Ask the Engineer: Scott Hull on Mixing: Master Buss EQ and Peak Limiting, Part 1

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

SCOTT HULL is a 28-year veteran mastering engineer and the owner of Masterdisk studios in NYC. Scott started his career in 1983 and has mastered hit records and classic albums in every genre, as well as many Grammy-winning titles. He is widely regarded as an expert in vinyl mastering. Recent projects include albums for Donald Fagen, Sting, Dave Matthews, Glenn Frey and KISS, as well as multiple albums for the Sh-K-Boom, Tzadik and Luaka Bop labels. Over the course of his career Scott has mastered albums for Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Miles Davis, Lou Reed, Ravi Shankar, Herbie Hancock, Tom Zé, John Mayer Joe Bonamassa, and many more.

Photo of Scott HullQ: When I send my mixes to my mastering engineer should I remove the buss limiting and eq?

A: Yes and no… it really depends on how you mix. You have to think about what outcome you’re going for before you can know what will produce the best results. I’ll give you some guidelines.

Mixing through a buss compressor is not necessarily a bad thing. But you have to understand that it is adjusting the levels automatically when it gets loud and in effect the buss compressor is a sort of auto-mix tool. If this is used in moderation, for a specific desired effect, that’s great. However, you have to consider that when you take the buss effects off your mix will change. Sometimes subtly, sometimes not.

Another typical use of a buss compressor or limiter is to bump up the level of the mix for the final level. Some mix engineers wrongly refer to this as mastering. This is like putting a mic on a stand and calling that recording. But that’s a separate subject! Anytime you or your mix engineer places a level bump on the buss you have to ask that a non-limited version is also created… no mater how much the mix engineer objects.

Let’s talk for a minute about the problems with mastering from a maxed-out mix.

The promise that professional mastering can help transform your mix is only possible when the mix is supplied without peak limiting. I prefer no peak limiting of any kind. The peak limiting helps you turn up the level and make the mix louder, but this process makes mastering less effective. I find that it takes more EQ to make things sparkle and it takes even more compression to make the changes needed in mastering when the mix has too much peak limiting.

Basically, limiting the mix simply limits the possibilities of your music and should only be done with great care. Often the mix environment is not revealing enough to judge the positive and negative effects of limiting. For the best sounding product, limiting – as much as is desired – MUST happen last, after EQ changes and any “color” processing like tubes and compressors are applied.

The mix engineer’s job is to supply a mix that will get approved. But the mix engineer should also explain to their clients that the “loud” setting of their project must be determined in mastering. And that mastering cannot effectively be done by the same engineer and in the same environment that the mix was done in.

Next time I’ll list my guidelines for the use of buss processing.

(Read Part Two here.)

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Ask the Engineer: Andy VanDette on How to Choose a Mix Engineer

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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 ask@masterdisk.com. 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.

Photo of Andy VanDetteQ: In our earlier posts (Mixing Like a Pro Part 1 and Part 2), we discussed how to get the most out of your mixes when you’re mixing yourself. Let’s say you decide you want to hire someone to mix your music instead. How do you choose the right mix engineer?

A: It would all be about what he or she has mixed in the past. The quality of the mix. To me, good balance between all the elements is a GIVEN with a good mix engineer. The thing I find hard to quantify is depth. I have had home recording clients take every recommendation, and they send me a rough mix and expect my comments, and the mix is good. The one thing I don’t really know how to tell them to do, and what knocks my socks off, is an engineer that not only gets balance, but also knows how to deal with depth of field. It’s what separates the men from the boys! Depth isn’t always about adding reverb. It’s not just turning the reverb knob.

Another question to ask yourself: What’s moving you? Is it some element of a mix that you love, or is it just the whole song, the whole vibe? In what monitoring environment did it grab your attention? Personally, I don’t get any good feedback from laptops and earbuds. I know the mix needs to do well there, but the audiophiles aren’t listening on earbuds and laptops for good reason — you’re not getting the full picture there. Listen to mixes you like on a system you know.

