Articles and Opinions

About All-In-One Mastering Packages

With the rise in the DIY Mastering ethos for independent studios, a number of companies have put out all-in-one mastering solutions, generally a single program or an all-in-one plugin that handles every major step in the mastering chain. I can’t say I’m a huge fan.

With the exception of the very-high-end stuff, like SaDiE, most attempt to integrate with an existing DAW and focus solely on the audio side of mastering and ignore the media-output end of things. But that’s not really why I don’t like them.

Now, to be fair, most of them do their best to provide some fairly impressive functionality. IK Multimedia’s T-Racks suite, for example, has some very lovely options for emulating a Pulteq EQ and a Fairchild 670 compressor. iZotope’s Ozone has some very powerful options for mid-side processing on material. The problem is that these packages inhabit a very strange no-man’s land in the market. They’re more expensive than the software that comes with most DAWs and offer more functionality in many ways, but at the same time, the kind of engineer who is going to need that sort of functionality is going to likely want even finer control and higher-quality than these intro-to-midrange packages can provide.

It’s sort of the Swiss Army Knife problem. Swiss army knives are really cool. Some of them have a zillion little tools, from tiny screwdrivers to folding pliers to scissors. They’re great in a pinch, although some of the fancier ones are rather pricy. That’s just it, though – they’re great in a pinch, but you wouldn’t want to do an awful lot of real repair with them, and for the price of the one with all the fancy little clever tools on it, you could buy a pretty decent kit of basic full-size tools, a socket set, and a respectable power screwdriver. All-in-one suites are pretty neat, but like Swiss army knives, why spend the money on such a fancy one when you can get a bunch of “full sized” tools for the same money?

Perhaps that’s a little hard on some of these packages, as they do often have “full-sized” tools in them. The problem is, as I see it, that not everything in one of these suites is going to be perfect, you’re often paying for a lot of functionality you’re not going to need or want, and quite often you get stuck with a characteristic sound over which you have little control. Take, for example, T-Racks. As I mentioned, the Pulteq EQ and Fairchild Compressor emulator is pretty nice, and certainly for the price it out-competes an awful lot of stuff in the same price class. But some of the other modules are not so great, and you may find that even the really nice stuff isn’t what you need in the mastering stage (but would be more appropriate for tracking and mixing). So you spend $500 MSRP for a bundle with a great compressor and EQ that you never use for mastering, and some middling other plugins that you do. Similarly with Ozone, there is certainly some power under the hood, particularly with the M/S processing. Frankly, though, the overall sound is decent but not pants-wettingly spectacular, and a few of the inclusions seem a bit baffling to me – the “mastering reverb” for example, seems like a module of extremely limited use. If you’re at the mastering stage and you find you need to add reverb, something has gone wrong. It’s not a bad-sounding reverb, but it’s not a great one either. We’re also back to the “what market is this for?” problem – if you’re mastering your own material, you can go back and add your own reverb to the mix with much more precision than any full-track mastering ‘verb could; if you’re mastering this for someone else, there’s a good chance you have already invested in better gear than this and could apply it yourself.

Then there’s the preset problem. I’ve had the opportunity to bash my way through some of these suites and they all seem to come with a pretty deep library of presets. That’s all well-and good, but even in my limited experience as a mastering engineer I can tell you that no two tracks will ever need the exact same settings. Sure, presets always do make a great starting point, saving you a little time dialing in some common settings, but the urge to just fire-and-forget, especially in the neophyte stages of the process, is strong. Some of the presets in any one of the packages have the terrifying ability to sound completely awesome, but only in the context of a good set of speakers. Hit Ozone’s “enhance and widen” preset and you’d get a lush, wide, open mix on a good set of monitors…that would sound washed-out and phasy on a club system. Such a preset might help rejuvenate an old mono mix or something pulled off an archival 4-track, but it has the capacity to completely screw up a modern recording. Through the joys of psychoacoustics and comparative listening, after hearing that, every other track will sound dense and narrow and feel like it needs the same effects, which will mean an *entire album* will sound wide and airy on the monitors and then washed and phasy on a club, or ear-hurtingly trebly on a car stereo, or grainy and weird on an ipod.

