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Help me make it better - mix & mastering a choral work

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Help me make it better - mix & mastering a choral work

Postby george_vel » Tue Feb 16, 2021 9:28 am

Hi, guys,

I really struggle with the lack of online content to learn how to mix and master choral works properly.

In relation with another topic I’ve posted here in this forum (Gain vs. Volume and LUFS), I need your attention and eventually your help how to make my mix and mastering work better.

So, please listen and give your feedback. On headphones I feel like the result is ok, but on some small Bluetooth speakers I feel the choir is muddy, dull and not clear. Unfortunately applying even slight EQ to fix the choir, makes the soloist sibilant in most of the S-es. I believe your experienced ears will hear more stuff that I even cannot imagine. :-D

The whole mix & master work was done on headphones (Beyerdynamic DT-880 Pro semi-open) since I don’t have an acoustically treated studio at home. My ultimate goal is to make the choral sound rich and full, like a 3D image, yet clear, well balanced and blended along the voice of the soloist.

I am linking two pieces here (in Church-Slavonic language) to get your constructive feedback what can be done better - one is called “Blajen muj” (Psalm 1, Blessed is the Man) by the Russian composer Pavel Chesnokov and the other is “Blagoslovi Dushe Moia” (Praise the Lord, My Soul) by the Russian composer Alexander Grechaninov, where a church organ is also present. The organ was recorded from speakers placed on both sides of the choir and connected to a digital piano.

1. Blessed Is The Man - a Capella, flac format

2. Praise the Lord, My Soul - with church organ, flac format
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Re: Help me make it better - mix & mastering a choral work

Postby Mike Stranks » Tue Feb 16, 2021 9:56 am

I've only listened quickly to sections of both recordings.

I was listening on good small monitors in a treated space.

First impressions: very good, with one comment. The stereo image seems quite narrow. That may be a result of listening on headphones where it can be easy to misjudge stereo width.

But I don't know how you recorded and mixed this so I won't comment further on that - it will just be speculation.

As for trying to make the recording sound good on multiple devices I'd proceed with caution - especially with choral and classically oriented material. I know many people have several different speakers/devices on which they assess mixes. I've now stopped that - except for spoken word with background music. You can end up going round in circles and adjustments for device 'A' now mean it doesn't sound good on device 'B'. So you tweak again and now it sounds poor on 'C'!

For the sort of work you're doing you need to think very seriously about:

a) A treated space for mixing;
b) Some serious monitors.
NB. in the order as shown! :)

I'd be more than happy to use your material now in my radio programmes. Contrast that against the fact that I spent part of my weekend doing what I could - prior to using for broadcast - dealing with two very poor modern recordings that had been commercially released.
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Re: Help me make it better - mix & mastering a choral work

Postby george_vel » Tue Feb 16, 2021 11:26 am

:thumbup:
Mike, thanks for your feedback, I highly appreciate it.

Mike Stranks wrote:...
But I don't know how you recorded and mixed this so I won't comment further on that - it will just be speculation.
...

Was not recorded by me, but I know the details.

This was recorded in a church. The choir was placed in 3 rows, around 30 people, with greater distance between the singers. Three mics were placed at them in A/B setup, and despite the attempt to keep 3:1 rule, not very good separation was achieved, especially in tenors/basses sections, who were captured by one mic. So these should not be considered exactly "section mics".
Another mic was positioned for the bass soloist, who was standing in front and few meters away from the basses section. And another one was placed more than 10 meters away from the choir to capture the reverb only, so I call it distant mic. The soloist and bass/tenor mics were KM184s, for the rest Rode NT5s were used.

Mixing is very conservative - only subtractive EQ and a small boost of 1 db with Q=1.5 in the tenors/basses track around 170 Hz. Sopranos are panned 45 degrees left, basses/tenors 45 degrees right, altos 7 degrees left, the distant mic 7 degrees right and is -15 db less in the mix compared to the rest. The soloist is at the center. Maybe this is giving you the narrow stereo image you're talking about?

