About Mastering Articles and Opinions

Evaluating Your Mastering Job

Most mastering engineers I know give a client at the very least the opportunity to preview the kind of work they do – whether that’s a single track as an example of what they intend to do or the first pass of the whole job depends on the engineer, but nonetheless, it’s a pretty standard practice.

However, not everybody really knows what to listen for.  It can be like asking someone wearing dark sunglasses what they think about the color of the curtains – they’ve got a vague idea of what’s going on but aren’t really sure what they’re looking at.

Overall, it’s pretty subjective.  There are a few objective criteria but most mastering engineers worth their salt will get that right regardless.  Additionally, a mastering job can often be very subtle, so if you’re not really listening for something very specific, the masterer’s work might not sound terribly obvious.

Still, on a broader scope, there are things to listen for that any musician can grasp pretty intuitively:

  • Is it consistent?  Any good mastering engineer strives to make every song on an album sound like it belongs with every other song, whether that’s by loudness or EQ or overall feel.  Sometimes, though, consistency is in the eye of the beholder.  A compilation, for example, or even an artist that switches styles a lot, can provide a challenge – what the artist (or compiler) thinks is consistent might not be the same as what the engineer (who may not have any familiarity with the genres or styles) thinks is consistent
  • How are the dynamics? Despite the whole issue of the Loudness War and the pros and cons of compression and limiting, it’s still pretty much a given that anything handed to an engineer is going to get at least a little compression or limiting to level things out and change the overall perceived loudness of a track.  The overall extent of this, though, is generally left to the artists to decide, though.  I can easily take a track up to a mean RMS of +10db (K-14) – that’s very loud.  Most artists may not want that.  I can keep it at a mean RMS of +5db (K-14) with a very high crest factor – that’s quiet and very dynamic.  A lot of artists won’t want that either.  Some artists, particularly in dance, WILL want a high mean RMS at the expense of dynamic range.  Jazz artists might very well want a very low RMS and high dynamics, even at the cost of some pleasing “glue.”  A lot of it depends on the song too.  Do you want it to sound open and airy or dense and punchy, or something else entirely?  A mastering engineer will have opinions and generally a pretty good sense of where to go on this, just based on experience, but it can still be intensely personal (or even dependent on application).
  • Does it match your goal for the sound?  Since digital signal processing has made a lot more “sounds” possible than in the past, a lot of mastering engineers have a wider palette to work with – without being tied to just one hardwired signal chain, they can re-route and emulate as need be (although not all of them do.  Abbey Road, for example, has a killer mastering service and they use the same sort of bespoke gear they’ve been using for decades.  But they have a “sound” all their own too).   As such, the result may not actually be what you’re looking for.  I once had a mastering job that I found to be rather harsh and cold, so I gave it a very warm analog sound, as I thought fit the material – but the client came back to me and said “well, that’s really nice, but I was looking for this to sound abrasive and noisy.”  In short, my polishing of the material was exactly the opposite of what the client wanted, and their harsh, digital sound was intentional and not just the result of their gear.  This comes down to intuition and opinion – the engineer may do what he thinks is right for the material, but that may not be what the artist intended.  Some of this can be alleviated before the process even starts, with communication of the end goal, but as is often the case with art, these things aren’t always obvious.

For the most part, what you as a client will be evaluating from your mastering engineer will be simply be how much what you get back lines up with your eventual vision.  The engineer will have to make decisions based on how well the mix will translate across sound systems, how it will stack up on the eventual release with other tracks, and other such choices that could affect how you want the track to be perceived.  Usually, it’s a pretty transparent process of just putting the final shine on the whole album, but in the end, as the client, you have the final say.

About Mastering

What Is Mastering?

Mastering is one of those things – it’s often spoken of in hushed tones, for fear that the Wizards of Mastering Engineering might overhear and smite thee with a curse. Everybody’s told they need it, few are told why, and even fewer really know what’s going on.

In reality, it’s less mystical and magical than one would think. It’s really just a form of audio processing done to add that final polish to an album. Of course, that’s just the basics. The tools are specialized, and the engineer tends to do things you’d never dream of doing during the recording process.

Thanks to the occasional overblown media report, a lot of people look at the mastering process as simply “making it loud.” While loudness maximization is often a component, it’s not the only component, and it’s not always the goal. Sure, if you ask me to take a track and just slam it to 0db with no dynamic range, I can do that, but I’d really prefer not to. There are dozens of cheapish tools you can get to do that, too. If that’s all you want, then you can do that yourself and you really don’t need to spend the money on mastering.

