Welcome to the first installment of many of what I hope will be informative articles on a wide variety of topics related to music production from the perspective of art, technique and business.
The first topic I wish to address is audio mastering- a topic obscured in a mist of mysticism and widely debated approaches- of which this article will thankfully be brief enough to avoid. Instead, I'm going to try to bridge the understanding of this process simply by defining what it is and why it is essential that you budget both time and money towards this often overlooked part of the audio production chain.
When I started out as a humble project studio sixteen years ago it was for one expressed purpose, which was as a personal space for me and my close musician friends to work and create without the constant looming face of a ticking clock hampering the creative process. At that time, the recording industry was already struggling under the weight of decreasing budgets for label-based projects and many mid-sized facilities were failing not only because they weren't big enough to attract big money sessions but also because they were financially invested heavily enough that their rates were out of reach of the average broke musician (yes, that part hasn't changed much). Couple this phenomenon with the emergence of newer and cheaper recording technology and we had the dawn of what all of us enjoy today- the ability to put together a respectable recording rig in our own home.
Very soon after building the studio I suffered from a severe case of mission drift and I quickly found myself running sessions for other musicians. It was a great opportunity for both learning and supplementing the inevitable G.A.S. (gear acquisition syndrome) that afflicts pretty much all musicians on both sides of the glass. However, in those early days I was hounded by one reoccurring problem; my mixes didn't sound as big or loud or sweet (or whatever adjective you care to insert here) as a track I or one of my clients heard on the radio or jukebox. This problem and the educational path the search for a solution sent me on transformed my understanding of audio forever. Mastering, in today's sense, is merely the last step that lies between final mixes of a song and delivery of those mixes to a replication plant or onto whatever medium you intend to release your material. A typical mastering session may only take a couple hours but within that time a lot is happening to transform your music into its final state.
Most of the projects I receive these days for mastering are recorded anywhere from a bona fide bricks and mortar recording studio to a guy or gal recording in his bedroom. At this stage, these projects may be anywhere from a few months to many years in the making. They may have been recorded in many different locations using many different pieces of gear and varying techniques and the resultant project can sound disjointed and non-cohesive when listened to as a final album (and no, we won't debate the death of the "album" as a format but I am happy to report mastering for vinyl was up nearly 400% in 2011, so...suck on that naysayer!). As recording technologies have progressed into cheaper and more conveniently usable forms for end users these problems have multiplied ten-fold. As I like to say- just because you have a bunch of guns, it doesn't necessarily make you qualified to lead a revolution.
So why does your project need to be mastered? Here's a helpful questionnaire:
Is your current monitoring environment phase coherent and accurate down to at least 40Hz?
Are you aware of the audio content occurring below 40Hz?
Are your mixes good but don't seem to sound right compared to commercially released recordings?
Do you have your house in order when it comes time to deliver your audio files to a CD replication house or digital distribution site including but not limited to: PQ coding, ISRC coding, PMCD master logs, UPC/LAN codes and intellectual copyright forms?
Have you been working at your project long enough that you completely lack any objectivity about the quality of your mixes and you just need another set of ears on the team?
If you answered "no" or "huh?" to any of these questions then may I recommend you take your project to a qualified mastering engineer?
A mastering engineer will listen to your project in its entirety, making any necessary last-minute mix suggestions and then set to work employing a myriad of both hardware and software based tools to maximize the sound of your audio. Each file should be treated separately but the album as a whole needs to be handled as a singular entity. During this process, the mastering engineer is relying first and foremost on listening and balancing out all of the content from both a spectral and dynamic perspective. The idea is not to necessarily leave a fingerprint on the work but rather to have it come out sound significantly better than when it came in. Dynamically open yet loud; harmonically rich yet balanced and able to translate from ear buds to radio to high end audio systems.
At Waveburner Recording I practice what's known as "mastering from a distance" which simply means the majority of my sessions are unattended. Clients send their high-resolution audio files to me electronically over the internets, which from my understanding, is a series of tubes, and I perform all of the steps needed to bring the audio onto a level playing field and take care of all of the tedious, technical stuff I mentioned in question three above. Think of it as a quality control step and you'll better understand why exactly zero percent of label projects go un-mastered (citation needed -ed.).
Which brings me to my final discussion point- stand alone mastering hardware or software. This is a huge annoyance to me and my brethren mastering engineers and also one of the reasons I don't buy clothes online. How is it believable that one tool is right for every job? Going back to my gun analogy (sorry, but I like guns) just because the butt of a pistol can drive a nail doesn't mean it's the appropriate tool for the job; and that's what I hear when I get mixes that were obviously run through some "mastering" processor your drummer bought off of Craig's List. Sure the mix is loud but at what cost? Gone are the dynamics so thoughtfully worked into the mix; the levels are slammed so loud that the album becomes fatiguing to listen to after the third track. And what passes for piffy nuances are brittle highs and booming lows that threaten to rattle the bondo off of the door panels of your Monza (ok, I'm going to stop now before I really date myself- who still uses bondo?).
So here's what I would like you to do- send me your next project- I don't care if it's one track or your next triple CD opus exploring the complexity of tri-tones; let me give you a free consultation and at the very least try to identify some re-occuring issues in your mixes that may be as simple as changing you monitor placement. The time you've put into your work deserves a second opinion before you unleash it onto the public and I sincerely enjoy being a part of so many musical projects, if even for just a brief period of time.
I leave you with a few of my top suggestions when it comes to mix time:
Do focus on balancing the elements of the mix, not only in the left to right dimension but also near to far.
Don't over EQ your tracks; if you routinely boost the high end on all tracks your either aren't capturing good tones during recording or you're trying too hard to give it that sheen you heard on the most recent Strokes album. Save that for the mastering engineer and worry about good mix composition for now.
Do bounce your mixes to the highest resolution possible- at least 44.1K/24bit and higher if possible.
Do, I repeat, DO leave headroom in the mix. Again -now is the time for maximizing dynamics and creating a deep mix. Peaks at about -6dBFS and RMS around -15dBFS are about as hot as most mastering engineers would like to see and still be able to achieve a punchy yet dynamically-rich sound. If your mixes are hotter than that then do yourself a favor- select all the track faders and bring them down 6dB. And for the love of all thing holy- get rid of that buss compression across the main mix. I don't mind throwing one out there during the mix process but bypass it for the final pre-masters.
Don't stop learning your craft from others and seeking out the wealth of information available to us today. Read about something and then try it- there are no mistakes in art but there are certainly plenty of happy accidents and the more rules you learn the more fun you can have breaking them!
Up next- Digital distribution and why you're doing it wrong.