Mastering (in order of the chain):
- a preset from mastering plugin by Ozone 5 called "Gentle polish" and consisting of imager, multiband comp and maximizer
- one compressor with 1.5:1 ratio, -18 db threshold, 100 ms attack, 600 ms release
- another compressor at -30 db threshold, 1.1:1 ratio, 20 ms attack, 300 ms release
- EQ almost flat, with 1.5 db high-shelf boost from 10 kHz for air, and 0.5 db reduction at around 2.7 kHz for smoothening some harshness in female voices
- another standalone maximizer with very gentle settings
- a FabFilter Pro-R reverb, set at 2.5s and applied with 20% presence (there are some EQ settings there which I suspect for giving the unclearness I am talking about, but when removed, the soloist sibilance is becoming annoying)
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Re: Help me make it better - mix & mastering a choral work

Postby Hugh Robjohns » Tue Feb 16, 2021 11:39 am

Considered as I would any commercial recording in a similar vein, I say they are both pretty good... and most people would be very pleased with them. But since you asked for critical appraisal...

For me -- and this is a personal view -- the bass soloist is far too prominent in the first piece. It feels like he's right up in my face in comparison to the choir which has a nice depth to it. That could well be an issue with the mic placement as much as the actual mix level. Stereo width feels well judged in this piece, as does the reverb.

The second piece feels narrower from a stereo width point of view. The choir has a nice depth again. However, the organ feels like its trying to produce low notes but there's no weight or substance to them at all -- it's all a bit mid-prominent, ultra-clean, and a little too 'present'.
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Re: Help me make it better - mix & mastering a choral work

Postby george_vel » Tue Feb 16, 2021 12:28 pm

Hugh Robjohns wrote:Considered as I would any commercial recording in a similar vein, I say they are both pretty good... and most people would be very pleased with them. But since you asked for critical appraisal...

For me -- and this is a personal view -- the bass soloist is far too prominent in the first piece. It feels like he's right up in my face in comparison to the choir which has a nice depth to it. That could well be an issue with the mic placement as much as the actual mix level. Stereo width feels well judged in this piece, as does the reverb.

The second piece feels narrower from a stereo width point of view. The choir has a nice depth again. However, the organ feels like its trying to produce low notes but there's no weight or substance to them at all -- it's all a bit mid-prominent, ultra-clean, and a little too 'present'.

Thanks, Hugh, for your feedback and input!

If I could only translate your recommendations into actual steps 1,2,3... :mrgreen:

In the first piece the soloist is 3 db louder in the mix compared to the choral tracks - I could lower this difference and see the result, I guess he's very up in the face on the forte parts. But at the same time the musical producer does not want the "old school" style where soloists are very prominent and right in the face while choirs are barely audible from behind. Judging from your words, I've might missed to achieve this yet on this piece.

The second one - do you think a low shelf boost could help making more weight in the organ? But it is going to affect the soloist as well, isn't it? I remind you this is not a real organ, but coming from an Yamaha digital piano with church organ blend and out-of-the-box the lower notes were considerably more quiet than the mid and high register.
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Re: Help me make it better - mix & mastering a choral work

Postby Hugh Robjohns » Tue Feb 16, 2021 12:52 pm

george_vel wrote:In the first piece the soloist is 3 db louder in the mix compared to the choral tracks - I could lower this difference and see the result...

Definitely one for ears rather than numbers.

But as I said, while some of the 'presence' is down to the level balance, some is also down to the proximity to the mic during the recording -- the quality of the voice is different when close miked compared to a more distant mic, and it's very hard to convincingly change one to the other, although EQ and reverb (early reflections) can help.

The second one - do you think a low shelf boost could help making more weight in the organ?

You can try, but I wouldn't hold out much hope. I doubt there's any real bass there in the first place. If you have a direct feed of the organ recording you might have more options, but it doesn't sound like you have.

I remind you this is not a real organ, but coming from an Yamaha digital piano with church organ blend and out-of-the-box the lower notes were considerably more quiet than the mid and high register.

