I'm a drum & bass DJ and I work exclusively with vinyl, which is all mastered for a club sound system. When I record sets — for example, for promotional purposes — they sound tight and full through my high‑quality system, but through the majority of other systems they sound weak and tend to lose a bit of the tightness in the high end. How can I make sure the overall sound is full and, therefore, more consumer friendly?
Kieren Bagley, via email
SOS contributor Simon Langford replies: Without knowing the specifics of your system it is hard to give any specific advice, but there are a few general points to consider that may help. Firstly, high‑quality systems are just that: playing back any music on a high‑quality system will almost inevitably sound better than playing it back on cheaper, more consumer‑level systems. Instead of comparing how your mix sounds on your high‑quality system to how it sounds on a consumer setup, you might be better off comparing how your mix sounds on a consumer system to how other (similar style) mixes sound on that same setup. If there is a commercial mix (one that has been professionally mixed and mastered) that has a similar style of tracks on it, it might provide a better frame of reference for you. This is especially true if there is another mix that you feel does sound good on these consumer systems.
Another thing to consider is that, in mastering your mix, you will be mastering tracks that have already been mastered! So applying additional mastering could suck the life out of the individual tracks. I'm assuming that while you're doing the mix you're adjusting and compensating for any overall level and EQ differences between the different tracks, so that your final mix is pretty consistent in terms of level and tonal balance. If that's the case, I really don't think you need to master your mix at all.
You don't mention how you're recording the mix. If you're recording into a PC or Mac, you might be better off reducing the output level from your mixer and then applying some kind of limiter plug‑in to the mix once it's been recorded. By doing this, you minimise the risk of overloading the audio inputs when you're recording, and can then bring the overall level back up to maximum. You could, of course, simply normalise the final stereo mix as well. One other thing you might be able to do, if you record the mix into a computer, is to use another commercial mix as a reference (as I mentioned previously), importing that into your DAW. There are a number of plug‑ins that will analyse the spectrum of the reference mix and then do the same to your mix, offering up a correction curve that will go some way toward matching the spectral balance of your mix to your reference mix. In my experience, these plug‑ins rarely make the target track sound exactly like the source track, but they can help you make broad changes to the EQ that will get you a little closer.
If you're still having problems, it might be worthwhile looking at your equipment. All vinyl records have what is called the RIAA EQ curve applied to them before they are cut to vinyl. This reduces low frequencies by about 20dB and boosts high frequencies by about 20dB. The reasons for this are purely physical ones associated with achieving maximum levels when cutting vinyl records. When a vinyl deck is connected to a DJ mixer, a reverse EQ curve is applied to restore the original sound. I wonder if, perhaps, there's something a little amiss with your mixer or decks if the sound you're getting is consistently different from other mixes you hear.
I think it's definitely worthwhile working through a process of elimination to pinpoint exactly where the problem is. The issue you're having — that of your mixes translating to different playback systems — is something that mix engineers and producers the world over have to deal with on a regular basis. There really isn't a mastering technique that can do anything about that. It's just important to constantly reference what you are doing against other mixes on a variety of systems and, eventually, you will learn to factor in the difference in sound and create mixes that sound the best they can on the widest possible variety of setups.