Generally, it’s going to be some combination of surgical EQ, compression, limiting and possibly a little “coloration” to put that final shine on all the tracks and make the album sound consistent. Sometimes, some stereo field adjustment will be done to expand or contract the field to provide the right sound. Phase can be adjusted so there aren’t “dead spots” in the soundfield, and everything’s got to be set up so it’s listenable on a variety of systems – from your iPod to your car stereo to the boomin’ PA at a club.

About Mastering

What Should I Know First?

People rarely ask me what they should do when they’re going to submit a demo/compilation/EP/album/whatever to get mastered. I’ve had plenty of discussions to this effect, though, with other people who do this for a living, and they all end up saying pretty much the same thing. Here are a few simple admonitions for musicians young and old…

Don’t try to do it first. There is nothing, and I mean NOTHING worse to a masterer than getting a mixdown that’s been compressed, limited and EQed already. If you were able to do all that stuff already, what’re you paying me for? Masterers generally have tools made specifically for this purpose, and they’re often a lot more precise than whatever compressor came with SoundForge. Mastering can’t fix something that’s already “mastered” incorrectly…a little surgery, sure, but if you’ve already squished the dynamics out of your mix, there’s nothing we can do to save that.

Get Organized. Give your masterer everything he needs to get it right the first time. Make sure all your tracks are in the right format, on one or two CDs, the copies are clean, everything’s in order, your filenames (where applicable) make sense, and your masterer has a good idea of what order everything goes in. If your mastering house charges by the hour, you want them to be spending their time – and your money – making your tracks sound good, not shuffling through 5 CDs each labeled “unmastered tracks” trying to figure out if “trkThingTechno.wav” is supposed to be track 8.

Headroom! Mastering needs a little to work with, since it will be adjusting relative balances, doing some compression, etc. You don’t need to drive everything to peak at 0db…in fact if you do, it’s gunna get turned down anyway. You’ll end up with a much cleaner final version if you let the masterer handle the volume levels. Of course, you don’t want it so quiet that you fall through your noise floor, but a few db is a lot of help. If you can provide everything at 24-bit, then do – it gives a lot more room to work.

Know what you want. Life will be easier for the masterer – and cheaper for you – if you can write down, or at the very least tell, any special needs you may have. Think track 5 needs to be mastered like a dance track? Actually want overcompression pumping on track 7? Need a fadeout at 5:15-5:20 on track 9? Write that stuff down. It’ll save everybody headaches later. You’ll get what you want, ther mastering will be more organized, and you’ll have an exact record of what you asked for.

Keep in contact. It is entirely feasible to fire-and-forget on an a mastering job. You send it off, you wait three weeks or whatever, and you get back a shiny new CD. However, this is really only advisable if you trust the person you’re working with implicitly. Most mastering engineers, myself inlcuded, will gladly do a demo track for you. It won’t be perfect, since it’s a rough master of a minute or so of a track, just so you can hear what you’re getting in advance, but it’ll give you an idea of what to expect. We may have questions for you, too, so keep in contact. Everything will go smoothly.

Compilation Mastering is Hard. When mastering an individual album, we can expect a little consistancy in sound. When mastering a compilation, we’re faced with a dozen different mixing styles, levels, etc. It requires concentration and a bit of mojo to get the compilation to not have wildly uneven levels and EQ profiles. Nothing throws off the process like finding a track in the middle that’s already been mastered by someone else. Whether by the artist or by another masterer, it’s going to cause problems. You can’t unmaster a track, so whoever is doing the compilation is stuck with those levels, EQ and compression and either needs to match the rest of the album to that (made impossble if there’s more than one track with pre-matering) or more than likely your track will get ignored and sound out-of-place. Or even worse, get over-mastered for the sake of the compilation, but to the detriment of your track. Of course, some low-budget compilations don’t get mastered, they rely on having individual tracks submitted already mastered. This usually makes for crappy compilations, but sometimes it can’t be helped. When in doubt, send the compiler both a mastered and unmastered version of the track.

A masterer is just someone with good ears and good gear, not a magician. A final master is only ever going to be as good as the source will allow. A badly recorded mixdown can’t be “fixed” by mastering. Low-fidelity recordings can’t be improved much by judicious use of EQ and compression. If you give your masterer a bunch of mp3 files, don’t expect a super-high-fidelity result. We’ll work with you, though, to help yopu get it right up front. If you can go higher than CD quality, by all means, do it. If your system can support recording in higher-bitrate formats, it won’t hurt to do that. If your system can’t, well, use the highest available to you and leave any upsampling to your engineer. And for god’s sake don’t downsample unless you have to. And if you for some unholy reason have to, avoid dithering and noise shaping, since that will interfere with the mastering process.

So there you go. Some tips to save you money and time, and save your mastering engineer a lot of headaches.