Mixing and Mastering in the Box: The Guide to Making Great Mixes & Final Masters on Your Computer

Steve Savage
978-0-19-992932-0 | 02 October 2014
OUP Catalogue

Steve Savage’s latest book Mixing and Mastering in the Box: The Guide to Making Great Mixes & Final Masters on Your Computer is a companion to his 2011 work, The Art of Digital Audio Recording (reviewed in JARP #5) and is intended for a variety of audiences. Not only envisioned as a primary text for students enrolled in recording programs (whether trade, technical, conservatory, or liberal arts based), it would it would also prove to be quite useful for the home recording enthusiast, or musicians hoping to improve their self-recording and mixing chops.

Like its predecessor, Mixing and Mastering in the Box benefits from Savage’s years of experience and conversational writing style. Even when dealing with technical issues, he avoids obfuscating jargon and over analysis. The book is unlikely to scare away anyone but the most technically challenged reader. Savages years as an educator clearly serve the reader well, who will come away with a clear and comprehensive overview—with some caveats—of the DAW mixing, mastering and delivery process.

The book is divided into sections that parallel the mixing process in a logical and professionally informed manner. Part 1 (“Mixing and Mastering”) serves as an overview, and seems mostly intended for the novice mixer, uninitiated in the best practices that are second nature to seasoned pros. In particular, Savage pays close attention to the mixing environment—selection and placement of monitors, room acoustics, utilization of reference mixes—as the foundation for objective mixing habits. He also clearly discusses the basics of in the box mixing, concentrating on the possibilities of the DAW environment (sends/returns, inserts, automation, recall, etc.) that are very basic, but useful for those who are unfamiliar with such concepts.

Of greater use to students with a baseline understanding of DAW basics is Chapter 2 (“Quick Guide to Great Mixes and Masters”) in which Savage does a splendid job of outlining the mental processes and practices that contribute to good mixes. Previsualization (“Have A Concept”), SPL issues (“Monitor Level”), the updating process (“Revise, Revise, Revise”), and the importance of listening to ones mixes on a variety of systems (“Live with Your Mix or Master”) are summarized emphatically and clearly. While still introductory, these are tried and true foundational concepts that even the most experienced mixers adhere to, and it is to his credit that Savage emphasizes these basic mixing tenets.

Herein also lies one of my few criticisms of the book. Not surprisingly, Savage structures it with broad basic concepts outlined in the early chapters, which are then dealt with in greater detail as the book proceeds. No quibble there—this is standard practice in any instructional tome. However, either Savage or his editors felt it necessary to regularly interject references to material being covered in more detail elsewhere in the text, as in

…this involves some very delicate interaction with the original arranger(s) and is covered thoroughly in the section on mix intervention (Savage: 2014, p.70).

Mixing and Mastering in the Box has many such cross-references, and at times disrupts the flow the otherwise straightforward prose. While one understands the desire to make it clear that some topics will be covered more at length later, this writer felt that in might have best to trust the structure of the book (which works well) and the reader’s intelligence without some many disruptive references (some of which, it must be said, are necessary—references to visual illustrations, and the many helpful audio examples linked to Savage’s website, for example.)

With that said, I was pleased to find that Savage nailed and coherently explained so many essential mixing practices and concepts—as would be expected from someone with his very impressive resume. From the minutiae of file management (saving projects under a new date/name upon every launch of said session, redundant backing up, dealing with transferring remotely recorded sessions—bedrock concepts that should be second nature to any digital engineer) to the use (and overuse) of EQ and compression and limiting, utilization of delays and reverbs, the pros and cons of drum augmentation and replacement—all are handled with an admirable clarity and absence of overly technical verbiage.

In particular, Chapter 4 (“Building a Mix”), Chapter 6 (“Mixing Piece by Piece”) and Chapter 7 (“Mix Collaboration”) are excellent overviews of the realities of modern mixing. Taken as a whole, they provide a fine play-by-play explanation of the importance of perspective, placement, and panning (the latter, for some reason, always a challenge when working with neophyte music production students), how individual instruments should be dealt with as components in a popular music mix, and methods for insuring that they create that “magic” blend that sounds as if it was inevitable. These sections also provide fine real-world advice in dealing with the current practicalities of interacting with clients (whom in many cases are off-site during the mixing process these days) to facilitate the input of all while at the same time insuring that these multiple perspectives are channeled into a clear and streamlined process and a coherent mix.

