Recently I was at the studio of a new client when his daughter a singer/songwriter walked in to say hello and asked what’s mastering and can we do it here? That question gave me the idea for this post where I share a few of my favorite books on the mystical art of audio Mastering.
So what’s Mastering?
Here’s a concise explanation from our friends at Izotope: There are many definitions of audio mastering. Most commonly, though, the term mastering is used to refer to the process of taking an audio mix and preparing it for distribution. There are several considerations in this process:
Unifying or adjusting the sound of a record to correct any mix balance issues, or enhance particular sonic characteristic.
Maintaining consistency across an album so that each track sits comfortably within the overall aesthetic of the playlist.
Preparation for distribution, which could mean traditional duplication or replication onto CD/ vinyl or preparing for digital download, depending on the intended delivery format.
The fact is today there are so many cost effective software plug-ins to aid in producing a final version, ‘master’ audio file. The thing is it’s more than software that determines the quality of the final product. The digital audio playback/editing system with the quality of the individual software components coupled with, the audio sound card, audio amplifier, speakers and acoustic treatment of the listening environment all play part in the gestalt. That said, there’s the even less quantifiable aspect of the human making the decisions on how to go about treating a piece of audio to net the best result. Indeed, basic physiology is at play i.e., how our ears work based on how they are set on our heads, sensitivities to frequencies and such. Yet it is as simple as time on task… Like how a good tracking engineer knows from experience what microphone will work to best capture a vocalist sound. In mastering you learn what tools work best for a given situation.
What follows is a short list of mastering books that I have found informative starting with an excerpt from a 2007 interview I did for Mitch Gallagher’s Mastering at Home. Although the interview is a few years old the information presented is applicable to Mastering in your home studio today.
Can someone really master their music at home using affordable tools? The simple answer is yes. The involved answer has to do with quality and what the ultimate delivery format will be e.g., Red Book CD, MP3, etc., Mastering audio as the final step towards finished product has an almost mystical perception due to the fact that it’s a really misunderstood craft. So can what you do in your home-based project studio supplant a mastering house fitted with discreet chain analog gear and 1000s of hours of experience? Well no and yes. To match the level of product turned out by the likes of mastering craft sages Bob Ludwig, Bernie Grundman, Bob Katz or Eddy Schreyer is not obtainable with a modest DAW-based rig. But, for some folks achieving a polished final mix inside the box in the comfort of their project studio is all they want to do. Especially, if when the final delivery medium is via the web. For this profile of user publishing your own truly indie art can be achieved affordably, efficiently and qualitatively inside the box.
How did you get started mastering music? It’s been an evolutionary process for me. I have been recording and mixing music for awhile and discovering ways to achieve polished mixes just came out of necessity.
What’s the best way for someone to learn to master on their own? Besides having a lot of patience, research by reading books like this one, analyze the mixes you like the sound of, or want yours to sound like. Educate yourself on the techniques employed by those who know the craft and how different processors work for example look ahead Limiters, compression, volume max/limiters, EQ (things like how a dip at 250 Hz can add presence at 5k or how adding just a couple dB at 12k can aerate a mix).
What are the drawbacks to mastering your own music? That’s an age old question with a simple answer: objectivity. I think it is hard to step away from something that you have labored over, that has a sonic imprint in your head especially, if you are in the same sonic environment. That’s to say tracking rooms, mix rooms, and mastering rooms all work differently. Things like where speakers sit on a desk with a console between you and the sound source can affect the way you hear stuff.
How important are perfect acoustics to mastering? Controll of the sonic environment is big and like I mentioned one of the drawbacks in DYI mastering. Building a sonic environment that has proper containment of reflections and bass can be a costly endeavor. The good news is today more than ever there are many affordable ways to tighten up a room.
Do you prefer analog or digital mastering? I think these days because plug-in emulation has gotten a whole lot better that you really can achieve some nice results with computer based tools. And there is the advantage of saving presets rather than laborisly jotting down settings on a piece of paper. Today a combination of in/out of the box tools can really take you closer to achieving at home what you can get with a pricy discrete analog chain. Also, by combining tools from both worlds you can get the best results that you can afford. The use of multiple compressors on a mix is a common practice in the analog world and on a budget if you can afford one good analog compressor you can use a plug-in in combination. I sometimes use the MINI Massive/Neve 5043 chain, and add another digital comp or Multi-band Limiter. Another thing on limiters, nowadays all digital limiters employ look-ahead functionality, which is an advantage over pure analog limiters since they can’t “predict” input level. This means you can achieve louder levels via more efficient peak control since you are looking into the future by 250milliseconds preventing any overs.
