a Mesa Boogie, Fender, Marshall etc) to take your sound beyond the emulator or  basic amp’s limited settings. There are some solid-state amps which are excellent, but in general a great tube amp will usually get my vote.

Guitar Compressor Pedals. There Are Also Many Plug-In Choices.

Subtle use of compression can often help an electric to stand out in a mix, for example, it can help to increase the sustain in an electric solo. Choosing the right compression ratio and threshold depends on the effect your after. An 8:1 ratio with a high threshold could be used to limit peaks in the playing. A more gentle 2:1 ratio might help to even out an erratic performance.

As a side effect of compression background noise will also be raised, so bear this in mind. And always listen carefully to make sure that over-compressing does not introduce pumping to the signal.

The attack time can be crucial in getting the right effect. Don’t always assume a fast attack is desirable. Sometimes a slight delay between the signal increase and compression starting gives a more natural, less muffled sound. If you hear unwanted distortion back off the attack a little, or lower the ratio or raise the threshold. Lowering the ratio and slowing the attack will allow some of the transients through before the ‘squashing’ of the compressor kicks in. Set the release time to give a smooth effect.

The Middle Section Of Waveform – Squashed Or Clipped And Most Likely Distorted.

A note on compression – if you find yourself applying compression or limiting to a guitar track, for example, just to keep the meters from overloading and as a result it sounds squashed; you might want to turn down the individual levels of all your tracks by a few dB so that you can reduce the compression on the guitar and maintain relative levels of all the tracks in your mix.

If you’re working in a DAW or other digital programme, you don’t have to worry too much about peaking your tracks to the ‘maximum’ or ‘optimum’ levels. As long as you’re close, the quality should be fine. Better to err on the side of ‘a little low’ than to have digital distortion from peaking too high.

Remember, the mastering stage will usually involve applying some compression to your mix as well as considering many other essential factors that will allow your music to compete with the professionals.

We’ll cover Mastering in an imminent future blog.

If you’d like more detail on dynamics and the use of compressors and gates, check out this blog.

Les Paul & Hendrix Masters Of Multitracking & Effects.

Providing you have recorded the clean guitar separate from any effects the performer might have wanted whilst playing, you now have the option of keeping those effect(s) and adding more or replacing the original effect(s) with any you wish to choose. If you only have a married track of guitar with effects, you’re stuck with the sound. In this case, your only option is to re-record the guitar part if you want something different from the original.

Take a look at TCM Mastering Home Music Blog Part 27 and Part 28 for more info on the use of effects processors.

If you want the guitar part to stand out and be upfront, be cautious with the use of too much reverb as this will distance the sound. Start with a short reverb, 1-1.5 seconds or so. Try different room sizes until you find the setting that works for the song. You could try a short reverb/small room setting panned slightly left and have a longer/plate or large hall setting off to the right.

With effects, what works depends on how busy the mix is. Do you want the instrument sounding close up or distant? How many guitar or other instrument parts are there? A long reverb with echo/delay (timed to the beat of the track) can provide a lush, spacious sound to a solo but there must be room in the mix/arrangement for it to work. A gentle chorus, flanger or phaser before the ‘verb can add interest to the sound.

Time permitting, try out as many different effects as possible. It’s the only way to find out what works and what doesn’t. This link is useful in explaining the different effects.

Listen to the Cure’s ‘Friday I’m In Love’ to hear chorus on strummed rhythm guitar. If you want to hear a flanger effect, take a listen to ‘Itchycoo Park’ by the Small Faces and for a phaser effect, check out Queen’s ‘Keep Yourself Alive’.

Remember, the more of anything that you add – whether it’s instruments and/or effects – the bigger the possibility of the mix sounding cluttered. So don’t rush this part of the process. Add one thing at a time. Take breaks to rest the ears. And ask others to listen and comment on the mix.

Similar sounding conflicting guitar parts can be panned separately, EQ’d differently or better still utilise different sounding amps (when recording) or rework the arrangements so that they both work together better.

In general, electrics with Humbucker pick-ups tend to produce a thicker sound than single coil pick-ups and are therefore better suited to sparse mixes with fewer instruments. The single coils are useful for cutting through busy mixes.

A great guitar sound, a good arrangement and a skillfully played part will go a long way to ‘making’ a song.

Next week we’ll look at the Bass Guitar.

If you have any questions so far, our contact details are here. We love to hear from you.

