Tag Archives: Recording

Treatment VS Soundproofing

Another guest post for Schwilly Family Musicians.

Please Remember:

The opinions expressed are mine only. These opinions do not necessarily reflect anybody else’s opinions. I do not own, operate, manage, or represent any band, venue, or company that I talk about, unless explicitly noted.

studioWant to use this image for something else? Great! Click it for the link to a high-res or resolution-independent version.

“It’s actually a fairly simple distinction, at least as I’ve come to understand it. Acoustical treatment is modifying the behavior of sound within a space. Soundproofing is preventing the transfer of acoustical events between spaces.”

The entire article is available, for free, right here.

The Board Feed Problem

Getting a good “board feed” is rarely as simple as just splitting an output.

Please Remember:

The opinions expressed are mine only. These opinions do not necessarily reflect anybody else’s opinions. I do not own, operate, manage, or represent any band, venue, or company that I talk about, unless explicitly noted.

boardfeedWant to use this image for something else? Great! Click it for the link to a high-res or resolution-independent version.

I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been asked for a “board mix.” A board mix or feed is, in theory, a quick and dirty way to get a recording of a show. The idea is that you take either an actual split from the console’s main mix bus, or you construct a “mirror” of what’s going into that bus, and then record that signal. What you’re hoping for is that the engineer will put together a show where everything is audible and has a basically pleasing tonality, and then you’ll do some mastering work to get a usable result.

It’s not a bad idea in general, but the success of the operation relies on a very powerful assumption: That the overwhelming majority of the show’s sound comes from the console’s output signal.

In very large venues – especially if they are open-air – this can be true. The PA does almost all the work of getting the show’s audio out to the audience, so the console output is (for most practical purposes) what the folks in the seats are listening to. Assuming that the processing audible in the feed-affecting path is NOT being used to fix issues with the PA or the room, a good mix should basically translate to a recorded context. That is, if you were to record the mix and then play it back through the PA, the sonic experience would be essentially the same as it was when it was live.

In small venues, on the other hand…

The PA Ain’t All You’re Listening To

The problem with board mixes in small venues is that the total acoustical result is often heavily weighted AWAY from what the FOH PA is producing. This doesn’t mean that the show sounds bad. What it does mean is that the mix you’re hearing is the PA, AND monitor world, AND the instruments’ stage volume, hopefully all blended together into a pleasing, convergent solution. That total acoustic solution is dependent on all of those elements being present. If you record the mix from the board, and then play it back through the PA, you will NOT get the same sonic experience that occurred during the live show. The other acoustical elements, no longer being present, leave you with whatever was put through the console in order to make the acoustical solution converge.

You might get vocals that sound really thin, and are drowning everything else out.

You might not have any electric guitar to speak of.

You might have only a little bit of the drumkit’s bottom end added into the bleed from the vocal mics.

In short, a quick-n-dirty board mix isn’t so great if the console’s output wasn’t the dominant signal (by far) that the audience heard. While this can be a revealing insight as to how the show came together, it’s not so great as a demo or special release.

So, what can you do?

Overwhelm Or Bypass

Probably the most direct solution to the board feed problem is to find a way to make the PA the overwhelmingly dominant acoustic factor in the show. Some ways of doing this are better than others.

An inadvisable solution is to change nothing about the show and just allow FOH to drown everything. This isn’t so good because it has a tendency to create a painfully loud experience for the audience. Especially in a rock context, getting FOH in front of everything else might require a mid-audience continuous sound pressure of 110 dB SPL or more. Getting away with that in a small room is a sketchy proposition at best.

A much better solution is to lose enough volume from monitor world and the backline, such that FOH being dominant brings the total show volume back up to (or below) the original sound level. This requires some planning and experimentation, because achieving that kind of volume loss usually means finding a way of killing off 10 – 20 dB SPL of noise. Finding a way to divide the sonic intensity of your performance by anywhere from 10 to 100(!) isn’t trivial. Shielding drums (or using a different kit setup), blocking or “soaking” instrument amps (or changing them out), and switching to in-ear monitoring solutions are all things that you might have to try.

Alternatively, you can get a board feed that isn’t actually the FOH mix.

One way of going about this is to give up one pre-fade monitor path to use as a record feed. You might also get lucky and be in a situation where a spare output can be configured this way, requiring you to give up nothing on deck. A workable mix gets built for the send, you record the output, and you hope that nothing too drastic happens. That is, the mix doesn’t follow the engineer’s fader moves, so you want to strenuously avoid large changes in the relative balances of the sources involved. Even with that downside, the nice thing about this solution is that, large acoustical contributions from the stage or not, you can set up any blend you like. (With the restriction of avoiding the doing of weird things with channel processing, of course. Insane EQ and weird compression will still be problematic, even if the overall level is okay.)

Another method is to use a post-fade path, with the send levels set to compensate for sources being too low or too hot at FOH. As long as the engineer doesn’t yank a fader all the way down to -∞ or mute the channel, you’ll be okay. You’ll also get the benefit of having FOH fader moves being reflected in the mix. This can still be risky, however, if a fader change has to compensate for something being almost totally drowned acoustically. Just as with the pre-fade method, the band still has to work together as an actual ensemble in the room.

