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A Ridiculously Simple Explanation of Vocal Compression For Beginners

UPDATE: The graphic and article have been updated with a more accurate explanation of limiting. Last night, I was giving one of our mastering clients some mixing advice regarding vocal compression. I thought I’d post the email here for those of you who might still be struggling with the concept (I know I did for […]

“Ready, Able” by Grizzly Bear: A Compositional Analysis

A rhythmic and harmonic play-by-play .

“Amazing” by Kanye West: A Compositional Analysis

A look at Kanye’s minimalist hit from a music theory perspective.

(Updated 2/4/12) Despite a formal education and real world training at some serious recording studios, I’ve always been amazed at how far along I had to come as an engineer just to learn some very basic information and points of confusion (a big reason for starting this blog by the way). When you do something for the better part of your life, you sometimes forget how much you really know. That’s part of why the best audio engineers are not always the best teachers. When I started out, the decibel confused me. I had read that a jet engine was 140 dB, a library was 30 dB, a rock concert was 115 dB, etc. Why then, I wondered, do digital and analog meters go from negative infinity (silence) to 0 dB (absolute loudest)? And why is it that track faders can go up to +6 or +12 dB? I’m not going to get into all the gruesome details here, I’m just going to set forth one basic, but extremely important concept: there is more than one kind of decibel. Decibels in the digital realm... Read More →

UPDATE: The graphic and article have been updated with a more accurate explanation of limiting. Last night, I was giving one of our mastering clients some mixing advice regarding vocal compression. I thought I’d post the email here for those of you who might still be struggling with the concept (I know I did for years) or to refer your friends to. Also note that this article is about sound compression or even more specifically “dynamic range compression” and should not be confused with data compression (mp3, zip, rar, etc.) This isn’t a comprehensive explanation of compression, you can find that elsewhere. This is just the bare bones essentials. I used drums instead of vocals in the diagram below because I felt that would be the easiest to understand visually. Click for full size: What’s the point of compression anyway? Back in the old days, vocal compression was used for one purpose: Compression makes the volume of a vocal more consistent overall. In fact... Read More →

For a thorough explanation of dynamic range and the “loudness war,” read: An Explanation of The Loudness War That Even Your Dad Will Understand. But here’s the gist: in order to make a mix louder, mastering engineers have to increase the volume of the softest points in the music to be closer to the loudest points. This is called decreasing the dynamic range. Today, March 20th, has been declared “Dynamic Range Day” by Ian Shepherd, the guy who broke the Death Magnetic / Loudness War story. His proposal? EVERYONE SHOULD TYPE IN ALL CAPS ON TWITTER AND SCREAM EVERYTHING ALL DAY IN ORDER TO SHOW NORMAL PEOPLE HOW ANNOYED THEY SHOULD (THEORETICALLY) BE WITH OVERCOMPRESSED/OVERLIMITED MUSIC… BECAUSE BY YELLING ALL DAY YOU ARE DECREASING THE DYNAMIC RANGE OF YOUR OWN SELF EXPRESSION AND THEREBY PISSING PEOPLE OFF. From what I understand, the idea is to protest the loudness war, raise awareness, and ultimately persuade others to join the effort to preserve... Read More →

Editing is sort of like the breakfast of the production process. Although people don’t covet and fetishize it they way they do mixing (the dinner), it is absolutely essential for a well-balanced diet. You might say mastering is the dessert, but I’m inclined to call it a breath mint that you grab on your way out of the restaurant. Or maybe editing is the house salad and pre-production is breakfast since people skip it when they’re in a hurry even though it’s the most important meal of the day and even though they could at LEAST take a Nutri-Gain bar on their way out the door… Anyway, here’s what I’m really getting at: you wouldn’t eat breakfast and dinner at the same time, would you? That’s gross. To this end, the absolute top of the top mixers (i.e. the ones that charge $10K/song–there are about 20 of them in the world) make sure all of the editing is done before they begin by having their assistants prep all their sessions.* And... Read More →

Client Feature: Miss Geo

Written by Keith Freund 1 COMMENT

Miss Geo is a Rhode Island-based singer songwriter. Her new album, The Story, is an excruciatingly (yes) catchy indie-pop record with clever lyrics and tons of stand out tracks. “Broken Wrists” on Spotify I’ve been meaning to feature Miss Geo for a few months now, not only because the music is killer, but because I want to talk about a lesser known service that we offer at Fix Your Mix called stem mastering. Stem mastering, sometimes also called stem mixing or separation mastering, is a hybrid between mixing and mastering. To explain how this works, I’ll tell you a little bit about how this record was made. The Story was produced, engineered, and mixed by my good friend Rob Arbelo here in Boston. What I received from Rob was stereo “stems”–a single stereo track of drums, a stereo track of all the guitars combined, stereo vocals, bass, and a stereo track of synth/harmonies/noises combined. The benefit of mastering from stems is twofold: You can’t... Read More →

