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I Survived 2016…(the motorcycle accident that saved my life)

Some of you may have noticed my disappearance from Twitter and all other social media around May of last year. Some of my clients and close friends were aware of the events that transpired but for those of you that don’t, here’s my crazy story.

April 12th 2016, the weather was perfect and coming out of the cold and rainy season, I was ready for some L.A. Spring riding. I finished up a normal day at Darkart and hopped on my Harley to drive home from DTLA. About halfway home I came around a corner to see an oncoming SUV turn across my lane at the last second onto a closed road leaving me no option but to slam my brakes and brace for impact as I barrel into her front end at 35 mph. I went over my handlebars and straight into the grill with part of me rolling onto the hood and then settling onto the pavement. It was not pretty.

My first reaction was to look at the person who ruined my day (and my bike) and I see a woman who is smiling awkwardly at me not knowing what to say (in retrospect, I think she was in shock). As I’m trying to reason with the fact that this person just made things worse, the pain hit me, hard. I dropped to the pavement again in agony. There were alot of witnesses and it didn’t take long for the ambulance to arrive.

Fast forward to me being wheeled on a gurney into the ER at USC Medical Center. Watching the team of doctors and nurses race into the room instantly, I could tell that they were always prepared for the worst when they hear ‘motorcylce accident’. Things like (as I’m told by one of the nurses), looking under the blanket and seeing pieces of me missing but luckily, that was not the case.

I ended up getting a CT scan to check on my internal organs and was left alone in my room to await the results. Eventually, a doctor came in and told me that I didn’t suffer any damage to my internal organs but they did find a mass on my left kidney

After more analysis, I was told that I had Stage II Kidney Cancer and would need to have it surgically removed “soon" or my life would be in danger.

That’s right, I came into the ER with motorcycle injuries and left with motorcycle injuries and Cancer

Long story short, I ended up having the tumor surgically removed in a robotics-assisted surgery and they say that the chance of it reappearing is in the single-digit percentages.

The recovery was hard however, very hard. Just getting back on my feet after the motorcycle accident took weeks and then the recovery from surgery…just being able to walk and breathe normally again was a task. But I recovered, fully. And went back to mastering records again for the latter half of the year as if nothing had changed.

I did come back with somewhat of a changed perspective on life as I’m sure some of you might understand. It was a near death experience…two of them…back to back. But I’m here, and it’s 2017, a new year. I’d just like to thank everyone who’s been here for me, my family, all my clients that stuck with me through it all. Thank you and Happy New Year!

  • Mike Bell @ Darkart Mastering

Get The Most From Your Master - Vol 7: Common Issues & Tips On How To Avoid Them

In my experience, the best masters come from mixes that don’t need much processing (little to no eq or compression). This may sound obvious but the majority of tracks that come in from artists big and small have common problems outlined below.

A lot can be achieved with proper mastering but if you’re looking for optimum results, the sound quality will be best when little has been changed. Look at it this way, any eq across the entire track is going to change the overall phase and any compression will change the internal dynamics and envelopes within the mix. In a perfect world, you nailed all of that already and want the least amount of damage whilst getting it louder.

Here are some tips that I believe will help you get there:

• avoid the 'smiley face curve’, solid midrange is everything. If you want a big low end and loud, bright hihats, figure out how to accomplish it while keeping the balance in check. A lot of it comes down to sample selection, pitch, envelopes, layering, arrangement, etc.

‘smiley face curve’ mix example

balanced mix example

• watch your kick and bass relationship. It’s very common for mixes to come in with way too much low end. Mastering can correct this with eq, but it’s much more difficult when the relationship is off. Your biggest improvements will come from nailing the low end in the mix. The reason why it’s so challenging comes down to the problem most rooms have with proper low end reproduction (peaks and nulls) but this is where you want to spend your time putting things under a microscope. Listen in headphones, analyze on a spectrum analyzer. The closer you can get it, the better.

• keep your unruly, dynamic sounds in check. Things like band-passed or hipassed vocal fx that resonate around 1-3k will distort a master very easily unless it’s under control and sitting right in the mix. Try following the filter up with saturation, distortion or compression to smooth out the transients. 