If you want to get really fancy, you can split all the show inputs to a separate console and have a mix built there. It grants a lot of independence (even total independence) from the PA console, and even lets you assign your own audio human to the task of mixing the recording in realtime. You can also just arrange to have the FOH mix person run the separate console, but managing the mix for the room and “checking in” with the record mix can be a tough workload. It’s unwise to simply expect that a random tech will be able to pull it off.

Of course, if you’re going to the trouble of patching in a multichannel input split, I would say to just multitrack the show and mix it later “offline” – but that wouldn’t be a board feed anymore.

Board mixes of various sorts are doable, but if you’re playing small rooms you probably won’t be happy with a straight split from FOH. If you truly desire to get something usable, some “homework” is necessary.

Yes, You Can Master In A Car

The primary person that your workflow needs to work for, and needs to be approved by, is you.

Please Remember:

The opinions expressed are mine only. These opinions do not necessarily reflect anybody else’s opinions. I do not own, operate, manage, or represent any band, venue, or company that I talk about, unless explicitly noted.

Want to use this image for something else? Great! Click it for the link to a high-res or resolution-independent version.

This article has almost nothing to do with live music. The general concept of your own workflow having to work for you, first and foremost, applies universally – but mastering is really a “recorded music” thing.

So, why talk about it?

First, it’s my site and I can do as I please on it, even if doing as I please isn’t 100% connected with the main theme of the site. 🙂 (Hey, it’s a superficial reason, but I can be honest about it.)

Second, a friend of mine was getting some criticism over mastering in a car. I felt that the criticism was unwarranted.

Third, I get riled up when people say “you can’t do ‘x’ in way ‘z’.” I’m not against all dogma by any means, but my blood pressure spikes when people hand down dogmatic statements that just aren’t true.

Last, I think it’s very healthy to have a multidisciplinary understanding of audio. I’ve been lucky enough to have both live and studio experience, and taking note of how those worlds interact has been very helpful to me.

Now that we’ve got those bits on the table, let me open by saying:

Mastering Is Not Arcane Wizardry

I have to admit that I’ve done a disservice to numerous people whom I’ve discussed mastering with. In the name of being respectful to mastering engineers, I’ve presented the work of mastering as a kind of magic. On several occasions, I have said that mastering is a sort of “black art” that’s hard to understand and requires an audio-human of supernatural power to perform correctly. As I mentioned, I did this out of a desire to defer to people who specialize in that craft.

I realize now that this was “A Very Wrong Thing To Do,” and I apologize for it. It’s not at all wrong to have a sense of wonder and appreciation at good work, but the problem with presenting that work as an arcane practice is that the true appreciation of it is stifled. When anything in audio is seriously described as magic, there’s a strong tendency for that thing to be either put on a pedestal or dismissed. Disciplines and sub-disciplines are no longer viewed as skills and understanding that can be honed and understood rationally. Instead, they are seen as innate abilities that can’t be explained, or are handwaved away as “you have to buy a very expensive piece of equipment to do that.”

Thus, let me say it again: Mastering is not arcane wizardry. I don’t mean any disrespect to mastering engineers by saying that. In fact, I mean great respect to practitioners of mastering, because their discipline is very important to the success of recorded music.

If mastering isn’t magical, then what is it? Well, as I have come to believe:

Mastering is the process where a sound recording receives final preparation for its consumer-delivery medium.

…and that’s all.

Don’t get me wrong! It’s not that mastering is always simple and straightforward. It’s not that there aren’t significant artistic decisions involved. It’s just that the point of mastering – the purpose of doing it – is quite easy to describe. A mastering engineer’s job is to put the final layer of polish and adjustment on a recording so that it’s as enjoyable as possible for the listener (or, that the recording takes the listener on the ride intended by the artist).

As with pretty much all kinds of craft, the final “fit and finish” is a precision step. It’s critical to the success of the thing being made, and has to be taken seriously. It’s for this reason that mastering-specific gear is often specialized and high-dollar. It’s for this reason that dedicated “mastering rooms” are apt to sound so beautiful and feature the high-performance loudspeakers that they do. In mastering, small adjustments matter in a big way. It’s a tremendous boon to the engineer when his or her equipment and listening environment are fully trustworthy, able to make and reveal small changes, and can do so in a predictable, repeatable manner.

Here’s the thing:

If you can get all that to happen in a car, then you’ve gotten it to happen. If a laptop, headphones, and car-stereo auxiliary input are hitting all those aforementioned marks, then there’s nothing to argue about.

Translation And Trustworthiness

In both live-sound and recorded audio, the issue of “translation” is paramount. What’s happening in the studio or on stage has to be presented to an audience in a way that’s in line with the artist’s goals. The musicians are trying to deliver a certain kind of experience to the listeners, and the engineer’s job is to package and deliver the experience. Whether the experience is consumed via playback or realtime performance is irrelevant to that. (It’s VERY relevant to the equipment and techniques used, of course.)

