Zen of Recording

Mastering Your Domain

As outlined in recent columns wherein I’ve chronicled my journey from San Diego to Utah, I moved. That in itself can be a challenge for anyone. If you’ve been living in the same space for 20 years, it can become a mind-blowingly arduous task. Within the context of producing, recording, mixing, and mastering several hundred projects there, it can seem… monumental.

Think of it this way: Each of those projects averaged about eight songs and each of those songs averaged about 16 tracks. Each of those tracks was first recorded through some sort of EQ and/or compression stage, be it through the mixer or some sort of preamp. These tracks were subsequently edited, tweaked, and further sweetened, then mixed with the other tracks into a two-track mix, which was also edited, EQ’d and further compressed and/or limited in relation to the other songs’ mixes into a completed master. This equates to hundreds, if not thousands, of critical decisions that needed to be made along the way. So it’s not an exaggeration to claim that I made millions of them in that space.

This is obviously part of the reason that mixing and mastering are considered “specialized” fields, but when you consider the exponential nature of those assessments and that their collective quality is crucial to the outcome of each of those projects, you’re left with the realization that every space that music either is made in or worked on should be made to sound as accurate as is humanly possible.

There are myriad products and solutions to that end (some of which we’ll cover in the near future), but for now, let’s sidestep the expense of outside contractors and acoustic room treatments and use what we have at hand: our ears, our memory, our catalog of work, and our music collection.

My new room is similarly sized to my old one, yet totally different. It’s 24’x15’ but oriented wide, rather than long. The front wall is 9’ high, but the plaster ceiling slopes upward to the 12’ back wall, which is covered with porous pine slats. This same wood is used for the trim and door moldings and goes halfway up the left wall and a small part of the right one. The room is further broken up by a 4’x6’ closet space that houses the furnace and water heater on the right rear, and a 3’ x 3’x4’ wooden “shed,” that oddly covers the well’s water pump at the room’s left rear. While both rooms were carpeted, this one is a denser pile. All of this equates to a much “deader” sound with fewer room reflections, which is great, aside from the fact that I’m just plain used to the sound of my other room!

So what to do? Let me preface this next bit by saying almost everything I’m about to tell you is considered “wrong.” Especially by the previously mentioned professionals. Here goes anyway:

I set up my workstation (a computer hutch I purchased at WalMart, because apparently that’s the only store chain in the entire state of Utah) about 18″ from the back wall and placed my Alesis 20/20 monitors on Auralex MoPads® (which decouple them from their surface and tighten up the bass response) on their sides, ear high (if I’m standing) and about 18″ apart with the tweeters at the outward edges. I would have placed them further apart, but they were already hanging over the edges as it was. I had the computer set up in the hutch the way it was designed, which consequently has the music flowing over my head, as opposed to directly into my ears. I find I can work for longer periods of time when editing, etc. without the ear fatigue with this setup. Of course, that means I have to stand when making important EQ decisions while mixing and mastering, but that’s also not a bad thing, health-wise.

The outputs of the Presonus 16.0.2 mixer I use are routed though a Yamaha GE-60 Natural Sound graphic equalizer before going into the Yamaha Natural Sound HTR-5140 power amp/receiver that the monitors are connected to. This utilization of consumer-grade electronics is probably the most radical element to my setup, but also what I feel contributes most to its accuracy and flexibility. I set the amp flat, with the bass and treble at their center detent, and the “Loudness” button off. Lastly, a Sony SA-W30S subwoofer was added to insure accurate monitoring of ultra-low frequencies below 80Hz

After running simple sine sweep, pink noise, and left/right tests via various reference CDs I’ve acquired, I then gathered .wav files from a variety of material in different genres, including Josh Rouse’s 1972, Elvis Costello and the Roots’ Wise Up Ghost, Calexico’s Hot Rail, Beck’s Sea Change, Paul Simon’s Graceland, Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue and a host of other well-produced pop, jazz, soul, and classical recordings that I’m intimately familiar with. Added to this are numerous other projects that I myself have worked on. All of this audio information was played through the system at low, medium, and loud levels.

I listened very carefully for frequency bumps and dips, tracking them down and boosting or cutting those frequencies, constantly returning to previously listened to selections for comparison. Obviously some songs will contradict others, but after a week or so, things start to sound fairly consistent. A few minor tweaks a couple of weeks later and you’re definitely in the ballpark.

I have since mixed and mastered a few projects here and have been very happy with how they have performed across a variety of playback systems and environments. I’d love to hear your results, too!

Sven-Erik Seaholm has won awards for projects he has produced, recorded, mixed and mastered. www.kaspro.com