• don't just listen to the cutoff frequency when applying a low cut filter. This isn’t as much of an issue as it is a tip that a lot of people wouldn’t have considered. As you move the filter around, listen to what’s happening to the midrange and highs as well because the low cut is affecting the overall phase of the sound. This is especially important when considering a low cut on kick drums or bass. Notice how when you move the cutoff around the bottom of a kick drum, it can affect the sound of the midrange attack as well. Find the sweet spot where everything sits nice in the mix.

• and finally, don't rely so much on mastering. The mix should sound pretty solid without additional limiting. Proper mastering tries to make every attempt to respect the original dynamic whilst getting the track loud. If the track comes in with dynamics that the artist didn’t intend, there’s a chance for there to be differing opinions once the master is complete.

try buss processing to achieve this. I’ve recently been converting some established artists who were previously relying on a master limiter to do around 10+ db’s of limiting to achieve the transient control across the mix they wanted. I explained that you can achieve much greater control, separation and sound quality by dealing with those transients before they hit the master fader.

coming from a background of mixing on an analog desk with stems, I’ve never understood why you’d want to just slam everything into one box (digital limiter). The approach we always took was to mix clean and surgical in the box then stem out the drums, bass, synths (or whatever the dominant midrange sound is) and fx separately to eight channels of the desk for the dirt, fatness and vibe. The drums would get slammed into the red with fat British opamp (TL072) saturation. The transients would flatten out but the sound remained punchy and fat. To this day I’ve not found a plugin that could do this anywhere near as well and i’ve tested them all. 

what people tend to do these days as an alternative is one of, or a combination of a few things: digital distortion/saturation and digital compression/limiting. I would recommend that if you’ve never worked with analog, that you at least experiment with some cheap analog gear to hear what it does. This way you can understand what plugins are trying to emulate or how you can get the most out of them. 

here’s a picture of the desk I mixed on for years. It can be had for about $200-300 on Craigslist and makes plugins sound like weak, watered down toys. I would relate the difference to be similar to playing a guitar through Marshall stack versus a digital amp simulator:

If you’re going for a clean & pristine Pop sound, then cheap analog gear is most likely not going to work for you but if you’re going for a fat and dirty sound (which I believe most Bass Music producers are), give it a go!

- Mike Bell @ Darkart Mastering

ARTIST SPOTLIGHT: THE GLITCH MOB

Fresh off the release of their astounding new album ‘Love, Death, Immortality,’ The Glitch Mob sits down with Mike Bell of Darkart Mastering to talk shop in the latest installment of Artist Spotlight.

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Hey guys thanks for doing this. I know your life is crazy right now with the release of the album.

Not a problem at all boss. My pleasure.

I’d mentioned to you before that I was unsure what to expect on the mixdowns of this record after seeing Instagram pics of your screen filled with plugins but once I heard them, I honestly was pretty blown away. It doesn’t sound digital at all and I think the warmth and quality of the production really helped to get the emotion across properly.

Yeah we are really big on that dirty, unpolished, vintage and analog sound. Although it’s all plugins, that’s something that really makes the tunes sound like The Glitch Mob. That vibe is definitely way more evident on 'Drink The Sea,’ but we still tried to keep that vibe as much as possible with this new album.

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It really does sound like you guys have stepped up your production game on this album compared to previous efforts. It’s competitive sonically with all the big “EDM” stuff out there. Was that a priority for you?

'Drink The Sea’ was a listening album. We did not really write it from the standpoint of “how are these songs going to sound on a festival rig?” It was a very personal record, and we stepped away from the whole “Crush Mode” era Hip-Hop tempo club bangers and wrote a record that was all about telling stories through different feelings and emotions. It just so happened that we couldn’t shake the festival circuit. Promoters were still booking us for massive festivals and we had to figure out how to make a really creative, “headphone listening” record translate into an amazing festival experience. It took a lot of trial and error, but at the end of the two year tour cycle I think we finally put it all together. With this new album, we went into it with the mind state of knowing we would be playing massive festivals and huge rooms. We still wanted to tell our story our way, but we definitely had much more of an emphasis on making sure that the emotions would translate properly in a massive festival environment. Also, this record is telling a much larger and all-inclusive story. The vibe and feeling is way more epic, and the mixdowns were critical in helping to tell those stories. In all honesty, all of the writing was actually done in about a year’s time, but it took close to two years to mix the album in a way that felt was going to best convey the emotion of the album. The reason being was that there’s really no roadmap put there for “how to mix a Glitch Mob tune.” It would be different if we made Prog House or Trap. There would be a lot of good examples and text books to follow. But for this record, we actually had to discover what the mix aesthetic was to achieve the “current Glitch Mob sound.”

