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My 5 Most Unpopular Opinions (That I’m Sticking By!)

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Through the years of reading, writing, recording, and mixing I’ve come to form a lot of a opinions. Oh so many opinions. One might even reasonably say that I’m (wait for it) — opinionated. And not all of my opinions jive with conventional wisdom.

The following is going to be a list of exactly those opinions that seem to go against the grain of what’s popular. Hopefully this will accomplish the task of getting folks to think outside the box a bit.

Here we go …

1. The Importance Of Gain Staging: Is Overstated

Gain staging, simply put, is the management of level across a signal path. It entails considerations such as signal-to-noise ratio, headroom, and the tonal changes that occur as a result of changing gain along the way.

In the digital age, gain staging barely matters. If you get it wrong, it’s a problem, but frankly, once you’re aware of the idea it’s pretty hard to mess it up.

Digital is a linear system, meaning all you really have to do is not clip the signal and you’re good. And yes, some plugins are designed to act like analog gear and react to different input and output levels — and yes, to a certain extent that’s important.

However, gain staging is not what makes for a great mix. If you simply turn down the regions of your audio so that nothing is peaking far into the yellow/light green (depending on your system), you’ll be fine.

2. Automated Mastering is Awesome

This is probably the opinion that gets me the most flack.

I did beta for Aria Mastering a while back, and I love it. I think the program sounds awesome. It makes my mix sound better, but not vastly different, and has a certain tone that is very much reminiscent of Colin Leonard’s signature sound at SING Mastering.

I’ve heard all sorts of reasons why automated mastering can’t work: it can’t make the nuanced decisions that a person can make; it can’t remove clicks and pops or correct fades — and all of that is true. But sometimes I need to get something done fast, or I need to get something done cheap, and it needs to be good. And for those circumstances, Aria has been rockin’.

3. LCR Mixing is Silly and Super Wide Mixes are Overrated

LCR stands for Left-Center-Right. It’s an approach to mixing where you only pan things center, hard left or hard right.

The idea is that the ear doesn’t readily localize partial pan positions, so LCR gives us the strongest mixes. Or, that when everything is panned hard or dead center, we get the widest mix. Or, that once upon a time recording consoles only had three pan positions, and older means better.

Now, I can dig the first two ideas to about five feet eleven inches, but it’s easy enough to use hard pan positions for these purposes while still allowing yourself to use partial pan positions when necessary.

There have been countless times where I’ve pulled drum overheads from hard left and hard right to 70< >70 because I wanted my drums to be less wide and sound like one homogenous kit. Why would I take that option away from myself?

The other question is why have we inherently designated wide mixes as being better?

I agree that a stereoscopic image can be great. I agree that wide mixes tend to sound bigger and give us more room to create contrast and dynamics within the stereo image. But if that imaging becomes distracting, or we start sacrificing musicality for the purpose of wider and wider mixes, we’re not doing anything better than the loudness war.

Personally, I’d much rather hear something that’s gelled together than something that’s impressively wide.

4. Sample Rate and Bit Depth Don’t Really Matter

I’ve recorded and mixed at 44.1, 48, 88.2, 96 and 192 kHz sample rates. I’ve also recorded and mixed at 16-bit, 24-bit and 32-bit floating point. And you know what — none of it really makes a wits bit of difference.

I’ve null tested records reproduced at different sample rates and bit depths and do they null? No. Do I care? No. The differences are hardly perceivable, if at all. I’d even go as far as to say that I could probably mix at 44.1 kHz and 12-bit, and no one would be the wiser.

I’d also say, while being unpopular, that dithering hardly makes a difference as well.

Even on the best playback systems it’s difficult to discern between a truncated print and a dithered one, and the fact that people choose between different algorithms is pretty hilarious.

Now, I’m not saying that it’s not worth investigating and sticking to best practices. What I am saying is that if you’re spending more than a couple hours thinking about it, then you’re wasting your time. If you want to talk about things that will have the least impact on the quality of your records and mixes, sample rate is toward the top of the list, and bit depth isn’t very far behind.

5. Software Signal Processing Easily Competes with Hardware

Before writing me off as a know-nothing amateur for this statement, please know that I own about $50k worth of outboard signal processing gear. My hardware is not what is making or breaking my mixes in terms of overall quality.

The reason I have expensive hardware signal processing isn’t because I feel it’s inherently “better,” it’s because I can’t find the software equivalents to specific pieces that can perform the way I want. This is a nuanced but important difference between utility and quality.

I’m also not going to say that gear doesn’t matter — it does. But it’s about having the gear that works for your own sound and style.

I recently mixed a record in the big place, where I have all my signal processing plus another four racks of outboard, and I mixed the entire record in the box, except for my Bricasti M7 reverb on the chorus and an Alan Smart C2 on the mix buss. And frankly, I could have gotten away without using either and would have been fine — it just would have taken a touch more work.

On top of all that, I think there are some excellent stock plugins in most DAWs, and I recently compiled a list of inexpensive plugins (the priciest was $65) that I feel outperform some of the most expensive software in the game.