And don’t forget, TCM Mastering and TCM Music Group provide a professional, fast and affordable service to musicians of all genres.

If you have some songs that need producing, recording, mixing or mastering contact us for details on our rates and some incredible recording packages.

Make your music shine with TCM Mastering.


January 13, 2012


TCM Mastering and TCM Music Group provide a full and comprehensive service to the music industry. Check out this pre-Christmas blog showing our clients in 2011.

Originally started by multi-platinum record producer Ted Carfrae, today TCM is fronted by Ted in the UK and CJ Boggs in the USA.

Their aim is to provide a totally professional, fast and affordable service to all musicians, pro and amateur alike.

TCM Music Group have produced, mixed and mastered for some of the biggest names in the music business. They’ve worked with all the major record labels worldwide and as producers and engineers have amassed over 25 million in sales.

Most clients are repeat customers and over the years, many have become firm friends. Ted and CJ are particularly interested in helping, up and coming, new artists.

In the video below, Ted explains the essence of mastering and how TCM can help you make your music stand out from the crowd.

With facilities in both the UK as well as Nashville, USA – TCM offers production, recording, mixing, mastering and restoration services. There is a ‘recording package’ to suit every serious musician. So if you’re new to TCM drop us a line or call us. We’re happy to discuss anything musical and will help you in any way we can to bring your next music project to a successful conclusion.

L to R: Ted Carfrae, CJ Boggs & Troy Luccketta In The TCM Music Group Studio 1, Nashville.


January 9, 2012

TCM Mastering: Home Music Studio Tips and Information

Part 45 Mixing Drums

Over the last few weeks we’ve covered the various individual drums and cymbals that make up the drum kit. This week we’ll conclude our look at drums in the mix, by considering the use of the Overheads and Ambience tracks.

Overheads: Spaced Pair.

We’ve mentioned the Overheads a few times and alluded to how useful they can be to pull the overall drum sound together.

The overheads are often set up as a stereo pair, for example X-Y Coincident, Spaced pair or Blumlein. There are other stereo techniques each with their own pros and cons as well as mic setups with one mic in front of the kit and one behind the drummer.

See this blog for more information on recording techniques for overheads and ambience tracks.

In reality, unless you were standing very close to a drum kit, you would hear very little stereo spread. So, how important is it to have a wide stereo picture of the drums in your song? That’s entirely for you to decide. Some songs will suit a wider stereo image than others.

Overheads: X-Y Coincident Pair.

If you do decide to go with stereo drums in your mix, listen to your overhead tracks sooner rather than later. Providing you set up your OHs as a stereo pair with quality mics, you should hear a pretty good drum mix from just these two mics. They will most likely have picked up the cymbals, hi-hat, snare and toms quite well.

By adding in the kick and snare specific mikes, you should be able to produce a drum sound that provides punch and clarity.

With such a wide range of kit components, it might be difficult to apply an EQ setting that works well for everything. Providing you are adding close miked tracks, you could try rolling off a lot of low-end from the OHs, maybe all the way up to 400 Hz. This can sometimes help the close mics poke through more.

If the drums heard in the OHs sound muddy, play around with the 100-200 Hz range of frequencies. If they sound boxy try cutting between 400 Hz-1 kHz.

TML Studio TCM Music Nashville – Showing Overhead Spaced Pair, Kick, Snare, Hi-Hat & Tom Mics.

Just be careful in applying any EQ. What works for cymbals for example, may not make your toms sound great and vice versa. So a compromise needs to be reached. However, don’t dismiss the OHs because of this. With a little effort, these two tracks can provide a great base to build your drum sound on.

Remember, if you recorded the kit using 10 or 20 mics it does not mean you have to use all of them. Only use what is needed to get a great drum sound. And when using more than one mic, there is always the possibility of phase issues. The more mics you use the more the problem gets compounded. So check for mono compatibility whenever you introduce another mic into the mix.

Also consider which way you want to ‘see’ the kit. Do you want the listener POV or the drummer POV? Whichever way you decide to go with, make sure you’re consistent when adding individual drums and cymbals to the OHs.

Kit From Drummer’s POV, Hi-Hat Left.

Kit From Audience POV, Hi-Hat Right.

When panning the OHs left and right, if the OHs have the hi-hat appearing on the right, don’t place the individual hi-hat mic track on the left. Listen carefully to the OHs (solo them) and determine where each kit component is in the stereo field, then add the individual tracks to match the position you hear in the OHs.

