Ask the Engineer: Andy VanDette on Mixing Like a Pro (Part 1)

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Ask the Engineer is a new series here on the Masterdisk blog where our guys answer questions about music production. Send us your questions at We won’t be able to answer all of them but we’ll post answers to as many as we can. If you have a specific engineer you want to pose the question to, let us know that too.

Chief Engineer Andy VanDette is the go-to mastering engineer for many of today’s greatest artists. From prog-rock greats like Rush to iconic artists like David Bowie, international sensations like David Fonseca to rising pop stars like Jon McLaughlin, Andy can, and does, do it all.

Andy-VanDette-photo-by-Steve-HardyQ: What are the main differences you hear between mixes you receive from seasoned mix engineers and those you receive from less experienced mix engineers or self-mixing artists?

A: The difference between the big guys and less experienced engineers is usually the bottom. The way the kick and bass interact is everything: it’s the basic building block that I don’t really have a fix for if it’s not right. I have lots of tools that will add beautiful, airy top end; and I can spread the stereo image from NY to LA, but if that one basic building block isn’t right and the punch on the kick isn’t clear there’s not much I can do to fix it.

Q: Let’s say an artist is recording and mixing herself. What can she do to deal with the bottom end?

A: The first thing I would say is to consider hiring a mix engineer. But if you can’t or don’t want to do that, then here’s what I’d do. Listen to a lot of great recordings, and compare yours to the great ones. If you’re mixing on small speakers, maybe get a sub. (Though keep in mind that subs can be misleading so it has to be voiced correctly.) If you can’t get a sub, then try the car. The “car test” is basically the third set of monitors that I listen to everything on. Sometimes I get wonderful feedback, and other times I find a car stereo’s limitations! When listening in the car, alternate your mix with mixes you know and love and see how they compare.

Head over to Part 2.

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Daniel Freedman: Percussionist, Composer & World Traveler

Percussionist, drummer and composer Daniel Freedman’s latest album, Bamako by Bus, on Anzik Records, was recently mastered at Masterdisk. I wanted to find out Daniel’s tricks of the trade, but it turns out there are no tricks. Hard work plus talent got him where he is today. We chatted on the phone the other day, here’s what he had to say about making music, New York, and travel.

Q:What’s it like to be a working musician?

A:It’s a challenge of course! I have always done a variety of things to get by, but as long as I am doing music….  I used to play for afro cuban dance classes, modern dance sometimes Alvin Ailey or Martha Graham as well as playing a lot of gigs.  At the time I wanted to learn more percussion, so dance classes were perfect.  Things come organically… in 2000 I got in to the home studio thing and I started recording more and more things, and some people asked me to write for picture and produce tracks for them.  The past several years I’ve been on the road a lot and I try to balance playing and producing. My advice is to stay open, because you may have to do many different things.  Very few musicians only play the music that they want to play in order to make a living. That said, I still try to put my head in the sand and do music that I want to do.  

Q:Easier said than done.

A:Setting up the environment so that you can stick your head in the sand and work is so helpful.  Same goes for practicing. Time is so limited I have to get right to it. Also I guess I rely less and less on inspiration these days and just get to work until something sticks.

Deep Brooklyn by Daniel Freedman

Q:How did Bamako by Bus evolve as a project?

A:The song “Darfur” was created years before and then we finished it live. I thought about which musicians I really loved and I wrote with their voices in mind.  It’s different from other records I have done, it started off as a project with Avishai Cohen: I would create bass lines and grooves and then he would improvise over them and we would edit the pieces into songs.  I could never seem to finish, and I asked Meshell Ndegeocello if she would be into playing on some of our sketches and she was enthusiastic about it.  So two tracks were done at my house, and then we finished the rest in the studio. Jason Lindner helped a great deal, he’s a master of harmony and form, but everyone was really helpful. There was direction, but with that level of musicians it’s great to leave things open.

Q:And production-wise, how did that go?

A:Jean-Luc Sinclair mixed the record at my house.  We then took it to Michael Perez Cisneros‘ studio and he helped give it a more analogue feeling. Matt Agoglia mastered it and is a real pro; he had a musical quality to his approach and was generous with his time.

Q:Do you think growing up in NYC gave you good opportunities as a musician?

A:Growing up in New York seems to have chosen my musical direction for me in a way.   My father Joel played on a bunch of free jazz records in the ’60s and my uncle Alan is a great guitar player. He’s on a ton of records. My uncle is the rocker so he got me Marley and Prince records. Also hiphop and breakdancing was such a huge thing in New York and I was into that. I discovered my father’s record collection when I was about 12 and fell in love with Art Blakey and Coltrane records. Going to Laguardia High School was a really pivotal time for me. Many of the students there were already working musicians around town and I knew that’s what I wanted to do as well.

Q:How do you like writing music for pictures?

A:Its almost always fun for me and certainly takes a different sensibility.  My mother is a painter and my grandparents were as well.  I wanted to be a painter myself before I found the drums. Writing for pictures requires that the music serve the picture first of all; that brings the emotion of what you’re viewing to life.  But you’re limited, especially with commercial work, you have a very short turn around time and it has to sound great right away.   

Q:Listening to this album it’s clear you’ve done some traveling; where have you been so far?

A:I always felt a connection to all different music from around the world, and New York is such a great place to be if you are into hearing and experiencing so many different cultures. I also felt that hearing/experiencing music at its source would be incredibly helpful. I had maybe a dozen “study” trips: Mali, Egypt, Cuba, Brazil, Morocco, and Senegal come to mind. Jazz of course lends itself to using almost anything that you can find and with groups like Third World Love, we have been doing this for a while, bringing these influences into jazz or whatever you want to call it.  This isn’t new. Duke Ellington was doing that kind of thing way before I was born! But all those sounds and experiences influence my writing and playing. I try not to make it too deliberate but have it inform my general language and vocabulary.

