The dark art of Mastering audio
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Before attending mastering classes with Dave Turner at SAE as a part of my degree in audio engineering, Mastering audio for me served only one purpose, “making it sound louder”. I never really gave much thought to Mastering as I always believed it to be more technical-based than creativity. I’ve always been my own Mastering engineer and I won’t lie when I say that it works for me.The need for me Mastering my own music arose because, I wasn’t able to afford a professional Mastering engineer. Over the years, I have gathered a lot of info about the Mastering process through reading online articles, forums and watching educational videos on the internet and my own practice has improved considerably over this time. My mastering process is very simple and I believe it totally works for the type of music that I like to produce ie. R&B/Pop. I’ve always done Mastering “in-the-box” and have achieved some really good results lately. I find it to be a lot easier to master using plugins as it is quick, cheaper (obviously) and also because I don’t get distracted patching cables.
My mastering process starts by cutting everything above 16kHZ and below 30HZ using Low pass and High pass filters respectively. I use a gentle slope (Q value) so as not to add any unwanted resonance. I always tend to this because it makes my tracks sound cleaner and controlled and I don’t find anything interesting above or below those frequencies. Because I’ve never mastered someone else’s work, I never really had to do any more EQing than this because I tend to get my mix right in the production/mixing stage itself. Still, sometimes I have taken out a few dBs from around 800HZ - 1kHZ if the track sounded ‘honky’ and a bit around 200HZ - 300HZ if it sounded ‘muddy’. I never tend to add anything in the mastering stage. After this, I move on to compression. Because of the ongoing “Loudness war”, I tend to compress my tracks a bit aggressively (3-4 dB of Gain Reduction) because I think the Pop/R&B genre permits me to do so. I use a Multiband compressor to do this because it gives me more control over each section of the frequency spectrum of the track. The compressor ratio is always set around 2:1. The Attack/Release times are very important to me and it took me a long time to understand how they work. All these settings can be variable and they change from plugin to plugin. Some plugins are very aggressive and can easily mess up the dynamics of your track whereas some plugins are very subtle and it’s very hard to go wrong with them. After compression, I add some stereo width which makes the track sound ‘cooler’ in headphones. When I started out in mastering, I would tend to go crazy with this feature as I thought it sounded so much better. Back then, I didn’t know about the concept of Mono compatibility, phantom centre and the general importance of Mono. Because of this, my tracks used to “translate” poorly on different speakers and I would lose a lot of the important information from my mixes. Eventually, I got around this and now I add stereo width very carefully. The final step is always limiting. I use a brickwall limiter to make the track loud while comparing the perceived loudness with other commercial releases in the same genre(s). The maximum GR I let it do is 6dB. I also keep a watch on the RMS levels and try to make them sit around -10dB.
Still, after attending mastering classes for the past 3 weeks, my thoughts about it has changed slightly. What I’ve learnt and realised recently is that Mastering is a very sophisticated process involving a lot of technical as well as creative skills and careful listening. It’s ultimate goal is not just to make the product louder; it’s a lot more than that. According to Joseph Carra, one of Melbourne’s leading Mastering engineers, who’s lecture I recently attended at SAE; ”One of the most important job of a Mastering engineer is to ensure that the audio “translates” well on different systems”. Mastering is the last step of the whole audio production process which makes it very important as the audience/buyers/fans will hear whatever the Mastering engineer renders. Thus, he has a lot of responsibility on his shoulders and we musicians and producers should learn to give them more credit and respect.
According to Joseph Carra, hiring a Mastering Engineer can also be beneficial as it provides a fresh set of ears or perspective to a production. When we hear something for the first time, we can identify a lot more problems than a person who’s been listening to the same project for days or even weeks. Our ears and brains get used to something after only a few hours of listening and it becomes harder and harder with time to make the right engineering decisions. Thus, hiring someone to master your tracks can be worth the money.
As computers are becoming more powerful with each day, the technology today has enabled us to create and master a song by just using your laptop and headphones. Although, it is never a good idea to mix and master using just headphones. There are some automatic mastering services like LANDR and Bandlab emerging, which uses algorithms to evaluate your mix and then masters it in a matter of minutes. I’ve tried using them but personally, I didn’t like what they did to my mix. It sounded just louder with the dynamics all over the place. I believe such mastering technology is still in it’s developing stage but it won’t be long when producers will start ditching traditional mastering engineers in favour of such services. The only reasons I can think of behind this would be the speed and cheap cost.
Still, most professional producers and musicians will always prefer a ‘real’ engineer to master their work because of all the reasons I’ve given above.
To conclude, I would say that I have learnt a lot about mastering in the past 3 weeks and this knowledge has made it seem more interesting to me than ever before. I have also realised that as a mastering engineer, it is very important that you research your available resources and options. To get good quality mastering doesn’t always mean you need the most expensive hardware. In saying so, if you can; definitely get them; otherwise, do what you have to do with whatever that is available to you. Many famous mastering engineers have moved on to just using software plugins and have achieved great results. I believe that having the right mindset, familiarity with the tools available and critical listening are the most important qualities of a great Mastering engineer.
Audio Mastering Basics: Taking Your Music That Extra Step | Universal Audio. (2017). Uaudio.com. Retrieved 4 December 2017, from https://www.uaudio.com/blog/audio-mastering-basics/
The Dark Art of Mastering Music | Pitchfork. (2017). Pitchfork.com. Retrieved 6 December 2017, from https://pitchfork.com/features/article/9894-the-dark-art-of-mastering-music/
What is Mastering? Why Is It Important? | Audio Mastering. (2017). Izotope.com. Retrieved 6 December 2017, from https://www.izotope.com/en/community/blog/tips-tutorials/2014/06/what-is-mastering.html