Grizzly Bear – “Ready, Able” on YouTube Key Signature: A minor, C Lydian Time Signatures: 3/4, 4/4, 6/8 Special Songwriting Devices Used: Three-bar phrases, Polymeter, Polyrhythm, Modal harmony Structure: Verse-Refrain-Verse-Refrain-C-D-C-D-C-Outro Hover your mouse over terms underlined with dots (like this) for more information. If you’re following along with the album version rather than the video, subtract 5 seconds from any time stamps listed below to account for the video lead-in. This blog mostly concerns itself with what can loosely be considered pop music, but today’s song violates what is perhaps pop’s most sacred and universal characteristic: structure. It’s not that “Ready, Able” has no structure, but it certainly isn’t your typical verse-chorus-verse. While a traditional pop song is designed to grab your attention and get to the hook ASAP, Grizzly Bear has no patience for people with no patience. And to those who... Read More →

Some musical terms are so basic and widely used that we never stop to ask ourselves: “Hey, what is a measure? What is a riff? What is a phrase? What’s the difference between a bar and a measure?” This article should answer all of those questions for you and more. Summary: • Bar = measure • Phrase = long(-ish) musical idea • Motif = short musical idea • Riff = lick Bars & Measures A bar is the same thing as a measure. What determines the length of a measure can vary depending on the time signature of a song, but generally speaking you’re going to be able to tell by the snare pattern. For most pop applications, you’ll be dealing with either 4/4 or 6/8 time. In almost every song in 4/4 time, there will be 2 snare drum hits per measure. These hits indicate beats 2 and 4. This is called a back beat. In addition to the back beat, there will often be snare accents, but they will not feel as strong as the snare hits on beats 2 and 4. The back beat... Read More →

Note: this post requires a basic knowledge of intervals. To understand why some chords have intervals of 9, 11, and 13, read our explanation of tensions. This post will give you abbreviations for the most common chords we’ll be dealing with in our Compositional Analysis series. While some of the naming conventions and rules are confusing, this list should get you started. Also note that our analyses usually use Roman numerals instead of note names (e.g. C minor 7 in the key of C would be written I-7). This is called ‘functional analysis.’ Sample: How the chord is written … Full chord name … Notes in the chord, listed by intervallic relationship with the root of the chord. These notes can be in any order.* *See inversions below. Triads (three notes): G … G major … 1, 3, 5 (i.e. G, B, D) G- … G minor … 1, b3, 5 Gº or Gdim … G diminished … 1, b3, b5 G+ or Gaug … G augmented … 1, 3, #5 Gsus2 … G... Read More →

Note: this post requires a basic knowledge of intervals. A chord tension is any note in a chord that is not considered integral to the chord (the integral notes are called ‘chord tones’). Tensions are also referred to as ‘added colors’ or ”non-chord tones’ (I try to avoid using the latter term because means something different in Traditional/Classical harmony). There are only three possible tensions: 9, 11, and 13 (in other words: 2nds, 4ths, and 6th, respectively). But these notes are not considered tensions on every chord–the only way to know for sure is to have a good knowledge of chords (to get started, read our article on chord abbreviations). These tensions may also be modified by a # (sharp) or b (flat). Chord tensions are written up an octave (by adding 7 to the interval number) because chords can sound muddy or cluttered if the note intervals are too close together. Tensions tend to come in between chord tones, so these notes are often... Read More →

I got an email from my father today directing me to an internet forum debate regarding how over-compression in mastering is ruining music today and I responded with what you’re about to read–the simplest, most easy-to-read breakdown on this topic I could come up with–an explanation that anyone will be able to understand. No flowery or abstract adjectives, just the meat and potatoes. If something still isn’t clear, leave a comment. I’m mostly posting this article to save myself some time (to direct our clients to) but this post may be helpful for other mastering engineers who’d like to do the same. Note: this post refers to sound compression, not MP3 or zip compression. Learn more about the differences between sound compression and data compression here. What Is Mastering Compression? Mastering compression* (“limiting”) reduces the dynamic range of a recording. Dynamic range is the range between the loudest and quietest point in a recording or... Read More →

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