1. Simply put, what is mastering in music? How could you easily define it for the amateur (electronic) music producer?
To put it simply: Mastering, traditionally, is the final post-production process in the creation of an audio project before it is released to the public.
When it comes to the final sonic potential of an audio project, usually someone with experienced ears, who isn’t too attached to the project would handle the mastering duties. What I mean by “too attached” is that the person who has recorded and mixed the project has likely already spent a lot of time mixing the tracks, often over the span of a few days or weeks. Coming at it from a fresh perspective, a person with hopefully a lot of prior experience in mastering other projects from the same genre, would make sure that the final project translates well to other playback systems.
“Mastering can be that. It can give your project a bit more “umph” and I don’t mean loudness, because that’s part of it, but it shouldn’t be the main focus.”
That being said, if the project is already sonically “finalized”, then mastering takes care of making sure there aren’t any odd clicks or pops in the tracks, sequencing, metadata; overall just making sure that technically, the project is correct for the intended release formats. Sorry for the long definition, but it’s a pretty complex field, to me at least. It’s similar to saying that a cook who flip burgers at a fast food restaurant does the same thing as the cook from your favorite steakhouse.
Mastering can be that. It can give your project a bit more “umph” and I don’t mean loudness, because that’s part of it, but it shouldn’t be the main focus. It can also enhance the character that’s already there, as long as it’s not too “cooked”, and maybe even add a little bit more complementary character too it too, but sometimes there isn’t much room for me to do a whole lot but what is more important is to make sure everything is as consistent as possible.
2. What software programs/hardware equipment do you need to master a track?
On the hardware side I think the most important things to have are a great, accurate DAC and a monitoring system that you know really well. One that you can trust to make decisions with. Clean power is also important, so a good power conditioner to have all your gear, including your DAW hooked up to would be helpful. On the processing side, even though it might sound cliché, it’s true: you use what you need to get the job done. If you need to make MFiT files, you need a Mac because the Apple toolkit that creates and runs these types of files checks on them to make sure they’re within Apple’s specs (can only be used on a mac). If you need to make FLAC files, you need an encoder, so on and so forth. You adapt with the times and get what you need with whatever’s relevant, but you also want to hold on to old tech because you never know when you’ll need it. Not too long ago, a client sent me a bunch of old DAT tapes to transfer and make MP3s for him.
3. Do you prefer the old-school way of mastering in a studio or do you think that “digital mastering” can produce equally satisfactory results?
This is a good question because I work out of my home. I don’t operate a commercial mastering studio and don’t think I ever will, really. I don’t have a huge list of super expensive analog mastering gear. I do have a few good bits of gear, and some that I’ve built myself. I feel that I have enough outboard and software to do the things I need to do for the projects I work on. I also have some high end DACs and ADCs, and a monitoring system I know really well, in an environment that I don’t “check out” from at the end of the day. I listen to music for fun in the same room. I’m totally comfortable and easily get in my zone here and somehow, I think this works as an advantage for me over other mastering engineers that use their speakers for audio work only, or share their gear and space with others.
“Many times, I hear about releases that consumers aren’t happy with and immediately blame the mastering engineers. How do they know how much or how little was done sonically by the mastering engineer? It varies by project, really.”
On the processing side, digital effects have come a long way. You can definitely master using all digital effects with good results, but I personally like to have a little bit of analog flavor added in there; I like pushing into analog circuits a little bit more than overloading a plug-in excessively. To give you an example, I haven’t used a software limiter in years. Clipping my ADC sounds better to my ears, especially when I don’t push the levels too much, and the mixes I work on have enough headroom.
4. Mastering comes at the very end of the music production process. Why is it such a crucial step? Can it be a defining moment, a “break it or make it” step for a track?
Again, it depends on the project and the expectations placed on mastering. If the client left sonic room for the mastering engineer to be able to sonically balance the project so that it sounds great everywhere, sure, it can be a crucial step. You only get one chance to make a first impression for your listeners. If the client left zero sonic headroom and they gave you material that is pretty much finalized, then you’re really not in a position to do much. I think it’s important to know this, because many times, I hear about releases that consumers aren’t happy with and immediately blame the mastering engineers. How do they know how much or how little was done sonically by the mastering engineer? It varies by project, really.
