A couple or so weeks ago Dave dropped by and left 2 CDs with me, one is the collection of songs which he has recorded, mixed and pre-mastered using Izotope's Ozone; the other disc has a copy of one song recorded and mixed only.
With a spare hour that evening I added a little stereo widening, a little bit of band-specific compression to tame the resonances and push the solo back a dB or so, a tiny bit of EQ just to thicken a part of the acoustic guitar and an all-but-inaudible room reverb just to sweeten. I then ran through Slate's FG-X to bring-up the levels and printed it.
When I came back the next morning and AB-d the new version with the original I felt that I'd massacred Dave's carefully crafted mix. My ever-so-subtle adjustments had added up to a slight change in the sound that I just didn't feel was right. I'd polished a little too hard and actually changed the shape of the track - not much but still too much to my fresh ears.
So - I reduced the stereo widening, I still compressed to reduce the vocal resonance and pull back just the very peaks of the guitar solo, left the reverb as was (I could hear it only on headphones - just) and spent a while playing with the levels before settling for a very gentle treatment to gain a few dBs without bending the guitar transients. In the end I had a track that sounded like the raw mix but a little smoother and just a little bit "more" which was just what I was after.
Dave agreed about the solo being reigned-in (actually better done on the multitrack, let's face it) but otherwise didn't like the track at all - he felt that it was too narrow and too dry. At this point I fired-up the disc of mastered tracks that I had and found that every track was like a significantly more extreme version of my first attempt. With a new sense of freedom I've made my version wider and wetter but I can't bring myself to change the actual sound because I think it's nailed beautifully in the mix.
There's a lesson in here - probably.
- I had a whole album's worth of reference material that I didn't use. In this case I chose not to because I saw little point in trying to reproduce someone else's work as this was an exercise for the love of the music, not a paid job, but it would be crazy to ignore a client's vision to this extent in a commercial situation where time is money.
- Perhaps one person recording and mixing and mastering really is a step too much. I don't have all the original stereo mixes, but the one un-mastered track I have sounds significantly sweeter to me than any of the mastered tracks.
- I have very mixed feelings about all-in-one packages like Ozone; I think it is a very good product with some excellent processors and a world-class interface. Unfortunately my brain can't deal with complex presets - I find something I like then feel a need to reverse-engineer it to see what component is doing what - at a time when my right-brain should be closing its eyes and listening my left-brain is taking notes and checking references. By the time It's done I'm so used to the sound that it tends to have become "right" just through familiarity.
- Mixers often complain that Mastering Engineers ruin their carefully crafted mixes with heavy-handed processing, MEs often complain that they are asked to process tracks in a way that they don't feel is appropriate. Just who do you complain to if you're both Mixer and ME?