To Tulsa, Lonavla and Back!
It's incredible. I went for a little drive to Lonavla over the weekend and today Monday morning I read the sad news that Guitarist / Composer JJ Cale had passed away on Friday night. Amazingly I had plugged a flash drive full of all his albums into my car stereo and was listening to his beautiful music all the way to Lonavala on the Saturday morning drive without knowing that he was no more! With the Deccan Plateau so beautiful at this time of the year and with his music playing in the car, it was a fitting eulogy to the great musician and the countless hours of sweet beautiful music that he has bestowed upon us. So in my earlier post here I spoke about the remix of an old SD Burman classic - Hai Apna Dil Toh Awara. I would refrain from using the word 'remix' which over the recent years in India has acquired a pejorative meaning with due reason of course. I would rather call this song - a re-production which would be a better term to use since I am not in reality sitting at a mixing desk pushing the faders on the original recording tracks of the song but rather completely re-creating the song using contemporary recordings and instruments and then mixing and mastering those new multi-tracks using contemporary tools and technologies which is far superior compared to the relatively primitive tools that the great composer had in his time.
The Harmonica Interludes
Harmonica Interlude 1
The most beautiful aspect of this unique and simple melody are the harmonica interludes which have a breezy and feel-good vibe to them. There are two organ counterpoints playing together on the pieces. The lead melody line is played by the harmonica of course while the rhythm counterpoint in true Polka style is played by the accordion. I have played and patched two different sounding harmonica banks and two separate accordion banks on midi and then bounced the audio files to a group channel and inserted a low cut filter and some plate reverb and a slight delay on the sends of the group channel. Have a listen to the memorable harmonica interlude below now:
Harmonica Interlude 2
The second harmonica interlude has a vibrato part to it which took me some time to get it right but boy what a great sounding little lick that is! Ther's also some acoustic guitar filler used between sections that creates more musical diversity and interest in the song in general. Have a listen below:
Finally I lay the vocals down on my Audio Technica AT 2020 - a mic I find particularly well suited for my voice helping it cut through the mix. I try to belt the song in my own style which is far different from the nasal vibrato singing of Hemant Kumar which even if I tried would not be able to successfully imitate! I think singers should only sing in their natural style without trying to emulate any other older generation or contemporary singer. It is the only way to be a successful singer. Copying the styles of other singers is futile because every voice is unique and what comes naturally to every singer is what is best for his / her style and ultimately what will shine through in the song.
I also create a 4 violin patch in Kontakt and play it under the vocals to create a nice smooth bed for the song and make it sound fuller and richer.
My main attempt during the mixdown is to enhance the dynamics of the song. So I have used very less eq on individual tracks and only where required on the busses and group channel tracks. I have also refrained from using too much reverb in the song preferring to use a little bit of plate and hall reverb settings on the returns of every track. Compression has also been used sparingly except on the vocals and the bass and organ group channel tracks. I take a long time to get the pan settings right so that all instruments shine through in the mix.
Have a listen to the final mixdown of the song below. Note that it is about -5 to -7 db lower than unity viz. there is an average headroom of about 5 db below 0 db which is absolutely imperative for the mixdown to go to the mastering stage. At this point, worrying about loudness ratios can be suicidal for your song especially if you are comparing your mixdown to a mastered song. The mastered song will always be louder and it is at the mastering stage that you can truly raise your loudness levels in line with your reference songs. The main intention at this point is to create a warm mix with clean separation of frequencies and individual instruments. I repeat again: Loudness is not the goal at the mixing stage.
A General Fallacy: A general fallacy amongst a lot of home music producers is to compare their mixdowns to a mastered song! I think this can ruin their efforts like nothing else can. A mastered song has been surgically operated upon by a mastering engineer to enhance frequencies and a maximizer has been used to raise levels often compromising the crispness of the mix. To hold this mastered version as a reference song to compare your raw mixes with is generally wrong. If anything, you should compare your mixdowns with other mixdowns for comparison. I generally avoid comparing my output with other songs because no song is alike. Trust your ears! If what is coming out sounds clear and warm then it most probably is clear and warm.
