Philth Tips #4 – Mastering a DJ mix

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I’ve spent the last few weeks working on my 2016 End Of Year Mix; first choosing the tracks, working out the running order, exporting to USB’s, then actually mixing it (it took me 3 shifts because I had to stop for food a few times). The final step is giving the mix a rough master before it goes online. And I do mean rough – this should not be interpreted as a guide to mastering your own music, pay a professional to do that. But you want your DJ mixes to sound good right? The following steps will help you to balance the levels and squeeze the mix up a bit louder.

At the risk of being patronising – watch the levels when you record your mix!! If you are smashing tracks in at wildly different volumes then it is impossible to level your mix later without major surgery. Give yourself some headroom when you record, and watch the input level as you record into Logic, Audacity, whatever you use, to make sure your gains aren’t creeping up.

You also need to bring down the volume faders if you have got two tunes dropped together or you are going to make peaks and troughs every time you double-drop, and end up with one track sounding quiet when you play it solo. Finally, don’t play two basslines on top of each other because that will: a) double the volume; b) sound like shit when the subs clash.

Now your mix is recorded and ready for mastering. Do the basic trimming so you haven’t got any silence at the start and finish. Now it’s time to do some processing. My examples will all be in Logic, but the principles are the same, you need a compressor, EQ, a limiter and a spectrum analyser.

Compression will enable you to level out the mix, bringing down the level of the loudest parts. I use the standard Logic compressor. As a very very basic guide to the functions of a compressor:the Threshold is the volume level that will trigger the compressor, the Ratio is how hard it will compress (reduce) the signal, the Attack is how quickly the compressor will react, and the Release is how quickly it lets go once the level goes below the Threshold.

If you want to stop any peaks completely then set the Attack as low as it can go. and then carefully bring down the Threshold so the compressor only responds to the loudest tracks in your set. You don’t need to compress the tracks that are playing quietly, you just want to catch the bits where you got excited and went too loud. You can now use the Ratio to determine how heavily the signal is compressed. A higher ratio will mean that the level of the louder parts of your mix is reduced more. This comes back to your recording itself, if you have been consistent with your gains then the compressor won’t need to do so much work.

Depending on your compressor of choice this quick attack time can completely remove any spikes, and now you can set the Release of your compressor to determine how quickly it lets go. Too short and you are going to hear the compressor pump in and out. A longer release time will mean that once the input goes too loud, the volume level will be held down for long enough that you don’t really hear it come back up, it just happens naturally when the music lets it. When you are mixing down your music the release time is vital to making your compressor dance with the music. For a DJ set it is better that you don’t hear the compressor moving, so err towards a long release.

I hope this makes sense so far. The idea is simple, set your compressor so it only reacts to the bits of your mix that have gone too loud, and then it pulls these loud parts down by the appropriate amount to keep your DJ mix at a consistent level. You don’t actually want to heat the compressor working so use the Attack and Release until the effect is transparent.

Next is EQ. And to be honest I find myself doing less and less EQ to my DJ sets – the tracks have already been mixed and mastered and my job as a DJ is to use the controls of my mixer to keep the sounds balanced. A good mix doesn’t need loads of EQ. If you are working from a live set sometimes it needs more work, especially if the monitoring wasn’t great or if you have a vocalist that is too loud. But for a standard studio mix I will often just use something like Slate’s Revival to give a little bit of extra roundness to the bottom end, and if it is a vinyl mix then a healthy boost in the top end.

Once upon a time I would obsess over getting all my tracks to be level in terms of their frequency balance. This is where your Spectral Analyser comes in, set it up so you are metering the mastering output, and then you can see how much bass, mids, tops is playing at any one time. You can then automate EQ for tracks that really need it, and in this case I would just use a high or low shelf EQ to bring up a wide area while one particular track played. But as I said, nowadays I mainly avoid doing this. I try to stay on top of the Eq while mixing and then if there are slight differences that’s just how the songs sound!

At this point you should have a mix that is balanced in terms of volume and also frequency. The final step is to make it LOUD so get a limiter and push the threshold/gain up until your mix is hitting 0db consistently. If you were mastering a song then you need to think carefully about the Attack and Release of your limiter, but we already established that we will pay a professional for that.

I’ll be honest, I smash my DJ mixes until they are silly loud, there will be no headroom at all on any of the drops, but then I ease off enough that I’m not crushing the breakdowns and there is no audible clipping. If you push the limiter too hard you will start to hear things like vocals and strings distorting. Calm down mate. Ease back.

Bounce your mix to mp3, 320kbps for best quality, 192 0r 128 if it is going straight onto the web to stream. With Logic you can also add ID3 tags, so add a link to your website, Facebook page etc. A top tip is to add some jingles at the start because that seems to stop the Soundcloud police from taking your mix down. Ask a mate who is an MC to do a short jingle/ident for your mixes and layer it over your set in Logic.

The final step for me is to add some artwork, and with iTunes it is easy to embed the artwork onto the file. If you want a guide to making artwork I’m definitely not your man. I have got about a hundred photos of me playing out wearing checked shirts (thanks Apps!) and I have just about worked out how to paste a logo on top of a photo using Preview in OSX. Skillz.

My 2016 End of Year Mix is done, mastered, tracklisted, and has been sent off for an upcoming feature. Watch this space.

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Philth Tips #3 – switch to Rekordbox

Short but sweet this week. I’m sat at home sorting out the tracklist for my End of Year mix and just thinking about how much happier I am since I made the switch maybe 18 months or so ago. I’ve tried everything over the years, starting on vinyl, CD’s (burning CD’s is the worst), Traktor, Serrato, time-coded vinyl & CD’s, controllers….

