This weekend I have taken a Course in Mixing and Mastering at Studiohuset in Göteborg. I have previously attended a course in London where I learnt the basics of Logic, but in that course we never got to the mixing part. In this course I learned all about mixing and mastering music during two days. The first part, the one about mixing, was good. But it was in the second part of the course where we spoke about mastering that I really learned something.
I will need to hire someone to do the mastering for me!
Studiohuset in Göteborg
Studiohuset – the studio house – is a music studio situated in Västra Frölunda in Göteborg. It is housed in a anonymous industrial building that is shared with other companies, which you wonder how they survive. Among other companies, the house contained a thai massage, a photo lamination company, a candy processing machine (!) and a mat laundry. In the lower right part of the glass doors of the entrance I found a small, sun bleached printed paper with the Studiohuset logotype on it.
To get to the studio, I had to climb all the stairs and cross a small patio on top of the building. Up there, a small hut was built on the roof of the house. Inside was the studio. The house on the roof was around 20 square meters in size and it contained a recording room and a control room, a small hallway, a pentry and a toilet. If I was to build a small house on my own lawn, I would fancy something like that.
The walls inside the control room was decorated with absorbents, acoustic diffusers and strange angles to create a good acoustic environment. At an angled wall, a small window looked into the recording room, and below it a desk with a Mac computer was placed. Scattered around the room there was a lot of musical equipment that you could rest your eyes upon. Basses, guitars, synthesizers, amplifiers, compressors and a lot of musical junk that you couldn’t wait to fidget with.
On the floor, facing a TV monitor and tow musical monitors, four chairs were organized. We were asked to sit down, and the course started.
The course was led by a guy named Eric Vo, the owner of the studio. He has been running the studio for five years, the last two of those full-time. He gives courses in among other things Logic, Cubase, recording techniques and mixing and mastering. Beside giving lectures he records music for other people and mixes and masters music. On evenings and weekends, the studio is rented out to a hip hop consortium. They are usually in the studio all night making music. That is a real win-win solution!
The course subject was mixing and mastering. Mixing is the process after the recording, where you try to make all instrument sound good, separately and together. Mastering is the process after the mixing where you try to make the full song to sound even better and make it ready to be played on the radio or on Spotify. I have to confess that I’m also a bit confused about where the boundary between mixing and mastering is. It seems like the greater part of the mastering can be done in the mixing phase.
The course was held during two days, Saturday and Sunday, between 9:00 and 17:00 with an hour of lunch somewhere in between. The maximum amount of pupils was set to five, but there were only four of us at this time. Excluding me, there was an aesthetic teacher from Uddevalla, a guy from Kinna who wanted to record his daughters guitar playing and a guy from Stockholm. What we all had in common was that we were men, home studio players and that we worked in Logic. For this reason, the class was held in Logic.
The first day of the course, Eric opened up a project with a recording of piano, bass, drums and singing and we went through it step by step and mixed it. The second day we did the same with a rock song, as some kind of rehearsal. After lunch we mastered a third song.
Mixing a song is done by really getting nerdy i all the different tracks that makes up the song and make each of them sound good. The starting point differs a bit. Often, you start with the drums and the base, but you may just as well start with the vocals and the piano. When I mix at home I start with autotuning my singing to make all the off key notes sound right. In the projects that we worked on in the course, however, this was not needed for some reason.
Generally there are four steps to go through for each and every one of the tracks of the song. These steps are the following.
Equalizer – EQ
The first thing that you do is to use an equalizer to separate a small range of the frequency curve of the track and increase the volume of that segment. By pulling that range up and down over the frequencies you try to find areas that sounds bad. You have to listen really close for frequencies that sounds bad. When you find them you invert the curve to lower the volume of that frequency.
When there are no such problem areas left, you increase the areas that you want to hear more from and decrease the areas that you want to hear less from. Generally, you don’t want that much base in the non-base tracks. Vocals, piano and strings doesn’t contain that much base, but there is still some base in their frequency curves. By cutting those base frequencies with a high pass filter you can filter away the base from those tracks. By doing that, there is more room in those areas for the bass and the kick drum.
After the equalizer is set you head on to the compressor. A compressor works like a funnel that increases the volume of the lower parts of the song and decreases the loud parts. If you turn the knobs of the compressor to the far end, a whisper will be as loud as a shout. When you’re singing, you will generally sing louder in the higher frequencies and this will make the lower parts hard to hear. With a compressor, you can increase the volume of the lower parts and the vocals will be easier to hear.
Almost all of the instruments benefits from a compressor. Especially the vocals and the bass needs a good compression. Distorted guitars are pretty even in their sound pressure to start with and therefor they don’t need a compressor, usually
Reverb and delay
Lastly, you add reverb and delay to the song. Reverb is the process of making a sound from the microphone to appear to be played in a room. Delay is like an echo that is bounced on a wall, where you hear the same sound once or multiple times. The reverb smears out the echo a bit more and makes it sound more like an acoustic mass.
When I have made my own music I have only used one reverb, but according to Eric you need tree of them in series. One for the effect, one to simulate the room, and lastly a plate reverb that is… Well, it is to make the music sound like every other song. According to Eric, the echo from the plate reverb is rather unnatural in its sound, but all the music played on the radio has it. I cannot describe the sound of it, compared to other reverbs, but it’s a special kind of echo…
So, with all those tool Eric took the unfinished song and turned it to a nice production. He used a lot of sound effect plugins, among those a multiband compressor that is a mix of an equalizer and a compressor. Each step of the process made the song sound better.
I have to admit that I had a hard time to spot the differences before and after each step of the work. What I can say is that when Eric turned all of the plugins off the music was less nice than when they were turned on. I think that you will need to work quite a lot with music to be able to hear all the nuances in the songs.
As the work progressed more and more of the tracks were completed and we listened to them separately and together. Eric turned some knobs and increased levels here and decreased them there. He took away the sharp S’es in the song and increased the base and lowered the sharp end of the snare drum bottom and… Well, you know what I mean. There was a lot of knob turning in a lot of places and in the end I was just confused.
When all the tracks sounded good together we “bounced” them to one track. That is, we merged them into a complete audio file. This one file was what we used for the mastering.
To master a song is basically to go through the full mixing process once again. This time with all the instruments at the same time. We followed the headers above – Equalizer, Compressor, Reverb and Delay and Work, work. In this part of the work the nuances are even finer and I have to admit that Eric lost med somewhere along the road. I will need to work a lot more with music before I can do my own mastering. The mixing is within reach, but mastering is out of my league.
The good news is that Eric will master my music for me for around 10€. That is money well spent. Especially considering that it would take me like 10 hours to create a result that is worse than his.
It’s customary to end a course review with a summary. Here is mine.
The course costed me 250€ and you can book it here (in Swedish). Eric gave me a trustworthy impression and I could really tell that he knew what he was talking about. I think the mixing part of the course was really nice, while the mastering part was a bit above my level of expertise. However, it was interesting to see how it was done. The three hours that were spent on the mastering felt like a good proportion to the mixing. The two days of the course felt like a good time span.
After the course I know what I should do to make my music sound better, but I will need to lay down a lot of hours to do it. Eric knows exactly what all the plugins will do and how to bend them to his will. I will need to go for more of a trial-and-error approach, but at least I know what tools to use. I have also received a lot of tips about what to think about concerning the different instruments.
If you want to work with your music and make it sound better I really recommend that you attend this course. (or one just like it in your native language.)