You rely a lot on analyzers and meters to help get you where you need to go in the studio correct? Could you break that down a bit?

We actually used to never use analyzers. We would mix purely off of instinct. And it definitely got us by on 'Drink The Sea,’ the “Crush Mode” era songs, and a hand full of remixes. So lemme give you a little back story on how we came to use analyzers religiously… 

For this current album we actually toyed with the idea of having XOQ (aka Uberzone) mix it. He is an amazing engineer, who mostly mixes all the big Prog House guys like the Swedish House Mafia camp etc… He also mixed the Panty Raid album which is a side project of my bandmate Ooah and my buddy Marty Party. He did a phenomenal job on the Panty Raid record and Ooah and Boreta really tried to convince me to get him on board as our engineer to reduce our work load in the studio. We had NEVER had anyone mix a Glitch Mob tune ever, and this was the first time that we were open minded to the idea of it. To make a long story short, we actually amicably parted ways with XOQ. He took a few stabs at a few of our tunes. He tried hard, but ultimately it wasn’t coming out the way that we wanted it to sound and in the end we mixed the album ourselves. Now we don’t want to throw XOQ under the bus, because he is an extremely talented engineer. To his credit, most artists go to him with completely unmixed songs and they give him free reign to do his thing creatively, and he delivers on the results. With this record, we had such a clear vision with the way that we wanted it to sound, that he was having a real tough time conforming to what we wanted. This also goes back to the whole discussion of there being no roadmap or textbook on how to mix a Glitch Mob song. Since we’re not part of any genre or scene, we kind of exist on our own planet. And for this record, there were no other tunes we could study. We had to discover our own mix style and sensibility. Now here’s where the whole analyzer thing comes in to play… 

During our short stint with XOQ, he would always talk about our tunes from a very technical point of view and always say stuff like “have you looked at this on the analyzer? the reason why I can’t achieve "X” is because “Y” is not there on the analyzer.“

In all honesty, it used to drive us up the wall. But after we parted ways with him, we really tried to digest all the analyzer talk as constructive criticism and try to understand what he was talking about. At that point, we began using analyzers to look at all of our tunes, and songs from our contemporaries. It was a really eye opening experience. We are willing to say it was one of the largest growth spurts that we’ve had as an engineers. We realized that our tunes were actually flawed in many ways and that’s why XOQ couldn’t achieve the results we were looking for. Parting ways with him was actually the best thing that happened to us, because it really made us take a hard look at what was "wrong” with the production, engineering and song writing of the album. And as a result, all of the flaws were things that only WE could fix. 

Also, if you see Instagram pics of our studio, you can see that we work in our living room. It is completely untreated. We’ve worked in so many kinds of rooms and at the end of the day, our living room is what feels the most creatively inspiring. Analyzers really help tell us what’s going on even though our monitoring situation is not ideal. At this point, we feel we could probably use analyzers and mix a tune on headphones. It wouldn’t be perfect, but we could probably get it 85% there. Analyzers won’t make your mixes better. That’s still up to the engineer’s ear. But, they can totally show you problem areas that you normally can’t pick up on your monitors, and they can help you achieve more consistent mixes. The analyzers and a good parametric EQ are my two main weapons.

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What are some other tools and plugins that are integral to what you do? Are there any you couldn’t live without?

At this point we would have to say that we cannot live without Voxengo SPAN Plus, DMG Audio Equilibrium and a good LUFS meter like the iZotope Insight or the ToneBoosters EBU Compact.