You have to pay attention to when the music reaches out and grabs you. When you find what moves you, see who worked on it. Then, if you find that different things that move you were done by the same person or team… that’s good information.

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Benjy King

Photo of Benjy KingIt is with great sadness that we announce the death of our friend, Benjy King, on Thursday afternoon, September 20, from complications from an accident on Wednesday night. Benjy was an extremely talented musician, producer, arranger and recording engineer who will be missed by all of us, and by the many musicians, listeners and friends who loved him and his work.

Benjy was a true multi-instrumentalist who could play piano, organ, synth, guitar, bass and drums expertly. He was also an accomplished singer. Over the course of his career, Benjy worked with many of the world’s top session musicians, artists, engineers and producers. Scott Hull, Al Schmitt, Will Lee, Lincoln Clapp and David Santos are counted among his many professional admirers.

In addition to his numerous talents, Benjy had a personality that could light up a room, and a wealth of stories from his adventures in music that could keep those lucky enough to hear him in rapt attention for hours.

The world has lost a vibrant talent. Our thoughts and prayers go out to Benjy’s family and friends.

Ask the Engineer: Andy VanDette on Mixing Like a Pro (Part 2)

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Read Part 1 here.

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 ask@masterdisk.com. 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.

Photo of Andy VanDette with Dearly Beloved
Andy with Toronto band Dearly Beloved
Q: Last time we talked about how important the bottom end is in a mix. What is another common problem you see with mixes that come in from self-mixing artists or mix engineers that don’t have a lot of experience?

A: A common problem is the overuse of brick wall limiting before it gets here. Go ahead and use it to you heart’s content to get your mix approved, but make me a copy without it! If it turns out that you are an L2 god and I can’t top it, I will definitely use your version to master from.

Q: How often would you say that you end up using the version with the mix engineer’s limiting?

A: Not often; maybe 5% of the time I’ll use that. Limiting should only happen once in a mix’s lifetime. Multiple layers of brickwall limiting makes the hair on the back of my neck stand up, because I know “re-squaring” square waves can only lead to negative artifacts.


Check out Dearly Beloved’s latest album, Hawk vs Pigeon, mastered by Andy VanDette.

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Ask the Engineer: Tim Boyce on How Much To Process Your Mixes

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Ask the Engineer is a new series on the Masterdisk blog where our guys answer questions about music production. Today’s question goes to Tim Boyce.

Photo of Tim BoyceTim 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.

Q: How much processing is ok to use on my mix?

A: The short answer is ‘enough’ is what sounds good. The quick test is to turn up your monitors really loud! Just rock out and get into the mood. If you feel like you want to turn it down… there’s probably too much processing going on. You should feel a natural impulse to “turn up this track!” That’s a trademark of a good mix.

Now for the long answer…

3dB of headroom is enough. It’s not close to distorting, but still powerful enough to really feel it while mixing. More headroom is fine, (as long as you’re mixing at 24-bit) but 3dB is the minimum to keep it clean. The trick is, don’t just set a limiter for a 3dB ceiling. That’s not headroom. That’s just peak-limited to a low level (and it kills the transients, edges, vibe).

Gain stage correctly. Make sure you individual track levels are not already limiting before you sum them. You may be doing more peak limiting than you realize.

Turn down the master bus (that you’ll bounce through) enough that you have 3dB of actual headroom. You should see some peaks in the final waveform. Try not to do more than a few dB of limiting / hard bus compression.

And keep in mind that it is a balancing act. If you are using processing for the ‘feel, flavor, and texture’ then keep it! It’s part of the sound and vibe of the album. If you’re using the processing just to get it louder, then skip it. We can do loud here. Unless it adds a specific element as an artistic and stylistic choice, this kind of processing at the mix stage is just overkill.

So, what’s “enough?”

Use as much compression, EQ, and effects on your tracks as you’d like for ‘density’ and tone/color. Keep the master bus low so it never peaks (gain-staging), and skip any final limiters doing more than a couple dBs of reduction. That’ll leave lots of headroom while keeping some peaks so the kick/snare/synths stay dynamic and POP out the speakers.

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