SESSION NOTES 11 “Mastering” (part 1 an introduction)
1974 when I was 14 years old. This is when I acquired a 12 band per channel JVC SEA-70 graphic equaliser and started mastering.
Hello good people. This month I want to introduce you to the “Dark Art” of Mastering. This of course is my absolute area of expertise, knowledge and experience. I often tell my students at Uni that they should produce and engineer records for a decade or so just to get to grips with all the different instruments, genre’s, equipment and general way that music is recorded and mixed. This will help enormously with your ability to identify all of the different sonic behaviours you are likely to encounter whilst mastering tracks. Today’s mastering engineers have myriad tasks to perform in producing masters that not only sound fantastic but also meet the demanding criteria of today’s different delivery platforms.
In the past mastering involved turning up to a cutting room with your tape (¼ or ½ inch) and cutting the lacquer. The engineer would play the tape to ascertain the loudest peaks and execute slight compression and/or equalisation and then play back the tape and cut the lacquer, simple really.
Today, artists turn up with digital files of final mixes from the studio. These are almost always stereo interleaved WAV files. One file that contains the information for left and right channels. And here begins the ‘journey’ of achieving the optimum sound from these files using an enormous array of analogue and digital tools and techniques.
Now the “Dark Art” will be demystified. I don’t know how that phrase came about but one thing is certain. It’s not “Dark” … “Art” definitely but not “Dark”. It’s not an evil process and i’m not a magician. I’ve been “mastering” music since 1974 when i was 14 years old. This is when i acquired a 12 band per channel JVC SEA-70 graphic equaliser. In the late 70’s I used to charge my friends 50p to copy their albums onto cassette via my equaliser because it made the sound more appealing. This is obviously very basic but it is still the same process of getting something to sound better than it was. I produced albums (and still do to a lesser degree) for 20 years and finally graduated to mastering full time as I do today.
So, what is mastering? To me it is trying to achieve the optimum sound from the music presented to me. This involves “critical listening”. You have to be able to see with your ears. This is harder than you think because you have to detach yourself from the music and concentrate on “the sound”. First of all you have to be able to identify any faults. I mentioned this in an earlier article but this is really important. Clicks, pops, drop-outs, phase issues, glitches … you name it … i’ve had it. If you can identify these things you have a chance to fix them. You can’t do anything about them once the record is shrink wrapped and sat on a shelf in a record shop. Secondly, you will have to ascertain what platform the music is destined for. CD, Download, Streaming, Vinyl, cassette etc.
Once you know this you can then decide on the process to deliver the audio. You will need to make copious notes on all aspects of this process in order to navigate your way through the job. These notes will ultimately provide all the answers to the questions that your client and the label may ask. You will also have to be able to deal with record companies and their specific requirements for delivery. It all amounts to a lot of work and we haven’t even started to “tweeze” the sound yet.
In nearly every case the buck stops with the mastering engineer. Mastering is the FINAL process that the music undergoes before the dreaded shrink wrap. Mix engineers have the opportunity to remix, even re-record if necessary but once it leaves the mastering studio the job is DONE. So, “don’t fuck it up”!!! Over the next few articles i will deal with the different aspects and workflows that i use to master records.
To date i have worked on over 18,000 titles in pretty much every genre and more besides. Luckily, ears don’t wear out so i’ve got quite a few years left ahead of me.
Next month i’ll take a look at the equipment you will need and the use thereof.