A little while ago I sent some demos to a friend of mine who does a guest DJ slot on an influential New York-area radio station. To my surprise, he aired a few of the tracks during one of his shows, and a few people even called in to find out where they could get the schmuck’s CD. Pretty amazing, considering that when I listened back to the archived broadcast a few nights later, I noticed that the sound wasn’t quite the same as my original mix - the guitars had a weird phasing quality, the hi-hats were distorted in places, the bass needed boosting. While some of this was due to the abnormalities of streaming audio, for the most part it was because I’d mixed the stuff to sound like it was already coming out of the radio, using copious amounts of EQ, compression, and signal processing - in short, all the stuff that gets added in anyway during a standard FM broadcast.
It’s an important lesson for anyone who aspires to get their music onto the airwaves, since a track that isn’t properly produced for radio will be readily apparent to the listener (particularly when sandwiched between songs that have received the right treatment). As you can imagine, there’s a real art to preparing a recorded work for the ever-expanding menu of radio formats. In the big leagues, much of this work is handled by the mastering engineer, who equalizes, balances and enhances the material at hand, taking into account a wide range of variables including type of genre and listening audience, as well as the enhancement specifications of the different radio formats. For instance, if it’s music that is going to be serviced to AAA-radio, the mastering engineer might factor in the specific compression characteristics of those kinds of stations. Or when a song is designated as a single, it will often receive a different kind of mastering approach, again taking into account the type of broadcast format involved.
Though most of us mortals can’t rely on a Bob Ludwig, Steve Hall or other mastering master to do the job, we can at least learn the basics of making a decent radio-ready mix.
Do’s and Don’t of Mixing for Radio
Using an overabundance of compression in order to achieve a “hotter” sound is fine under normal circumstances, but since radio stations typically add even more compression during the broadcast, the result is a sound that lacks dynamics, or even worse, is terribly distorted. While some stations use far less compression than others (college radio, for example), in general it’s best to avoid over-compressing or over-equalizing the track. Try to keep the signal as unadulterated as possible.
“One of the things I pay attention to whenever possible is understanding how the individual radio stations’ compression levels affect the mix,” says Jim Weeks, producer/engineer at Cloud Cuckooland Studio in Northampton, MA. “It differs depending on the station and the content, so it is hard to really know for sure until you hear it. Usually, if it’s mixed incorrectly I can hear the transients getting lost, there’s no kick drum, reverbs pump up on the quiet parts, and so forth. Over time, I’ve gotten to know the various formats, and from that experience I can put together a mix that is fairly accurate for each playback medium.”
Overuse (or misuse) of certain effects can also wreak havoc on the airwaves. For example, stations that employ stereo enhancement can sometimes increase the sound of reverb used on a recording. The easiest way to eliminate this problem is to simply go for a drier-sounding product. Additionally, many engineers avoid making mixes with radical stereo separation, which can increase distortion and, more importantly, reduce the overall level of the track during the radio broadcast. In other words, if you want a really hot track, make it in mono (and you wonder why all those AM oldies sound so good!).
Though your music might sound really great through a really great-sounding monitor system, the problem is that most people out there in radio land are listening through cheap car speakers, a boombox, ear buds and the like. And because anything sounds good through a set of really fine monitors, your mix is more likely to suffer in the process.
Which is the reason why audio engineers for years have employed the cheapest, flattest-sounding speakers they could find as reference monitors, with the idea that if it sounds good on small, flat speakers, it’ll sound good anywhere. One model that is still readily available is the Auratone 5C “Super Sound Cube,” a fixture in pro studios since the 1970s. Unlike today’s playback behemoths, Auratones are pint-sized, 5? speakers in a cube-shaped wood enclosure. Though they looked attractive from the top of a meter bridge, the sound coming out of them is anything but: By design, Auratones offered a completely no-frills, all mid-range approximation of the mix at hand, leading many studio aficionados to dub them “Horror-Tones.” Still, the Auratone listening strategy was, and still is, extremely important.
Of course, there are simpler and cheaper alternatives, such as patching into a pair of car-stereo speakers, bookshelf speakers, or simply the dubbing the mix to CD and playing it back through a boombox, PC speakers, etc. The point is to preview the mix through as many different sources as possible.
“When mixing, one tries to find a balance that works the best over a majority of playback systems, which in and of itself is a conundrum,” says Kevin Killen, producer/engineer for U2, Peter Gabriel, Elvis Costello and others. “Who knows whether each system is optimized and what deficiencies are inherent. But the idea is to mix in such a way that the tonal representations are modified equally.”
Some Final Suggestions
- When recording a song intended for radio, don’t clutter - focus on the main ingredients (rhythm guitar, bass, percussion, etc.), adding additional instrumentation only as needed. Whether it’s on the air or anywhere, remember, it’s all about dynamics: knowing which instruments to use, where and when to use them, and, most of all, when not to use them.
- Always mix at a nominal volume level to make sure you’re hearing the parts clearly and to get the right perspective for stereo placement.
- Be sure to keep the lead vocal good and prominent. Don’t make the listener have to strain to hear the singer above the backing track.
- When making a radio mix, aim for a good solid overall level (but watch out for digital clipping!).
- Bear in mind that even the best mix/mastering job won’t matter if the song is ill suited for airplay. Therefore, consider how the average listener might respond to the first 5-10 seconds of a prospective track. Is there a good strong riff or some other creative distraction right at the top that makes you want to hear more? Or does the intro meander aimlessly and take forever to get the vocal? You can always make a few judicious edits here and there to tighten up any wasted space - or just pick another song.