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Mixing & Mastering

Producing and Mastering a DJ Set

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So you have your beat mixing down to a fine art and you have a great collection of tunes. You have recorded your latest live show or have put the finishing touches on a promotional set in the studio. The question is what do you do now?

To turn the recording into a really listenable product it's a good idea to apply some basic mastering and ensure that it's in the right format. It's also important to be able to insert track markers if you intend to burn to CD. Here are a few tips to get you going.

Step 1 - The Original Set Recording

Whether you have recorded your set using a conventional turntables and mixer set up, or you have opted for the digital option, you should have your basic set on a CD, DVD or as a digital file on a hard drive. Of course you may even be using DAT tape or mini disc, it doesn't really matter, at this point we are only concerned with getting it into a form that is easily edited on your DAW.

Before we talk about transfer and formats it's worth taking a little time out to discuss the recording of your set. Of course some of you may be recording your performance in a club environment and this can often be a difficult environment to get things exactly right but if you keep things simple, you should still be able to get a decent result

The main thing here is to try and keep your signal path as clean as possible, and by this I mean as few connections as is possible. Use decent cables where you can and if you have the choice to connect kit digitally (CD players, audio interfaces etc) try and do it, this will again reduce the connections and conversion taking place and keep things as clean as possible.

As with the previous point this really only applies to people recording analogue sources, or at least using real world cabled connections, but it's worth doing a full sound check if you have time. Check for noise, ground hum, intermittent faults and so on. Make sure everything is earthed correctly and try to ensure turntables are protected from unwanted vibrations.

Of course if you are a 100% digital DJ and create your mixes entirely 'in the box' then the previous problems shouldn't worry you too much but headroom is one issue that affects us all. Making sure there is a decent amount of headroom available on each channel is important but it is also essential that you watch out for clipping on the master output. Distortion and overs can really ruin a tight mix. Remember the level can always be boosted but clips are nearly impossible to remove.

Original 'mini' mix in Ableton Live 8

Step 2 - Converting to the Correct Format

Once your set is recorded, or completed in your DAW, it's time to get it into your computer for some further editing. The way you go about this really depends on how you recorded your set and what media you used. If you recorded to a digital format such as CD or minidisc then you will have to convert the recorded files to WAV or AIF format. Try and keep the highest resolution possible here. Obviously CD will only be at 16bit but some other formats will record at 24 or 32 bit.

If you have recorded your set in a DAW such as Live or Traktor, you will need to bounce/export/render the finished mix into a single file. Again use WAV or AIF as using MP3 or any other compressed format at this stage will result in a loss of quality. Once again try to use the highest resolution you can, 24 bit 44.1khz is preferable here and will certainly be high enough for the purpose of mastering the set.

For the purpose of this tutorial I have prepared a mini 3 track mix to demonstrate the production process. The set was mixed in Ableton Live 8.01 and rendered to a WAV file. Regardless of how you recorded your set you should now have a digital file, with no clipping and the entire mix should be captured.

Exporting the mix in Ableton

Step 3 - Quality Control

Before we start to treat the mix, it's a good idea to load the raw audio into an audio editor or your DAW to get a clear overview of the entire file. I find that using a standalone editor such as Peak or Wavelab will give you the best results here as they often display the audio in a higher resolution than native DAW-based editors.

You should be able to see if there are any major errors in the file at this point, such as drop outs, spikes or glitches. A view of the entire file also gives you an idea of the mix's overall dynamic signature and allows you to plan ahead for work that needs to be done.

Initial mix recording in Peak Pro 6

Step 4 - The Mix Dynamics

Before the mix is run through any mastering processors the overall dynamics should be reasonably uniform. As you can see with this mix some of the tracks are quieter than others and there are points within some of the tracks where louder sections are clearly visible. I deliberately exaggerated these effects during my mix so that they would stand out here, but you will find this happens during any mix, especially if it is performed live.

The main culprit for these dips and spikes is the use of EQ and effects. This will be further amplified when two tracks are mixed together. The processing on commercial tracks also differs, and this can also have an effect on the levels of the material you are mixing.