5. What’s the relationship between mixing and mastering for you. Are both processes dependent on each other?
I think we’re in a weird place when it comes to Mixing and Mastering. It used to be that people knew the difference between the two, probably because before DAWs became commonplace, the access to mastering tools was limited. Now, we have a generation of audio engineers that has learned to work with audio without any limits. The technology that’s available to anyone today has made it very easy to be able to record, mix and master audio projects without having to leave your home.
“I honestly can’t say that I’ve heard an album that has been entirely created by just one person that I think sounds better than any of the classics.”
This has inevitably made a lot of people feel like they don’t need others to provide mastering and other services to their projects, and that’s great if that’s how you approach it, wanting to be in complete control of everything. However, I think the best-sounding albums have been recorded and mixed by people who specialize in those stages, and then someone who specializes in mastering takes care of putting on the final sonic touches. If you look up the credits to a classic album like Low End Theory by ATCQ, you’ll find that there are several people credited with arranging, producing and engineering the record. So you can do everything on your own now, awesome, but that doesn’t automatically give you the same level of skills.
I suppose what I’m saying is that collaboration by several talented and highly skilled people is one of the key ingredients of great-sounding albums. I honestly can’t say that I’ve heard an album that has been entirely created by just one person that I think sounds better than any of the classics. As a matter of fact, whenever I look at the credits of an album and I see that it’s been recorded, mixed and mastered by the same person, I kind of expect it to sound less than great, and maybe that’s just a bias on my part, but I haven’t been proven wrong to date.
6. How complicated is mastering in comparison to mixing or even sound design? Does it take time to become good at it, “trial and error”, or can a few tutorials/books/informative content help you to master the craft?
You really need to have an impartial ear and a desire to make the music you work on sound as good as possible. It’s not always about using every tool you have, or showing off your multiband compression or mid/side processing skills on every song; sometimes you have to take a step back and apply minimal processing to the projects you work on. Being impartial with someone else’s project is super easy, since you are listening to someone else’s finished mixes and can spot issues with them immediately. I like to listen to a new project’s mixes at the end of my day, after having a break from whatever I’ve been working on, just so that my perspective is fresh. When you’ve recorded and mixed a project over several days, it’s hard to be able to take a step back and approach it from a fresh perspective; you’re too connected to a project by the time it needs to be finalized. I’m not saying it can’t be done, but at the very least recognize that and maybe take a few days off from it so that when you hear it again, you might approach it with a different perspective.
“Books, tutorials, online courses, etc. are all great, but keep in mind that everyone perceives audio differently, and you don’t want to approach it like reading a recipe from a cookbook.”
I like to say that Mastering Engineers – the people that only master audio, I’m not talking about today’s “all-in-one” audio engineers – are really Audiophiles that know how to work audio gear. You have to have a desire for making sure audio sounds great everywhere, and that requires a clinical ear and an extensive knowledge of your monitoring tools. You have to be able to spot problems with mixes rather quickly. If you’re doing this for profit, you have to be able to express what you’ve heard in terms that people can understand. Instead of saying things like “your mix sounds too bright” you should say things like “your mix has harshness between 3.5 and 5 kHz, I hear that mainly around the vocals but you might also check the cymbals too.” You should be giving your clients a clear direction on how to adjust their mixes if that’s necessary, to end up having those mixes turn into better-sounding masters.
Books, tutorials, online courses, etc. are all great, but keep in mind that everyone perceives audio differently, and you don’t want to approach it like reading a recipe from a cookbook. What works for one song might not work for the next. You have to trust your ears and that does come through experience. Trial and error is good. I suggest anyone who wishes to get into Mastering do so by practicing on other people’s’ material as much as possible, and get used to the idea that every song and project is different. If you’re unable to do this, try remastering old releases that were released before the so-called “loudness wars”.
“You need to be able to identify the sonic potential of a mix, kind of like a diamond in the rough, and polish it to be the diamond it already is, not something else.”
Once in a while, I might try out a new processor and will use clients’ mixes to try them out. I might say something like “I’ve sent you a couple of versions of the masters, let me know which ones sound better to you” and sometimes, the newly-purchased processors end up being returned because they don’t really add something groundbreaking to what I was using before. If it were up to me, I might end up with things I don’t need just because they’re shiny and new.
7. What are some things to look out for and be especially careful about when mastering?
First, be able to listen to someone’s mix and spot any sonic issues that might need your attention. If it’s something that you think should be treated back at the mixing stage, you need to let your clients know in very specific terms. If a mix needs very little attention, you need to be able to identify that as well. You need to be able to identify the sonic potential of a mix, kind of like a diamond in the rough, and polish it to be the diamond it already is, not something else.
