Ask the Engineer is a new series on the Masterdisk blog where our guys answer questions about music production. Send us your questions at firstname.lastname@example.org. We won’t be able to answer all of them but we will definitely get to some of them. If you have a specific engineer you want to pose the question to, let us know that too. Today’s question goes to Tim Boyce.
Tim Boyce’s specialties lie in world, dance, dub, hip-hop, ethnic, remixed, and other genres, and his production credits include French Montana, SLDGHMR, Deathrow Tull, MSTRKRFT, Nightbox, and RAC. Tim’s creative desire to breath life into a static space allows him to finely tune an album into a living movement, not just a passive listening experience. If you need cutting-edge mastering, Tim’s your engineer. Get more info at the Tim Boyce page on the Masterdisk website.
Q: How much processing is ok to use on my mix?
A: The short answer is ‘enough’ is what sounds good. The quick test is to turn up your monitors really loud! Just rock out and get into the mood. If you feel like you want to turn it down… there’s probably too much processing going on. You should feel a natural impulse to “turn up this track!” That’s a trademark of a good mix.
Now for the long answer…
3dB of headroom is enough. It’s not close to distorting, but still powerful enough to really feel it while mixing. More headroom is fine, (as long as you’re mixing at 24-bit) but 3dB is the minimum to keep it clean. The trick is, don’t just set a limiter for a 3dB ceiling. That’s not headroom. That’s just peak-limited to a low level (and it kills the transients, edges, vibe).
Gain stage correctly. Make sure you individual track levels are not already limiting before you sum them. You may be doing more peak limiting than you realize.
Turn down the master bus (that you’ll bounce through) enough that you have 3dB of actual headroom. You should see some peaks in the final waveform. Try not to do more than a few dB of limiting / hard bus compression.
And keep in mind that it is a balancing act. If you are using processing for the ‘feel, flavor, and texture’ then keep it! It’s part of the sound and vibe of the album. If you’re using the processing just to get it louder, then skip it. We can do loud here. Unless it adds a specific element as an artistic and stylistic choice, this kind of processing at the mix stage is just overkill.
So, what’s “enough?”
Use as much compression, EQ, and effects on your tracks as you’d like for ‘density’ and tone/color. Keep the master bus low so it never peaks (gain-staging), and skip any final limiters doing more than a couple dBs of reduction. That’ll leave lots of headroom while keeping some peaks so the kick/snare/synths stay dynamic and POP out the speakers.