How are you finding Ableton these days?

It’s a love/hate relationship. We’ve used every Mac DAW under the sun and Ableton is the most creatively inspiring and the most flexible. There are so many things wrong with it, but at the end of the day, it is the best program for importing track elements from older sessions. And that to us is worth its weight in gold. We change so much stuff in the mix all of the time. We need to able to go back to the bassline from 2 years ago and import it into our current session with its original MIDI and FX plugins etc…no program can do it quite as easily as Ableton’s drag and drop features. We think that is the main reason we use Ableton. Also the ease of parallel processing with the “Audio Effect Rack” is probably another reason why we use it. 

How much live instrumentation went into the making of this record? Could you explain the tracking process a bit?

This record actually had a lot less live instrumentation. 'Drink The Sea’ definitely had way more guitar and bass. We played guitar and bass on a few tunes and we played a bunch of the jazzy Rhodes outros on some of the songs. The tracking process was super basic this time around. We literally recorded everything into the preamp on the UA Apollo bone dry and handled the processing after the fact.

I absolutely love the vocals and the fact that you worked with a bunch of people I’ve never heard before rather than obvious big name cameos. How did you come across these people and how did you find working with them?

It was funny because management and our whole sync/licensing team really wanted us to try to get some cool features for this record. So we tried. Sent a bunch of tweets and emails and no one bit. At the end of the day we ended up working with all of our homies, with the exception of Sister Crayon who hit us up on Twitter. Yaarrohs is my lady. She’s amazing. She has an EP coming out next year and it’s absolutely beautiful. Metal Mother is also one of our long time homies from Oakland. She just nailed it on that tune. Aja Volkman is the front woman for Nico Vega. I’ve known her for years and the drummer in Nico Vega is one of my best friends. At the end of the day the best approach was really keeping it all in the family and not trying to get cool features from people you don’t know. It also just felt better from a creative standpoint. 

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Any specific tips to getting a good vocal sound? I know you tracked one or two of them through a proper API console correct?

The only vocals we personally tracked were Aja’s and Yaarrohs’. The Sister Crayon vocals and Metal Mother’s were sent through the internet. We mixed their vocals, but those girls tracked them on their own. We really think it’s all about the vocalist and the room. We tracked Aja at Kingsize in Silverlake and we originally tracked her through an LA2A, and the 550 section on the API console. 10 minutes in, we started getting tons of static. We finally ended up re-patching everything ditching the Neumann and just going from the new mic (AKG 414), to the API pre on the desk and straight into protools. No compression, no Neve 1073, nothing. And then afterwards, there was tons of compression, EQing and effects that happened in Ableton to achieve the sound. As you can tell from this example, we stripped out all of the bling, and just went with the bare bone essentials. Not to speak poorly of high end outboard gear, but we find that the “less is more” approach works better for when we’re tracking. We’re the type of engineers that would rather get a decent cleaner pass of a recording, then have the flexibility to process it after the fact.

Favorite EQ currently?

DMG Audio Equilibrium. You actually tipped us off to that and I must say, it’s our go to EQ for ANY job. The mix philosophy we use revolves around EQing close to the fundamentals or notes within the key of song. We know a lot of people have “rules.” They say “boost this frequency for snares, boost that for kick etc…” For a long time, we mixed like that as well and there’s nothing wrong with that if you can get the results you’re looking for. However, about a year ago we started boosting and cutting within the notes of the key of song. We can’t break it down scientifically but from a tonal standpoint, the songs sound like they “fit” more and logically make more sense. The DMG Audio Equilibrium and the Waves H-EQ are currently the leading EQ’s with a piano keyboard built in to the GUI. We have both but we prefer Equilibrium. Also the ability to play with the mid and side on Equilibrium is huge. Often times we don’t even use it to EQ anything, we’re just using it to control stereo image.

How do you go about creating space in your mixes?