Gating the OHs does not work. The OHs are effectively capturing the whole kit. Gating the OHs will do the opposite and result in parts of the kit being cut out. So don’t use this processor to fix your OHs sound. If the OHs don’t sound very good, you may have to re-record them.

Actually, the OH’s often help to mask any gating artifacts from the individually miked drums…..another very good reason to have them as part of your drum sound.

Adding compression to the OHs is debatable…..some engineers do, some don’t. If you recorded your OHs as a stereo pair and do decide to use compression, make sure you use a linked stereo compressor to prevent image shift. If the two sides of the compressor are not linked, every time the crash cymbal is struck, the stereo image will move because the mic that is closest to the crash will compress more than the one that is further away. This is especially true for a Spaced Pair setup.

Best to use light compression in the OHs if at all, and compress the individual drum mikes.

Using A Royer SF-12 Stereo Ribbon Mic To Record Ambience In Kitchen, Drums In Next Room.

Ambient mics can add a unique quality to the sound of your drums (or any instrument). They are usually placed several feet away from the signal source and therefore capture more of the room sound. The position(s) that work will only be discovered by experimentation.

In a home studio setting, one room – your main recording room – may be somewhat acoustically treated. The other rooms are probably not.

Try listening to the drums from different points in the same room as well as different rooms. Bathrooms, kitchens or hallways may provide useful opportunities to place ambient mics that produce interesting results. Whilst the drummer is playing, move around until you hear a sound quality you like (the sweet spot), set up a mic and listen to the result. Providing you have enough tracks, you can always record an ambient track or three then decide in the mix if you want to use them.

If you’re able to borrow a church hall or other large reverberant space, you can capture some amazing ambient sounds which when added to your close mics, can transform the sound of your kit and other instruments.

Incidentally, if you want to hear what a great sounding room can do for your music, search out Beaver & Krause’s ‘Gandharva’. Recorded in 1971, side two of the LP was recorded in San Fransisco’s magnificent Grace Cathedral. Featuring Mike Bloomfield, Gerry Mulligan, Bud Shank and many other stalwart musicians of that era, it’s an amazing mixture of Jazz, Blues, Rock and Gospel – a unique album.

If you use more than one mic at varying distances on a single source, the sound will arrive at the different mics at slightly different times. So delays will be introduced as well as possible phase problems.

The further away a mic is from a source, the less attack will be picked up and there will be less signal to noise. So you may need to EQ out some background noise or rumble. Play around with the panning of ambient mic(s) to see what works best for the song.

Maybe the best advice with drums, is to start off simple – using the Glyn Johns mic technique – using three or four mics or something similar. Then as you become more familiar with your mic collection, acoustics, the recording and mixing processes you’ll feel inclined to experiment with more complex setups.

Getting a great drum sound can be one of the more challenging aspects of the mix stage. But as with everything in life, practice makes perfect. There’s no substitute for getting your hands dirty and just doing it. Fortunately in the home studio, the multitrack process allows endless attempts at getting the mix right. Take your time, learn your skills and have fun.

Next week we’ll look at Percussion before moving on to the other instruments in the mix.

All of us at TCM Mastering love music. We’ve all spent most of our lives in this business. So, if you have any questions regarding the blog, mastering or recording in general please drop us a line or contact us here.


January 2, 2012

TCM Mastering: Home Music Studio Tips and Information

Part 44 Mixing Drums

Happy New Year from all of us at TCM Mastering and TCM Music Group. We hope 2012 will be a great year for all our clients and readers alike.

Drum Kit Showing Hi-Hat & Various Cymbals From The Drummer’s POV – Hi-Hat Left, Lowest Tom Right.

Continuing with our look at drums in the mix, this week it’s the turn of  the Cymbals and the Hi-Hat.

Consider when placing your mics that, the cymbals produce most of their sound above and below the metal plate in a figure-8 pattern (if you were to look edge on). The hi-hat produces lots of high-end transients and most of its sound is generated horizontally.

The height you position cymbals above the toms will alter their sound which in turn affects what is picked up by mics.

There are also cymbals which work better for recording than live work.

Using An AKG 452 Under The Cymbal.