That much is obvious. ;)
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Re: Help me make it better - mix & mastering a choral work

Postby CS70 » Tue Feb 16, 2021 1:40 pm

Hugh Robjohns wrote:
The second one - do you think a low shelf boost could help making more weight in the organ?

You can try, but I wouldn't hold out much hope. I doubt there's any real bass there in the first place. If you have a direct feed of the organ recording you might have more options, but it doesn't sound like you have.

Oh well let me look at my collection of organ samples for replacement...
What? Classical music doesn't do replacement?

Ok ok I'm outta here :lol:
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Re: Help me make it better - mix & mastering a choral work

Postby RichardT » Tue Feb 16, 2021 2:03 pm

Since the organ sound is coming from a digital system not a real instrument, I think a bridge has already been crossed! I see no harm in blending in a few lows from a VST organ.

If your reverb is causing unclarity, you can try adjusting the reverb EQ settings to reduce reverb on lower frequencies, or put a separate EQ prior to the reverb on the effect channel to achieve the same effect. Also try adjusting the pre-delay on the reverb.
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Re: Help me make it better - mix & mastering a choral work

Postby Sam Spoons » Tue Feb 16, 2021 4:00 pm

george_vel wrote:So, please listen and give your feedback. On headphones I feel like the result is ok, but on some small Bluetooth speakers I feel the choir is muddy, dull and not clear. Unfortunately applying even slight EQ to fix the choir, makes the soloist sibilant in most of the S-es. I believe your experienced ears will hear more stuff that I even cannot imagine. :-D

Have you tried comparing some known good reference tracks on the BT speaker? It may simply be that that is the best the speaker can do/
.

Mike Stranks wrote:a) A treated space for mixing;
b) Some serious monitors.
NB. in the order as shown! :)

I reside much further down the recording food chain than most on here but can endorse a) unequivocally from personal experience.
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Re: Help me make it better - mix & mastering a choral work

Postby george_vel » Tue Feb 16, 2021 4:31 pm

Hugh Robjohns wrote:Definitely one for ears rather than numbers.

But as I said, while some of the 'presence' is down to the level balance, some is also down to the proximity to the mic during the recording -- the quality of the voice is different when close miked compared to a more distant mic, and it's very hard to convincingly change one to the other, although EQ and reverb (early reflections) can help.


Ok, I perfectly understand what you're talking about - the recordings were done in 4 days in a row, in the evenings, and every day the mic setup was re-established again, and dismantled after that, because it could not stay during the days as it would interfere with church services.
And despite all taken measures and measurements of first day setup, it had been difficult to reproduce exactly the same setup. And in some days the mic of the soloist apparently had been closer than others, which led to much more audible proximity effect...

RichardT wrote:Since the organ sound is coming from a digital system not a real instrument, I think a bridge has already been crossed! I see no harm in blending in a few lows from a VST organ.

Hmm, interesting idea, but easier said than done. I am not a musician myself and I am not sure what exactly I would produce with a VST organ :)

RichardT wrote:If your reverb is causing unclarity, you can try adjusting the reverb EQ settings to reduce reverb on lower frequencies, or put a separate EQ prior to the reverb on the effect channel to achieve the same effect. Also try adjusting the pre-delay on the reverb.

Yeah, definitely something can be done there, but with great care - Pro-R from FabFilter seems more complex than I thought when I bought them in the past. It doesn't have conventional names like early reflections, pre-delay, etc. but names like Brightness or Decay, etc. And the part with the EQ is definitely not clear to me yet.

Sam Spoons wrote:...
Have you tried comparing some known good reference tracks on the BT speaker? It may simply be that that is the best the speaker can do/

Yeah, I did few for reference. To be honest, exactly the same genre from some Russian choirs sounded pretty similar. Maybe I'm misleading myself here expecting the sound to be for example closer to the recordings of Trinity College Choir or some Scandinavian performances - they sound amazing even on such small BT speakers :mrgreen:

Sam Spoons wrote:
Mike Stranks wrote:a) A treated space for mixing;
b) Some serious monitors.
NB. in the order as shown! :)

I reside much further down the recording food chain than most on here but can endorse a) unequivocally from personal experience.

