Last week I suggested tips for mastering sound clips.
I wrote about four organizational mastering tips to keep your session tidy, and help work smoothly.
This week I’ll add two more, and conclude with two different suggestions: content tips.
More Session Organization Tips
Here are two final organizational tips I used while mastering the Indy files. They both use markers, so, in a way, they’re similar. The difference is how their used.
6. Use elaborate markers
I’m sure many of you use markers. I use them especially liberally. Markers take a bit of time to set up, but they’re invaluable. How?
- slating a few weeks ago. I transfer my slates to Pro Tools markers within the session. This way I know what I’m cutting if the audio slates are lost, or if only text slates remain. My markers could be a lot better, frankly, but here they are: Slating. We looked at
- Note flaws. Drop markers when you spot problems (e.g,. “low end rumble?”). That gives you a visual reminder to be vigilant during a later pass, when you’re ready to remove those flaws.
- List ideas. Maybe a particular race car pass would make a groovy multimedia whoosh. Pulling out sound design plug-ins now would distract you from cutting cars. You can design later. Idea markers remind you to be creative after you’re finished your other work.
- Change locations. Bring up the Memory Locations window (Window/Memory Locations menu item). Using the numeric keypad, type period (.) and then the location number, followed by another period to jump to that marker position.
- Speed. If you describe your markers well, you won’t need to audition regions to find your place, or a particular performance. Just spot your marker from afar, then zoom into your work.
- Helping editors. Often assistants rough in tracks before an editor begins mastering. Markers provide enough detail so an editor can sit down and begin cutting without deciphering tracks.
In theory you could do all this by renaming the sound files themselves. However, that doesn’t convey the visual advantages of markers. Also, names can easily become fragmented and jumbled, in Pro Tools, anyway.
Markers are a great tool to speed up your mastering.
6. Leave breadcrumbs
I leave editing breadcrumbs to mark the trail my mastering has taken. I do this for every batch of similar clips: recordings at the same perspective, location, or mic settings.
Mastering a sound effect may involve simple editing: trimming, fading, and chopping and closing up segments. It can also involve filtering, and creative processing. There are dozens of steps a single recording may travel through to reach its final, polished file.
For example, I may find the second half of a cafe crowd track begins with a catchy conversation I’d prefer to use to introduce the track. I’ll swap the first half for the second, and move that chat to the front of the file. Some of the traffic from outside is bleeding into the track, contributing a deep rumble. I’ll filter this out with some equalization, perhaps rolling off the low end. Maybe there’s a distracting tone at 120 Hz, so I’ll notch out that frequency. Let’s say the crowd is quiet, prompting me to raise the level of the track. If there’s hiss, I’ll create a noise profile to delicately extract it over a number of careful passes.
For fun, let’s say I want the crowd to sound wider. I’ll expand the stereo width with a plug in, arranging settings to avoid phase issues. Maybe I’m feeling particularly creative, and apply some reverb to change the shape of the sound.
These are just examples. My point is that mastering a single track requires many passes over the same span of audio. I keep track of each of them with breadcrumbs. I list each step in Pro Tools marks. This helps me refer back to every step I took, in the order I performed them.
Pro Tools marks live apart from the audio regions. This is helpful, because it maintains a record even if the audio is shifted around, or lost.
Here’s a basic example:
I know. That looks like a lot of work. Why bother?
Well, it’s easy to cut the tracks, master them, and move on to the next raw clip. That’s tempting, especially if you have hundreds of tracks to complete.
It’s also true that you won’t need these notes after the track is finished. However, that’s not why they’re there. Why use them?
Breadcrumbs are a list of a recording’s problems, and how you fixed them. Breadcrumbs help you recreate your work. Why would you need this?
Notes help keep things understandable, especially in complex sessions. You may venture out and return to the same location to record more tracks, later. The breadcrumbs will be an invaluable guide to processing similar audio again.
There are other reasons. Maybe you notice an error only when you use a clip in a project, two weeks after mastering is complete. Perhaps it’s fine, but you notice you could tweak it further. Maybe (gasp) the files were erased, and you must cut the raw tracks from scratch. You’ll need to return to your original recordings to recreate your work. Breadcrumbs save you the agony of rediscovering your settings. They’re already listed in your breadcrumbs. Just apply them, and the work will be complete in seconds.
Breadcrumbs are also helpful for adding details to metadata later.
- Editing decisions. Explain dramatic segment swapping. Describe unusual fade slopes.
- Content decisions. Why a track begins and ends where it does. Why a segment is split out into its own region.
- Filtering and EQ settings. Note frequency, notching, roll offs, hertz, Q, dB, and slope.
- Processing and plug-in settings. In addition, save particularly complex plug-in settings or tricky noise profiles to disk.
- Mix desk settings.
If you’re careful, you won’t need to revisit your tracks. But when you do, these notes will be invaluable. Breadcrumbs help you recreate your mastering instead of repeating your work, guessing your decisions weeks ago, and dithering with endless plug-in settings.
