Any tips for mixing/mastering single track recordings?

Hey y’all, I’m wondering if anyone has any tips on mixing/mastering single track audio recordings? :headphones: I know nothing about mixing, except to keep the levels from clipping. :rofl:

Background: I’ve amassed enough tracks that I’ve assembled an album of VCV material, but as this is an important release for me, I want it to be quality. Thus, my question.

When I record tracks in VCV, I use the VCV Recorder, which means I end up with one stereo .wav file. Are there any good, general ways to improve my tracks (mixing/mastering-wise), considering that all I have is one stereo file? I know it’s hard to make generalizations, as there’s plenty of subjective parts of mixing, but any help or ideas is appreciated.

If you have the money laying around, get Izotope Ozone. But, it can only do so much if your mix isn’t good. So, the old, cheap way is to get recordings/reference tracks of songs that fit the style your doing, and keep switching back and forth and work on EQ, compression, etc. until your songs sound kind of the same. The good news is that you’re not mixing acoustic instruments, live drums, and vocals (which is another skill level). Having said that, you can’t really rush through and learn mixing and mastering. There are also a bunch of online mastering sites (I haven’t tried any of them).

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Hello there, there other choices of recorders in VCV, NYSTHI does a really good 8 channel recorder, Polyphonic versions. I use Audacity to ‘mix’ my tracks. That has good compression, effects for mixing, Cross fade and other fading options. So you don’t have to stick with the one channel option.

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Great question! I was thinking of asking exactly the same thing. I usually record live performances in one take using the Nysthi Mater Recorder, although I might start going multichannel into Reaper via ReaRoute. I spend weeks tweaking patches before I record, so the levels and EQ are where I want them, then I tidy it up in Audacity - I just need a decent mastering compressor. All my recordings sound so quiet compared with ‘proper’ releases. I signed up with Plugin Alliance recently, and although they have some great deals, the array of channel strips, EQs and compressors is totally baffling. I actually studied sound recording many years ago, and seem to have forgotten more than I know! Ozone looks a good shout, and it’s on offer at the moment for $99 (their free Imager v2 is great for stereo width by the way). I’ve spent a fortune recently so I think I’ll have to research free ones and start learning before I weigh out for more plugins yet again.

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mastering is very much like cutting your own hair - you might be able to do an OK job with practice, but a professional with the right tools will always be much better. it really depends on what the track sounds like IMO; if you have something with a lot of transients and bass that needs to sound ‘right’ in a club setting i strongly recommend getting a professional to do it.

if it’s more for home listening and you’re determined to do it yourself, as a starting point i’d recommend investing in a high quality versatile EQ plugin - fabfilter pro q 3 is my favourite. it has a useful feature called ‘reference spectrum’ where you can generate a custom EQ curve based on a mastered recording you like the sound of, which can then be applied to your recording to give it a broadly similar tonal balance. then you could use a limiter to raise the RMS level til it sounds right to you - fabfilter pro L is excellent but most DAWs come with one that will do the trick.

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in terms of free software this mastering compressor / limiter has been recommended to me by a few people: https://www.tokyodawn.net/tdr-kotelnikov/

i find it helps to think of mixing plugins in terms of transparent v character - the transparent ones solve problems i might have, and then the character ones take it in the direction i want it to go in. the key skill is identifying the problem and then choosing the right tool to solve it - is there too much information in one frequency range, is the mix too dull or too bright, is it boxy sounding, is it boomy, etc. it helps to A/B a lot with professionally mastered recordings and to do so on different systems (headphones, studio monitors, etc).

generally speaking, getting a professional sounding (loud, clear, warm, punchy, shiny) mix isn’t about one solution, but a lot of little things that together make a difference.

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I do mastering either for my own audio works and for commissions too. I can’t answer the question. Right answer would be get a proper monitoring (monitors, room, treatment. Maybe Slate VSX can substitute that but I don’t sure). Otherwise I have a video on mastering with some free awesome plugins. Not ideal choice to work but here we go - https://youtu.be/cB9xKGcYqBc

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Not quite the same, but my “Comp” compressor is pretty good. It’s a free vcv module.

