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

Ask the Engineer header graphic
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.

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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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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