If you have used specific mics for the cymbals (see this blog for tips on recording), you can often get rid of frequencies below the 150-200 Hz range, by using a shelf EQ. This removes rumble picked up by the mics. If the cymbals come across as ‘cheap’ and clunky you may be able to improve their sound by cutting a few dB at 1-2 kHz. To give them that ‘ring’, try adding a shelf EQ above 10 kHz.

We’ll discuss the use of the overheads in the mix next week. But bear in mind these mics (if you used them) will pick up so much of your drum and cymbal sound, you may decide that certain specific mikes are redundant when it comes to determining the overall sound of the kit in the final mix.

Hi-Hat & Snare Miked.

The hi-hat sound is characterised by the ‘ring’ between 7-10 kHz. The stick noise is around 5 kHz and the ‘clang’ between 500 Hz to 1 kHz.

The hi-hat may well be picked up by other mics in the kit, especially the snare mic. But assuming you have used a good quality mic and it was optimally placed, you could use a shelf EQ above 10 kHz to boost the brightness of the hi-hat. To remove rumble picked up by the mic, use a similar EQ setting to the one used for cymbals. To give it that high, crisp ‘tssshh’ use a wide bandwidth (or low Q setting) around 15-16 kHz.

The quality and sound of cymbals and hi-hats can vary enormously from different manufacturers and price ranges. So the application of EQ should be approached carefully in isolation of the cymbal sound and in comparison with the whole kit submix and all the other instruments, especially the rhythm section.

It’s essential to listen to instruments in the setting of the overall mix. As all the instruments are interdependent upon each other.

Toms Panned From Just Right Of Centre (Highest Pitch) Over To The Left (Lowest Pitch). Hi-Hat Panned Right Or Centre, Cymbals Right & Left. The Kick And Snare Are Normally Down The Middle. Centre Double Kicks, Or You Could Try Splitting The Kicks Evenly Off Centre Left & Right Slightly.

With regards to panning the cymbals, there are two perspectives used. Either from the point of view of the drummer or the POV of the listener. So as we mentioned last week, if we were to take the listener’s POV, the toms would be panned with the highest pitched just right of centre, moving left as we go down in pitch to the biggest floor tom. Cymbals can be placed right and left depending on the spread width and effect you want. The hi-hat is usually panned right or centre, depending on the genre of music.

Alternatively, if you intend to use the overheads in the drum submix, you will want the individually miked components to be placed in the same position in the stereo field as you hear in the OHs. For example, solo the OHs and listen to where the hi-hat appears. Let’s say it sounds like it’s at 2 on the clock. Match the hi-hat close mic track to the same position in the OH’s stereo picture.

The cymbals and hi-hat rarely, if ever, benefit from gating. Cymbals especially, have such a relatively long decay that it’s impossible to gate them effectively. Far better to clean up the cymbal and hi-hat track in the editing stage if necessary.

Many DAWs Offer A Non-Destructive ‘Strip Silence’ Option. Setup The Parameters So That Only Unwanted Audio (Below A Specified Level) Is Removed.

One method is to use the non-destructive ‘Strip Silence’ feature offered in many DAWs. But you have to be very careful in setting up the parameters so that you don’t strip away any of the sound you want to keep. If you do remove wanted material accidentally, you can hit ‘Undo’ and try again.

Or better still, simply edit out unwanted drum sounds from the cymbals and hi-hat tracks and apply fades in and out, so that the sounds you do want to keep don’t jump out at the listener. This method will give more control than a global gate setting any day.

If you do end up gating cymbals (not recommended, unless for a special effect), a little reverb added can restore the decay sound that inevitably gets cut off by the gate.

Pro Tools Automation.

You could also use automation to clean up tracks, but this will use up processing power in your computer’s CPU.

With any clean up procedure, you should always do a before and after comparison though, to make sure you’re actually improving the sound.

Spill from one drum mic to another is unavoidable with a multiple mic setup and is often the very thing that gives drums that real sound. So gating the hi-hat is really best reserved for ‘fixing’ the sound e.g. making it tighter.

If you notice serious problems with your drum sound in the mix stage… may have to re-record them…..not an easy or popular option.

However, if the session is finished and the drummer is no longer available, you may have no choice but to resort to some or all of the above suggestions to get your tracks in shape.

Tama Rock Kit With 14” Hi-Hat, 16” Crash & 20” Ride.

It’s therefore vital that you get the best drum sound you can, the first time. As trying to make a badly recorded drum kit sound good is always going to be an uphill struggle. So, take the time to tune and set up the drums and cymbals properly; place the best mics correctly and get the drummer to play the kit for you prior to hitting the record button, so that you can make sure everything is as good as can be.

