“Why doesn’t my mix sound like all the hits I listen to on the radio or iTunes”?, I hear. Or, “I’m listening to my mix side-by-side with a major-label mix and it just doesn’t sound the same. What can I do about it”? The first thing you can do about it is STOP COMPARING YOUR MIX OR MASTER TO THE MAJORS!!! Begin by reading my article on the phases of the recording process , and then come back to continue reading this for greater context.
The important thing to remember is that, unless you have followed the recording, mixing and mastering process in a manner similar to the majors, using a similar budget and recording in similar facilities, it’s just not a fair comparison. The best you can do is concentrate on getting YOUR mixes or masters to sound the best they can considering all the things you have at your disposal. Indeed, if you pay careful attention to all the important elements and spend the necessary amount of time in the right areas, you can come up with mixes and masters that sound pretty darn good in their own right.
Now, before you get totally depressed and toss your ol’ trusty Mackie mixer out of the second floor window, remember that when your fans listen to your music, THEY probably won’t notice the difference. They will get lost in the song itself, mesmerized by your performance, production and lyrics if you do a good job. Sure, if you gave them a chance to listen to your song recorded and mixed at a major recording studio, and then a chance to listen to the same song recorded and mixed in your bedroom, they would probably notice the difference. They would ‘sense’ something different about how the song ‘feels’ and sounds sonically to them, yet they wouldn’t be able to put their finger on exactly WHAT the difference is between the two versions. But they wouldn’t get a chance to make that comparison though, would they? They would probably also notice that side-by-side, your song sounds less polished than a major label song, but they wouldn’t care. You and I, and all the good engineers out there that care about quality sound would notice, but we’re not the ones buying your records, are we?
So, let’s discover exactly why the songs recorded by major label artists sound so good sonically. You can argue all you want about the song’s content, and how the songs ‘suck’, but you can’t argue about the excellence of the sonic quality (except for the fact that they’re mastered so damn loud that you’re rendered deaf for about a week after each listening session).
PRE-PRODUCTION: First, major label artists take the process of pre-production seriously. By doing so, they are not confused as to what style of music the album is going to be, or what direction they want the sound to go in. In that regard, they are able to make good decisions regarding which producers and engineers to hire, what studios to record in, how much time to allocate for the project, which musicians should be hired for the sessions, what all the costs involved are, and so on. In other words – PRE-PRODUCTION MATTERS!
SOUND SOURCE SELECTION: If you think there is no difference in sound between a $80,000 Hamburg Steinway Model B-211 Grand Piano and the stock piano selections from your favorite sound module, then you better stop smoking whatever it is you’ve been partaking in, or at least put it down for a moment. The $40,000 worth of guitars, amp heads and cabinets, and pedals and effects that a major label artist uses in their sessions make a tremendous contribution to both their performances and the results arrived at during the mix stage. Heck, even the quality of the samples used by major label artists, producers and re-mixers in their productions are top-notch. In the meantime, your 5 year old guitar strings don’t quite qualify as ‘vintage’, and the $200 Guitar Center special you’ve strung them on doesn’t help either; but nice try anyway. In other words – SOUNDS MATTER!
SELECTION OF PERFORMERS: Yes, we all know that major label artists have huge egos. However, when it comes to the recording, they have no problems whatsoever in hiring the best musicians and singers to perform on the recording in order to get the best sound possible. Most independent artists, in comparison, either don’t have the budget to hire the best musicians, believe they are the best musicians ever born, or can’t resist the temptation to have all their friends and groupies perform on the project. In other words – PERFORMANCES MATTER!
WRITING: Just because you can sing or play an instrument doesn’t automatically or necessarily mean you can also write great songs. Most independent musicians make that automatic assumption. Major label artists aren’t inhibited about using songs from other songwriters. Sure, the major record labels benefit from pushing songs onto the project where they own some of the publishing, but that’s another topic altogether. But it’s important to spend the necessary time to write the best songs you can write, or open yourself up to others that can write better than you. It’s not an easy thing to do, since performing is such a personal and emotional experience, but many great performers from the past never wrote a single lyric that made it onto a record. In other words – WRITING MATTERS!
REHEARSAL: Don’t be mad at the major label artists just because they don’t have to worry about working the overnight shift at the local Waffle House. They have people to run errands for them and nannies to take care of their brats – er, I mean, kids. Chefs keep them well fed with healthy, energy boosting food and personal trainers whip them into shape in between sessions. They are paid (from their advance) to spend as much time as they need rehearsing and practicing for the recording sessions. They are able to work out all their performances and see what works and what doesn’t long before the recording session. That way, when they get into the recording studio they can just concentrate on executing perfectly the performance they’ve rehearsed. In other words – REHEARSALS MATTER!
RECORDING: Now, here is where things get interesting. It’s amazing to what extent the quality of the equipment and the recording technique employed matter in the process. Simply moving a microphone an inch in one direction or another during a recording session can make the difference between an “Ahhh” and an “Argh”. Even the difference in sound between a perfectly designed drum room at a major recording facility and Aunt Mable’s basement is worth the cost of admission. Matching sound sources to microphones and mic-pres is both an art and a science, and can also have a positive or negative impact on the final sound. In the recording process, the quality of equipment used, the skill and knowledge of the engineer involved, and the recording environment all have an impact on the final sounds recorded onto tape or DAW. There are not very many shortcuts you can take in this process without paying for it in the end. Get your recording right and you can pretty much coast through the mixing and mastering stages, unless you hire some ‘know-nothing’ to handle that stage for you. In other words – RECORDING TECHNIQUES MATTER.
MIXING: The same things that have been said about recording can also be said about mixing. The quality of the equipment used (both hardware and software), the skill and knowledge of the engineer involved, and the quality of the room will dictate the outcome of the mix. Taking all the tracks that have been recorded and getting them to ‘play nice’ with each other and sound like one cohesive unit can be quite a challenge. The mixing job is made infinitely easier with tracks that have been recorded well. This is another area where mixing mistakes made by independent artists are difficult or impossible to correct later, and an even greater difference is revealed between their mixes and those of major label artists. In other words – MIXING TECHNIQUES MATTER.
MASTERING: Mastering is the stage where, as far as each song is concerned, the ‘gluing’ happens. This is where everything is pulled together and compiled into a finished record, both in terms of song sequencing and sonic polishing. Whereas mixing takes into account each individual recorded track, mastering takes into account the entire song bounced down to a stereo track (Left and Right). Not only does a mastering engineer have a different philosophical approach to processing a stereo track than a mixing engineer has to individual tracks, but the equipment involved in processing a stereo sound source is different than that designed for mono sources. Therefore, mixing and mastering require different approaches, and mistakes made during the earlier stages all add up to limit what can be achieved in mastering. All things considered, - MASTERING MATTERS.
And, there you have it. There’s a lot that a major label project has to go through in order to sound the way it does. Stop comparing your mixes and masters to those of the majors, because there are many areas where they have the edge. For major label projects, the price of the gear used, the total investments in the studios (rooms) and equipment, and the cost of the studio time and background musicians hired easily tops $1,000,000+ dollars. How much do you think is invested in your project?
What you should do is concentrate on making the best mixes you can make (which nowadays can be astonishingly good), and with each project, you’ll make improvements over the last.