Well, this is more than clear, but I cannot afford a separate studio at home, because there is not enough rooms to build one.
That's why I am holding the purchase of Neumann monitor speakers (in my preference list again because of people in this forum ;) ) and am using headphones - it doesn't make sense to buy monitors if I cannot acoustically treat the space.
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Re: Help me make it better - mix & mastering a choral work

Postby Sam Spoons » Tue Feb 16, 2021 5:07 pm

george_vel wrote:
Sam Spoons wrote:...
Have you tried comparing some known good reference tracks on the BT speaker? It may simply be that that is the best the speaker can do/

Yeah, I did few for reference. To be honest, exactly the same genre from some Russian choirs sounded pretty similar. Maybe I'm misleading myself here expecting the sound to be for example closer to the recordings of Trinity College Choir or some Scandinavian performances - they sound amazing even on such small BT speakers :mrgreen:

Then if they are the sounds you wish to emulate surely they should be your references?

Sam Spoons wrote:
Mike Stranks wrote:a) A treated space for mixing;
b) Some serious monitors.
NB. in the order as shown! :)

I reside much further down the recording food chain than most on here but can endorse a) unequivocally from personal experience.

Well, this is more than clear, but I cannot afford a separate studio at home, because there is not enough rooms to build one.
That's why I am holding the purchase of Neumann monitor speakers (in my preference list again because of people in this forum ;) ) and am using headphones - it doesn't make sense to buy monitors if I cannot acoustically treat the space.

I don't know your's or your significant other's tastes but a modest outlay (in comparison to the cost of those Neumann monitors) would allow for, say, a couple of these https://gikacoustics.co.uk/product-category/acoustic-art-panels/ to hang on the walls at the mirror points and a plain panel on the ceiling. The obverse of law of diminishing returns means the first few panels have the most effect and controlling the first reflections will get you a fair way down the path to a usable monitoring space.
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Re: Help me make it better - mix & mastering a choral work

Postby george_vel » Tue Feb 16, 2021 6:55 pm

Sam Spoons wrote:
Then if they are the sounds you wish to emulate surely they should be your references?

The more I think about it, the more I doubt I’ll be able to achieve it. Too many factors influence the end sound, like how mics were placed, what was the recording space, is there presence of natural reverb or it was recorded in studio and voices were perfected to sound like instruments, etc. I’m afraid I’ll end up chasing the wind.

Sam Spoons wrote:
I don't know your's or your significant other's tastes but a modest outlay (in comparison to the cost of those Neumann monitors) would allow for, say, a couple of these https://gikacoustics.co.uk/product-category/acoustic-art-panels/ to hang on the walls at the mirror points and a plain panel on the ceiling. The obverse of law of diminishing returns means the first few panels have the most effect and controlling the first reflections will get you a fair way down the path to a usable monitoring space.

Good suggestion. But having kids at home and not enough rooms, still it will be challenging to master good performance even with gik panels. ;-)
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Re: Help me make it better - mix & mastering a choral work

Postby Sam Spoons » Tue Feb 16, 2021 7:06 pm

Yes it will but, even with you own space and good treatment it is not a trivial task, doing the best you can in all areas will give you the best chance of success. It seems daft to beat yourself up over what you perceive as sub standard mixes* while there are still things you can do to make the goal more achievable.

* Especially as you are achieving what have been acknowledged as excellent results already.
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Re: Help me make it better - mix & mastering a choral work

Postby george_vel » Tue Feb 16, 2021 7:42 pm

Sam Spoons wrote:Yes it will but, even with you own space and good treatment it is not a trivial task, doing the best you can in all areas will give you the best chance of success. It seems daft to beat yourself up over what you perceive as sub standard mixes* while there are still things you can do to make the goal more achievable.

* Especially as you are achieving what have been acknowledged as excellent results already.

Thanks, Sam!
I consider your words encouraging and will think about it seriously. :thumbup:
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Re: Help me make it better - mix & mastering a choral work

Postby Sam Spoons » Tue Feb 16, 2021 7:44 pm

:thumbup:
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