With club music’s full fledged graduation into the mainstream music discourse over the recent years, an interesting and squarely paradoxical phenomenon regarding how it can, should, and should not be mixed & mastered, has emerged. If this should be a matter of concern to you, or something to just be aware of at the back of your mind —- or indeed something to discard right off the bat, is what I aim to touch upon in this post.
The curation of radio today is filled to the brim with bass music, or in general music that draws elements from club culture. But it’s good to remember the roots of this rich and beautiful culture are still directly linked to its reproduction over club PA systems (rather than a YouTube channel). This has dictated the way the various forms of electronic music have been produced. The powerful and sub-sonic frequencies are tailored with the expert knowledge of the dedicated producer; they / we know what frequencies club speakers produce, what the most effective gut-massaging frequencies are (a lot of have fallen victim to the F-note bassline syndrome :-), or what the avoid-frequencies seem to be (the notorious cut around 250Hz, anyone?). The sonic and aesthetic shape entire genres of music have taken is being sculpted by this knowledge and by the direct physical feedback producers and DJs receive when playing back tracks over powerful soundsystems.
Now the interesting part comes when laptop, phone or radio compromised sonic reproduction goes head to head with the no-compromise sound aesthetics of club tunes that could not care less if your phone or laptop cannot produce that 43Hz F note the whole tune is based on. Should you mix with a bandwidth-limited reproduction of your song in mind (granted you hope your tune may be listened to outside of the club)? Or should you not care at all? The answer is a resounding… it kinda depends!
There is no clear answer to the above, but I think it’s very valuable to be empowered with knowledge on the topic so you can pick your mixing & mastering battles.
Chances are you are a true club music aficionado, you live, breathe and cater for the club crowd, and then there is no need to make a single concession to the outside-of-the-club world (historically I come from this breed myself). Your tracks probably aren’t likely ending up at the voting panel of a radio station that decides about singles rotation. It would make little sense to compromise PA compatibility. Actually, even some notorious radio bass music hits of recent years, notably some Skrillex tracks, are mixed in such a way that there are parts of the song where sinewave bassline notes go so low, with no matching upper-harmonic overtones, that the vast majority of its audience cannot hear them. Think of producers like Skrillex what you will, this cheeky nod back to the club culture is something I can really appreciate.
What if you were to pay attention to compromised playback systems like phones, laptops and FM radio?
When it comes to phones and laptops, it’s of course its limited frequency bandwidth that one will want to pay attention to. While in club mixes you can afford to have pure sinewave-based basslines going pretty low (the low E of 41.2Hz is arguably the threshold people won’t go below), it’s important to address the upper harmonics or ‘contour’ of such basslines if they are to be heard on small speakers. The issue is that it is often the second or third harmonic that, when too prominent, can sound very overwhelming, unpleasant and rumbly over a large PA that pumps out high SPL. You go too low and the bassline may not be heard anywhere but on large speakers, or you over-pronounce the upper harmonics in the ‘higher lows’ and end up with a tune that translates nicely over radio but is an unpleasantly woody wall-of-ear-hurting-sound over a PA. It takes time and skill to find a happy medium here, and one solution can be focusing the ‘upper contour’ of your super low bassline notes into the mid or even high frequencies: creating sympathetic layers that play the same note as your bassline in the form of a tuned noise layer can sound especially cool, if done correctly.
Here are a couple of ways to monitor your song with a limited frequency response:
— the quickest: simply add a bandpass filter on your master channel. A quick A/B here can be quite an ear-opener. Note that if running too hot a signal into it, the EQ may distort, so gain-stage accordingly.
— my pick: the Auratone / Avantone, aka ‘horrortone’ speakers. (https://www.soundonsound.com/reviews/avantone-active-mixcube)
— a dedicated app that, in real-time, transmits audio from your DAW to your iPhone for reference playback (!) (https://audre.io/)
— cheap PC speakers
When it comes to radio playback, things get pretty obscure to the point of esoteric. Radio stations use processors on the output (Orban Optimod being a classic device here) that each radio technician tunes differently, usually with the aim to stand up against the competition on air. You can expect M/S processing, multiband compression, widening… It’s akin to mixing your master into another mastering chain, except the settings are always different. Or, as one online forum member put it, like ‘mixing into a bad Ozone preset.’ (NB: I actually like iZotope’s Ozone! :-) Logic would have it that making a more dynamic, less squashed, and very mono-compatible mix would then yield a better-sounding mix over radio. That would be too easy though, because as mastering legend Bob Ohlsson explains,
There are two issues with radio:
1. what it sounds like on the air
2. what it sounds like during the meeting that determines if it will ever get on the air.
And sure enough, my experience when receiving singles with separate radio mixes, the radio mixes tended to be louder and more squashed rather than more dynamic…
Do you care for compromised playback devices or radio in your mixing and mastering? Do you have any tips or techniques you’d like to share? I am excited to know!