I’ve written this post to give some simple tips on how to compare your recording or demo with the top songs on the charts. You need no training, fancy pro mixing-editing programs, tutorials or hours of studying to do this test. There are only a few short steps and it only takes a few minutes. For those of you not having access to any of the professional programs, such as Logic, Reaper, Vegas Pro, ProTools, Cubase, Nuendo, Acid pro, etc., I am going to share some engineer secrets and give a simple recommendation for you to discover this phenomenon of possible deficiencies with your song on your own. And it will be at no cost of having to buy any expensive professional recording equipment or programs as stated. But if you do have one of the above, I assume you know what to do.
Naturally, songs you hear on the radio or iTunes in the top of the chart positions have been mixed to the fullest extent by professionals on those programs, and mastered with other great equipment, programs and plugins. These critical procedures give the listener the loudest possible level and best sound that will compete with the next record. No matter what, there is an absolute limit with digital levels and if you are not at that limit or close to it with a record that doesn’t sound over limited or compressed, then you are not in the same league and can’t compete.
Most people, I believe, when surfing and listening here and there to music will have their volume control set at a certain level to listen either on earphones or speakers judging and comparing what they hear to their own record. But you cannot make a fair comparison between two recordings unless you have the two side by side, back to back listening and comparing under the same identical conditions.
This comparison I speak of is not easy for the casual listener not having the right tools to A-B it, as we engineers call it. For instance, you might have a CD of your song and put it on to listen, and then throw so and so’s number one hit on, and then yours again, and back and forth and try to make a comparison or determination. It is impossible. You really need to see and hear the wave-forms next to each other.
Therefore, the solution is to have the two cuts, or sides, or MP3’s, or wav files side by side, with facilities to have them play back independent of each other and to be able to instantly switch back and forth and compare levels. Engineers with the proper professional DAW programs, and/or home based studios also with professional setups, are able to easily and quickly make those comparisons.
This comparison is an absolute must when professional mixing, with the adjustments being made thoughtfully and with very special care. This means evening out a vocal performance, leveling out the instruments, equalizing unwanted and unneeded frequencies, limiting and/or compressing the singer and certain instruments to deliver the needed energy and presence to make the record sound no less than great. This, of course, relies on the condition that the song, vocal, arrangement and musicians are delivering the best possible performance. The final touch up is then up to the mastering engineer.
Once you see what to look for and the obvious solutions, then it is up to you to correct your recording to fit the standards of the highest level possible. Otherwise, you will be sending it out there to stations, companies, publishers, etc, putting it on YouTube, SoundCloud, OurStage.com, and ReverbNation.com etc, and wondering why no one even notices it or gives you any feed back. But then, it’s all too late since your free or low price mixing and mastering persons or your mixing and mastering efforts just weren’t up to snuff.
Photo 1 – The Free consumer program Audacity with a song loaded
Go to http://audacity.sourceforge.net/download/ and download the free and simple consumer program “Adacity” and install it. The program is provided for both the Mac and PC, and there is no studying involved, unless you are just so fascinated with what you see that you are hooked into learning more. Be aware that when something is free, they succeed in sneaking in other programs on your computer while it is downloading. A simple solution to this after you install it is to go to “Uninstall a Program” and see what they sneaked in for the day you are working and simply uninstall them. In my case they sneaked three by me that I did not want.
For ease, have your two MP3’s, (or wav files) on the desktop. Click on Audacity and the program will come up on your monitor. Simply drag one of the files over onto the Audacity work space. You will immediately see the waveform of the file laid out in its entirety on the timeline as in Photo 1, end to end with the time in minutes over the top. At the upper right you’ll see plus (+) and minus (-) signs and clicking on them will make the track extend longer or shorter on the time line. Next to the minus sign is a sign to “fit selection” that will have the track fit the width of the timeline, which in this case is about 3:35 minutes.
At the very bottom of the track to the left, there is a tiny arrow like this ^ that when you click on it, it reduces the size of the track vertically and shows that little arrow pointing down like a v, which will restore the vertical height back to the larger size when you click on it.
Photo 2 Audacity with additional song loaded
Now click on the other track on the desktop that we are comparing and drag it over onto the work space under the other track. See photo 2 It runs 2:30, and much shorter than the other. A quick glance without even listening tells us that the first track is fatter, and has more energy than the second track. Click on the plus sign a few times and both tracks will stretch out as in photo 3, whereas you can see even more strength in the first track.
Photo 3 – Audacity with the tracks stretched showing more detail
Now it’s time to listen. Set your earphones or speakers to a comfortable listening level and familiarize yourself wih the SOLO & MUTE buttons at the left end of the tracks. Move the mouse to the timeline above the tracks, anywhere you choose but for instance do it at one minute and a finger will point there and the music will play. Solo the two back and forth as quickly as possible and you will now have a perfect A-B-ing between your record and whatever you are comparing it with.
If it doesn’t match up, I strongly advise you to go back to your mixing and mastering people to show them the lack of energy and levels and how it doesn’t stand up to the competition and that you must shoot for a hotter mix to equal that number one hit. If you get an argument, then maybe it is time to find other engineers who know better. I’m here at your service and can eMix anything with any number of tracks. And I guarantee that your mix will match whatever you want me to match, provided your tracks are the best they can be.
Photo 4 Enlarged section showing peak over the Zero limit
On most all top recordings you will see high levels that compare to the ones in photo 1, whereas the overall average stays close to zero throughout the recording with good limiting and compressing. Lastly, a most critical situation to be aware of is peaks that go above digital zero and cause distortion. Zooming in on the lower track as in photo 4 , we see that there is one peak in the whole song at 151.7350 seconds (the red mark) that goes over and can cause distortion.
As high as the levels are in the first song, they never go over zero since they are obviously controlled by limiting and compression. The work of the mixing and mastering engineer, finally, is to use his/her skills with equalization, physical riding of levels and careful limiting and compression of all the elements to bring it all together into a successful final recording.