A Masterclass with Chris Pavey

Thursday 11th January // Tonight’s blog post features some of the most common mix problems encountered over at CPM (Chris Pavey Mastering). Our long time friend and mastering guru Chris Pavey has worked with Insight on numerous occasions, but has also worked with many more musicians and producers on a national scale. In his own words, Chris has kindly put together for us the following article, which includes some precise mixing tips which can help improve your final mix.

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These are just a few of the mix problems that I come across in my day to day work. But remember every track is unique, every problem has its exceptions – so these are just things to keep in the back of your mind when working on your mix. I have tried to keep explanations brief, but please get in touch if you want to dig deeper, its always a pleasure to help others create music!

1. Low End

Too much low end is one of the most common mix problems I come across. This can be due to over boosting frequencies that don’t need to be, and then these frequencies don’t translate well on playback. This can be down to a bad listening environment when mixing. If you can’t hear the spectrum of sound accurately, you can’t be certain that what you’re adjusting in your mix is the right thing to do.
Bare in mind that well shaped low end can sound fuller and have greater depth than just boosting broad spectrums of those frequencies. Also take a look at the relationship between your kick and bass sounds (electronic or acoustic), and shape them to work together, rather then stepping on each other and masking each other.

2. Phase

Phase issues occur all across the spectrum, but I find it more frequently in the lower range, especially in electronic music when multiple drum samples are layered over each other. This can cause phase cancelation between samples, leaving the sound thin and lifeless.
When in doubt flip that phase switch and have a listen.

A little side note here – If you are wanting to do a vinyl release, low end phase issues can cause problems such as the cutting head not tracking properly. Out of phase information effects the way the vinyl is cut and pulls the cutting arm in two different directions at once. Additionally when phase cancellation occurs with frequencies, the cutting head doesn’t understand that information and can cause a skip on the record.

3. Happy EQ’ing

Named due to its shape, the happy EQ is when the low end and high end are boosted together.

This plays to the pleasure centres of the auditory part of the brain, as we love bass and we love high end. It’s that simple!
However this is arguably a short term enjoyment, and over time this style of EQ’ing can become extremely fatiguing.(See image for an extreme example).

I usually encounter this when I get a mix which has been ‘mastered’ to show me what they want as a client. This is because after a long mix session, when you’re burnt out, a boost at each end often sounds better, but possibly just better to you at that moment and on the system you are monitoring on. It’s something we are all susceptible too, and I don’t get this very often but it appears now and again.

It is also something which can occur on not just whole mixes, but on individual parts of the mix too – just something to watch out for. But again, every project is unique, this kind of EQ still might be what you need for the mix or a channel. Just be aware of how you are listening. If you feel yourself pushing any processing hard, just keep in mind your focus and how you are listening. Go take a break, have a drink and come back to it in 10 mins. Sometimes that’s all you need to refresh the ears and gain a better perspective on the mix.

4. Clicks, Buzzes, Pops & Other Nosies!

Part of a mastering engineer’s job is simply to sign-off on a mix so that it is ‘correct’ in the way the artist/producer intended the production to be. So regardless of the sonic characteristics of the track, things like clips, errors, buzzes, clicks, vocal mistakes, etc. all need to be checked.

For example, in large productions with 100’s of tracks in the mix, sometimes audio regions can be forgotten about. Have you cut that dead audio before the vocalist comes in when they have knocked the mic slightly before singing. That pop or click may be noticeable, but you have become ear-blind to it on the 1000th time you have played that mix?

This is why a mastering engineer’s monitoring and critical listening skills need to be top-notch, as we need to find these issues before the release of the tracks. No artist wants to be sat there banging their head against the wall when that tiny mistake is pointed out to them after it’s broadcast on the radio or being bought by fans!

5. Balance

Balance is a subjective view, and I don’t pretend to be the know-all of mixing. All I can offer are these points I have come across in my experience. I have worked with countless songs, and great mixes always have this in common – balance. A natural mix of all the parts with no part stepping on another and everything working together as a collection of sounds.

I often read online mix tips saying that this or that part must standout in a mix (its normally genre specific as well). I can’t agree with these statements because music is just so varied . In some cases these bits of advice can help, but you should always mix within the context of your instrumentation and arrangement. For example, do you feel the kick should pop out on every hit to drive your song forward? Sometimes a balanced relationship between the kick sound and the other low end elements of your song can provide a greater sense of bass and drive than just the one kick sound thumping out at you.

Vocals in my experience are the hardest part to mix. Back before I turned to mastering I used to dread mixing vocals, due to the wide spectrum of frequencies they can produce. The human voice is also the sound I believe we all can analyse the best, and I think the average listener can hear far greater into the nuances of the human voice than they can a guitar or piano; we are just far more used to processing the human voice than we give ourselves credit for.

So balance is essential to seating a vocal track into a mix. How is the vocal part rising and falling? How is the singers tone and range integrating with the music around it? A point I always make when discussing vocals is how useless plugin presets for them are, because the voice has such a varied colour of sound, depth and tone! By all means use a preset as a starting place, but pay close attention to the details of the voice you are mixing.

6. Providing Stems

I sometimes receive stems to work from when mastering and it’s important that when providing stems that it is done correctly. This may seem obvious, but it still occurs incorrectly more than it should.

So when rendering stems out, they all must be rendered from the start time of the sequencer. E.g if the vocal track starts 35 seconds into the mix, there should be 35 seconds of silence on the vocal
track before the vocals start. That way I, as the mastering engineer, can import all the stems into my session and they will all sync up exactly as they did in the mixers session. A simple point to make, but a vitally important one!

7. Just too loud!

Yes this one again… I’m sure you have all come across the ‘Loudness War’. Its a lot better than it was and due to recent changes in loudness management across various streaming platforms, artists are coming to understand that pushing a track to the max doesn’t always create a pleasurable listening experience.

Lots of mix engineers mix into a limiter, and i’m not telling you not to do that, however it can result in a mix thats crushed and lifeless when pushed to hard. I always ask that the mix be bounced with the master/mix bus processing bypassed. But I also add that they are welcome to send me the mix with the processing too, so I can hear the sound they were going after. I am then able to achieve a level of loudness that suits the material and still leaves dynamic content and feel in the track.

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If you’re interested in working with Chris on a future EP/Album, be sure to check out his website here, or support his work by following him on Instagram and Facebook.