How To Evaluate Your EDM Mix Before Mastering
This article focuses on the sound quality of samples used for six individual tracks that are prominent in EDM. The quality of the samples used for these six tracks is especially important when creating a song that is well received by its listeners after mastering. These production tips can be applied to any electronic genre including Dubstep, House, Drum & Bass, Trap, Glitch, and everything in between. Whether performing live or releasing an album, using these tips during the production and recording stages will ensure you’re getting the best quality possible.
Use High-Quality Files For Your Song
24 bit samples have 144dB of dynamic range, this range will reveal subtle nuances of a signal's level more accurately than commonly used 16 bit samples. Using 24 bit samples is especially important for signals that have fast attack and decay transients, such as kick drum and snare drum. The added dynamic range for these samples will allow the mastering engineer to sculpt these transients more precisely.
Avoid using digital processing with plug-ins to 'fix' poor quality samples. In most cases it's better to choose a different sample or combine multiple samples to create the desired sound.
In the case that two or more samples are being mixed together to create a single sound, it's important that each sample has matching polarity. This is especially important when combining low-frequency samples such as kick drum or bass.
To check for matching polarity, place all of the samples that will be combined together next to each other and use the 'Zoom' tool. Zoom in on the samples until the positive and negative waveform cycles are revealed. If the positive and negative cycles have similar alignment, then they have similar polarity, and are considered to be 'in-phase' (matching). If any of the sample's positive and negative cycles do not match, then the audio file should be moved forward or backward in time and/or inverted until all samples are in-phase.
If samples are being recorded for a song, it can be useful to use analog equalization and/or compression when creating the samples. Analog compression and/or equalization can impart subtle amounts of harmonic distortion, commonly known as 'saturation.' This saturation can be pleasing to hear when listening to a song, and further enhanced after mastering.
How To Get the Best Sound From Your Tracks
Detailing the sound of the following six samples can greatly affect the sound quality of an EDM song.
The kick drum is often created by combining multiple samples. There is no correct way or specific amount of samples to use when creating a kick drum sound. However, many popular EDM kick drum sounds have similarities. What is primarily noticeable is a fast-attack transient. Mastering compression will reduce the level of this fast transient in order to create a high amount of loudness. So it's important to create a kick drum sound that has a prominent attack transient.
To ensure the kick drum transient remains prominent after mastering, keep the level of the kick drum 2-3dB higher than expected in the mix. This will allow the mastering engineer more transient level to work with when compressing the song to create the desired amount of loudness.
Similar to the kick drum sound, an EDM snare drum typically has a fast attack and decay transient. In most cases the transient attack and decay time will be faster than the kick drum. When building a snare drum sound, work to create a fast attack and decay transient. To ensure the transients remains prominent after mastering, set the level of snare drum 2-4dB higher than expected in the mix.
Quality: Before choosing a high-hat sample, listen closely to the sample to reveal if it contains distortion. It's common for high frequency samples to be accidentally recorded with subtle amounts of unwanted distortion. This distortion is not usually heard as blatant distortion, but can be perceived as a 'harsh' sound that can be revealed after mastering.
Level: High-hats are often accented more than expected after mastering. This can happen due to the amount of compression used to create a high level of loudness. To ensure the high-hats are not over-accented, mix them 2-3dB lower than expected before submission for mastering.
A high amount of low frequencies can overload equipment. To ensure low frequency signals do not clip, the highest level should reach between -3dB and -2dB on a PPM (Peak Program Meter). If a VU meter is being used, the highest level should reach between -9dB and -6dB. Setting these levels can avoid accidental clipping that can be revealed as distortion after mastering.
Sweeps contain most of the frequency spectrum and can easily hide subtle distortion.
To expose possible distortion, listen to the sweep sample for 60-90 seconds. If the sample becomes bothersome and causes ear fatigue, it may have subtle amounts of masked distortion. If this is the case, a different sample should be used.
Sub-drops can have a large amount of low-frequencies, and some of these frequencies can be below the audible frequency-range. Compression used during mastering can accent these frequencies revealing more low-frequencies than expected. To avoid sub-drops from becoming over-accented after mastering, reduce them by 2-3dB in the mix.
Correct Level For Exporting Files
Before exporting a mix for mastering, it's important that the highest peak of the mix is between -6dB and -3dB. This will ensure that no high-transients are accidentally clipped and that the mastering engineer will have a minimum of 3dB of head-room to work from.
Article written by Steve Corrao (Chief Engineer at Sage Audio in Nashville, TN)
To hear some examples of well-mixed electronic music before and after mastering, check out Sage Audio’s sample page and click electronic mastering.