Part 3: Tracking, Overdubs and Mixing
©1997 by Eddie Ciletti

People love to "dis" digital, but since the CD is the most likely destination, the positive approach is to learn how to get the most from the medium. Mastering starts with the first recorded sound.  For novices, it's ok to emulate the "Great Masterers," by having your favorite CDs on hand for reference. Don't be afraid to compare what you're doing to what's been done even during the early stages of the basic tracks


If digital is a blank canvas and signal processors are the "crayons" used to create color and texture, what are the monitors?  The answer should be either "very neutral" or extremely representative of the end-user's system. Of course you are encouraged to have at least two or more sets of speakers.  Each and every brand and model has a signature sound, but a good monitor system should not be fatiguing or force you to monitor at high levels. If your monitors are old and abused, start auditions. Be sure to take familiar material for reference and, if you decide to repair, always replace drivers in pairs. 

Powered monitors are the rage, but if you still have a discrete power amp, scrutinize everything from the power cord to the interconnecting cables. (Left and Right speaker cables should be the same length no matter where the monitors are located relative to the amp.) If a great speaker and amplifier combination is beyond your budget, remember that before compensating with EQ. A monitoring system is the window through which judgements are made. How clean is that glass? 


Hard disks and equipment fans all contribute to total system noise. It may be time to put all that noisey stuff in a separate room or closet, in well ventilated racks, possibly with a sound-treated door. Computer and Video monitors can radiate electronic interference into cabling. Looking for the source of a buzz? Low frequency field and refresh rates are between 60 Hz and 72 Hz. Computer scan frequencies are beyond audibility, but video monitors radiate 15.7 kHz. This can knock a "hole" in your hearing or get picked up by microphones. 


Zoom In or Zoom Out? That is the question. A telephoto lens can bring the primary subject into sharp focus while creating a soft non-distracting background. You can create sonic perspective -- or depth-of-field -- with a combination of mic technique, mixer levels, effects and overdrive. Sharp focus is created with a cardioid (directional) mic placed close to the source while a pair of mics (preferably omnidirectional) are better suited to capture ambience. Extra-dry drum machines and/or drum samples can be a welcome and radical contrast to the typical reverb-laden wash. Conversely, drums can also put digital reverbs to the test. If yours isn't cutting it, try playing the drums through speakers and capturing that sound -- it will certainly be more unique. An extremely dry kick drum might come alive through the right tubby woofer. 


If you become the doctor that people come to for sonic surgery, be a good listener and what I like to call "a ball player." There are only a few recording and mastering engineers whose name people respect based on their track record. Establish a relationship early and perhaps invite prospective customers to sample your engineering style with their works-in-progress. Help and guide them to a better mix. 


Mix to your format of choice and leave the tape rolling. Capture every "mistake" and edit the great accidents into your masterpiece quilt. The most basic, no-frills workstation can be the most powerful, affordable automation. Even if you can only edit and mix, the beauty is the ability to walk away. That alone buys more perspective than tweaking a mix for hours on end at one sitting. First impressions are key. It's easy to be objective when hearing something fresh. 

Part 1
The Phonograph
Part 2
Magnetic Tape
Part 3
The Mastering Process
Part 4
Part 5
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