A large part of mastering is custodial: we’re polishing every crevice of an audio file. Why? Field recordings are meant to be shared. They’ll be put on display. Mastering prepares them for the rest of the world.
Content tricks, on the other hand, ensure that the substance of the track itself dazzle and amaze your fans.
7. The fade check
I mentioned in my introduction to sound effects mastering that I edit in passes. I dedicate one pass specifically to check fades. I don’t listen to anything else. Just the fades and a few surrounding seconds. I listen for:
Cross fades. Are they technically correct? More importantly, are they smooth? Can I tell if a fade is occurring? Cross fades should be completely transparent.
Head fades. Listen to ensure a track begins smoothly. It shouldn’t be abrupt, or jar the listener (many specific sound effects are an exception).
Tail fades. Ensure that the sound ends gracefully, but doesn’t rob too much time from the main effect. I like fades that make it seem as if the sound effect is drifting away elegantly. A sound effect that ends with a drop off a cliff is jarring, and doesn’t fit smoothly into projects.
Create a smooth ramp. Your fade may diminish slowly at the end of the file. Listen to it carefully. Crank the volume. Often fades are applied as an afterthought, and because of this, it’s common for errors to hide within fades.
Is there any sound in the fade, no matter how soft, that jumps out and distracts? For example, is there a sharp, single footstep within the fade out as a crowd track concludes? Does a single bird chirp at the tail of your air tone recording? Maybe a truncated syllable from a receptionist in an office crowd atmosphere? If so, create the fade again at a different spot. Fades should be a consistent ramp of volume, with no leaps in dynamic.
Here’s an example. Below are images and sounds of a fade out for pit stop ambience I recorded. If you listen closely, you’ll hear a faint tone, or jump in the sound right where the arrow is pointing in the matching image. That tone is actually a horn of a passing pit cart that I sliced off, as you can see in the second image. The next sound follows with a smoother fade. The last image shows the revised fade.
I created that as an obvious example. No one would really cut a file that way. The fade length is exaggerated. The horn really stands out both visually and when listening. Often the jump in level will be deceptively subtle, however. Even these minute distractions pop out randomly in a mix, causing you to hunt through your tracks to find the problem. Anyone who has waited in a full mix theatre as a mixer methodically soloed each of your tracks to find an error knows what I’m talking about.
Will most people care about a tiny tone in a fade during the last seconds of a three minute sound? Who knows. Make your sound effect bulletproof anyway. Remove any distractions, no matter how small.
I preview every fade in my mastering sessions separately. It’s easy to do, and only takes a few minutes. Here’s how:
- Zoom into a fade tightly.
- Press play, and listen to the fade.
- Press the tab key to jump to your next fade.
- Click in the timeline just prior to the new fade. This makes the playhead jump to each new location. That way you can preview them as you go, without stopping playback.
It’s true that the audio in a fade in or out isn’t as useful as the sound in the rest of the clip. Why? Well, fades are at a diminished volume, and the audio has a weaker dynamic. In a way, head and tail fades maim the audio within them. The full scope of the audio is essentially lost. Because of this, head and tail fades are often merely ornamental.
Just the same, I put a lot of time into my fades. To me, head and tail fades serve the same function to a sound file as an introduction and afterward does for a book. They’re not entirely vital to the rest of the novel, but they lead the reader into and out of a book gently. I think of fades doing the same for mastered sound effects.
8. Does it add to my library?
I mentioned mastering in “passes.” During these passes we’re focusing on removing flaws, tweaking audio, and applying plug-ins. Those are technical tasks. It’s easy to get caught up in the practical aspects of mastering sound effects: cutting, closing up, applying fades, EQ’ing, compressing, bouncing.
I reserve a separate day and pass just to listen to the audio and think about it differently. For every clip, I ask myself:
“Does it add to my library?”
I listen to the sound effect to decide if it will enhance my collection, or just add bulk. A merely sufficient track isn’t good enough. You only want clips that excite you and impress you. This will do the same for your listeners and fans.
That may mean you must delete some of your work. For example, I pulled out 15 individual IndyCar passes from a longer race ambience. They were all technically fine. And they were race cars that are hard to find and record. I was tempted to keep them all. However, many of them sounded similar. I kept two, and deleted the rest.
Why not add all the clips you can? Multiple similar tracks exhaust listeners when previewing. Nobody looks forward to sourcing tracks from a boring, tedious library.
Fewer, but gripping sound effects strengthen your collection instead.
Make It Shine
Mastering sound effects is a technical craft. It’s easy to slip into a methodical routine when cleaning audio. However, it’s important to think critically when mastering. It’s just as important to use any trick we can to make work easier.
We do this not just to get the work done quickly, so we can rush out to happy hour at the bar. Mastering tips, even the simple ones, have a hidden advantage. They free up your mental energy from drudgery and monotony. Instead, you’ll find you will do more: add polish to sound clips so they become more creative, impressive, and meaningful.
They will help your collection shine.