If you only have a few problems with a specific cymbal and/or drum in the mix stage, you could always try triggering a sample to replace the offending hit(s). Or alternatively, record a wild hit then place it at the right sync point in the track.

I think it’s always worth sampling all the individual drums and cymbals from a kit, separately, just before you start recording the kit as a whole, for ‘backup’ purposes. You never know when you’ll need a clean snare, tom or crash cymbal hit. Make sure you label each drum and cymbal sample as accurately as possible, including size and make. Then add them to your music library for future use.

Check out our drum posts starting with tuning, by clicking here.

As I said in an earlier blog, if you can achieve a great recording of the drum kit, it usually yields an easy mix.

Next week we’ll conclude our look at mixing drums by considering the use of the Overheads and Ambience tracks.

TCM Music Group have access to many great session musicians, including Troy Luccketta (drummer with Tesla). If you’re interested in finding out more about our recording packages, or simply have a question about recording, mixing or mastering – please click here.


December 12, 2011

TCM Mastering: Home Music Studio Tips and Information

Part 41 Arranging & Producing Vocals In The Mix

Over the last two weeks we’ve looked at Lead Vocals in the mix process. We discussed the importance of the recording stage going well, so that you would have good raw tracks to work with in the mix. We considered ‘Comping’ vocal tracks to get a magical performance, splitting out vocal tracks for EQ purposes, Double Tracking to thicken the sound, the use of delays and other signal processors, automation and lots more.

Backing Vocal Group.

Today, we’ll look at Backing Vocals then consider Production values and the Arrangement of vocals in your mix. Next week we’ll move onto mixing Drums.

Backing Vocals can either be done by just you… at a time, layer by layer in the overdub stage, or as a group of backing vocalists who record together. Obviously a fuller, big sound can be produced much quicker with a well rehearsed, trained backing vocal ensemble than an individual working on his/her own. So it really depends on the size and the type of sound you want in your track, as to which way to go.

Overdubbing Four Tracks Of Backing Vocals, One Layer At A Time.

You should also consider if you’re working on your own and intend to do all the vocals yourself, the resultant sound may lack the richness one gets from using different male and/or female voices. In other words there will be less vocal tonal variation in the backing vocals if you do them all yourself, compared to a group of 2, 3, 4 or more different singers. But if you have a particularly good singing voice, you may still end up with a great result.

The Mills Brothers – Experts In Vocal Harmony.

If you want a really rich, full backing vocal sound try double tracking or even triple tracking each harmony part. For example, if your song requires 3 part harmony, you will need either 6 or 9 tracks of backing vocals. With so many voices, make sure that any hard consonants are sung together by everyone, otherwise it will sound messy. Because once you start to pan the various parts around the stereo field, the consonants can be heard to move from one monitor speaker to the other, if they’re not sung at exactly the same time.

Multiple Backing Parts, Allow Numerous Panning Options.

With several layers you also have many options. On your mixer you can pan each different harmony part evenly either side of centre. Or pan harmony part 1 at 10 and 2 o’ clock, part 2 at 9 and 3 o’ clock and part 3 at 8 and 4 o’ clock. The possibilities are numerous.

You can also use multiple part harmonies to help build a song dynamically. Try raising the level of a doubled or tripled harmony at each chorus to help give the impression that the song is building.

Just remember, the backing vocals are there to provide counterpoint, harmony and support to the lead. So do what is right for the mix.

Pro Tools Session For Maroon 5’s ‘Makes Me Wonder’ Contained Over 80 Tracks, Some Of Which Were Submixed.

Producing a submix of 9 or more backing vocal tracks down to a stereo pair is a useful exercise if you want to simplify your final mix (the same principle applies to submixing drums). In a DAW you can either ‘bus’ the various vocals to a stereo fader or ‘bounce them to disk’ to create a new stereo file. By using the newly created stereo file you will lock in the levels and everything else you used in the ‘bounce’ process. Which means if you don’t like the sound of it in the final mix, you will have to go back to the original backing vocal tracks and remix them again.

For further information on recording backing vocals and mistakes to avoid, check out this article.

