Ignore Tonal Balance At Your Peril

/November 15, 2014
For as long as I can remember, there’s been a popular expectation amongst independent producers, artists and engineers that the mastering process will ‘fix’ any tonal problems their mixes might have. But the old adage – ‘we can fix it in mastering’ – is a dangerous crutch to lean on.
Meanwhile, at the other end of the spectrum, highly paid, world renowned mix engineers tend to hold the opposite perspective on mastering: “Whatever you do, don’t touch my tone!” they say.
So what’s going on here? Why does one group of engineers look to mastering to cure all its tonal issues, when the other hopes the mastering engineer will do little more than turn it up a bit and put the kettle on?

In short, because one group of engineers is, by and large, supremely confident about its skills, control rooms and hearing, while the other isn’t.
I know this may seem a fairly blunt and simplistic appraisal of the world’s studio communities, but despite there being a bit of grey around the edges of this fairly black and white statement, it’s true. Home studio mixes tend to require more tonal adjustment in mastering than those emanating from the world’s best studios.
The reasons for this are fairly self-evident. For starters world-class rooms tend to be much ‘flatter’, many of them having been designed by internationally acclaimed acousticians, giving the engineers working in them greater confidence in what they’re hearing. Secondly, the engineers working in these rooms tend to be more experienced, and finally the rooms are often filled with some of the best studio equipment ever made, and while this is no guarantee of a brilliant outcome, provided you’re skilled in your craft, great equipment certainly helps.

But this is all beside the point…
Tonal balance is what I wanted to talk about here, not why one group of engineers is arguably more capable than another.
When it comes to mixing, tonal balance is paramount to a good outcome. It’s as vital to any mix as volume levels. Indeed, the two are inextricably linked to the point where, in many respects, they’re indistinguishable. Adjust the tone of a sound and its volume is altered simultaneously. Tonal adjustments are but volume changes after all… to one part of a sound rather that all of it.
When you think of tone in this way, that’s when you begin to realise how critical it is, and why relying on wholesale tonal changes to your mixes during a mastering session is a risky work practise.
Don’t get me wrong; I’m not for a moment advocating you becoming that guy or gal who tells the mastering engineer: ‘keep your hands off my mixes’. What I am concerned with, however, is impressing upon engineers and studio owners the need for tonal accuracy in their listening environments so that their work becomes more refined. The more refined your mix, the better the mastering outcome. Meanwhile, a mix that significantly misses the mark in this respect can later be exposed as having all manner of balance issues once the tone is ‘corrected’.
This manifests in all kinds of ways. Mixes that arrive at a mastering session sounding inordinately dull, for instance, when opened up with high shelving EQ, can often be exposed as having all manner of imbalances in the volumes of things like cymbals, tambourines, sibilance and guitars.
What seemed like a balanced – albeit dull – final mix back in the recording studio, was in fact one that had been deaf to its high-frequency content. What this ultimately means is that any mastering engineer is now compromised in their decision making. Either the tonal balance they’re trying to achieve will result in impossibly harsh and loud cymbals and tamourines – which is unacceptable – or dull vocals and a tonal signature that will leave the mix sounding like it’s covered in a blanket – also unacceptable.
So where to from here? A bit of both perhaps: a slightly too harsh top-end but a mix that’s still a little dull overall? Hmm… no-one’s going to be happy with that.
The same can be said of mixes that present at mastering sounding too midrangy or bass light.
Too much midrange, when corrected, can often sound lifeless and out of whack: the snare now sounding good but the vocal dull, the guitars now sounding clear but the vocal far too grainy, and so on.
Bass-light mixes meanwhile, when corrected with mastering EQ and/or expansion, often dredge up little more than an inarticulate boom that seems disconnected from the song floating above it. The bass guitar is now sounding bigger but uneven, while the kick drum is still impossibly low and vague. Again, no-one wants their mix sounding like that. More to the point, if anyone had heard their song sounding this way during the mix, presumably they would have done something about it.
In many cases like this, it’s usually back to mixing desk (or possibly the drawing board) to repair the issues that the mastering process has uncovered.

Like ignorance of the law, ignorance of any tonal problems your mixes – or indeed your room – might have is no defence. Doing something proactive about it is paramount to your mixes becoming the professional products you surely want them to be.
The fundamental ingredient required in analysing your mixes, and potentially the room in which you work, is above all else, honesty. There’s little point putting your head in the sand and hoping that the problems will go away or no-one will notice.
Take the time to analyse your workspace with commercially released music of various genres, and from different parts of the world. Listen carefully to them as if they were your own mixes and ask yourself questions about them: ‘how is the bass response; does the vocal seem sibilant; is there too much top-end (or not enough); how loud is the vocal and is it pushing forward or set back?’
If commercial CDs sound great in your room and the response from the speakers seems fairly even and balanced, and by comparison your mixes seem dull, far too toppy, or overly compressed, chances are it’s not your room that’s problematic but your mixing skills and decision making.
This then begs the obvious question: how do you calibrate your listening during long mixing sessions? Do you even bother? Unlike room calibration you can’t just hit yourself with pink noise during a mixing session… you need to listen to music you’re familiar with that’s well known for its impeccably balanced tone. Otherwise, tonally speaking, you may find yourself way off course by the end of a long day.
Sure, it’s scary to submit to an A/B comparison with a commercial hit single, and your mix may indeed sound crap when played up against it, but this is where the honesty policy kicks in again. There’s no point shirking this comparison simply because it has the potential to make you look silly in front of your clients. Better now than later, right? Right now you can do something about your mix… later may be too late!
The idea here is not to make you look foolish or incompetent. On the contrary; honesty will help you achieve a better outcome, and by exposing your mixes to an A/B shootout regularly, the process gets easier. Your clients will appreciate the fact that you’re aiming for a world-class result, and be encouraged by seeing you dissatisfied with anything less.
In the end the only person you can blame for an misguided mixing tone is you. Sure, the room and/or your equipment may be contributing to the problem, but if you’re the one steering the ship and you look to blame the wheel for sailing everyone onto the rocks, you’re going to look far more foolish than the guy who saw the rocks looming and changed course!