The Mastering of the Song
So here's where I come to the juicy bit - of how I take a song that is -6 db below Unity and make it as loud or louder than 'Badtameez Dil'! First of all I open a 'mastering project' in Cubase that comes opens up with a set of mastering tools in the input insert. These native tools are very basic and I promptly remove them to replace them with plugins from Ozone. I import my mixdown first and duplicate it immediately. The duplicate is the one I will master so that it gives me an instant A/B comparison after I apply the relevant sonic decisions.
I also insert a couple of tracks for referencing the master. Though I earlier mentioned that I do not reference while mixing it is a good idea to reference other tracks while mastering. The first reference track is 'Badtameez Dil' the massive Pritam hit song from the film - Yeh Jawaani Hai Diwaani. Who cares what the film was like. The song sure rocks with a good arrangement and great horn and brass riffs. All in all a song destined to be born on the dance floor and to die on the dance floor I also insert as a reference a nice song from the film 'Fukrey' composed by Ram Sampath called 'Ambarsariya'. Both these songs have been inserted because I have heard the songs on a variety of speakers at various places over the last one month - at the gym, on the car stereo, at dhinchak weddings, at open air disco gatherings (at the slum next to my building!) and I have a fair idea of how these 2 songs translate into open as well as enclosed spaces. If I can achieve the same amount of transparence, depth and warmth I think I will have achieved my job.
Let us now have a look at the waveforms of the stereo files of all these tracks below:
A Trip to a Renowned Sound Engineer's Home
Once the tracks are in place, lets observe the waveforms. My mixdown which is on top of the heap is downright low in volume - which I now have to bring up to speed with 'Badtameez Dil'. A tall order if you dont have the tools! But before I let you in on the tools, let me tell you what I did. I took a break from the song and looked up some good mastering engineers in Mumbai in Google. This one guy Farhad K Dadyburjor came up pretty much everywhere. He is a middle aged sound engineer who sounded earnest, funny and also worked on independent projects besides the regular Bollywood mixes that he does in his daytime job at Famous Studios in Mumbai. He has a side project going called the Sonic Laundry which he promotes pretty actively on social media. He has a couple of interviews on Youtube, a Facebook Page - https://www.facebook.com/TheSonicLaundry?ref=br_tf and also a website - http://www.thesoniclaundry.com/. From the looks of it, he has spent a mini fortune on room acoustics and buying tons of analogue gear for his private mixing and mastering suite that he has set up inside his home in tony Pali Hill seen in the picture below - reverb units, compressors, equalisers, A/D & D/A converters and what have you - which in his own words he barely uses for his clients preferring to use software plugins instead! So I asked him what was the need to spend a fortune buying all this outboard gear. 'It's just for myself', he says. My only reason for going to Farhad was to find out whats the big deal about analogue gear in the digital age and to give myself a reference to see whether my software plugins can match up to his 50 lakhs worth of analogue gear. Honestly after an A/B comparison of what he gave me and what I myself achieved on my mastering suite, and by Farhad's own admission, I would say that software plugins can more than match up to it's older analogue counterpoints and in some cases even outstrip them in terms of ease-of-use and performance. As Farhad rightly says, 'It's not what you have, it's what you do with it that counts!'
Mastering your Own Song is like Cutting your Own Hair!
In influential mastering guru Bob Katz's seminal book on mastering 'Mastering Audio: The Art and the Science' (a must read for music professionals serious about sound quality) which I have read many times over, he quotes "Mastering your Own Song is like Cutting your Own Hair! which is funny and true to a certain extent. There is this saying that 'You must not master your own mixes' which is actually becoming redundant today with the abundance of excellent software plugins with presets. But there is one golden rule which holds true even today - 'It's all in the Mix'. There's one more frequently used line 'You cant polish a turd.' 90% of the sound of a good master is in the mix. The rest 10 % is what the mastering engineer puts in. You can attempt to master your own mix provided you have a great mix. If your mix sucks, no mastering engineer however great can salvage it. So I am hoping that if you are going to take some pointers from here, you have a mix that you can be proud of and that can be played to others without you explaining, 'I still have to mix some parts of it!'
