EDM Mastering (and recording it; and other things)
Posted by: Sola Mastering 4 months, 2 weeks ago
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This blog has been re-posted from independentmastering.blogspot.com
Everyone likes fat bottoms right? Queen seemed to think it had something to do with gravitational forces they deemed it so important..
For a long time now club oriented electronic music made in bedrooms and destined for the dance floor has paid for me to live. I see many tracks come in and out in a week, therefore I pick up a lot of sonic characteristics over time which are not intrinsic to the composition. The biggest of this is how and where the low end of a mix produced to be played on a full range sound system at intense volumes is composed and mixed.
This is vital stuff, and I'd say 9/10 how us mastering guys deal with it is the difference between a good or bad club music master (way more than loudness played flat through a rig!).
I'm not looking to talk down or make anyone feel small with this, as it would be self deprecating also, as I am one of these people I describe (I produced/DJ'd electronic music as Littlefoot for many years). What I am seeking to do is find practical methods and advice for dealing with these issues.
Why does this happen?
It's an educated guess but I'd say for the most part it's due to the old classic:
1. Non full range speakers
2. Pushed levels
3. Small untreated/under-treated room
I'd say this set up fairly describes most bedroom/independent label/not pro producers set ups. Again, I'm not hating, there has been incredible music made in the last decade on small pairs of KRK, Yamaha, Adam etc monitors in student shared houses with the speakers stuck in a corner!... but it's far from ideal, and doesn't give us a whole lot to work with.
This is an extreme example but if we think of this as one end of the scale and a true mastering room as the other we can say most dance music is produced in something towards the budget/semi-pro level.
What is the result of this?
For the most part the result of this is a massive womp of level on the bass instruments in certain areas and massive holes in others (often areas a dance floor loves).
Classically you find that these rooms/speakers/listening rigs will have a combination of scooped sounding speakers (made to sound LOUD not FLAT) and sharp cut off in the low end, often with some kind of resonance. What I mean by this is the speakers go to say, 60Hz, but drop off hard and bump from 60Hz to 80Hz, often to create a false sense of bass. This is also unavoidable for many small speaker designs due to physics. This is always worse when the speakers are being over driven to "get that feeling", unfortunately with a lot of these speakers the feeling can't actually be produced, maybe try a pair of good headphones in this situation.
So the producer isn't in a great position, even if the song is perfectly musical and works using scales and harmonies with tonnes of space, when they come to do mix down they have wool cast over their ears.
This manifests in two ways in my experience:
1. Bunged up lower mids, with some excitation, caused by such things as EQ boost etc to get the track to flatten out alongside the above mentioned bass cut off boosting. This is almost always coupled with a big lack of actual sub (that good stuff that shakes your ribcage). This is easy to deal with, but means we gotta cut some good stuff (lower information from snare/percussion/synths/vocals) to make the bass go to the right place, it also (to my ears) sounds better to add some lovely analogue boosted low frequency stuff to a dance music mix than cut over excited/processed low end.
2. The infamous unheard sub! The bane of my life at times and a massive shame all the time. This is where the producer has programmed sub frequencies they are unable to hear. They are hearing something of source, a combination of the upper harmonics of the synth producing the sub and if we're unlucky the resonance in their speaker low end cut off (and it's partnered distortion.. ouch!). The main problem here is we have to recreate the low end from scratch, sometimes using multiband compression (as explained in previous blog post) and hard EQ notches. This is often call for a remix if it's in extreme levels and is a root cause of many existential crisis among producers...
"It's all very good telling us our monitors suck man, but seriously, what can we do?"
OK OK, it's not all doom and gloom... Well first of all try speaking to us! make a relationship with a good mastering engineer who is friendly and understands what you are trying to achieve with your music. We don't bite and aren't all miserable sound engineer types.
Secondly you can use your speaker specs/some simple room measurement techniques to work out what you can't hear and use this information alongside a real time frequency analysis plugin, both of these things are free. If it's not being created in your room, but it's on your master output: don't do it! or at least flag this for concern.
Thirdly, find some speakers which do go all the way down. You don't have to use these to check other stuff, context is good and you can train your ears to be picky. If your mates bad boy car sound system or home cinema rig throws up every time you play your tracks through it, a club system is really going to struggle..
Hopefully this helps with getting your heads round one of the biggest conundrums of electronic music production.