8. Is the environment also important when it comes to mastering? Should you master a track in a properly treated room?
You definitely want to treat your space as much as possible when using speakers. If there’s a range of frequencies in your space that is too skewed, that’s going to translate to the work that you do. Positioning of the speakers and how the response is at the listening position also play an important role. It doesn’t have to be perfect. If you get rid of the biggest issues in your room, you can incrementally work on fine-tuning it to a way that’s predictable to you. There’s something to be said about getting to know your space and how it translates over different systems beyond measurements.
9. Many producers refer to a mastering chain (i.e: gain, parametric eq, multiband compressor, analog eq, Harmonic Exciter, Limiter, Metering). What is your mastering chain order? In which order do you think that one should proceed?
I think a chain works well for those who finalize their own projects. They’ll use the same recording and mixing gear on everything they create, so maybe having a mastering chain to use all the time makes sense since the sonic qualities of their productions will be similar. Since I work on many different projects all the time, I don’t have a mastering chain that I’ll use every single time. I don’t use EQ before Compression always, for example. It always depends on what’s going on with the mixes and then you use what your instincts tell you to, but sometimes even that doesn’t work and you end up doing something completely different than what you first thought you might do. Maybe this isn’t the fastest way to do things but to me, it’s certainly the best practice. Use your ears and use the tools that work best for the project in front of you.
The only things that never change for me are my D to A and A to D converters (Crane Song Avocet and HEDD 192) and my monitoring tools (Bowers & Wilkins bookshelf speakers, Active mixcubes and AKG 240DF and Sennheiser HD650 headphones). I sometimes patch in some hardware inserts into my DAW via ADAT, and for that I use a Lucid 88192 converter.
10. A lot of producers don’t like relying on their own ears for the mastering process. Why is that? If I’m an amateur producer, can I master my own tracks or do they have to be sent to a sound engineer for a better end result?
I have a few clients who send me mastering work because they’ve tried doing their own mastering before and have realized that it takes a bit of time to get a mix to sound really good over the systems they’re familiar with. A few of them have expressed that they’ve lost hours running back and forth to their cars and other systems to check the mixes and feel they could be doing other things, like producing new tracks or working on unfinished tracks they already have.
Then, there are clients who are out there making money off their craft by doing shows, producing for other artists, etc. and they simply can’t be bothered by attempting to master their own projects. They see hiring a mastering engineer as an investment that allows them more time to be productive in other areas, and if they’ve set themselves up as a proper business like some of my clients have, then things like Mastering are services that can be written off for tax purposes. It really depends on your situation. If you’re an artist that’s just starting out, and you’re not making money off your music, or you’re doing it as a hobby, you probably will want to spend the money on other things like buying other equipment that you might need, so on and so forth.
11. Is mastering expensive when done by professionals?
Unfortunately, mastering rates vary wildly depending on the engineer and the type of facility. Always look at what you’re getting for what you’re paying, but most importantly, check their credits!
12. Coming back to more technical questions, is it necessary to turn down a track if there isn’t enough headroom?
I wouldn’t say it’s that simple. A fundamental concept for coming up with great mixes is understanding gain staging. Starting with recording through processing your tracks at the mixing stage, you should be using proper gain staging and watching how much headroom is used up by every process you use. To many inexperienced ears, using a processor that makes things louder can immediately sound better, but you should pay close attention to what is being introduced in terms of saturation/distortion and other unwanted artifacts.
13. Do you prefer to make subtle EQ changes to the master, especially if the mix isn’t perfect, and how do you go about doing it?
I only work with Hip Hop; well, to be frank I have to say that once in a while, I work on projects that aren’t traditionally Hip Hop, so this is with regards to what I hear when taking on a new Hip Hop project: There’s usually a tad bit too much low end, or too little. Personally, I don’t like it when clients do things like cut off everything under 30 Hz because they heard somewhere that doing this gives you more headroom to push the levels higher. This is basically true, but when I get mixes with a lot of low end, I’ll never blindly apply an extreme roll-off; it’s always better to have the full range and work in that area of the low and and come up with something that sounds good; it’s never as simple as applying a HPF and calling it a day.
