This article was first published
on CLUAS in September 2008
The Making of an Album, part 4: Editing, Mixing, Mastering and Duplication
Fourth of a four part guide to recording an album...
Over the course of this series of articles we've been looking at the
cool stuff: hunting out studios,
searching for talented folk to produce and
engineer and going ahead with the actual recording. For bands the recording is,
obviously, by far and away the most rewarding part of the process. It's very
hands on and all involving. Once the recording is finished however the band have
to take a backseat and it's easy to feel as though the work is done and the
engineer is just crossing the t's and dotting the i's.
In the next stage a certain amount of editing has to be undertaken. To give you an idea about the work involved a typical list of things to do once the recording is finished would include tidying the drum tracks, fixing any rogue timing errors from an otherwise good take and compiling various different overdub takes including vocals and tuning.
Most if not all recordings these days have areas that need tidying up. They aren't mistakes as such but they wouldn't sound nice in the final recording. An example would be the toms on a drum kit. The drummer might only hit these a handful of times during a song but the tom will continue to resonate throughout. As a result it's a good idea to delete all of the tom track where a tom isn't hit. Also you might have a near perfect vocal take but there are a few minor tuning problems. These can be easily fixed without turning the vocalist into Cher.
The editing can be like watching paint dry but ultimately the end product will benefit. Be aware though that sometimes it can be a little too easy to "fix it in the mix". Keep focused during the recording, this will minimize critical editing.
Once the engineer has tidied up the tracks s/he can get on with the mixing. Again the location is all important but you don't need a 12 bedroom palatial studio with cavernous live rooms. All that's needed is a decent control room. Depending on the budget this can be anything from a project studio or mobile set-up with a good set of speakers and a high spec digital audio work station to a world standard studio with a desk the size of the bar counter in Whelan's. The best advice would be to make sure it's within your budget and that the engineer is comfortable working there.
As we saw before a lot of the work is done in the recording stage, after all that's when the performances are put down. During mixing however you will realise that the songs are becoming just that. Songs. They take on a life of their own.
In terms of the work involved the engineer starts to eq (equalise) the individual tracks to make them sit with each other, taking the low end out of the guitars, for example, will make the bass guitar be heard that little bit better. While 'eq-ing' various other processes are brought in like compression, reverb , delays and any funky effects that might suit the song and the overall album sound. This does take time but the engineer is working hard and this will get the song to the final stage of mixing, the levels. This is when the engineer and the producer get together to give the song some dynamics, it could be something as small as raising a guitar solo or something as big as raising the overall song level to give the final chorus more impact. It's easy to sit back after the eq and compression stage is set and admire the song, the levels though are the real secret to giving your mixes some life.
What's important here is that you let the engineer take it to the levels' stage on his/her own. I can tell you many stories of guitarists asking to raise their guitars while the engineer is eq-ing the kick drum! The mix will get done quickly and more efficiently if the band come in at the end. At this point the band can either supervise the levels' stage or, if no producer is employed, they can get fully involved.
So now you have your songs mixed. It's best to sit with them for a week or two just in case you find something really bugs you such as a vocal being a touch too low. It's also a good idea to figure out a running order. Be careful though, it's at this point that there is a tendency towards not wanting to let go. You've spent the last few weeks or months carefully crafting your masterpiece and then all of a sudden it's finished and you have to let it go out into the big bad world. Too many bands have hung on to their albums making minor change after minor change until it either starts to sound overproduced or in particularly bad cases it sounds dated because the vocal was recorded 2 years previously! Make sure you are happy, but also let it go forth and multiply.
To properly let it go you have to send your album to be mastered. A lot of mystery surrounds mastering for young bands as demos often get recorded and never get to this stage. It a pretty technical process and needs the best mastering engineer for your budget.
Why do you have to employ another engineer?
Well it's very important to have a fresh set of ears. They have not been
directly involved in the recording or mixing and can hear straight away if there
are tonal problems with the album. The mastering engineer's job is to eq and
compress the final mixes to make them sound like they are part of the one album.
They can also ensure your music sounds just as good on a small transistor
radio as it does on a stadium PA. They also take care of the song order on the
final CD. This takes time, patience and a very good set of ears. Ask your
engineer for recommendations before the album begins. Some of the best mastering
engineers are booked months in advance.
The mastering process will generally take around two days at most. It's not a lot of time compared to what came before but it's massively important. The CD you come out with at the end is the final master CD. It's your album finished and ready to be packaged.
So that's it, the album is done. Your life's work up until this point is in your hand. From this point you have to get it duplicated. Find a graphic designer to make you up some fancy CD artwork and get it all off to the plant. My only advice here is you get what you pay for. The cheaper it is per CD means the poorer the duplication quality. The poorer the quality the more chance there is of the final CD's having poorer sound quality or even wearing out prematurely.
So the basic mantra of this series is pay what you can afford, don't skimp, but don't waste money on non critical areas. Take on board the creative influences of the engineer and producer and most of all enjoy the process. What lies ahead, hopefully, are weeks and months of promotion and gigging. You'll be longing for those relaxing evenings after a long days recording while your chowing down on your umpteenth service station breakfast roll!
This is the 4th and final part of 4 part series of articles on making an album. Check out the other articles:
The author Andy Knightley is a sound engineer who runs Krecording, which provides mobile recording and the facilities of Studio 57 in Dublin. He has recorded the likes of Sinead O'Connor, Bell X1, Damien Dempsey, Lir, Ronnie Drew (RIP), The Rags, Pilotlight, Le Galaxie/66e, Vasco Junior and Michele Ann Kelly. If you have any questions for Andy, feel free to contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org