Hah! Good Question. Our tunes are getting so maximal we’re not sure there’s a whole of space anywhere in the songs. But I guess a lot of the space comes from the writing itself. Knowing when the song can go full wall of sound and knowing when to strip it down so you can get back to the wall of sound and deliver on the emotional impact. But from a technical standpoint, EQ is critical and also understanding the stereo spectrum. We used to fall in love with stereo spreader plugins. “Everything Wide!” The wide approach always sounds awesome in your studio, and then when you hear it on a festival rig, it sounds like it has no impact because everything is all over the place. So with this record, one big lesson was learning when it was ok to go wide and when it was important to stay closer to the middle. It was also an important lesson in leading the listener’s ear and brain to the most important elements of the song.  

You mentioned to me that you don’t use much compression but your mixes sound very polished. What are you using to get your peaks under control, saturation?

We don’t use any plugins on the master bus. We used to use tons of plugins on the master bus and get the song colored all crazy. But these days, we’re all about absolutely nothing on the master bus. We do mix through a brick wall limiter to provide the mastering engineer with a reference mix/volume. But that all gets taken off when we send the the unmastered wavs to mastering. This approach just works for us. It helps us really hone in on what’s lacking in the song, or what’s overpowering the tune. We do use limiters on individual elements to help control peaks, but we rarely use traditional comps with an attack, decay and threshold. And in all honesty, we only use limiters on tracks that really need it. If a bass or lead has been processed with tons of distortion, the waveform is already going to look like a brick. No limiting needed. If it’s a percussion part that has a lot of dynamics, we might use a brick wall limiter to make sure that some of the harder hits don’t poke out. The basic Brainworx BX Limiter is my favorite. It’s one of the few where you can drop the threshold and not hear the source the material getting louder. Very few limiters work like that. 

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What advice would you give to new producers coming up on how to get their tracks sounding better? What are some things that you wish you knew years ago?

Tip #1: Use analyzers religiously. Learn how to read a spectrum analyzer in super fast hi res mode. Learn how to read them in slow averaging mode. Learn how to use a correlation meter, and learn how to use an LUFS meter. It doesn’t really matter which analyzers you use, as long as you understand it and it makes sense to you. But yeah, that’s my biggest tip. I wish we knew how to read analyzers ages ago. And it can be daunting, because it can look just a bunch of squiggly lines to most people. But once you figure it out, the “math” of the mixdown all begins to make perfect sense.

Tip #2: Don’t mix at 95dB or higher. We used to mix CRAZY LOUD. We have a Genelec 7271 sub and I remember the first day we got it, we cranked up a tune to like 95 dB, saw the emergency overload light go off on the sub and thought “this thing’s not big enough.” Hah! Yeah we mixed loud for so long and I kept on wondering why Ooah and Boreta would tell me our mixdowns didn’t have enough bass. When you mix at at loud volumes, everything sounds huge and everything sounds way louder and bigger than it actually is. Also your perception of highs, mids and lows gets completely distorted. I find that we can achieve a way more balanced mix when we’re mixing at softer volumes like 75 to 80 dB. We’ll still blast it at 95 dB for 30 seconds to check bass response, but we definitely don’t consistently mix at that kind of loudness. We also find that mixing at 75 to 80 dB will allow you to mix for longer hours. If we have to, we can pull a 14 to 16 hour day in studio and still feel the mixes are solid the following day.

Any other tips or desert island plugins?

I would be willing to go as far as saying a lot of the “Glitch Mob sound” relies heavily on iZotope Trash 2 (and previously Trash 1). Every aspect of that plugin is incredible. There are tons of models for saturation, and then a ton on the opposite end of the spectrum for guitar amping, EQing and even filtering. It’s truly incredible once you figure it all out. Also LFO Tool is our go to sidechaining plugin. We love it because it is so consistent every time. The problem with sidechain compressors is that some of the time you will actually get distortion from the compressor depending on how it’s set, or what the key signal is. Sometimes you want that distortion, but it’s really nice to have something that is transparent and produces the perfect ducking curve every single time. 

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Any news on the live show, tours, etc?

Two year tour cycle starts in March.

Alright thank you! Really appreciate you spending the time and sharing your knowledge.

Thank YOU boss! Amazing job on the masters once again.

The Glitch Mob 'Love, Death, Immortality’ LP is out now and available everywhere. Go buy it!

