If you can make your mixes sound tighter when you are mixing, then I can take it the next level when mastering.
If you listen to the old vinyl “sound” that everyone loves, one of the reasons it sounds so pleasing is that it is mixed to accommodate the boundaries of disc cutting. When I first started out, mastering was disc cutting… That is, the master you would deliver to the factory would come back as a vinyl LP or single. As well as the mastering engineer, online mixing and recording engineers always worked with the finished vinyl at the back of their mind. So, with the technical boundaries that vinyl had, engineers were watching all the peaks, controlling everything that jumped out (inevitably causing problem on vinyl) – and that’s why everything sounded so nice, round and tight.
(We also used more de-essing when we were cutting to lacquer, because the medium wasn’t very friendly to top end and would cause “sibilant” distortion, especially on vocal s’s, high hats and anything with an excessive amount of top end. So not only did you have limiters controlling the sound for tightness and roundness, you had de-essers which were giving the mix a nice rounded top-end.)
In order to achieve nice tight mixes nowadays, these techniques from working with vinyl still apply, and this is where VU Meters come in. A VU meter is like a rev counter in a car, it gives you a feel for what the car is doing, and the VU gives you a feel for the song, and how tight and “round” it is sounding.
VU (Volume Unit) Meters essentially display an average of what we hear, rather than the very fast peaks that we don’t. Average level is important, as controlling this will make the mix sound tight. For example, with a kick drum, if you have a VU meter, you can see if the kick drum is adding kick and punch to the mix, or if it’s adding a lot of wooliness and getting in the way of everything else. If the VU meter is moving radically, just working on the kick drum, then you know by looking that you are losing tightness.
In the particular instance of a kick drum, (or other low end elements in your mix) your room acoustics might be deficient in low frequencies – and this is also where VU meters are indispensable. They are like your third ear – they will show you the energy in the low end, and if there is radical movement, then you probably have an issue with frequencies that you aren’t hearing.
In order to achieve mix tightness, VU meters should “dance” smoothly and in a gentle manner, usually in time with the music, rather than in big jumps and erratic, out of time movement. This erratic movement implies that there are drastic level changes, which will be hard to control in mastering. A common, but undesirable, scenario when I’m mastering a track is when the tom fill comes in, the VU’s have excursions of 10dB. I can go in and fix that in the stereo mix, however at that point it is going to effect the rest of the mix, because when I push the toms back down, everything else in the mix will also be pushed down.
When I get mixes from the great engineers, I usually only add a little, if any, peak limiting in mastering because it’s all been taken care of during the mix. 9 times out of 10, this was done on the individual channels of the mix (as opposed to a buss output compressor). In this instance, VU meters will show you when levels and compression are adequate in the mix.
Don’t confuse limiting or tightening with squashing. In this manner, limiting should just be controlling the peaks rather the squashing the entire signal, and your mixes will by default sound louder. Again, this is where VU meters come in – they help you see the erratic movement caused by peaks and will help you apply just enough dynamic control.
There are different types of VU meters out there, and I have spent many hours experimenting to find the ones I liked best. I encourage you to do the same – some will move faster, some slower, and you should find the ones that behave the best for your individual preference and purpose. On top of this, VU meters can usually be calibrated for both speed and volume level, and these settings are essential for getting the best out of them, though again, the particular settings are very much personal taste. The VU meters I use are custom built by Stephen Crane at Studios 301.
As far as software meters go, there are many options out there and I’m still experimenting with them. The main stumbling block I have found is finding software meters that behave how I want to “see” the signal, and are adjustable for the right reference level. So far, my favourite is the PSP VU2 meter plugin.
Everything is important about the gear and the studio you use it in, but if I had to pick my essential tools, they would be my monitoring – and my VU meters.
Written by Leon Zervos.