The most common way people deal with this issue is to strap a compressor across the entire mix. Although this can go someway to solving the problem, the levels are often so varied that the amount of compression that needs to be applied to hit the issue is a bit over the top. This in turn can create coloration and nasty pumping and sucking effects.

The best way around this is to manually edit the dynamics in your mix and there are a couple of ways you can do this. The most straightforward method here is to select the problem areas of the audio in a dedicated sample editor and change the gain by a few decibels either way. This method is not particularly delicate but can work surprisingly well. You can also successfully edit spikes and pops using this route.

Editing mix dynamics using manual gain adjustment

In some extreme cases manual editing will just not cut it and you may start to hear the unwanted effects of quick changes in gain. if you need something a little smoother in character then you can try importing the track into your DAW and use some automation to control the levels in real-time. This is obviously a little more time consuming but the results are generally more transparent.

Editing the mix dynamics using automation in Logic 8

Using a combination of these two techniques, you should be able to get your mix to a point where the dynamic signature is pretty uniform. Don't worry too much if there are still a few minor level changes in certain areas, as these can be smoothed out using some further processing.

Step 5 - Equalization and Further Dynamics Processing.

Now the mix should be ready for some light mastering treatment. The main thing to remember here is that the tracks in your mix have more than likely already been run through mastering processors so less really is more here.

You are only really looking for some light overall processing here and maybe a touch of problem solving if needed. As far as EQ goes you may want to apply a touch of high end to reintroduce some 'air' into the mix, especially if it was recorded through analogue equipment. Very low frequencies also can be filtered at this point — this can be especially effective if you need to reduce vinyl hum or any other noise introduced during recording.

Light use of EQ can reintroduce some 'air' into your mix

As far as compression goes, some light gain reduction, with very slow attack and release times from a mastering grade processor or plug-in should tame any peaks. If you completed the previous step correctly then you shouldn't need to apply huge amounts of compression here.

A small amount of buss compression can tame dynamics further

Finally, you can use a mastering limiter to ensure the material is reaching its maximum volume throughout the mix. Find the loudest section of the whole piece and set the limiter to apply around 2db of gain reduction. Any more than this and you may start to get distortion. These tracks have already been brick wall limited, they may suffer from excessive double processing.

Using sensible limiting will ensure you get the highest volume out of the whole mix

Step 6 - Adding CD Tracks or Encoding to MP3

Once you're happy with the way your mix sounds you can start to think about preparing it to be uploaded or burnt to CD.

If you are planning to use your promo mix online then you will only need to encode your work to MP3. It's best to use the highest quality encoder you can lay your hands on and if possible choose a slower higher quality algorithm over a fast one. Obviously you should opt for the highest bit rate possible but with something as large as a DJ set you may have to think about file size and download times. 192kbps is often a good compromise here as the quality is acceptable and the file sizes don't get out of hand.

Encoding the mix to Mp3 in Peak Pro 6

The whole mix after mastering

When burning to CD things can get a little more complex as this will often involve creating track markers. As the file you have at this point is one continuous piece of audio, burning straight to a CD will result in only one track being burnt. This is okay if you intend to listen in one go but most people listening may want to skip to a certain point in your mix, especially if you supply a track listing. The solution is to insert track markers using an audio editor and burn directly from the application.

If I'm honest an entire tutorial could be written on this section alone and I may just do that if there are any requests. It can be achieved using several applications including Wavelab, Peak Pro and Apple's Waveburner (this comes bundled with Logic Pro). You can see from the screen shots I have opted for Waveburner here but you can use any app you like, depending on your experience and platform.

Inserting CD track markers in Apple's Waveburner

Individual CD track markers

Once you have inserted your markers you are ready to burn directly to disc. As I mentioned before most editors will take care of this for you and will even apply all the correct dithering settings required to get any 24 bit files down to the 16 bit resolution needed for CD.

Burning the DJ mix to CD straight from Waveburner

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