I love being able to prep all my folders. I select fresh music specifically for every gig, and I’m even happier that I don’t have to set up my laptop before a set. Being able to update my music so easily is meaning I practice more, and I feel more confident when I go out to play gigs.

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DJ’s using other platforms, give it a try. I’m very happy.

Big up to all of you who have been following these blog posts so far. I promise I will start sharing some technical tips at some point, get ready for screenshots, graphs, diagrams, spreadsheets… in my day job I work as a college teacher so I have plenty to share in 2017.

Happy New Year!

Phil

Philth Tips #2 – take some time off!

This might sound even more counter-productive than my last blog post – because of course you need to work hard and be consistent in order to keep improving. Yes you need to hone your skills, and that comes with repetition. And this tip is actually the thing I struggle with the most, feeling like I should be in the studio every single day to keep up with all the other producers. But sometimes it just feels like you’re banging your head against a wall and nothing is working. No ideas, no inspiration, everything you record sounds rubbish, Break’s tunes sound much better than yours….

Time to step away. When you’re stuck in a rut the worst thing to do is force it. You end up getting frustrated, then disheartened, disillusioned with the music, then you convince yourself you need the next bit of equipment or magic plugin in order to break through the wall. The reality is just that you need a break. And coming back to my previous post, that means a complete break from DnB, so your brain can soak up some inspiration from other sources. Go and do something else. Watch films, read books, listen to Stevie Wonder, take photos, paint, spend some time cooking nice food, whatever your hobbies are…. maybe even go outside occasionally.

I find that all my best tunes come when I have had some time away to clear my head. Sometimes this is down to work, being a teacher and a DJ can take over and I don’t have any studio time for a few weeks. But that just makes me more excited to go back in when the time comes.

I use a lot of my travelling time to think about music, to gather my ideas and prepare myself to create. I fill my phone up with notes, some of them can be quite technical (beat patterns for example) but more often it is more related to a concept or feeling. I have lists of track names, lists of samples, I have themes that I want to write about (sharks, space, rain), and when I finally come back to the studio I am raring to go and the music seems to pour out. Don’t get me wrong, in these happy periods I will binge and stay in the studio for 12 hours a day – and then the night shift. But this is because I have had some time to think about what I want to say.

Try it. When you aren’t feeling inspired take a break, get some distance, and go back into the studio when you actually have a strong idea of what you want to write. The music will flow naturally when it is ready….

Philth Tips #1 – Stop listening to drum & bass!

This might seem like a ridiculous tip coming from a DnB DJ/producer, but I’m not telling you to give up on the genre and go and listen to techno… This tip is aimed at helping producers to avoid getting caught in the trap of listening to so much DnB and suddenly running out of original ideas.

As a producer who is learning, of course you need to be aware of what is happening in the scene, but it shouldn’t be the only influence going in to your music. If you spend your free time listening to DnB then it is impossible not to be directly influenced by it, and you’ll find that that your music inevitably just sounds like a copy of the latest banger. This used to happen to me all the time, I would check loads of new releases on my journeys back and forth around London and then when I got into the studio all I had in my head was other people’s music.

This can happen whatever sub-genre you are into; listening to a load of Dawn Wall will send you into the studio searching for euphoric samples and rolling beats, listening to DLR all day is a sure fire way to end up getting stuck in a loop trying to match his funky basslines, trying to match Break’s drums will never make you feel good, and a day listening to Noisia will just make you depressed and not want to write music! Even if the influence is just sub-concious (and it often is) you will still end up mimicking the artists you love and who inspire you to make drum & bass.

I’m not saying you should cut yourself off from the scene, and of course it is important for DJ’s to be up to date so it impossible to cut DnB out of your diet entirely – but it is possible to manage your time and let those promo emails stack up for a while. In a period of trying to write new music it isn’t healthy to spend loads of time listening to all the new releases in the search for inspiration. The great thing about jungle and early DnB is you could tell what other styles of music a producer was into through the samples they chose to use. As well as just the samples, its the influence and mood from other styles that can have a massive effect on what you write, and it is much more interesting to take influences from other styles and bring them back into a DnB context.

When I’m focused on writing new music I listen to anything other than DnB. Often a lot of funk and soul in the mornings, and tonnes of ambient music, soundscapes and film scores. I find Spotify is a great tool for doing this, it exposes me to a huge range of artists that I wouldn’t hear otherwise. Every week I find a new composer who blows me away. Sometimes the killer sample just arrives through a search for new music, but more often it is the overall vibe and palette of sounds that provides the spark of inspiration to write some original DnB. Bringing these different influences back into my music helps me to create something with more depth. Of course the drum and the bass themselves are still the essential elements, but I try not to get bogged down worrying about making them sound like somebody else. I concentrate on the overall vibe of the song and then engineer the beats and bass to suit my vision.

Here is a collection of music I have been building over the last year, there’s no real method to the curation of this playlist it’s just things that have caught my ear and I want to hear again. Listening to this playlist so many times on my travels is giving me a whole library of ideas to draw upon when it’s time to get back in the studio….

Phil’s Top Tips! #1

How to improve your kick drums and give them more weight:

1) Take two portabello mushrooms. Fry the bottom gently.
2) Place in an oven tray. Add three different cheeses in a pretty pattern. Cook under the grill for 5-7 minutes.
3) Sample your kick drums from tunes that have been professionally mixed and mastered.
4) Eat mushrooms while listening to your amazing fat new kick!

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