In recorded music, the problem of translation is primarily that of the unknown playback system. The person that’s listening to a song could be using a staggeringly wide range of things to actually hear the recorded audio. The recording might be playing back in a high-end listening room. It might be playing back on earbuds that cost $5. The listener might have cranked the bass. The listener might have nothing below 100 Hz.

…and you just don’t know.

If that’s the case, then mastering is the last opportunity to ensure that, as much as possible, the critical parts of the song’s experience are preserved for all those different listeners. In order for that to be doable in a reasonable amount of time, a mastering engineer has to have a playback system that they can trust. They have to be in a situation where, when their gear says “this sounds right,” the music actually DOES sound right. In the “classic” mastering room, this means the neutral canvas of carefully tuned acoustics and precision loudspeakers – but those things are just means to an end: Reliable production of music that translates well.

So, what if a car, a laptop, and a favorite pair of headphones are what do that for a particular engineer? What if that setup is what reliably tells you that the music sounds right? I’m not talking about taking a famous mastering guru, yanking them out of their favorite room, and seeing if they can work in the car. That would be an invalid test, because their room and workflow has been crafted to work for THEM. I’m talking about YOU. Yes, an “academically acceptable” workflow and setup are helpful. The process does indeed matter.

But the results matter more than the process.

And here’s where I go on a bit of a rant.

What If Trying To Translate Everywhere Is A Waste Of Time?

See, if you really want something to translate beautifully, your best chance at that is to master directly to the target playback system. It’s just logical. If the vast majority of the song’s listeners are going to hear the tune in a car, it makes a lot of sense to make the song sound good in…you know…a car. If the primary audience is a bunch of on-the-go, young, earbud-wearing folks, why not focus the primary effort on making the song shoe-rippingly awesome in earbuds? Yes, it’s worth making sure that the record is okay in other situations, but why take an outside-in approach? Why not start from the majority audience and go from there?

I’m NOT advocating mastering around every tiny peak and dip in a specific car stereo or set of headphones. That’s a classic cause of problems with translation. What I am saying is that insisting on a traditional mastering room for the sake of itself isn’t as rational as it might seem. I’m also saying that trying to make a “neutral canvas” playback situation work everywhere may not be the best workflow for everyone. (For the folks who have learned to be adept at it, it’s really good. No argument there.)

I mean, my understanding is that the movie industry has this all figured out. They certainly benefit from a “closed door” business, where consumers experience their product through a limited number of exhibitioners. Therein, though, lies the beauty: They can set standards for what a theater is supposed to sound like, and how loud the sound system can go, and how it should all be tuned, and then work on their dubbing mixes in rooms that meet those very same standards. They focus on working for the exhibitioners that play by their rules, maybe give a cursory nod to everybody else (or not, I’m not really sure), and basically eliminate all the vagaries that haunt music production. It’s kinda brilliant, actually.

Of course, recorded music is anything but a “closed door” industry, so we aren’t going to be reducing our number of unknowns anytime soon.


The point is that your workflow has to work for you. If it lets you get results that you and your clients are proud of, then you’re fine. If the guy at the big production facility sneers at you, so what? If you can get work, and do it justice by mastering in a car, then yes…

…you can master in a car.

A Day Away

No regular article today, but here’s a little something to tide you over.

Please Remember:

The opinions expressed are mine only. These opinions do not necessarily reflect anybody else’s opinions. I do not own, operate, manage, or represent any band, venue, or company that I talk about, unless explicitly noted.

So…yeah. I’m not going to be able to get an article up today, because I’m going to go help The Daylates with a recording project. (Also, sorry about that Wednesday I missed a little while ago. I was busy writing a guest post for another site.)

However, this seems like a good time to answer a question that’s been put to me in various ways: “What’s the difference between mixing and mastering?”

Mixing is the process of taking a bunch of sounds and making them fit together as parts of a song or similar, singular performance. What you do to make all those sounds fit together may be very mundane, or incredibly bizarre. For instance, you might end up having to yank a ton of “body” out of a guitar so that it will play nicely with everything else. By itself the guitar will sound “all wrong,” but with everything else around it? That odd sound may actually work beautifully. The point is that you’re getting each individual part to take it’s proper place.

Mastering, on the other hand, is the process of taking a completed mix and making the whole (possibly bizarre thing) sound good. For example, if the contortions required to get everything in the mix left the entire result too “thin,” this is the place where some bottom end can be added.

The mastering process is also the place where the big battles of the “loudness war” are fought. A mastering engineer with a brickwall limiter can HAMMER the peaks of a song down so that, when the resulting signal is raised back up to the maximum allowable level, THE MUSIC IS REALLY LOUD ALL THE TIME.

Mastering additionally includes the process where a number of mixes are made to sound cohesive in a collection, like an album or compilation. Tonal, volume, and ordering decisions are made so that everything in the collection seems to belong together. This is also the process of making the complete collection work properly on its release media (vinyl, tape, CD, digital, whatever). This process still has its place, even with album-oriented listening being out of style and modern release media being far less sonically limited.