My mixes are complete. Today, I sent them to the mastering studio. I have made them as good as I can and it’s time to hand things over to the professionals. The mastering studio will do all kinds of technical things to improve the sound of the tracks. To this end, they will correct and compensate for any shortcomings in my mixes and optimise the audio for consistent playback on all systems. At the end of the process, we will have an album master copy from which all other copies (for example, mp3s) will be made. Mastering is a fascinating art, involving technical knowledge and a great ear—I am more than happy to leave that part of music production to the professionals.
I am working with Space Magnetic, a mastering studio I discovered, a few years ago. They’re a great fit for me because they are affordable—Forgotten Fields is very much a bootstrap project—and listening to some of the music that have gone through their studio, I have every confidence in their ability. Today, many studios do automated mastering, running tracks through software algorithms and hoping for the best. Space Magnetic does not. “We work with each song, individually. We rely on our ears and equipment.” I like the sound of that.
I listened to my mixes on two different sound systems, today. Both had powerful subwoofers. I had no idea just how much I had overcompensated on lower frequencies. At times, the bass was so powerful that things were rattling! I have since made some adjustments and I think I have dealt with the overpowering bass issue.
I finished mixing the last track for the Airship album, today. I worked on each track in the order it appears in the tracklist. I do this because it gives me a feel for the final album, how it will sound and how it will develop for the listener. I can tentatively say that I’m pretty happy with the mixes and the tracklist as they are, right now, but that will probably change, as the listening game begins. I have exported the mixes to audio files, so I can play the tracks in their proper order. This way, I can listen for any inconsistencies or issues with the tracklist or the tracks themselves. I will go through this process, again and again, listening to the tracks on different speakers and headphones, looking for weaknesses in my mixes, testing them to see how well they hold up in different sound environments. By the time the album is released, I will have listened to it more than a hundred times, I’m sure!
My mixing process, briefly
I do my first mixes through my iPad speakers, at fairly low volumes. Because the speakers are limited in their capacity, it requires me to listen very carefully. I manage to create a pretty good preliminary mix this way. Because I can only hear the major parts of the track (hardly any of the subtleties are translated by the speakers), I usually end up with a simple, straightforward mix. When I then move to my desktop monitors (nothing fancy, just midrange Logitech speakers that are nearly a decade old), I can begin to pick out subtleties in the music. For about a week, I’ll mix and listen, mix and listen, moving between the desktop monitors and a pair of fairly decent Sennheiser headphones. The headphones let me know if anything is seriously wrong with the mix. They also help me refine panning levels. Panning is basically sending a sound to the left or right speaker, like a swoosh sound moving from your left ear to your right ear. It gives a track a spacial dimension, as if you’re “in” the music. Headphones translate this best, in my experience.
The final mixdown
I am now in the final mixing phase. I’ll be listening for how well the tracks perform on speakers other than the ones I use, primarily. I’ll be playing the tracks in cars, on small headphones, on laptop speakers, etc. I’ll also check how well the tracks work together as an album. If I’ve done my work right, there won’t be any major edits required, but there’s no guarantee. Sometimes a track sounds great on your headphones, but terrible on someone else’s, or the tracklist might need to be reordered (but, I’m confident that won’t happen). Once this phase is done, the tracks will be sent to the mastering house for final touches. As I write this, I am nervous and excited. I cannot wait to put this out into the world!
I worked on preliminary mixes for the last two tracks of the Airship album, today. They are “The View From Above” and “The Return”. “The View From Above” started out as a sketch and eventually turned into a full track. (There is a rough version on SoundCloud, called “Recording I”). At first, I didn’t think of it as part of the Airship idea. My inspiration was radio towers, the sound waves passing between them, hence the voice recording. But, once I started work on Airship, the lightness of the music came to remind me of flight, and so I inducted it into the tracklist. It’s a gentle, precarious track; there are these dissonant notes that I rather like. You could never tell with airships in the early days, they could come tumbling down, at any moment. The uneasiness of the track reminds me of that uncertainty. For the Airship version, I’ve removed the voice recording and made it much more fluid. After the changes, I think it suits the album. “The Return” is last on the tracklist. Not long ago, I considered it done and dusted, but I think it needs more work. It has a repeating guitar, strings and drum theme describing the return flight of the airship. It’s rather tense, but it brings everything to a neat end. I am still wrestling with it, but that’s the three-hour bit I love.
I spent the whole of Saturday doing the preliminary mix for “In The Hangar”, the opening track of the Airship album. I say preliminary because, once all the tracks are mixed, one inevitably goes back and adjust or rework all the mixes for greater overall consistency in the final album. I like to keep my mixes simple. The less I fiddle, the better. Usually, this involves nothing more than adjusting volumes and adding fades. But occasionally, it involves going back to the drawing board with one or more tracks.
Bothered By The Bass
This happened on Saturday. For “In The Hangar” and “A Good Day For Flying” (the track that follows) I used a synth bass, which had lost its appeal. I must confess, I was reluctant to change it because I didn’t feel confident about finding the right sound to replace it with in my limited arsenal of synths. Also, it’s unnerving, having to change something as fundamental to the mix as the bass. Suffice it to say that I wasn’t enthusiastic about the prospect. But, throughout the mixing session, it kept bothering me; I knew I had to change it.
Saved By The Bass
Eventually, I gave in. On the verge of resigning to a bass I didn’t like, I stopped being an idiot and started experimenting. It wasn’t long before edits to stock basses in GarageBand produced just the sound I was looking for. I breathed a sigh of relief and shook my head, thinking about my initial hesitation. Not only did I save my mix, but I learned a lot about creating unique synth sounds, in the process. I realised that it is better to follow my natural intuition about what I’m doing, that no matter how uncomfortable it turns out to be, it’ll lead to better understanding and, I hope, better music.