In the mix, try cutting the backing vocals below around 250 Hz and between 2-4 kHz ( and always listen whilst applying EQ to find the optimum frequency to cut, never just go on a plug-ins’ visual display of the EQ and the effect you think it’s producing). This should help to prevent them from competing too much with the lead vocals frequency space. By boosting around 10 kHz, you can increase clarity. But be careful that you don’t start to interfere with the lead vocals as the same frequency will help them too.

Backing Vocalists Facing Each Other – Allows Them To See Each Other And Take Visual Cues, Plus Directional Mics Give Good Separation.

We could think of a mix as three-dimensional.

  1. Frequencies go from top to bottom or high to low.
  2. Positioning sounds in the stereo field, left to right.
  3. Front to Back – achieved by close/distant mic positions or dry and reverbed effects.

A mix should try to use all three dimensions as effectively as possible. Use EQ to cleverly create a unique frequency space for each instrument. Pan instruments to different positions in the stereo field, and place them upfront or back by using a close mic technique or reverb, allowing each one to have its own physical space.

With a careful combination of all the tools and resources at your disposal, each instrument can be given its own territory to shine. However, the more vocals and instruments you have in a mix, the more crowded that three-dimensional space becomes, meaning it’s more difficult for each individual part to be heard over the others. So consider well the ”less is more” mantra.

The lead vocal is almost always panned centre. But double tracked lead vocals, and effects can be positioned centre, panned hard left and right or placed in a narrower stereo spread. You have to experiment with your tracks and effects to find the best combination for your song .

Three Part Harmony From The Beatles.

If we look at just the vocal elements in a mix (the lead, harmony and backing vocals), they all have to work together cohesively before adding in the remaining instrumentation. All the elements in a mix are interdependent on each other. Alter the level, EQ or reverb of one instrument and it will affect the feel of everything else. So, you constantly have to be aware of looking at each instrument/vocal in isolation by using the ‘solo’ button and as a part of the whole mix too.

As we mentioned in TCM Mastering Home Music Studio Part 39 some producers/engineers prefer to start building the mix from the drums and bass, then add in the other instruments and finally the vocals. Others work in reverse and get a good vocal mix, before adding the other tracks, then finish by tweaking the vocals to sit properly in amongst everything else.

Vocal Arrangement – Copying Parts To Different Tracks, Allows Different Processing To Improve Contrast Between Vocal Sections.

If you have established an EQ setting that works for the lead vocal in the verse section of the song, then the lead vocal moves into a lower register or higher vocal range in the chorus, the EQ will most likely need adjusting. The picture above shows how copying the different parts of a vocal to separate tracks allows you to easily apply different EQs (and other effects like reverb) to either make a vocal performance consistent or to create contrast between vocal sections.

In the digital world, once you find an EQ setting that works for a chorus, you could copy/paste that setting for the other choruses.

Level meters are important obviously, but make level adjustments between the different vocal elements using your ears and not your eyes.

Don’t max out your vocal mix volume too much, just make sure you are producing healthy levels on your meters (without producing distortion or overloading). Remember, the other instruments will be adding volume too. The mastering stage will bring your final mix up to levels and standards that are necessary for commercial release.

Mixing the lead vocal(s) and backing vocals, requires patience and perseverance to get them exactly right for the song they’re in. If they’re the first thing you start to sort out in your mix, you will undoubtedly return to them once all the other instruments have been added in, to tweak them a little more. But that’s okay.

Riding The Faders Produces A Dynamic Mix.

The lead vocal tracks are the most important tracks of the mix for a song with lyrics. You will need to ride the fader(s) throughout the mix to ensure the lyrics are heard and understood, above the rest of the tracks. A mix should be dynamic, so setting a vocal level and leaving it will not suffice. Besides, it will sound boring if the vocal level remains flat throughout. Compression helps to take care of the extremes in level variation from a vocal, but you still want to let some dynamics through.

This advice also applies to most of the other instruments too, apart from maybe the kick drum and bass guitar, which are usually set and left. If you set the levels of most instruments and leave them, you will end up with a very flat, linear mix.

Also consider…..does the song’s arrangement work? Do the vocals build? The song should build as a whole for example, by starting with a sparse arrangement then adding more instrumentation. But do the vocals also build through the song, or do they lack energy as the song progresses?

Incidentally, if you seem to be spending way too much time trying to get a mix to work… could be that the arrangement is not quite right, more editing needs to be done or maybe another overdub is required to replace a sloppy or second-rate performance. In fact there are a whole host of reasons why a mix may be proving difficult to complete. So take a break for a few days. Then try again, maybe ask a trusted band member or musician friend to give you some unbiased criticism.