If I work on mixes that I identify as needing a lot of work, I will try different things depending on the mix. It’s a good day when I don’t have to break apart the stereo mix and apply mid/side processing. The few times where I will only make subtle changes is when I’m working on mixes that the clients already processed heavily, and there isn’t room to do anything. That sucks, to be completely honest because the final outcome isn’t something I think sounds great, and it can be a tricky thing to discuss with clients after you ask if there’s any possibility of getting a better mix with more headroom and the answer is ‘no’.
14. Is it better to have a more dynamic track and have it seem louder on streaming services or to smash it so it holds up in loudness when you play out the file directly (like at a show/club – especially relevant for electronic and rap music)?
Well, recently streaming services have adopted the LUFS loudness scale, and all the popular streaming services apply a type of normalization to everything that gets uploaded. YouTube, Spotify, Tidal, etc. all have jumped on this and it’s worth looking up what they’re using in terms of where they will start to either increase or decrease the loudness of your audio when it’s uploaded to these services, because each one uses slightly different levels. A LUFS meter is kind of essential now because everyone wants to make sure that their tracks will hold up once they are uploaded. The trick is getting your levels as close to the streaming target so that they’re not compressed further or some sort of expander/limiter is applied to make them a bit louder, likely messing with your tracks’ dynamic range even more.
That said, I have clients that put their projects out on vinyl, CDs and digital distribution which today is still based on 16/44.1 audio, and while not everyone does this, I think it’s great that we can do different sets of masters depending on the release format. Masters for vinyl will have more dynamic range, and that can end up sounding really punchy, with a wide dynamic range if the vinyl is cut properly. I actually have had clients email me to report that they’re hearing more “depth” from the vinyl version and it’s mostly because of the added dynamic range. They then turn up their amps a little more, and make their speakers work a bit more.
The loudness wars came about because everyone went nuts and wanted to use up as much of the digital headroom as possible, with the idea that if your record sounds louder than the next, that people will like it better. Loudness wars aren’t new though, this has been going on since Vinyl was the sole medium for music releases, it’s just that you can only push analog media so much before it starts to break apart and sound really nasty. Interestingly, some degree of saturation is somehow pleasing to our ears, so the idea is to do it in a way that still sounds pleasing, while attaining some sort of relative loudness.
15. Finally, a lot of the contemporary electronic music tracks are all about loudness. As an audio engineer, how do you position yourself in the “loudness war”?
One of the things I believe all Mastering Engineers should do is pay attention to what consumers of audio are doing, not what other artists are doing or even what other Mastering Engineers are doing. You should have a pulse on what is happening in the casual listener’s world (those who aren’t in the music business and are happy listening to music on the budget earbuds they got with their phones) as well as the audiophile community (people who spend a lot of money in playback gear and are more critical when it comes to sonic quality in music) to a certain degree. Once you have an understanding on how people listen to music, in addition to knowledge you might have about audio and even some science, we can make some educated guesses and maybe even predict some things about the way people listen to music.
One of the things that happens with mastering tracks to make the sound as loud as possible is that you have to remove a lot of low end frequencies to be able to push levels a bit hotter without getting as much perceived distortion, because you want to avoid speakers sounding like they’re broken (in other words, you can push the levels hotter on material that has less low frequency energy). What happens as a result of doing this is that you’re likely going to have a lot of saturated/distorted mid and high frequencies, and that easily leads to listening fatigue. A lot of younger listeners can tolerate this more than older people (adults over 25) but more than likely, their brain is also not focused on the audio. A lot of people who say they don’t mind really loud tracks when they listen are almost always focused on something else; music is in the background and it’s almost like white noise. Understanding this should raise the question: Do I want my listeners to pay more attention to my music, or is it okay if it all sounds the same and it doesn’t really capture their attention?
In contrast, it’s a good time to be an audiophile. There are many great designs out there in terms of DACs, amplifiers, speakers and headphones that are affordable and there’s a new generation out there of young audiophiles who are investing money and time into a good playback setup. These listeners tend to be critical when it comes to that whole “loudness wars” issue. In my opinion, these are the people we should be catering to for the most part, because they tend to be more passionate about audio in general, and appreciate good recordings!
At the end of the day though, as a mastering engineer, you do what your clients pay you to do. When they ask for their masters to be as loud as the next thing on the radio, I like to explain the above to certain degree but if they ask for loud, they get loud. It’s always more enjoyable for me, and hands down the best-sounding projects are the ones I work on where loudness isn’t the primary mission.