Ask the Engineer: Should I Mix as I Go or All at Once?

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Today’s “Ask the Engineer” question goes to mastering engineer Randy Merrill.

Randy Merrill joined Scott Hull Mastering in early 2006 as Scott’s production engineer. Shortly thereafter he started building his own mastering clientele, and today he’s a staff engineer at Masterdisk. Randy’s approach is to be as attuned to his clients’ aesthetic and practical goals as possible. He goes the extra mile to make sure the finished product reflects how you want your music to sound. Randy’s credits include Bruce Hornsby, Bill McHenry, Tom Wopat, 3 Cohens, Perez Hilton, Darcy James Argue, Paul Jacobs (Naxos) and Chantal Claret.

Q: I’m recording my album over a span of about a year. Should I mix tracks as I go along or have them all mixed at the end?

Photo of Duduka Da Fonseca and Randy MerrillA: It’s best when a project is mixed in a somewhat short time span. Things like relative level between instruments tends to suffer when songs are mixed apart from each other. Sometimes the vocal can be set “in” the mix on one song, and “on top” in another song, depending on what the engineer feels that day. Other considerations include how the drums sit in the mix, and how the bass sits. If there’s a lot of variation from track to track it can cause an album to feel disjointed.

Q: How much can mastering do to “tie” the different mixes together?

A: It can do a fair amount, but not as much as can be done in the mixing. Relative vocal levels can be approximated somewhat; same for bass. If one vocal is really “in” the track and another is upfront, it’s tough to get the two to sit similarly. Likewise with the drums: if they’re in a different place from song to song, it’s hard to get them to match.

If your project can’t be mixed in a short span for whatever reason, the previous mixes should be reviewed while the new ones are being done. This will help with the overall consistency of the album.

Photo: Randy Merrill (right) with Duduka Da Fonseca.

Ask the Engineer with Scott Hull: Can We Fix it in the Mastering?


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: Can you bring out the vocal in mastering? Can you push the snare drum back in the mix? Can you soften the cymbals? (And other “Fix it in the mastering” questions.)

A: There is a lot of subtle tone change that can be applied in mastering, but there is always a “but.” I’ll start with the least successful stuff first. If your mix is harsh, too much cymbals or too much high frequency “zing” on the vocal, it is going to be hard to make that sound great in mastering.

Don’t get me wrong — there are solutions and there are ways to soften the upper-mids and top, but often these fixes cause more damage to the rest of the mix. That is why I always suggest that your final mix SHOULD be just a little dark and a little warm. This means different things to different people and in some genres it’s desirable to be dark and warm and in others it is not. But the main take-away point is that if you “aim” your mix to sound exactly like a mastered CD, I may not be able to make it sing. When I use mastering EQ to soften the high frequencies, ALL of the elements of the mix get darker, not just the one(s) that are harsh. So if the hi-hat is ear splitting, I can roll off 7k and up, but even in very small amounts that will make the vocals sound less impressive and the guitar crunch will change and so on.

Tonal balance is the key to this equation. If ALL of the elements are too bright, then the EQ will work. If it’s just some elements then the EQ only serves to un-mix your music. Many people reach for multi-band compression in this case to try to take the sting out of the offending elements. This ONLY works when the offending element is the loudest thing in that part of the frequency spectrum. The effect of the hi frequency band-specific compression will be to soften the loudest, most transient part.

De-essing is a special case and is surprisingly effective. The de-esser has been designed to identify vocal esses and not confuse them with the brightness of the cymbals or snare. Because of the extremely bright tone, trumpets – especially muted trumpet – will get eaten alive by most de-ssers, so great care has to be used around brass and vocals.

Many times, the solution for an overly bright mix is not to cut the harshness, but to find ways of making the bass, warmth and punch regions stand out more. Balance is the key.

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Ask the Engineer: Scott Hull on Mixing: Master Buss EQ and Peak Limiting, Part 2

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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? (Read Part 1 of Scott’s answer here.)

A: Here are “Scott Hull’s Guidelines for the Use of Buss Processing.”

1. If you have mixed through the buss processing, i.e. had the compressor ON while you were mixing, then you most likely should leave the buss compressor or EQ ON when you send the mix to the mastering engineer.

2. If you find that when you take the buss compressor out the mix “falls apart” or loses it’s soul, then you should probably leave the compressor or effects ON when you create the mix for mastering.

3. If however, you didn’t mix thru the compressor – but added it after the mix to bump up the level for references — in that case you really must take the buss effects OFF the mix when you send it to mastering.

4. If someone else did your mixing and you are not sure if they mixed “through” the buss compressor or not, ask the engineer to print the mix with AND without the buss effects. Please remember too that your final 24 bit mix Does NOT have to be limited to peak at zero.

One other detail. Many times my clients come to me with a mix that has very obvious “flat topped” peak limiting. We call them “bricks” or “Tootsie Rolls” because of the way the waveform looks. At this point I’ll ask for a mix without the limiting, and they respond that they hadn’t put a limiter on the mix. And they hadn’t — but there WAS limiting, it just wasn’t done by a plugin called a limiter. Anytime you raise the level, or combine two or more signals together, or process the signal in a plug in, you run the risk of peak limiting within that component — and in many cases the software doesn’t flag the overshoot. You have to consistently be aware of your internal gain structure through your workstation and keep an ear and eye out for hidden limiting.

It’s like this: if every peak peaks at exactly the same level, then limiting happened.

One more final note: Don’t confuse track compression or limiting with buss compression or limiting. Individual tack by track gain control is not only a good thing — it’s absolutely essential. Oftentimes, when I find someone has overused a master buss compressor they did so because they had not applied enough gain control (compression or limiting) to the individual tracks.

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

Ask the Engineer graphic

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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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: 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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