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10 Common CD Mistakes - by John Vestman
This subject has two categories: (1) technical/logistical issues and (2) mixing issues. Please realize that I am NOT criticizing these "mistakes." I'm listing my observations so you can choose what's best for you.

Category One: Technical/Logistics
1. Mistake #1 is NOT mastering. Sending your dat master to the pressing plant with just the raw mixes on it. Levels are different, tones are different, beginnings/endings aren't cleaned up, etc. When this mistake is made, the over-all level of the cd is 6-8 dB softer than regular commercial cds. Better: going through a Finalizer or computer mastering software (using *conservative* settings) to make an enhanced version to give to the plant. But this is still a bit of a gamble...

2. Mistake #2 is making a safety copy or compilation dat master. Why? Digital does have generation loss caused by jitter and errors that can occur. If you take your original masters and transfer them to another dat or editing system or cdr, you are going down a digital generation, and the sound is different. Whaaat???

Myth: Digital stays the same from copy to copy. Fact: when your dat machine is playing, the movement of the tape across the heads isn't exactly the same every time, and there can be errors. Cdrs have errors too. While the computer inside your dat machine (or cd player) has error compensation that prevents you from hearing a sonic error (like a glitch or skip), internally it's altering the original numbers.

If you are not syncing both machines to word clock and using top-of-the-line digital cables, then the safety copy adds yet another "alteration." Yes, there's no tape hiss involved, but the sonic detail changes. The image isn't as wide. The highs become harder and crunchier. The subtle reverbs and room sound is diminished. The front-to-back depth is shrunk. It becomes less smooth, more dry sounding.

When you take your dat into a computer to edit it, and then reprint the edited version onto dat or cd, it's now down two generations. The mastering process will also take it down more generations by the time your music is loaded into the computer, cut to cd or 1630, and then transferred to the glass master at the cutting plant.

Note: With that said, I still recommend backing up your masters, just in case. Especially if you are sending your masters out-of-state for mastering. I trust you'll use Fed Ex or some other company with tracking information!

3. Mistake #3: Being too rushed up to the pressing deadline. Schedule your mastering session so that you have enough time to take home a reference cd and listen to it before sending it to the pressing plant! All great mastering engineers can recreate what was done in your mastering session and easily make changes.

Sometimes you'll hear things in your mixes you've never heard after mastering your cd. When you hear these things at home or in your car, it gives you an objective view. Take advantage of this flexibility in the mastering process. (Allow for this in your budget, too.)

Category Two: Mixing

4. The vocals are mixed too soft, or inconsistently from song to song. It's better for the vocal to be too hot than too soft. In mastering, it's easier to bring up the instruments around the voice than it is to pull the voice up from the tracks.

Solution: Simply to compress your lead vocals more in mixdown (or spend more thought time "riding" the faders). Be aware of being able to hear the voice and keeping it somewhat even in level. Try to create a "pocket" in the frequencies in your mix where the vocal naturally sits even around loud guitars and drums. I suggest de-essing too. Also remember rule #1, "There are no rules." Just know that it's common for in mastering to attempt to bring up the vocals a bit.

Advanced solution: ALWAYS (after you get "the" mix) make a TV mix (a mix with everything minus the lead vocal). Then make a lead-vocal only mix. Start the lead vocal mix with a bar or two of the track, or the count off. Then mute everything except the lead vocal. Leave in all the effects, delays, etc. that you used on the voice in the mix. Then if for some reason you are just not satisfied with the vocal blend on a particular song, we can layer the voice mix on top of the TV mix IN MASTERING and make it exactly the way you want it. It takes more time, but then so does remixing. It's also not a bad idea to make an instrumental mix (no vocals at all) and an all-vocals/backgrounds mix. Do the same thing you did with the voice mix... start off your all-vocals mix with a few bars of the music or the count off before the voices come in. This is key in synching up these mixes.

5. Mixing cymbals too loud. Yeeouch! Huge cymbal crashes or harsh hi-hats are a challenge to deal with. Since it's fairly common to add some highs or mid-highs for clarity when mastering, remember that the cymbals become more clear too, right along with the voice. It inhibits how much I can enhance a track when the cymbals could get too loud, and de-essing the cymbals hardly ever works (although it can). Cymbals (especially peaky crashes) are easy to hear, even when they're mixed way back. Visit my page about tracking drum sounds for more ideas.

Common: Often when artists mix their cymbals too hot, chances are the bass and kick are off, too. Remedy: By making a mix, then separating it into 3 components: Make separate takes with the (1) Lead vocal w/effects only (2) kick and bass only (3) full mix minus lead vocal, kick and bass. Then I can process each item separately and combine them in the mastering system and make a huge difference to the sound. Drawback: It's not cheap. Bonus: It sounds WAY better!

6. Songs mixed on small speakers (without subwoofers) generally have incorrect bottom end. Be careful, though! Don't overcompensate just because you're using small speakers. Too much woof only makes home speakers work harder and not necessarily produce more sound. This is one of the arts of mastering. Knowing how to produce *useful* bottom end that translates well to a home system, radio, a boom box, and a night club. When in doubt, get a subwoofer and compare your mix to commercial cds through your monitor system.

7. Not de-essing vocals in mixdown is another common problem. A de-esser is the best way to be able to add clarity and presence to vocals using eq, while the de-esser keeps the sound from becoming spitty or harsh.

8. Over-processing in computers or Finalizing with too much sonic alteration. Computers and Finalizers (or other digital processors) do calculations in order to change the sound. When these calculations go on, the word length of the digital "samples" change, and the resolution changes. Like making a safety copy, the smooth, coherent sound is altered. For a do-it-yourself cd or demo, it's a good idea to do level-correcting, editing and musical enhancements. However, if you have the budget, you'll be amazed at how much better the sound will be using professional mastering.

Key: A mastering engineer is listening to your project for the first time and can really be objective about what the sound needs or doesn't need. An expert engineer with at least 20 years of experience won't be caught up in "gizmo-itus" and can hear deep into the mix to bring out the best stuff. Experience is what gave me an idea for a completely different intro to a client's first song, and it ended up being an improvement the client loved. These kinds of ideas just are not included in Finalizers or computer mastering programs because 24 years of experience doesn't come with the program!

9. Starting the first mix on your dat in the very first few seconds of tape is a common mistake. Just as with analog tape, or video tape, the first part of your dat is the most fragile, and the most susceptible to errors. (I recommend Maxell, Dennon, BASF... NOT Quantegy, Apogee, HHB, TDK.) Roll at least 30 seconds - one minute of dead air before recording your first song. Same thing on ADAT tapes. Let the tape get up to speed before you roll your multitrack so that the machines are stable when the music comes in.

10. Mixing too low or two high to tape. Digital tape has plenty of dynamic range, but I recommend mixing to 1 or 2 dBs below the clipping point. This uses the maximum number of significant bits on tape, and it reduces the amount of level adjustment in the mastering process. Do NOT to clip the signal. If you are mixing to analog tape, I recommend an elevated level of +5 or +6. Not plus 9. Analog tape still sounds the best when used properly, and tape compression adds to the fullness and shine of the sound.

John Vestman is a veteran mastering engineer with over 26 years in the industry. His credits include: Hole (Courtney Love), Juice Newton, Ambrosia, Andre Crouch, The Wynans, Great White, Candyman, Billy Davis Jr./Marilyn McCoo and more. John Vestman Mastering is located in Orange County, California, and his web site offers over 40 pages of information about successful studio recording techniques and sound philosophy.

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