Q:Did you pick up any traditional forms in your travels?

A:There are so many sounds that I heard around the world and loved. Sabar is one, senegalese percussion…mostly really fierce stick and hand.  Jeff Ballard showed me some of that way back.  Recently, I’ve been playing with Angelique Kidjio’s band and the percussionist is Senegalese, so it’s been great to hear that sound consistently on the road and learn more about it.  I always was moved by music when it was in front of me and loud! And I always wanted to experience music by being next to it and feeling it. You know, to play jazz you eventually have to come to New York, so I felt that it would help me in a similar way to go to Africa, Cuba etc…To sit next to the real thing and hear how loud and powerful it really is. In New York I used to hear Elvin Jones, Art Taylor and Billy Higgins all the time and there is nothing that can replace sitting next to the person making the music and soaking it in. Those trips charge my battery and I need to recharge every so often. I’m looking forward to going to West Africa again this winter.

Ask the Engineer: Randy Merrill on Managing the Bass In Your Jazz Mixes

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Ask the Engineer is a new series here on the Masterdisk blog where our guys answer questions about music production.

Our first “Ask the Engineer” question went to Tim Boyce. This time we had a question for Randy Merrill.

Q: In your experience, what is the most common mix or recording issue you’ve seen in jazz projects?

Photo of Randy MerrillA: Upright bass. It’s absolutely the hardest instrument to capture with any sort of even-ness in tone. It’s an enormous instrument. There’s always some range of the upright bass that’s louder than other parts. Unfortunately, the problem is usually in the lower register of the instrument, so unless the people who are mixing have a really great monitoring environment where they can hear the low end of their mixes clearly, they mix the low end entirely too hot or don’t get the low end of the instrument entirely dialed in. This can range in severity from really bad to not that noticeable. But it’s mostly due to the listening environment of the mixer.

Q: So how can that problem be avoided?

A: Try to reference your mixes on a system with a really full bass response. If you have a set of speakers in your car with a nice deep bottom end, you can bring the mix there and it will usually tell you what’s going on in the lower register — as opposed to small studio monitors. Or if you have access to large studio monitors, that’s ideal. But those are definitely not the norm these days in smaller studios where there’s just not enough space. Anyway, for those who don’t have that, and who have a decent car system, definitely reference on those for some insight onto what’s going on with the bottom end.

Your mastering engineer should be monitoring on full range monitors so that he or she will hear these problems. Sometimes a simple EQ in mastering fixes the problem. Other times the EQ to fix the bass causes another element of the mix to lose focus. Sometimes the best answer is a simple recall mix with an EQ on the bass instrument to control those ultra-low frequencies. The end result we want is a mastered mix that is balanced with power and definition.

Ask the Engineer: Tim Boyce on Improving Your EDM Mixes

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Ask the Engineer is a new series here on the Masterdisk blog where our guys answer questions about music production.

Our first question goes to engineer Tim Boyce.

Q: What are some of the most common problems associated with the dance mixes you receive for mastering?

Photo of Tim BoyceA: The most common trouble I see often isn’t a problem in the mix, but overlooking the importance of the arrangement. Often there’s just too much going on at once, and the mix looses clarity. For example, a mix might have a kick drum and a few different bass lines overlapping. When a speaker makes sound it’s either pushing forward or pulling back to create physical waves in the air. That’s what our ears respond to: air-pressure. For a good, clear, powerful kick drum – which is a critical element of dance music – the speaker needs to be able to cleanly move through its full range of motion. If the speaker is being told to do a bunch of different things in the same frequency range at the same time, it will be ‘fighting’ itself and you won’t get that big clear sound that you want. I think this commonly happens when producers are focusing on the individual sounds/samples of the track and don’t pay as much attention to the overall arrangement of when those sounds play together.

If you look at the top producers making dance music right now, you’ll see a heavy focus on arrangement. Each instrument has its place. Take dubstep for example. Powerful dubstep mixes typically use one or very few sounds at once, so that each sound can have its full sonic impact. Each sound has its place, in time and in the mix. It’s very sequence heavy, and sounds more massive by actually being pretty minimal.

A lot of people try to fix the busy-ness and muddle of their mixes by using tons of EQ, but that’s not the best answer for clarity. I think it starts with the arrangement — so start there and make sure all of your key elements have the space around them to come through clearly.

Tim Boyce’s specialties lie in world, dance, dub, hip-hop, ethnic, remixed, and other genres, and his production credits include French Montana, SLDGHMR, Deathrow Tull, MSTRKRFT, Nightbox, and RAC. Tim’s creative desire to breath life into a static space allows him to finely tune an album into a living movement, not just a passive listening experience. If you need cutting-edge mastering, Tim’s your engineer. Get more info at the Tim Boyce page on the Masterdisk website.

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LAMC: Music Industry Tips #3

Tip #3: The best idea is going to come from a 15-year old.

Toy Hernandez, producer for the latest hit machine out of Monterrey, Mexico 3BallMTY (Tribal Monterrey), and Sebastian Krys, producer for La Santa Cecilia, Kinky, Shakira and various other Grammy winning artists, talked about being a producer of a certain age and experience at LAMC in NYC in July.

Krys said, as a producer, “you have to stay on top of the game, and the way that you do that is by accepting that the best idea is going to come from a 15-year old, it’s not going to come from you and your experience.” 

This may be hard to accept, but it’s true.  You should recognize that new ideas drive the industry and that your contribution is to refine them and get the most out of them.  “Those days are gone, my friend,” he said, and then roused the audience by calling for artists to make up their own formats, song lengths and album lengths, which earned him a few minutes of applause and approving heckles.  If you are moved to create something, he urged, don’t let the form hem you in.