SESSION NOTES 12 “Mastering” (part 2 “The Gear”)
Blimey!!! has it been a year already. Well, yes it has and here i am ready to talk about the equipment or “gear” that is commonly used to master audio for the big wide world market of noise hungry consumers. There is a huge range of audio processing gear out there that basically fall into two camps. Hardware -: real physical pieces of equipment connected together with wires, and Software -: non physical, imaginary non-pieces of nothing that reside as “code” on a hard drive on a computer. These non-pieces of equipment often mimic (rather badly in most cases) real pieces of equipment. They are also extremely popular due to the fact that they are relatively inexpensive or in some cases completely free. They are also easy to steal (or hack) with no real consequence. Steal a real MANLEY Massive Passive Equaliser and you will probably encounter criminal proceedings!!!. Not so with Software.
So … what is the most important piece of gear in the mastering studio. Well, in my opinion it is the speakers (or monitors). Computer screens are also referred to as monitors so for the purpose of this article i shall refer to them as “speakers”. Apart from the whirring of computer fans this is the only gear that make a noise. EVERY decision you will make with regards to sound will be based on the noise that comes out of the speakers. It is also crucial to have the right speakers in the right acoustic space. The idea is that you want your finished masters to translate to the outside world. This means that they will sound great on ANY system whether it be a telephone or an “Alexa” or a multi-thousand pound Hi-Fi. Your speakers have to deliver a full frequency response too. You cannot work on stuff you cannot hear. Many years ago we did not have such things as “Sub-Bass”. Speaker cones were made out of paper and needed to go down as low as about 50Hz. Today we have subsonic information on records that goes as low as 20Hz. We have Drum & Bass, Hip Hop, EDM and R & B tracks that regularly feature super-low bass frequencies. Your speakers need to be able to reproduce these frequencies so that you can do useful work on them. A lot of speaker systems incorporate a separate unit just for the lower frequencies. This is called a “Sub-woofer”. Bass frequencies are not very directional. The human hearing response has difficulty localising (or positioning) bass frequencies and so the placing of the Sub-woofer in the room isn’t too critical.
I don’t use (or need) a subwoofer in my studio although i’ve lost count of the times a band or client has asked “Where’s your Sub?” only to find that everything they’re hearing is coming out of 2 boxes!!! Like I said earlier, every decision you make is based on what these “boxes” tell you. If they are untruthful in any way then that will translate to your masters and things will sound wildly different on a wide range of listening devices. So if you have a limited budget for your studio invest in the best speakers you can afford and skimp on the other stuff.
Speakers will be powered by an amplifier. Make sure that your speakers and amp are matched for each other. Also make sure that you’re not overdoing it power wise. In a regular living room space a 100 Watt amp should be ample, geddit. Make sure that the impedances match too. A general rule for impedance is this. High into Low won’t go. Low into High will fly. Ok so far?
Finally, your speakers will be joined to your amp by WIRES. These wires will have a more profound effect on the sound than you could ever imagine. My wires for example are
!!! When i was teaching at a University that shall go un-named they were using guitar leads to connect their speakers to the amp. I was appalled and the following week i took one of my cables into their studio and connected it to the right channel. What happened was that the volume on the right channel was almost double!!!. It had a better bass and treble response too.
So there you have it … speakers rule when it comes to gear.
Next month I’ll look at compressors and limiters and the absolute audio destruction they can wreak.