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February 24, 2022

Dave Kutch keeping the energy consistent




The dynamics of a recorded song are usually dictated by a combination of the arrangement and the musicians’ performances. But sometimes, a song gets to the mastering stage, and the engineer decides that a particular section needs to be adjusted in level. We see an example of just such an occurrence in this excerpt from Start to Finish: Dave Kutch - Episode 18 - Mastering Part 2.

Low Bridge

The action starts with Dave listening to the transition between the chorus and the bridge in which the drums drop out, and it’s mainly just spacy piano chords, synth sounds and super-ambient vocals. Dave feels like the energy drops too much even for a “breakdown bridge” like this that’s designed to provide contrast.

His solution is to raise the level of the bridge subtly. Working in Magix Sequoia software, he opens up iZotope Ozone as a plugin. He uses the Maximizer (brick-wall limiter) module to increase the volume of the bridge by several dB.

Dave raises the bridge level using iZotope Ozone 9 with these settings.

When making such a move, Dave advises being careful of the transition points when making such a move. For a volume adjustment like this, he’ll always check the beginning and end of the area in question to ensure his level tweak doesn’t sound unnatural. It should be seamless so that the listener thinks that was how it was recorded. If he hears any obvious volume bumps at the transition points, Dave says he’ll either reduce the amount of the gain change or add crossfades.

Creative vs. Corrective

Mastering has a reputation for being a scientific process. But though it’s true you need a lot of technical ability and knowledge to be good at it, creativity is also essential. Many of the decisions made by mastering engineers are informed by their musical sensibilities. Successful mastering engineers have their own styles, which is part of what helps them attract new clients. You might be surprised to know that it’s not unheard of for a record label to send an album or song to more than one engineer so they can hear it with different mastering styles applied.

That being said, plenty of aspects of mastering are technical. For example, if you watch the full video, you’ll see that Dave spends some time reducing distortion in the kick drum.

However, Dave’s decision to raise the bridge level is a creative one. He has a lot of leeway to make those kinds of changes because he’s a top-flight engineer and very well respected. But even Dave would probably run a creative adjustment like that by the artist to make sure they’re okay with it.

Dave shows how he might add crossfades at a section’s boundaries when he changes its gain level.

Many mastering engineers would tell you they’re not trying to change the music. They just want to make what’s there sound better. Get it to the requisite loudness without sacrificing much dynamic range. Ensure the frequencies and the stereo image are balanced. Polish it to reach its highest potential.

Sometimes mastering engineers notice that there’s an instrument or vocal that’s out of whack, level-wise. While they have tools to correct some imbalances (such as using mid-side processing or cutting or boosting specific frequency ranges), such issues are much more challenging to fix in a stereo file than in a multitrack mix.

If you’re working on a stereo file, any processing you apply will impact the entirety of the audio. In contrast, a mix engineer can zero in on a particular element and address it singly. Unless time or circumstances prevent it, most mastering engineers would probably prefer to ask the mixer for a corrected version rather than try to rebalance levels in a mixed song.

Fun with Dynamics

We saw in the excerpt how Dave adjusted a song-section level during mastering. Let’s back up a step in and talk about how you can affect dynamics during the mix phase. You have a lot more options at that point.

For example, you can use your mute buttons. If there are too many elements (instrument or background vocal) coming in from the top of the song, it might make sense to take some out until later to help build the energy as the song goes along. Or, if the dynamics are too static from top to bottom, you could mute everything but the vocals and drums to create a breakdown later in the song to add contrast. For example, if you have repeat choruses at the end, you could make the second to last one a breakdown and then bring everything back for the final chorus.

You can use strategic muting of instruments, such as creating a breakdown section, to change a song’s dynamics.

If a mix feels like it needs more energy, but the band didn’t provide it, you can also use automation to push the intensity in selected spots. For instance, you could automate the master volume to rise just a couple of dB during choruses to create more contrast with the verses. Or maybe just raise the level towards the end of the song to make it seem like the band was digging in harder as the song progressed. In an uptempo song, pushing up the level of the drum fills will often add excitement. (When increasing gain, be careful not to create digital clipping.)

Volume automation from the audio example with the drum fills pushed.

Here’s an example. We’ll listen to a rough mix of a song’s guitar solo leading into a riff section. The first time, the drums are lacking a little energy-wise.

This time, the fills were pushed up a few dB using volume automation. Notice the subtle increase in energy.

When you make these kinds of changes, you face the same issue that Dave did—you don’t want to make the song sound unnatural at the transition points. Authenticity is key for these types of adjustments.