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http://www.theglitchmob.com

https://twitter.com/theglitchmob

https://www.facebook.com/theglitchmobmusic

-Mike Bell @ Darkart Mastering

Get The Most From Your Master - Vol 5: Crank Your Monitors

At some point before you decide your premaster is finished and ready for mastering, make sure it sounds great with the monitors turned up LOUD. Your ears can handle the levels in short bursts and it’s worthwhile as it reveals things you won’t notice when mixing quiet. A good headphone blast will suffice if your neighbors will call the cops.

If at any point something happens in the mix that makes you want to turn the volume down because it hurts or just plain sounds bad, fix it.

Common causes of ear bleeding sounds are filter sweeps and anything overly dynamic in the 1k-8k area. De-essers, dynamic eq’s and compressors are your friends when working to tame them.

If you’re making club music, your fans are primarily going to hear the tunes at those levels so you’ve got to optimize! It also will help to ensure that less destructive processes will be happening in mastering.

Obviously don’t spend too much time monitoring at that level or you’ll just be shortening the length of your career as an audio professional. Also, the longer you listen at loud volumes, the more your perception of what’s real is skewed. Take regular breaks.

- Mike Bell @ Darkart Mastering

Setting export levels before mastering and 32bit floating point

A common question we get is “how much headroom do you prefer on the premasters?” The answer is “anything under clipping is fine.” But to expand on that, clipping is fine too but only if you send 32bit floating point files. The reason for this is because 32bit floating point is not actually going to clip until the bit rate is reduced.

If your DAW is limited to 24bit exporting (Logic) then it’s important that you keep any peaks below zero because we can’t reverse distortion in mastering.

This is useful info to the producers out there who work with processing on their master fader (Ozone for example) and remove it before exporting only to find that the level is now peaking over zero. Now you can save yourselves some time.

Some thoughts on MP3 and mastering

There’s been a small discussion on Twitter lately about the loudness wars, dynamic range and distortion in mastering. Because Twitter limits your thoughts to a few characters, I figured I’d do a short post here instead.

Rather than get into the loudness war debate which has raged on for a decade, I’d like to touch on a subject that you don’t hear about much…MP3s.

It’s safe to assume that music is being listened to on MP3 more than WAV or even vinyl these days. They save hard drive space, quicker download times and let’s face it, most people can’t hear the difference between 320kbps MP3 and WAV anyway.

The thing is however, most people aren’t listening at 320, they’re listening at lower bit rates. Soundcloud has become somewhat of the standard for searching out new music and they are converting to 128kbps.

If you take a master WAV that’s been mastered to peak at 0dbfs and convert it to 128kbps MP3, it’s now peaking at least 2db’s over zero! That’s audible distortion and people are now accustomed to hearing it daily.

This is from Soundcloud’s own help section:

Just uploaded and my track is distorted

Sometimes our transcoding system can create audio artifacts, as we transcode all tracks to 128 kbps mp3 for streaming playback. Uploading a lossless or high-quality lossy file will usually reduce these to a minimum, but unfortunately there’s not much we can do for the handful of individual tracks that are…

And Spotify:

What bitrate does Spotify use for streaming?

We use the Ogg Vorbis format for streaming. There are three quality ratings that we use:
q3 (~96 kbps) Spotify mobile “Low bandwidth” setting
q5 (~160 kbps) Spotify Desktop standard streaming quality
q9 (~320 kbps) Spotify Desktop “High bitrate” setting available with Spotify Premium
 
Ok, so you have to pay Spotify monthly to not hear distorted tracks, fair enough…
 
The only way you’re going to hear MP3’s that aren’t distorted is when the labels decide to account for it and either master quieter FOR MP3, or offer two versions.
 
To put things into perspective on how out of control things have gotten, think about your average bedroom producer who’s trying to match his levels to commercial masters and drives his limiter into distortion to get there, then uploads it to Soundcloud and gets more distortion on top of distortion…
 
The question I pose is, do people care? Is this the standard now? The only way anything will change regarding the loudness wars and internet playback distortion is when the consumers speak up and demand change. Labels will listen.
 
- Mike Bell @ Darkart Mastering