Next week we’ll look at Drums in the mix.

If you have any questions regarding the recording, overdub or mixing process so far, drop us a line. Our contact details are here. We love to hear from you.

And don’t forget, TCM Mastering and TCM Music Group provide a professional, fast and affordable service to musicians of all genres.

So if you have some songs that need producing, recording, mixing or mastering contact us for details on our rates and some incredible recording packages.


November 28, 2011

TCM Mastering: Home Music Studio Tips and Information

Part 39 Mixing Vocals Tips & Signal Processing

The last few weeks have served as an introduction to mixing. Over the next several weeks we will examine the mix stage in detail, by considering the most common instruments, setting levels, panning, automation and the uses of EQ, dynamics and effects processing.

Before we start by looking at Vocals, I think it’s important to briefly mention some generic guidelines for the use of signal processors, as these are the tools used most often in the mix process.

We took a first look at signal processing in this blog…..TCM Mastering: Home Music Studio Part 24 – Signal Processing. We then went on to consider in some detail, various types of EQ (graphic, parametric), dynamics (compressors/limiters, expanders/gates) and effects (reverb, echo, chorus etc). So feel free to refer back to these earlier blogs for more information.

Pete Townshend, Neil Young, George Martin, Sting, Ted Nugent, Jeff Beck And Many More Musicians Have All Complained Of Suffering Hearing Loss, Which They Put Down To Monitoring At High Volumes For Many Years.

It’s worth bearing in mind that monitoring your mix at high volumes gives you a false sense of balance between instruments, which does not translate very well for the eventual end user or listener. Musicians/Engineers use their ears a lot, and often abuse their ears too by monitoring at volumes that are very loud, for extended periods of time. Most people can hear frequencies between 20 Hz to 20 kHz. So, if you want to preserve your hearing for as long as possible and produce more accurate mixes, monitor your music at sensible levels.

Using Signal Processors

Every mix session is different, but there are some general guidelines for using signal processors, which are useful to consider.

Before you start to use any signal processing in the mix, make sure you have recorded the best possible sound from the vocalist or instrumentalist, by careful positioning of the mic(s) and by using the best equipment you can afford, throughout the entire recording chain. At the risk of repeating myself, your sound is only as good as your weakest link.

Vocalist With Selection Of Mics – Neumann U47, Microtech Gefell M92.1S, AKG C414B ULS, Coles 4038.

The variations in sound you can obtain with a quality mic and different mic placements, are numerous. If you can capture good recorded sounds, there’s really no reason why you shouldn’t end up with a great sounding mix.

Check out some of TCM’s earlier blogs on how to get the best recordings of your instruments…..

Miking Vocals & Instruments, Recording Piano, Recording Electric & Bass Guitar, Recording Acoustic Stringed Instruments, Recording Horns, Recording Woodwind, Recording Drums.

EQ should never be used to ‘save’ a poor recording, unless you have no other choice. Use it to improve an already great sounding track. Sometimes EQ can be used to create a ‘special effect’ sound on an instrument or voice, but try not to over use this approach.

The Digirack 7 Band EQ Includes A Bypass Button For Comparing With & Without EQ.

If you have an On/Off switch for EQ, use it frequently to prove to yourself that the EQ your boosting or cutting is actually improving your sound.

Changing EQ will invariably change the level of a sound. Adding EQ, adds level to a signal. So be careful that you don’t introduce clipping, distortion or more unwanted noise to your signal’s sound. Adding bass can increase hum or buzz levels. Adding top end (treble) can increase unwanted hiss in your tracks.

To improve clarity in your mix, try cutting the bass frequencies of instruments which are not bass instruments.

Many plug-in EQs give you a visual display of the amount of cut or boost you’re applying to a signal. Make sure you listen to your sound with your ears. Try not to be influenced by what your eyes are telling you.

Specialist Outboard Gear Can Often Solve Some Of The More Difficult Mix Problems.

And if you feel that your mixing console’s EQ isn’t good enough or can’t handle the job you’re asking of it, then you may need to consider buying or hiring an outboard piece of gear that is specifically designed for the job.

The use of dynamic processors in the mix can be abused too. Too much compression or expansion can harm your tracks. Over compressing gets rid of the natural variations in level that occur in any performance. Using a badly set up expander or gate, can cut off starts and ends of notes or vocals.

