Achieve Radio Ready Sound Quality with These Basic Tips for Mixing & Mastering
Not everyone can afford to hire a professional producer to assist with sound quality when it comes to mixing or even mastering. Part of the music making process is to learn basic tips to concur the goal of conveying music that is radio ready and far from sounding amateur. For those looking to achieve this, we decided to sit down with an experienced individual Connor Musarra to discuss the basic tips and advice when it comes to mixing and mastering.
Connor Musarra is a music producer and audio engineer based in Los Angeles. He started at a very young understanding and learning how to master the technicality of making music. Connor’s experience and knowledge were deepened after attending Berklee College of Music in Boston. With hard work and regularly polishing his skills, Connor ended up working on various projects with networks like ESPN, Universal Music Group, TV Ads, and much more. Acknowledging how successful he has been in the recent years, we were urged to get his advice.
Connor Musarra, could you tell us a bit about your background as an Audio Engineer and Music Producer?
“My older brother is a music producer, so I had the opportunity to be around it from a very young age starting at ten years old. When I was fourteen, my brother gave me a program called Ableton Live, and I immediately became obsessed with perfecting the craft of writing, producing, and recording music. I’m from Cleveland Ohio, so I got involved in the music scene there when I was coming up producing, rapping and DJing. I’ve played instruments my entire life so after high school I attended Berklee College of Music in Boston to study production. Fast forward a few years later- I’ve now had the opportunity to work on projects for Warner Bros Records, Universal Music Group, ESPN, Internationally acclaimed film scores, National radio, and TV ads.”
What common mistakes did you make when you started mixing and mastering?
“Being an engineer is a journey of learning from mistakes. It’s hard even to know where to start. I’d say one of the critical mistakes that I made when first starting out was assuming that every single thing in the mix needs to be super loud and compressed. I was cranking everything up as loud as I could. And related to that, I was throwing a bunch of plug-ins on every track just because maybe I had heard the name of it or that somebody said that it was a good plug-in one time. Everything became a big mess because there was so much stuff on each track that didn’t need to be there. It made everything super noisy and unpleasant sounding.”
What is the difference between mixing and mastering?
“Mixing is the process of treating every piece of the song individually so that it can fit well with the rest of the song.
Mastering is the process of managing the entire song as one, making sure it is loud and clear; making much more subtle changes.”
Let’s begin with mixing, what are the top tips you can provide to conquer immaculate mixing?
- “If you want one thing in the song to be louder but you’ve run out of space because everything else is super loud around it, turn every single track down a bit (maybe 4db, up to you) to give you space for the thing you want to turn up.
- Pretty much every track in your mix should have either a Lo-pass EQ or a Hi-pass EQ on it (depends on what is on track). Things that primarily take up low frequencies (Kick Drums, Bass Guitar, 808s, etc.) should probably have a Lo-pass filter to cut off a good amount of the excess high-frequency content. Things that primarily take up higher frequencies (Vocals, Guitar, Synths, Cymbals, etc.) should probably have a Hi-pass filter to cut off unneeded low frequencies that will clash with the other instruments. Follow your ears to figure out where the cutoff frequencies should be for these. Each sound should still sound natural even with certain frequencies being cut out. Pay particular attention to the low end; it’s what becomes the difference between a muddy mix and a clean one.
- Don’t overcompress. Compression brings up the volume of the quieter parts of a recording so that they are closer to the level of the loudest parts. The reason you have to be careful with this is that if too much of the louder parts of the sound are being crushed and lowered, the end product comes out squashed and not pleasant to listen to.
- Panning is an extremely underrated technique because it can create space that you didn’t even realize was there. For instance, let’s say you have a lead vocal track and two background vocal tracks. If all 3 of those are planned to be in the center, it might be hard to hear them. But if the Lead is panned to the center, background vocal one is panned to the right, and background vocal two is panned to the left, you’ve just spread all of the vocals out between the speakers so that they fill the whole stereo field. It sounds crispy.
- When in doubt, automate. Automation allows you to make changes to your mix (automatically as the song plays.) For example, if there are is a section of a vocal track that is a bit quieter than the rest of the song, you can automate it to turn the volume slightly during that time, and bring it back down when it’s done. The idea of automation was a daunting thing for me when I was first figuring out how everything works, but I eventually realized how incredibly powerful of a tool it is.”
What are common challenges someone might run into in the midst of doing this?
“I think the biggest challenge that comes about as an engineer is merely the feeling of being overwhelmed when a mix is not sounding amazing and not knowing what to do about it. But these days there are infinite resources online to learn and receive feedback. If you hit a wall, look it up, compare your issue to others who have dealt with the same thing. It’s a big puzzle, go out and get some clues to solve it.”
Are there any final things to review before someone moves on to mastering?
“Make sure your mix is coming up at around -6db on your master fader before even considering moving on. You probably don’t want to have a limiter on your master track before moving on to mastering. Pay serious attention to the low end of the mix. If it is muddy and too much going on, that is the quickest way to have trouble mastering. Roll off somewhere around 35-40hz to make more room for the master.”
With mastering, what are the top tips you can provide to assure a smooth process?
- “Learn about your room.
- What room are you listening to the song in? What shape is the room? What material is on the floor? What material is on the walls? Where are your speakers positioned? Where are you positioned while listening
- Learn your equipment. How do your specific speakers respond to music? Maybe they tend to be a bit exaggerated in the low end, or perhaps the high end is a little bit harsh. Consider that while listening so you don’t make too many decisions based off of inaccurate listening.
- Compare in multiple listening environments. Listen to your room, on your speakers, on your laptop speakers, on your phone, in your earbuds, listen in the car, etc.
- Pick a song that is similar to the one you’re working on and listen to it in these different environments to compare and take notes on the way they made it sound great. Go back and forth between listening to your song and theirs.
- Avoid making drastic changes. If you’re inclined to make some change (i.e., a massive EQ cut or a dramatic sound fx plugin), that is probably a situation that is better handled in mixing instead of mastering. Mastering is all about subtle changes.”
What are common challenges someone might run into in the midst of mastering?
“The most common challenge for me is making the master as loud as possible without completely squashing it with compression. A lot of times I find that EQing to shelve the low end a little bit (maybe 80hz and below) as well as cutting a little bit of the low-mids (a bell node at perhaps 250hz) makes a lot more space to make the whole thing much louder.”
Are there any final things to review before someone can say it’s ready to be published?
“It all comes down to the feeling. If you can throw the song on in the car, in your headphones, on prominent speakers, etc. and it feels good on all of em. It’s ready. If not, there are probably a couple more subtle changes needed.”
If you could go back, what is the one thing you wish you knew that you know now that would make mixing and mastering easier?
“I wish I would’ve known that simple things like volume and panning are 75% of a good mix. For mastering, I wish I would’ve known that having a clean mix with some headroom is the only way to achieve a good master.”
Now that you have learned the basic tips when it comes to mixing and mastering, your new track will be soon enough ready for the public. However, how can you make sure when you do release it, it gets the attention it deserves? Learn more about strategic release planning here.