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If you only have one single (I assume stereo) track there’s no way to mix anything since mixing is about merging multiple tracks - but you can (if you still have your patches) multitrack your patch’s raw outputs to your DAW and then do the final mix in it (Ardour is great for this kind of jobs).

With regard to mastering, it’s not only a rather difficult job that requires both deep specific technical and psycho-acoustical knowledge and lot of experience, but also something that’s better done with fresh ears and some perspective. IOW, if you want a proper professional mastering job, better to have it done by a proper mastering engineer (not one of those “online automagic mastering” scams).

Now if you really want to give it a try, you’ll mostly need a couple compressors (one transparent and one with some character), a good transparent EQ and a limiter - and of course something to apply them to your tracks. Oh and yes: the best professional monitoring and acoustic you can get, because it’s really bordering on precision surgery (think EQs by half a db here, perhaps one db and a half there, very subtle compression settings etc).

Actually, except for the monitoring, you don’t need to invest into anything special, here again Ardour with some free plugins is a perfectly legit solution. The main issues are not about some specific specialized software or hardware, but about knowing how to use compression and EQ and what to aim for in terms of result. The goals of mastering (well, we should actually say “pre-mastering” - the mastering itself consist in producing a physical master for vinyl or CD reproduction) are 1/ fixing tonal balance issues, 2/ controlling the dynamic in a way that suits the tracks, 3/ making sure the tracks match well with one another and 4/ making sure the end result matches some required technical specifications (bit depth, resolution, dithering, correct max peak level etc). There are a couple decent tutorials on the topic - like the “mastering essentials” serie on Sound On Sound’s YT channel or Steve Void’s quick “home mastering” tutorial on subsekt.com - and, as usual, tons of more than useless ones made by peoples that know zilch about the topic.

Now if you’re serious about your release and not totally broke, you’d still better pay a real mastering engineer. FWIW Steve Void (black monolith studio) does a really good job and is not charging too much (free advising - I do not earn a dime on it, I don’t even know the guy IRL, but I’ve been more than pleased with what he did on some of my projects).

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I recently got some stuff mastered, mainly stereo tracks recorded directly from VCV rack into nysthi’s recorder (with some editing and a little bit of layering up here and there). I kinda know in theory what mastering is for but I sent the music off with only vague “make it sound great” ideas in my head. When I listened to the finished result I noticed that the tracks are louder but apart from that I can’t detect any difference and I realize now that I don’t even know what before-and-after differences I should expect from the process. Anyway, it’s only money, I enjoyed spending it.

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As a total guess maybe the point is to be as loud as possible without making it sound terrible? Or maybe the perception of loudness?

I haven’t made a finished piece in months sadly, but when I used to, I would just take the stereo file to in ableton and mono the bass frequencies with Utility(maybe to 100-150Hz), add Glue compressor and turn down the threshold till it’s starts compressing a little bit, make it 20-40% wet so it’s not being completely compressed, then use a Limiter @ -1dB to turn up the gain until I see it limiting a just tiny bit once in a while. Listen to it with cheap earbuds, and if it sounds ok in those, I’m done, but if something sounds off then I might go back and cut or boost a frequency that’s bothering me, then render the stereo file again. You don’t really need ableton to do all this, and any compressor and limiter combo in vcv should work fine. I really never knew much about mastering, and was using Ozone for a while almost on autopilot because I didn’t know what I was doing. But now I think what sounds best to me is having good sound design beforehand so you don’t have to eq everything like crazy, panning so things are separated in the stereo field, and adjust levels (to pink noise works pretty good) before making the master stereo file, and then be super minimal on the mastering part by gluing everything together with light compression and literally just turning up the volume with the limiter.

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Yeah, if you bring a bad mix into Ozone, it will just make a bad mix louder (unfortunately, I’m speaking from experience). Not to discourage Pineapple Dave, but it took me years just to get competent with mixing/mastering. And I’m no where near a pro at it. If you want a great sound, send it to the pros. Time and effort can get you to a good sound.