The remainder of the book deals with mix delivery and, later, mastering. Once again, Savages years of experience come shining though, with splendid treatment of the creation of multiple specific purpose mixes for various platforms (such as “TV mixes” and isolated vocal mixes) and formats (full bandwidth for eventual CD mastering as well as mp3 for internet delivery).

Section III (“Mastering”) is a great primer for musicians of engineers hoping to tackle the “black art” of mastering themselves (unfortunately, an increasingly common practice, as budget realities frequently preclude the hiring of an experienced mastering engineer) and helpful for those who are fortunate enough (read: with a large enough production budget) to bring in a professional. Broad concepts are well-discussed (such as the now waning “Loudness War”), good discussion on various compression strategies (upward compression vs. downward expansion, for example) as well as more minute technical concerns (how to recognize and deal with DC offset, checking for phase coherence, etc.).

The appendices that follow provide helpful discussion of surround sound mixing and mastering and—perhaps more controversially—the increasingly blurred line between mixing and mastering (Appendix B: “Why Mixing and Mastering Can No Longer Be Separated). Savage wisely relegates this topic to the end of his book, since it is more an opinion piece than a discussion of actual accepted industry-wide practice. In short, he promotes the notion that some sort of brick wall limiting should be judiciously used in the mixing process. He goes on that this is due to the fact that most popular music is ultimately brick wall limited, so it is best to incorporate it early on so that mix decisions are based on the artifacts that result from its use.

While this makes sense if one is mastering one’s own project (not an optimal situation, as mentioned above), I could picture a couple of the A-list mastering engineers I send my mixes to (when budgets allow) cringing at this suggestion. In fact, most mastering engineers I work with try to dissuade me from using even stereo bus compression to glue together my mixes —no matter the quality of the plug in– when working within the box. The reasoning here being that when one is working with a great mastering engineer, with their great ears (who have not spent hours listening to one’s project) and their high quality, usually analog gear, one does not want to lessen their options for getting the most out of the mix. From personal experience, I have found that my mixes sound punchier post-mastering when bus compression and limiting are kept to a minimum, or avoided altogether.

Another slight quibble arises in the aforementioned Chapter 4 (“Building a Mix”), in which this passage is found:

It used to be that we had to be concerned with mono compatibility when mixing since some significant playback formats were mono only…but that has not been the case for some time now… (Savage: 2014, p.78)

I polled a number of colleagues on this, and the unanimous consensus was that mono compatibility will always be a matter of concern since good mono compatibility normally results in more balanced stereo mixes. Moreover, one never knows when one’s mix will be intentionally or unintentionally summed to mono—in a PA situation, for example, or a theater—or the speaker on a cell phone or computer. Even when stereo playback is available, at a certain distance the air—“the best mixer,” in traditional parlance—will sum a stereo mix into mono as well.

Additionally, pan law is given somewhat short shrift in this chapter. Many DAWs offer choices in this area (0dB, -3dB, and -3dB compensated in Logic ProX, for example), and it would have been desirable for Savage to address the meaning and application of these differing pan laws. Since the -3dB options have been arrived at precisely for purposes of mono compatibility (and are built into the pan pots of hardware mixers for the same reason), perhaps Savage’s glossing over of this area is not a coincidence.

However, Savage should be commended for emphasizing the importance of developing a panning strategy before beginning any mix, and in not being married to the stereo image of any specific instrument—sometimes it is a good idea to narrow image, rather than broaden it. As he states:

When you create a stereo track it defaults to placing the two panning controls set to hard left and hard right…you will often want to adjust the stereo balance within a stereo recording…too many elements spread out in wide stereo will often make a mix sound indistinct and congested… (Savage: 2014, p.75)

Good advice, and this book is full of such down to earth, and highly useful observations. Mixing and Mastering in the Box would be a great supplement to any recording program that includes the delivery process (even with the caveats mentioned above—those are teachable moments, after all). And in conjunction with his Art of Digital Audio Recording, Savage’s latest provides a well-balanced and comprehensive tutorial for schools, home or project studios operators, as well as recording musicians seeking to great advice from a master in order to better learn and hone their craft.