There is something I want to add to this conversation and that’s the approach to using analog gear is different than that of staring at a screen and moving buttons or sliders around with a mouse. It’s not just a tactical thing with me. I seem to listen differently when I am not starring at screen.
What tools are you using to do you’re mastering? My rig is evolving and currently includes: Lynx converters, Toft ATC-2, Neve Portico 5043, Manley Labs Mini Massive; UAD-1: Precision EQ, Precision Limiter, Neve 1072, 1081 EQs and 33609 Compressor; Cakewalk’s Linear Phase EQ, Multiband Limiter and Boost 11, Isotope Ozone, Waves L2, Har Bal, and Algorithmix Red EQs. For hosts it’s mainly SONAR and Sound Forge/CD Architect on the PC and, Peak XT on the Mac.
What are the most minimal tools someone can get away with having in their mastering studios? After listening environment consideration, monitors, and converters the minimum in or out of the box is a stereo EQ, Compressor, and limiter.
What’s the hardest part about mastering a song? Sticking to the Mastering Guys Hippocratic Oath of sorts that goes “do no harm,” “if it needs nothing, do nothing.” Sounds simple enough but we humans tend to do because, we can… because I have all these tools at my disposal I have to use em… Commercial Mastering Studio engineers will have an assortment of compressors and EQs at their disposal that all impart their own signature (or not) on the material that passes through them. They may use a Vari Mu type of compressor for warmth on certain tracks and a DBX or API on hard-hitting rock tracks. The same can be said in digital domain with plug-ins in how they color or handle a certain process such as limiting. For example, the Waves L2 brick wall sounds different than Cakewalk’s Multi-band or the UAD Precision Limiter. So, it’s about listening and determining what if anything ‘needs’ to be done and then choosing the right tool for the material.
What is the most critical thing in mastering a song well? Listening and getting the vibe of the artist or genre first, then trying to improve on what you have been presented. It’s really a gestalt thing in looking at how to treat the whole in such a way to achieve the best possible outcome.
Thoughts on the “volume wars”? Do you participate? The whole volume thing is an errant by-product of technology innovation. I mean because we can, we do… I guess I am sounding abit thematic at this point but, it’s back to listening and making decisions to meet the objectives of the project or the artist. When working with dynamic music, like acoustic jazz, the performance is about dynamic highs and lows. Squashing to get hotter does nothing in the way to getting the art across. On the other hand, Hip Hop for the most part is about kicking the low end and being loud and clear. It’s real easy to over-compress material and, at the end of the day when a radio broadcast compressor gets done with it, quiet material sounds as loud as hot material. Thus, over-compressed material just sounds distorted not “hotter.” Then there is the final delivery of MP3 via earbuds which is becoming increasingly prevalent these days. Here we have to consider how low frequency information is going to affect a codecs handling of data. Also, a little bit of headroom can go a long way to better sound representation on the extreme ends of the frequency spectrum.
Final thoughts? Accept that although you may be able to “fix it in the mix,” you may not be able solve all problems via the mastering process… At the end of the day there is no substitute for well recorded tracks.
Front end has always been important in analog recording and, it’s as important with digital recording, if not more. Then there is a well put together mix where all the instruments sit in their own space and tell their part of the story. Have a wide appetite for music in its varied forms. Don’t just get set in one style. The best way in learning by doing is to embrace how different types of music require different approaches to achieve the best outcome. The more musically informed you are the better. Mastering is about making something better, enhancing, polishing and sometimes it’s said, that miracles do happen.
Here are few books I highly recommend:
Desktop Mastering and Beyond Mastering a Conceptual Guide by Steve Turnidge. Steve fuses some wonderful Zen-like philosophy into his writing on the subject of Mastering. I had the privilege of an advance read of his first book Desktop Mastering. This quote of mine occupies a nice horizontal place on the back cover: “Written in a way to ensure you read every page and glean the hows and whys of the audio mastering process. And beyond the applied, Desktop Mastering provides valuable business and life advise presented in a practical, accessible, and thoughtful way.”
Steve’s second book Beyond Mastering is truly a unique read. It’s more experiencing a book rather than reading a book. Here’s an example of his sage-like prose: “The thinking behind this process of “neutralizing and enhancing” rises repeatedly in mastering and in life. We travel from crude, low resolution emotional and behavioral states to an understanding of the meaning and purpose behind these states. From this neutral perspective, we can increase the resolution of our responses, and be less distracted from the present moment—the interval between stimulus and response. None of this means the low frequencies go away—they are still there and necessary; they are just being brought into balance in the context of the fully realized life. Low frequencies and dimensions are what the majority of our lives are based on; they really do provide the movement and motivation underscoring our actions.”
I’ll cover my mastering process including default processor chain and such in a future post. Thanks for reading. –ST