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The loudness war is over (Loudness war - Wikipedia). The first and main goal of mastering is not to “make it sound as loud as possible” but to “make it sound as good as possible on as many listening systems as possible”.

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If you have a good mix to start with, a good mastering should not drastically alter it, just add like a touch of varnish and polish and make sure your mix will translate as well as possible on any system. In other words the differences should be quite subtle, but yet audible, not in a “it changed my mix” way but in a “it makes it shine and sound much more professional”. The first time I had a project professionally mastered, the difference was just barely audible on my own monitors (those I used to mix this project) - but when listening to it in my car or at my girlfriend’s etc then it sounded just as well as on my monitors, which was far from being the case before. Also, all the tracks sounded like they belonged together, which wasn’t the case either with the raw mixes.

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make it 20-40% wet so it’s not being completely compressed

Parallel compression is a powerful tool in mixing, but mastering engineers I talked with advise to avoid it for mastering unless you have a very specific reason. The most common compression setup in mastering is to actually use two compressors - first a fast one with high threshold to manage micro-dynamic (peaks etc), then a much slower one with low threshold and some knee for macro-dynamic. Both should act fairly conservatively (ie perhaps 2 or 3 dB gain reduction on the first and less than 2dB on the second). This setup allow for more transparent (and more effective) gain reduction than trying to shave 4 or 5dB with one single compressor.

then use a Limiter @ -1dB

Make it at least -1.5dB - if your master peaks above this your listeners may face inter sample distortion on their systems.

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I m not specialist, but this compressor topic sound to me like “use a compressor and not care the reason” I use compressor to enhance the guitar or in very specific cases, for mostly I like a subtle compressor or none at all. I like my dynamics

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By slower, do you mean like more attack time? Good info here, thanks so much. I’ll have to try this 2 compressor thing and see how it sounds. I think I always had the meter pumping less than 5dB on the single compressor. I really like the parallel compression, I don’t feel like my dynamics are messed up when doing it subtly.

Aside from learning how to use eq and compressors, I’d say learn how to reference your mix decisions.

One very important aspect is to remove loudness from the equation (meaning you need to be able to gain match due to loudness contour effects on frequency balance). I find this is easier if you have a separate track with the original mix and toggle with solo (exclusive solo modes are your friend here). This makes it easier to gain match, as your final processing may consist of several plugins which can each be sensitive to level changes. Our brains have a very short-term memory when it comes to timbral perception so quick toggling is essential.

I would go as far as saying there is no point in using compression or EQ if you don’t know how to reference your decisions. This may seem like something incredibly obvious but all too often it’s overlooked in favour of getting lost in plugin/module land :smile:.

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@AdiQ

Good info here, thanks so much

You’re welcome.

By slower, do you mean like more attack time?

Longer attack and longer release, yes. There’s a quite good (IMHO) tutorial on the effects of compressors time constants here: Compressor Designer GEEKS OUT on DRUM COMPRESSION! - YouTube

Another trick - specially for bass heavy music - is for the first compressor to hipass the sidechain somewhere around (roughly) 60/90Hz so the comp reacts less to subs (low freqs have more energy than higher ones), this helps wrt/ pumping. With this and proper attack/release settings, you can really shape the dynamic response so the slight remaining pumping effect actually benefits your track’s own movement. Now it’s a fact that getting those settings right is quite tricky and requires lot of experimentation, specially since no two compressors react the same way to seemingly identical settings, so you have to know your own compressors well, plus of course exactly what you want to achieve.

Parallel compression is mainly of use during the mix when you want to push the quietest parts up without touching the loudest parts (upward compression) and is very handy on instruments that have a wide dynamic range ie vocals, drums, pianos, guitars etc, but it won’t take care of transients as much as plain serial (downward) compression. But well, if you get good results with parallel compression, that’s the most important point :sunglasses:

Oh and yes: a very slight touch of distortion (ie tape distortion emulation) can also help smoothing out wild transients, so your comps and limiter have less work to do.

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