The Over Compressed Pair Of Tracks (Bottom) Give More Headroom Allowing You To Raise The Level, But Get Rid Of Most Of The Dynamics That Are Present In The Top Pair Of Tracks.

So set up your units or plug-ins carefully and listen closely when applying dynamic processing to make sure you’re getting the desired result. Solo tracks that you’re working on, so that you can hear exactly what is happening without other instruments masking the effect.

If there’s one group of signal processors that is prone to abuse more than any other, it’s effects. Too much reverb on too many instruments, chorus, flange, delays…..the list goes on. If you have several tracks of instrumentation, each with their own effects, you can quickly reach the point where it sounds cluttered, clichéd and very amateurish. Moderation is the key.


There are different approaches to the mix process. Some prefer to build from the drums and bass first, then add the other instruments and finish with the lead vocals. Whilst others start off getting the lead vocal or lead guitar/keyboard sound (depending on the song) and build everything else around it. You won’t know which works best for you until you’ve been through the process a few times. And some songs will dictate how and where you start, anyway.

So without further ado, let’s start by looking at EQ for vocals. Just remember that every vocalist (as well as every instrument) is unique, so use the suggestions as guidelines only.

Vocals can be adjusted dramatically with just 2 or 3dB gain or reduction at different frequencies. Adding 10kHz produces a brighter sound. Reducing in the 5-10 kHz (sometimes even as low as 2 kHz) range can help to cut sibilance (the harsh sounds produced from Sss or Ssh). But each vocal is different, so you will need to sweep through the frequencies to find what needs cutting. Boosting at 5 kHz will add presence. To reduce muddiness, cut between 200-250 Hz. Vocals can be warmed up and made more full by adding 150 Hz.

Waves – DeEsser Plug-In.

On the subject of sibilance, be careful not to over-compress a vocal, as this can make the problem worse. Some mix engineers recommend using a de-esser after the compressor, to reduce sibilance.

The lead vocal is the most important element of a song. A common mistake made in the mix stage is to have the vocal too loud or too quiet. That may sound like an obvious thing to say, but when you’ve spent days, weeks or months on a music project, it becomes almost impossible to remain objective and sensitive to the various levels of your tracks in the mix.

This is why we have suggested in earlier blogs that taking a break from your music or enlisting the help of others who have a vested interest in the music,  can prove to be so beneficial.

The style of music and your personal preference, will have a lot to do with where the vocals lie in the mix and at what level. Just make sure that you ask someone who is unfamiliar with the lyrics to tell you whether they can be heard and understood.

Aphex Systems 204 Aural Exciter & Optical Big Bottom.

Aphex Systems introduced the original Aural Exciter back in 1975. It can enhance the sound of most instruments, but has been used to great effect on vocals since its introduction. It works by adding low level, dynamically related harmonics to the signal. These harmonics add little or no level to the overall signal, but increase presence and clarity, restore brightness and give greater perceived loudness whilst also improving detail.

Lead vocals are usually panned down the centre of the stereo field. If you want them to sound distant, try adding some reverb. For an upfront effect keep them dry.

The recorded sound of your vocals also effects the way they are interpreted. If you used a close mic technique, they will sound more upfront than if you had your vocalist several feet from the mic, allowing more of the room ambience to be recorded.

So in summary…..go easy on the EQ if your original recording is good. Depending on the desired effect, moderate the use of reverb, delay or other effects on a lead vocal. Judicious use of a compressor, can help to even out the level of a performance with unnatural highs and lows. Just don’t overdo it and compress all the dynamics out of the voice. Too much compression will squeeze the life out of your most important track.

Don’t forget, use the automation if you have it in your system, it will make things so much easier. And SAVE your work at regular intervals.

Next week we’ll continue to examine vocals in the mix and discuss some popular techniques for improving your vocal sound, then move onto drums.

Editor’s Note: We’ve covered a lot of ground in the TCM Mastering Home Music Studio series so far and still have lots more to do. However, there are times when I feel a particular subject needs more space, taking a lot longer to explain than I had initially planned. When this occurs, I continue the theme over two or more weeks, which inevitably results in some blog topics being pushed back to be covered later than expected. We will get there in the end, but in order to make this series interesting (hopefully!) I have to limit the size of each blog to a sensible length.

Thanks for your continued interest. We really appreciate your comments and feedback.

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