Conclusion

Now, the point of this article isn’t to prove how edgy I am. I don’t think anything in the world would convince anyone of that. It’s to perhaps inspire you to think differently about growing as a music producer.

It’s easy to start looking at psuedo-mystical things like gain staging, sample rates, mix styles like LCR, expensive gear, and think that’s what we’re missing. Or that if you just hire the best mastering engineer — that’s the missing piece of the puzzle. Or that the mix would sound better if it was done at 88.2 kHz and had the best dither at the end. None of this stuff is the crux of great engineering.

By far — and I’m talking miles upon miles here — the most influential factor on the quality of music production is decision making. The real differentiator is in our ability to identify what the music is trying to do, subsequently fix the things that inhibit the music, and expose the things that will help it along. This is really what makes the difference, and very little else.


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Matthew Weiss

Matthew Weiss

Matthew Weiss is a Grammy nominated and Spellemann Award winning audio engineer from Philadelphia. Matthew has mixed songs for Snoop, Sonny Digital, Gorilla Zoe, Uri Caine, Dizzee Rascal, Arrested Development, 9th Wonder, !llmind & more. Get in touch: Weiss-Sound.com.

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  • Stan Halaby II

    What I take from this article is what I do and in my honest opinion everyone else mixing should do. Find what works for you and stick with it. Yeah? 🙂

  • Dwayne Ford

    I enjoyed this article very much because it affirms what I have been doing. People like me who have very little formal mix training tend to believe everything we hear from the “experts”. It is comforting to know that you don’t have to trust these experts to get a great mix. Trust your ears, trust your instincts. If it sounds good, it sounds good. I didn’t even really understand what “gain staging” meant. It seems to be a fancy word for not being an idiot. I always get a decently hot level for each track, make sure it doesn’t clip in the hottests places and I’m good. To be fair, I try to keep the hottest level to no more than -3 db if I can. There is no benefit to having hot tracks in the digital world but very low levels can be a problem which may cause you to have to re-mix the entire song.

  • loosaaah

    Most people aren’t going to differentiate a Mobile Fidelity or Analogue Productions mastered album from your standard top 40 fair. For that reason alone automated mastering is good. I think mastering is overrated–because the mastering engineer is doing what he is told for the most part—unless it’s a reissue by the labels mentioned.

  • Justin C.

    Great post Matthew! Loved it. This is all great stuff, and very much true.

    I still like LCR, and it can be great to try first, but it’s definitely true that it doesn’t always work. Hard to quibble with any of this!

    It may sound bold to some when you say that you could probably work at 12 bit without ill affect, but you’re right: I doubt many records use event the 72 dB of available dynamic range there.

    I suppose one could argue that 12 bit would offer a narrower target to record to—but many devices from yesteryear offered a narrower target still, and folks from yesteryear seem to be the ones most likely to complain about it!

    (Though at a bit depth that low, dither might make SOME meaningful difference depending on the material and treatment… but even then it’d be debatable and would depend.)

    Anyway, just goes to show: Ideas don’t have to be popular to be true. Keep sticking with them. The idiosyncratic ideas of today are the common wisdom of tomorrow.

  • Skip

    Bit Rate and Sample Rate.

    If you are recording in 24 bit then 0bdfs is the full 24 bits. Anything less then that would be less then 24 bits. So if you are recording down at -18bdfs then you are not even getting close to the 24 bits.

    If you are recording at high sample rates, like 192 kh, the only sounds that live up there are the sounds of the humming and static coming from the outboard gear. Things like transformer hum.

  • Skip

    If you want to know everything about bit rate and sample rate then watch this easy to follow video.

    https://xiph.org/video/vid2.shtml

  • Greg Bester

    I agree with him on four out of five points except LCR and not because it’s “better” (to each their own, spice of life, all that), but because I feel he’s missing the point. First, the argument about localisation is a very strong one. There have been many studies on this fact – the most famous one by David Moulton – and it’s been proven ad nauseum that most people, including engineers, can’t tell much between hard left and centre. Average listeners certainly can’t.

    Second, when someone says “I bring the overheads in 70/70 because I want them to be less wide” I chuckle to myself a bit. Ok, fine, if it works for your mix it works. But the idea behind LCR, particularly if you’re both the recording and mix engineer, is to get your stereo width in the miking phase by carefully stereo placement. Just because something is hard L and R does not mean it’s “wide”. Also, if a track is not hard L and R, it’s just not stereo, is it? All you’re doing is you’re actually partially collapsing to mono and therefore performing a degree of phase cancellation, which gives the impression of being less wide. So yeah, I am a firm believer in the LCR approach. It relies, however, on a lot of other factors, pre-mix though. Read this:

    http://www.moultonlabs.com/more/principles_of_multitrack_mixing_the_phantom_image/P0/

  • Loz A

    Gain staging may be overrated, but why nobody ever remembers the importance of NOT clipping from one insert slot of a track to another? Because we think that with 64 bits we are undestructible?
    Or because post-fader metering says it’s all ok?
    About mastering on the fly: I tried it with another name and the result was so messy that I decided to delve as deep as I could into the mastering subject.
    Everybody sticks by different things, coming from different experiences.

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