Mastering the mix

by Guest Blogger

Arnold Peinado ’12, a resident of Quincy House who concentrated in Economics, was awarded an Artist Development Fellowship to study this summer at New York's Dubspot with Daniel Wyatt, a multi-platinum selling, Grammy- and Emmy-nominated mix/mastering engineer. Arnold was co-president of Harvard's Quad Sound Studios, where he managed and trained student musical engineers and worked with clients to produce albums, and served as a board editor, business manager, and writer for the Harvard Art Review. In addition to his artistic experience, Peinado interned at Acción Emprendedora, a nonprofit firm dedicated to overcoming poverty through entrepreneurship in Santiago, Chile. He plans on working in the music industry in production and recording.

I am having a great summer! At Dubspot I have learned so much about producing professional quality music. I almost can’t believe how much I have learned in such a short period of time. I feel like I have had years of knowledge passed on to me in a few short months.

All music goes through three stages before it is released professionally, regardless of genre: production, mixing, and mastering. I am a producer but have been learning about mixing and mastering because all of these processes are inextricably linked to one another. Production is the process in which the producer writes various melodies and harmonies, designs the sounds of the instruments, records any vocals, and then composes everything into an arrangement.

Once a song is produced, it is then mixed. Mixing involves finding the perfect balance between all the parts in the arrangement. A mixing engineer will make sure that each individual part is in balance with every other part of the song in addition to the song as a whole. This involves balancing the volume levels of each individual part, equalizing various sounds, in addition to a whole host of other processes.

The last stage music goes through before it is released is mastering. Two major things happen in mastering: 1) the mastering engineer brings the track up to a commercial level of power and volume by compressing it, and 2) the mastering engineer makes sure that the song will sound good when it is played on any sound system (headphones, high-end speakers, low-end speakers, cell phones, etc.).

One of the major things I have learned is that you have to approach mixing a song in three dimensions. The three dimensions are depth: there are sounds that appear to be in the foreground and the background of a song; width: some sounds appear to be on the left and some appear to be on the right; and height: some sounds are high in the frequency spectrum and others are low.

For example, a kick drum is generally a low-frequency sound, vocals are in the middle and hi-hats take up the high frequencies. Each instrument, whether it be a synthesizer, piano, guitar, vocals, etc., needs to have its own "space" in the song. If you put two instruments in the exact same frequency range, you wont be able to hear each one clearly, and the overall song will sound muddy. It is generally best to only have one sound in a given frequency range, but many times this is unavoidable. Guitars and vocals are both mid-frequency sounds. So, in order to solve this problem, a mixing engineer might move one sound to the left side and one sound to the right, through a process called panning. Another option the engineer has is to move one sound to the background and one to the foreground, possibly by putting reverb on one of the parts (using reverb is one way to make a sound appear distant).

For any producer to create a good song, he or she has to understand the other processes music goes through before it is released. For example, if I decide to write five different parts that all take up mid-range frequencies, there is nothing a mix engineer can do to make that sound good. There will be too many parts competing to be heard and the resulting song will sound very flat and muddy. Therefore, it is essential for the producer to write the music—or an arrangement—with some understanding of how various parts of a song need to be balanced.

[Caption: Arnold Peinado '12]