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Completely In the Box!

Andrew Scheps, a major mixing engineer, recently proclaimed that he now works “100% in the box” (jump to 35:43 in the video). Wow. For most home and small professional studios that are doing the same this is a major endorsement. What does this exactly mean?



Whether you’re a potential client, a newcomer to music production, or a veteran you might have heard the argument of analog gear versus digital gear. When technology first allowed us to document music as sound waves—not just notation :p—we only had analog gear at our disposal. What this meant was that the medium which recorded the music (or sound) transformed the sound waves into something that is directly analogous, e.g. a 33 ” vinyl record has grooves on it that are physical representations of the actual sound waves. Digital gear on the other hand transforms sound waves into digital information—1’s and 0’s—that are encoded and decoded with particular mathematical algorithms which is a fancy way of saying, “computer program”. If you looked at the grooves in the vinyl record closely you could see the actual sound waves but if you look at the digital files of recorded music you would see bizarre computer language. Analog audio also tends to imprint saturation and coloration that pure digital does not provide. Although this introduced distortion may seem unpleasant it can actually be harnessed in a musical or sonically pleasing manner.

Because of this (and other factors which I won’t go into the technical details) people have come to describe digital audio as “cold” and analog audio “warm”. This was certainly true at the advent of digital recording technology however that was about 40 years ago! Today’s technology has evolved to the point where digital recording gear, programs, and plug-ins can process audio not just with high precision but also can emulate the “warm” analog sound that people have come to love. I’ve seen other well known mixers such as Scheps do mixes using only a MacBook and a Universal Audio satellite (and probably other in-the-box plug-ins).

None of this is to the detriment of analog gear and recording, in fact a hybrid set-up of analog outboard gear used in conjunction with digital gear gives you some incredible options but hopefully if you’re a new musician, producer, or are searching for recording studios to work in you won’t have to worry about whether or not they have analog gear.
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Gain Staging

Doing your own mixes or recording? One of the first lessons I teach my students is about gain staging but what exactly is that? When I first saw the term gain staging I thought it was some incredibly esoteric and nuanced technical factor in the music production practice. The good news though is that it’s actually one of the easiest things to understand (although there are technical aspects to be aware of).

The number one rule of gain staging simple: never go over 0dBFS! When it comes to digital mastering there is a ceiling which we cannot exceed and that ceiling is 0dBFS. If you can keep everything underneath that then you’re already well on your way to making a good mix. When the signal exceeds 0dBFS the resulting sound waves gets “squared off” and is unpleasant (you will also get inter-sample clipping which is completely unacceptable in the mastering world). Remember that this is a technical issue, not a subjective one. If you want nasty distortion or a “squared off” sound wave there are better ways to accomplish that such as employing distortion, saturation, or a down-sampler.

The “staging” part of gain staging refers to every I/O-point (in/out) in your chain. Suppose you’re recording an acoustic guitar and have some effects on the channel, you have a stage right at the input into the DAW. This outputs to your first effect, let’s say it’s an EQ with a hi-pass filter and some corrective EQ. This EQ then outputs to your next effect which might be a compressor. You set your compressor accordingly then it outputs to the channel strip. At no point during this chain should your levels exceed 0dBFS, in fact it’s good practice to leave a small amount of headroom for insurance.

There are a few finer things to keep in mind:
  1. Don’t record at the highest level close to 0dBFS, that used to be a good practice in the analog days but doesn’t work so well in the digital realm for a few reasons. I suggest keeping your recording levels around -6dBFS peak level to give yourself a comfortable headroom space to work with when you start mixing and also to avoid any spurious peaks that may occur. Some people propose even more, don’t get too hung up on the actual numbers, remember that the important thing is having plenty of headroom space.
  2. Check every I/O point (in/out) and ensure you’re not going over 0dBFS. Often times you’ll have one channel set up with multiple effects; check every stage.
  3. Find yourself a good meter. I frequently use the meter by Brainworx. Some limiters have good meters built into them such as Universal Audio’s Precision Limiter and Fab Filter’s Pro-Limiter, these both work great and will allow you to bypass the limiter function to solely use the meter. Take it one step further and use a K-14 option keeping your RMS levels around 0dB. I won’t go into the technical details here but you’ll find that your mixes will come out much cleaner with this method.

So those are the rules. Of course there are times to break the rules, I would be lying if I said that no mixing or mastering engineer purposely exceeds 0dBFS however these kinds of practices are done for creative purposes (and prudently). In the end everything must succumb to the 0dBFS ceiling. I was re-visiting a project I had started years ago and started cleaning up some bad mixing choices. One channel was clipping badly at several stages in the effect chain so I started ‘fixing’ it trying to make it adhere to the rules. In the end I couldn’t replicate the original sound which was so vital to the track. I found a proper point in the chain and adjusted the gain so that at the final point it was under 0dBFS. Use caution when intentionally clipping your tracks.
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Mastering for iTunes

How do artists get their albums on the front page of iTunes? How do you get a "Mastered for iTunes" badge? Have you heard that iTunes music quality sucks compared to CD/Vinyl quality?

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A peek inside my studio

Here’s a short little insight into my studio:
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Why record with us?

A little Q & A about our recording studio.

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Mixing vs. Mastering pt.2

If my previous article was too long for you (here) then this one should be pretty short and sweet. The mastering engineer is responsible for making the final mix sound as sonically impactful as possible, ensure there are no audio errors, add album information, and prepare the file for final pressing. However they can only do the best job if the mix they have is good to begin with. If you throw them a mix of say, a rock band recorded in a garage with 4 mics and clipped files, they can’t do much with it.

I think a good analogy would be an article you might read in a magazine. An author can write an article about mastering and deliver it to the publisher via a text document. Then the editor physically arranges the text on the page, applies the proper fonts, maybe adds some inline quote boxes, and dresses it with photos and such. Could you imagine if the author delivered the article filled with grammatical mistakes and spelling errors? That’s how mixing and mastering works.
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Mixing vs. Mastering

What’s the difference? I’ll tell you.

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Landr

Fast and easy solutions don’t benefit you in the long run.

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No more MP3's!

Just say no!

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