The Secret Tool That Can help you Create Professional Masters
Here's the secret. You don't need to spend Rs. 10,000/- on mastering for a song (which is what I paid Farhad) or a mastering engineer who in today's times is going to use exactly what you are using. Some studios in UK and US charge even less - around Rs. 2,000 per song if you mail them your file. And what is the secret tool? Well any good mastering engineer worth his salt today has abandoned all his previous analogue and digital tools and is only using the Ozone 5 Mastering Suite - see their website here. It is an incredible set of mastering plugins that can dramatically pin point flaws in your mix and fix them with ease and if your mix is good then it can make it great! There are excellent presets which can do most of the work for you which you can modify to your taste. But they are hot! Touch them with care though or you will burn your song!
The Processor Chain on the Input Fader of My Mastering Project. (Use them exactly in order in the inserts signal chain!)
Insert 1 - The Ozone 5 Equalizer
The Ozone 5 Eq is THE BEST parametric eq in the market and I say this after testing a lot of eq's. Audition the various presets until you find one that you like. I have used the 'touch of analog warmth' preset that does what it's meant to. Add a touch of warmth.
Insert 2 - The Ozone 5 Dynamics
This is basically a top class multiband compressor that will clinically change bands of frequencies according to taste. Again I must reiterate here: only use presets if you are not a sound engineer and do not have the knowledge nor the experience to fiddle with the settings! The presets are all you need 90 % of the time, provided of course that you are starting out with a clean mix. If not, go back to the mixing board! It takes a skillful mastering engineer to fix flaws in a mix. If you are an indie musician, why try to fix your mix in mastering when you can just as easily open up your mixing project and work on perfecting your mix?!
Insert 3 - The Ozone 5 Stereo Imager
This is again a world class spatial tool to create more spatiality in your song - in my opinion much better than any of the native stereo imagers found on today's DAW's. There are lots of great presets geared to give you the sound you want.
Insert 3 - The Ozone 5 Maximizer
This is the King processor that makes your volume rise up and how! Use this as the final insert in your signal chain and use the '16 bit Master 3 db Hotter' preset for maximum loudness. This is all you will ever need to make your song sound professional - ready for release in the market.
One Last Insert - Post Fader Dithering
The last 2 inserts on Cubase & Nuendo's insert section are post-fader. So insert no. 7 & 8 (last two) is where you insert the Dithering plugin. Why? I am not going to explain this in detail here. Google 'dithering' for the same but in short this is to ensure that when burnt on a CD which is 16 bit, your 24 bit song does not lose resolution. Farhad claimed that there was no need of dithering when exporting the processed master because a Nero CD burner or Toast in Mac does it's own dithering, but after inserting the Apogee UV 22 dithering tool in my processor chain, I could indeed hear a subliminal touch of fullness and richness to the recording when heard on CD and as always, since our ears are always the final arbiter, judge and master it goes without saying that a dithering processor is a must before you export your song especially if you know that people are going to burn your song on a CD and listen to it or if club DJ''s are going to play your song.
As a last step I have also increased the gain of my track. Check out the thickness of the track 'Master'. It has been fattened but not so much as to remove all the top end information - but just enough to max up the condensed sound.
Now let us hear all the previews of my mastering project below. I would urge you to turn up the volume for this!
1. My orginal mixdown of 'Hai Apna Dil Toh Awara'
2. My Master of 'Hai Apna Dil Toh Awara' in MP3
3. Badtameez Dil
My master for my song in 2. is indeed louder than the current hit 'Badtameez Dil'! Both are mp3 files ripped at 320 kbps but at the same level of volume my track is probably 2 to 4 db louder without any clipping or distortion. Now with the chest thumping done, let me underline that there is really no brownie points gained in making one song louder over another! There is a reason why the Pritam song is less louder. If you see the wavefiles above you will see that Pritam's mastering engineer (most probably Eric Pillai) has decided thoughtfully not to hypercompress the track for increased listening pleasure and also for increased dynamics and lesser listener fatigue. My song on the other hand which is made to be played in clubs may quickly wear the listener's ears out or maybe not! But my point here is that all things being equal, there are no awards to be had in the music business for increased loudness (theres always the volume knob) but there are awards plentiful for music composition, music arrangement and of course for great thoughtful sound engineering made with or without software plugins! The loudness war is a vicious game and I would advise music programmers to stay away from it and concentrate on music making which is where the magic lies!