Think back to the last time you sat down to create something. Perhaps it was a project or paper that you worked on back in school, or perhaps it was a presentation that you made for your boss. You first had to conceive of some general outline of the end result in your head, and if you’re a planner like me, you’d probably take a few moments to make a mental schedule so you could estimate how long it would take. Then you had to actually execute on the plan you came up with—making adjustments as necessary—and right when the entropy is at its greatest point, you had to force it all down to something very structured indeed.
When I think about the act of laboring to produce an artifact, I can think back to several projects in my life that took a while to complete. Most recently, I wrote about making a chicken coop—I think that took a couple of months. Before that, I painted rooms in the house and did small projects here and there—at most a few weeks at a time. And before that, I spent 60 days and change at the end of 2013 writing, recording, and producing my first EP, The Every Mile Made Yours EP. And if I include my work as a professional software engineer, then there were some systems that I built when I worked at NVIDIA that had incubation times on the longer side—maybe a month or two or three at a time. And if I’m really generous in my definition of “artifact,” I might even count the many months I spent trying to land the vulcan, a windsurfing move.
But this? This is my longest project by far. Take a look:
Dear Reader, today I present to you with just 20 minutes and 25 seconds of frequency and amplitude information, distilled down from 15 months of continuous, regular, inspired, passionate work. I am speaking of course of my next musical release, another five-track EP called Western Hearts Pacific Skies.
It was July 2014 when I felt the urge to write down what would be the first of many drafts of Track 4, The Columbia Light. A draft of the last song, called October Sky (Track 5), was penned exactly a year ago in October 2014. And just this past week, now October 2015, I took my mixes to Chris Vita of Vita Mastering for an attended mastering session, where he put the final touches on my mixes so that they wouldn't sound like I had been working alone in a vacuum with no professional help. I mean, you know what the first EP sounded like...
But I won't take you through a longwinded behind-the-scenes exposé this time; after all, no one wants to read what would inevitably devolve into a nerdtastic 15-part series going into details about the music production process that less than 1% of the world's population even knows anything about. So I'll keep it short and hopefully just let the album speak for itself. Suffice it to say, I am immensely happy with the way it turned out---I think of it as having written the soundtrack of my life spanning a year from November 2013 to October 2014, and a chance to show the world that it is possible for me to get better at making music :)
Though with that said, you might still be wondering though how 20 minutes could have taken 15 months. Let me just say this: it was the revisions upon revisions in the songwriting phase with monthly attendance at songwriting workshops where I performed and gathered feedback; it was a full home studio buildout that made me an amateur handyman/contractor, an avid reader of recording gear reviews, a fan of expensive speakers, and dabbler in acoustics theory; it was the dozens upon dozens of hours spent in voice lessons, and the hundreds of hours of practice that made those lessons productive; it was the two books and 800 pages of mixing and recording theory that I studied in addition to the hours upon hours of youtube videos on mixing technique; it was the late nights and weekends I spent composing and arranging music for drums, bass, keys, guitars, trumpets, strings, percussion, vocals; it was the demo that I produced over two months from April to May so that I could have something to guide my thinking for the actual EP; it was the entire month I spent recording everything for the final product; it was the two and a half months I spent in mix down, desperately trying to get better everyday; it was the last few weeks that I spent in post-production, rigorously reviewing my mixes on every speaker I could find.
And for all this? Just these 20 minutes---and a total forfeit on my social life in what is supposedly the prime of my years.
My my my... This has been the longest project indeed.
But it has also been the best.
I know I said I wouldn’t do a detailed write-up of the production process this time, so instead I’m going to do just a few shorter posts on a couple of things I found interesting during my 15-month EP journey. The topic for this time is what it’s like to have your mixes mastered.
Now for those who aren’t familiar with the music production process, there is a lot of magic that happens from when you imagine your favorite artist inside a recording studio (maybe crooning into a mic in a vocal booth) to what you hear coming out of your speakers. At every point in the production process, someone exerts editorial control.
For instance, the recording engineer decides how to set up the mics to best capture your sound. But this, of course, is subjective. You can think of microphones like camera lenses – each one has an opinion on what it’s seeing (or in this case, hearing). The reason why you would go to a good studio is because the recording space has excellent acoustics and because the studio has the most expensive microphones, and yes, even if you are Adele, you will benefit from the correct mic choice. Although if you are Adele, you can probably sing into a speaker and the reverse signal from the speaker will probably sound like it was a decent mic, but I digress.
After the recording engineer does her work, all the individual tracks go to the mixing engineer, who relatively speaking has the most say on what the finished sound is like (unless the artist is also the producer, e.g. Kanye West—though he definitely gets some help from his very talented friends behind the mixing board I’m sure). Your run of the mill artist gets to say things like “Oh, I want this track to sound like John Mayer’s Gravity” or other subjective requests like that, but ultimately, if you listened to the raw recordings without any mixing whatsoever, you would basically declare it unlistenable.
Finally, once the mixing engineer finishes his work, it goes to the mastering engineer. The mastering engineer’s job is to give the mix engineer an objective set of ears because by this point, the mix engineer has definitely fatigued to the sound of the mix from having spent so much time with it (in my case, months). The mastering engineer works on a stereo mix with just two channels: left and right (unlike the mix engineer who may have worked with a hundred individual tracks or more). The mastering engineer will then assert her own opinion on the mix, and before you know it, what you hear on the CD is nothing like what the artist sounds like in real life, and you end up being Adam Levine or Vance Joy (I mean I really like Vance Joy, but his live sound is a little shaky… in my very humble opinion).
So for me, since I was the recording and mix engineer on this album, it was doubly important for me to get my album mastered by someone else. In general, 100% of albums are mastered, and the fact that I mastered my first EP by myself is basically because I didn’t think it was fit for anyone else to waste their time on. This time, it’s different!
For Western Hearts Pacific Skies EP, I wanted to work with someone who was personable and down-to-earth. I wrote Chris Vita of Vita Mastering a sheepish introduction email asking him if he would consider working with a n00b mix engineer. Of course, being the most approachable and nicest guy ever, Chris was more than welcoming. We then set up an attended session where I would get to sit next to him while he mastered my tracks. Attended sessions are typically twice as expensive as unattended sessions (understandably so since you are monopolizing someone’s time for half the day), but it was so worth it to me because it meant that I would get to sit next to another engineer for the first time and see the last stage of the production process. I daresay my mixing and hearing got a lot better as a result of following Chris’s advice and feedback and just seeing him do his thing live.
And indeed, here we are on Tuesday, October 20th, 2015:
We basically sat like this for 4 hours straight. And here is a little audio montage of what mastering can do: these are my unmastered mixes crossfading into the mastered mixes, adjusting for loudness. See if you can hear the difference:
Hint: I left comments on where the splits are if you go to the track page on SoundCloud, but I have to admit, you probably need a trained ear and really good speakers to hear some of these shifts. Actually, I take it as a compliment that my mixes weren’t drastically altered by the mastering process. As Chris told me (paraphrased), “Mastering is like your mix on steroids. If your mix is good, then it gets even better. If your mix is bad, then, well…”
Hope you enjoyed this little vignette :)