The kitchen-sink approach is also a little worrisome. I have come across very few mastering jobs that require not merely the same settings, but even the same effects chain. Some won’t require any extra compression. Some won’t need EQ. Some won’t need any maximizing/limiting. So there’s no need to even have these effects patched in, much less turned on. When you have a suite with 8 or 9 effects available at all times, you have to know and know well what you need and what you don’t, because turning on a multiband limiter when you don’t need one is going to dramatically change the sound of the output. Certainly, messing about with stereo width is always a very dodgy proposition, because the capacity for phase problems is extremely high, so many mastering chains don’t even bother (or, if they do, use some M/S processing for the effect) – so having a dedicated stereo imaging processor available at all times is sort of the mastering equivalent to keeping a loaded gun on the nightstand: you may never use it, but just having it there is risky.

This is not to say these things are not without their place. I’ve mentioned that Ozone’s M/S processing is really excellent. The problem for me is that I don’t necessarily need to buy an entire suite to just do M/S EQ or compression, when I already have the ability, albeit with a little extra bus routing, to do M/S processing using any plugin or hardware I like using only the stuff that comes with Logic. Sure, it might be easier to just hit the MS button in Ozone, but because I now know how to accomplish this from first principles, I can get even more precise, and do multiband M/S processing if I really desired, or use M/S processing with anything, not just the processors that have it enabled. Or I could do it as simply as just increasing the relative levels of the mid or the side without processing either one. I didn’t need to spend $400 to keep myself from having to learn a useful skill.

And there, right there, is the crux of it. Mastering isn’t about the gear as much as it is about the ears and the grey mushy thing between them. Don’t get me wrong, great gear is awesome and makes things sound even better, but knowing the deep science of the process and knowing exactly what to listen for is the real trick, and no mastering suite software is going to help that.

Articles and Opinions

Fix It In The Mix

As both a guy who makes music and a guy who masters other people’s I’ve encountered the tendency – sometimes even in myself – to write off some mix errors as just “stuff that can be fixed in mastering.”

While maybe it’s true that the mastering engineer *can* indeed fix these things, the smartest policy is to fix these things in the mixing stage first. Any fix in the mastering stage comes with a cost, whether that cost is monetary (extra engineering time means extra $$$) or just the cost to the overall quality of the track. That kick drum too boxy in the 200hz range? The mastering engineer could do a very precise reduction on that frequency…but anything else with harmonics at that frequency would also be affected. Vocals need to be louder? A little middle-band compression may help tighten that up, but at the expense of the overall width of the track. It may be subtle, but it’s going to hurt.

I’ve often heard of mastering referred to as a “surgical” process. That may be true to a point, because the tools are usually precise, specific, and often dangerous for the unpracticed to play around with. The analogy sort of breaks down at that point.
A better analogy would be perhaps one of a car detailer. The guy’s got special tools – an orbital buffer, polishes, hammers for pounding out dings, stuff that an average car owner probably doesn’t keep handy. The detailer’s job is to make your car look as good as it possibly can, buff it to a high gloss, maybe smooth out some scratches and chips. But you wouldn’t ask the guy who details your car to fix a problem with your head gasket or your muffler. The mastering engineer is like the detailer – he’s got the tools to make your track shiny, polished, and professional-sounding. And while he may have the ability just by chance to fix a mix problem (much as the detailer probably knows how to change your oil) it’s not the sort of thing you really want him to be doing.

It’ll save you, the artist or producer, time, money and headaches to address any mix problems at the mixing stage, and not the mastering stage.

So what about the case where the engineer hears a problem you missed? A good mastering engineer would likely tell you about it. In the world of the radio-hit machine, maybe not, because it has to be done yesterday and ready for the radio, but there it doesn’t come up as much to begin with because your track is mixed by Mark Stent or Tony Maserati and it’s just not an issue. For the rest of the indie pro-sumer crowd, though, the option is usually there to send the engineer a new mix with the fixes in place, and any resulting charge will be minimal, if there’s any charge at all. I know that when I master an album, I listen to it first so I know what I’m going to do before diving in, and I’ve on more than one occasion said “hey, the bass is a little loud on track 3” or “that lead synth has some weird phasing, is that intentional?” and if it’s a problem and not an artistic decision, I’ll gladly take delivery of a new mixdown before I start mastering (there are limits, of course – eventually I’ll want to get to mastering and not waiting for the 8th upload of a new mix, and sometimes the engineer does have the right to say “look, I don’t know how to fix it or I just don’t want to – do what you can with it.” But these are rare cases).

In short, the strongest recommendation I can make to anyone about to submit their music for mastering is “give them the best mix you can, and don’t expect the mastering engineer to fix what you didn’t.” A strong mix will need less processing in the mastering stage, leading to a cleaner, better-sounding master and a better experience for the listener.