While the term 'first do no harm' may embody the spirit of the Hippocratic Oath, the phrase itself is apparently absent from the original text. However, maybe it should be embodied in some kind of audio engineer's charter, both for mixing and mastering. You may recall that on various of our Studio SOS visits, and in the course of many Mix Rescue projects, we have been asked to look over readers' mixes in progress. We usually start by bypassing all the plug-ins to check the quality of the original recording. When this takes place at a reader's studio, it isn't uncommon for them to return from putting the finishing touches to a tray of coffee and chocolate Hob Nobs and ask us what we've done, as the mix now sounds cleaner and more listenable then before they left to put the kettle on. When they discover that all we've done is bypass all their processing, they are often very surprised at the revelation.
Now, that's not to say that plug-ins are bad things. Indeed, it would be very hard to create a polished DAW mix without them, but in many cases they are simply over-used or used inappropriately. I've often wondered why this should be the case, and have come to the conclusion that as we now have so many really cool audio processing toys at our disposal, we somehow feel that we're missing out if we don't make use of them. I can understand this to some extent, as, even though I know this, I still have to fight back pangs of guilt when somebody sends me a track to mix and I bring up an instrument on a fader and then decide that it sounds fine just as it is.
When we ask the reader how the decision was made to deploy the various plug-ins used in their original mix, the answer often suggests that they do what they think they are expected to do rather than what their ears tell them is right. For example, a channel strip preset that combines compression, EQ and reverb is often slapped on a vocal track simply because it is listed as a vocal preset. It doesn't matter that it now sounds painfully aggressive — it must be OK, as that's what the preset said on the tin. Similarly, compressors are slotted into all the vocal tracks and half the instrument tracks because, after all, isn't it normal to compress things to make them sound good? All of these tools have their place, but in many cases the answer is simply to use them less aggressively. A good recording will stand up on its own with surprisingly little processing: a gentle splash of EQ here, sa dash of reverb there and some restrained compression is often all it takes to get a mix to within a few percent of the finish line.
What applies to mixing often applies even more when it comes to mastering, as there's the expectation that the mastering process has to be radical to make a mix louder, shinier and more commercial. Even if the mix sounds perfectly fine as it is, there still seems to be an inclination to tinker to excess. We're always reminding you to trust your ears, advice that will always hold true, but perhaps the other side of the issue is simply overcoming the sense of guilt you get when you leave well alone.
Paul White Editor In Chief