Resources for the Recording Musician
February 1, 2007

Mastering Madness!!!

Greetings Master of All-Things-Audio:

I really need your help.

About a year ago I had asked you which audio production software you liked, why, etc.  I chose Cubase SX3 and I really enjoy it -it's relatively steep on the learning curve, but once you get that down, you can go nuts. I spent a few months of blood, sweat and tears putting tracks together.

So I get to the mastering stage and when I burn the results they sound absolutely horrible: tinny, static, shallow.  I think I’ve been dithering correctly.

Here is a list of much of my equipment

Cubase SX3
Presonus Firepod
Windows XP MCE 2005
X-FI PCI Sound Card
XPS 400, Intel Pentium 930 (3.0 GHZ) Dual Core
Additional "F" Drive of 3 GB
128MB ATI Hyper mem PCI-E X16 X3000, DIM
160 GB SATA II, 7200 RPM, DIM

I also have Izotope Ozone amstering software.

But, I did put a pretty cheap firewire audio card in the computer.  Could that be causing me to go absolutely out of my mind?


I need a lot more info in order to even attempt to help you with this one.First off, I want to make sure you are not confusing "mixing" and "mastering".  Those are two different things.  Mixing is the process of mixing together all the individual tracks, by adjusting levels, EQ, compression, and adding effects, all as necessary, to get a great sounding stereo (or surround if you are doing DVD stuff) version of your songs/music.

Mastering is done once you have all the stereo mixes for your project completed, and it involves balancing out all the songs that are going to be on the CD so that they have the same relative EQ curve and loudness levels so that the listener doesn't feel like they need to adjust their system from one song to the next.  Mastering is also the last chance to fix problems with the overall mix, such as too much low end or high end, helping vocals or other instruments stick out a bit more (with EQ and other tricks since you are working on an already mixed file), and generally enhancing the whole mix.  Also, mastering is where you make the whole mix much louder if you want to play the whole "loudness wars" game that has been destroying the sound quality of music for the last 8 years or so.  There is much more to mastering, but that is the over simplified explanation.

Mastering is best left to a professional mastering engineer who has a dedicated room set up specifically for mastering and who has the proper high-quality equipment.  At the very least, you should get someone else to do the mastering who at least has a great room with full range speakers and a fresh set of objective ears.  Trying to master your CD yourself on the same system you mixed it on is usually a bad idea!

However, even the greatest mastering engineer in the world can't work miracles if you don't have a great sounding and well balanced mix to begin with.  Since a mastering engineer doesn't have access to your individual tracks (usually), he can't go back and fix your mix if there are problems with certain instruments that can't be fixed via mastering treatment without screwing up other sounds in the mix.  I'll tell you up front that there aren't any professional mastering engineers using Ozone... although it might be OK for some quick and dirty mastering for home produced demos, it certainly isn't considered high-end mastering software by any means.  And, with programs like that, you can do a lot more harm than good if you don't know what you are doing.

Mixing is a topic that I simply can't teach you how to do well through simple answers on a message board.  Learning to be a great mixing engineer is like learning to be a great musician... it takes many years of practice and experience before you get really good at it.

However, even a great mixing engineer can't do a great job without great sounding tracks to begin with, and a song with a great arrangement where there aren't too many things happening in the song that are competing for the same frequency range in the mix.

So, that leads to your cheap firewire audio card that you mentioned.  If it's really cheap and has bad sounding pre-amps and converters, and you are also relatively inexperienced with recording live instruments and vocals, then your raw tracks probably aren't sounding all that great to begin with.  That will lead to you having a very difficult time getting a full and well balanced, professional sounding mix, especially if you are just learning how to mix and don't have much experience with that.  Then, with bad sounding and unbalanced mixes, there is really nothing you are going to be able to do in the mastering stage to save them.

If your mixes are sounding "tinny, static, shallow", that suggests to me that the quality of the recorded tracks weren't too great to begin with, and as an inexperienced mixing engineer you fell into the trap that anything louder and brighter sounds "better" to your ears, when compared to something softer and not as bright... so, you add some compression and tweak it to make the tracks sound louder, and then crank up on the EQ which can make things both louder and brighter, and you think it sounds better... BUT, you don't really know what you are doing and pretty soon every track is loud and bright, and it just sounds horrible when you put it all together.  Plus, all the phase shift and other artifacts created by EQ and compression can cause you to lose any depth that might have been there on the recorded tracks (assuming your microphones, pre-amps, and converters are good enough to capture some great depth and detail).

You can respond with more info about what you are doing exactly and where things are starting to sound bad, and you can also search through this message board, as well as the rest of this web site, and read some of my replies and my articles about mixing, recording, EQ, compression, etc., to start to get a handle on things.

The first place I would start is the article I wrote on this site called "Can you really do it all yourself?", and think very hard about whether it's worth trying to do everything yourself, especially with low budget gear, and never being happy with the results, or if you should concentrate on your music and leave the recording, mixing, and mastering up to the professionals.  But, if you decide you want to give it a go by yourself, start reading some of the other articles on the site and look up the book on mixing on my required reading list on this site.

Good luck!


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