It’s no secret that I’m an engineer for mostly electronic musicians but whoever comes to me for mastering, one of my main task is to make sure their music sound solid in club/festival context. In the last years, it’s been impressive how bedroom producers, not just pros, will have their music played in a context where the music is loud. This is due to the rising number of people who turns themselves into DJs and then this opens door to play in a local pub, party or club.
But it’s the same for producers. There’s been more and more people making music and for a lot of them, their hopes is to be played by DJs, not just in a podcast, but in moment where it can be heard by more than a handful of people. That becomes a test of the quality of their production and mixing.
But it can also be falling flat if the track isn’t following some basic standards.
I’ve been asked to go through a checklist of points that can help anyone to avoid feeling frustrated with their music.
1. Tone: The Foundation of Sound
When preparing music for clubs, tone is paramount. Many producers overemphasize certain frequencies because it sounds good at home, leading to mixes that are either too shrill or too muddy. Having the wrong music references, not understanding that all clubs are different can lead artists to pick some bad decisions.
Aim for a more balanced, flatter tone.
While there’s room for experimentation, avoid excessive highs, which can sound harsh, and overly pronounced lows, which can leave your track sounding hollow or muddy. A balanced tone ensures your track will work across various sound systems and club environments. This would apply to home listening as well.
TIP: I love to put an EQ on the master bus to see the tone of my track. If it tends to have one section higher than the rest, that is not always a good sign. If there are some peaks over 10k, this can be pretty harsh on a big sound system. If your low end is louder than your mids, by more than 4dB, you can expect your song to lack presence in a club. The melodies will sound behind.
2. Loudness and Density: Power Without Overpowering
Loudness is undeniably crucial in a club setting, but it’s a balance as well as a double-edge sword. While ensuring your track has punch, remember DJs need some wiggle room for gain staging during transitions. The goal isn’t just about raw volume, but rather the density within specific frequency areas, especially the low end. While a track that’s slightly quieter isn’t an issue, it should have the right energy and weight in crucial frequency areas.
DJs should know how to do gain staging. When they complain the track isn’t loud enough because they had to turn the gain up, I’d suspect that they might know that this is absolutely normal to have differences. Tracks that aren’t as loud will have more dynamic range, giving the track more details, punch and ultimately, life.
To reach a certain loudness level, the mix will need gain staging done right and then, in mastering, compress and limit more. Loud music means sounds bleed into one another.
TIP: After years and years of mastering, playing and attending, I find that -10LUFS is sort of the ultimate sweet spot. Some will argue that music should be louder but I believe not.
3. Mono Signal: The Unsung Hero in Club Tracks
While stereo spread adds richness and dimension to tracks on headphones or home systems, the mono signal is a powerhouse in a club setting. Songs that rely too heavily on stereo spread without considering their mono compatibility often lose potency on club systems. Prioritize the main elements in your mix to be mono-compatible, ensuring they drive the track without muddying the sound.
Sounds that should have some presence in the mono signal: Kick, Bass, clap/snare and melodic content between 200 and 800hz.
TIP: Create a return channel, add a utility plugin set to mono and then send your different sounds towards that channel. This will solidify your mono signal as you’re either doubling or enhancing your sounds’ presence.
4. Resonances: Subtle Saboteurs
High resonances can wreak havoc when played on large sound systems, turning subtle tones into screeching sounds. I often say that as a mastering engineer, I hunt those. Resonances can come from various sources such as resonance on a filter or the use of sine waves. I won’t get into details about what they are exactly but they’re sort of the type of sound, just like distortion, that sort of sound amazing at the right dose.
It’s vital to control and tame these, ensuring that your track remains pleasant and consistent across various volume levels and systems.
I’d add in parallel to this, as a 4-B, transients. Those are also to be careful with.
TIP: Using an EQ, you might want to tame the resonances but if you can’t spot them because this concept is not easy for you, don’t hesitate to start by putting in solo each sound and find the ones that have a “eeee” sound in it (it can be pitched high or low). We often find resonances into synths, because they often have either a sine wave oscillator or a filter with resonance.
5. Clarity: Space is the Place
Every sound in your mix should have its designated space, both in the stereo field and in the frequency spectrum. Overcrowding with prolonged decays or excessive reverb leads to a soupy, unclear mix. By ensuring that each element has room to breathe, your track will retain punch, definition, and that coveted dance floor energy.
TIP: Gating is your best ally in mixing. You can remove tails and reduce the decay of sounds with it which helps much.
6. Phasing: The Silent Song-Wrecker
Phasing issues can lead to essential elements of your track disappearing, especially during mono playback. This phenomenon is exacerbated by phase-inducing effects like flangers, phasers, chorus, delays, and reverbs. By understanding and addressing phasing, you ensure that your song’s core elements remain consistent across all playback scenarios.
A good way to find out if one sound is phasing in your project is by using a Correlation Meter such as SPAN (it’s free!). You’ll see this moving meter and basically, you want it to stay from 0 to +1. If it goes into negative, you’ll have phasing. Another way is to put a mono utility on your sound to see if it loses a lot of power or disappear completely.
TIP: How to fix is a bit tricky but you can start by lowering the stereo width, remove effects or make them drier.
7. Low-End Clarity: Making Your Bass Dance
The relationship between your kick and bass is akin to a dance. These elements should groove seamlessly, complementing rather than conflicting with each other. Using techniques like gating or side-chaining can ensure that these foundational elements coexist harmoniously, driving the rhythm without muddying the mix.
In the recent years, I have been enjoying shorter kicks beyond long powerful ones. There’s too many issues with using long kicks and in a club, they eat up too much space to be interesting enough. Short kicks support well a song and leaves you plenty of space for lower notes of a bass.
Rumbles, depending of the genre you’re making, might be a problem. You might have a DC Offset as well so I would highly recommend cutting (highpassing) at 20hz to block the garbage down there. Most clubs but at 30hz anyway but cutting at 20 is a good safeguard and will also provide some headroom for your mix.
Align the phase of your kick and bass! Simple trick that does a good little difference in some cases.
TIP: For people that heavily rely on side-chaining for making both work, I always say that arrangements are the root of mixing. In other words, if you program/design your kick and bass properly at the beginning, then it will be cleaner and you won’t have to fix it with gizmos.
Club environments pose unique challenges for electronic music producers. By taking into account these seven pivotal factors, you can ensure your tracks not only sound great in the studio but also shine on the dance floor. Remember, a club-ready track is a synergy of balance, clarity, and energy. Aim for these, and you’ll have club-goers moving to your beat in no time.