How To Understand Mastering Don't Try This At Home

How To Understand Mastering Don't Try This At Home
Writing about mastering may well be the least DIY "How To" article yet to grace Music School. This essential yet mysterious element of the record-making process results in the final version of your CD ready to be manufactured. A mastering engineer is part scientist, part alchemist and part musical psychologist. Above all, the mastering engineer has a highly trained second set of dispassionate ears necessary to truly get the best out of your project. While mastering software and plug-ins are easily available to the home user, this is not the time to go it alone. Mastering may have a reputation for being stressful and expensive, but the payoff is enormously satisfying.

Noah Mintz is one of the proprietors at Toronto mastering facility the Lacquer Channel. He is the embodiment of a mastering engineer: ingenious, enthusiastic and passionate about his work. He is almost messianic about the mastering experience being a transformative one on music, and to a certain extent, on its makers.
Mastering is a curious, intense experience according to Mintz. "It's the most gratifying part of the recording process because it's the end. The band's super-excited to get it done — it's like you're really doing them a service, to be part of that process. They work sometimes for years, and it all comes down to one day. It's a lot of pressure when you think about it. You concentrate ultra-hard for eight to ten hours; what you walk away with is what you're going
to manufacture."

Mastering is a combination of aesthetic and scientific factors, which is the main reason engineers believe that mastering at home is not a good option. "The whole point of mastering is to have an objective ear specifically trained for mastering," Mintz explains. "Mixing and recording are very, very similar because they deal with individual instruments; mastering doesn't deal with individual instruments anymore. If you've got somebody who's in that mindset, it doesn't work for mastering."

Mintz and his brethren use specially equipped studios to create the final two-channel mix with track information, and other extras. The aim is to achieve a balanced frequency range and consistent levels from track to track, comparable to other commercially available discs. Often projects originate from different studios or from different producers; the mastering engineer must find the common sonic ground and make the listening experience consistent. Other typical challenges include punching up certain parts of a mix without affecting the overall volume, and doing master fades or transitions between tracks. Nevertheless, despite the changes to the final mixes, Mintz maintains that the master must preserve the intent of the original mixes while enhancing other functions — and never at the cost of degrading the overall sound.

The investment that goes into a mastering studio — from tuning the room to the purchase of outrageously expensive gear — can't be reproduced at home on the cheap. "Having the right tools is very important — I truly believe that cheap equipment has no place in mastering. The ‘do no harm' philosophy can't be achieved
with cheap plug-ins."

With the emphasis on quality above all, mastering carries with it the stigma of an expensive luxury. It's tempting not to want to spend any more money than is necessary at a point where your budget may have already been exhausted by tracking and mixing. Mintz is very aware of the money stigma, and is always willing to work things out. "One way of doing it on a budget, if you want great mastering and you can't afford it is to talk to the engineer and say ‘We'll leave you the album, you've got two weeks to do it, here's our budget' and chances are they'll do it. Because when you've got three days free, why not make a little extra money?"

Mastering studios, like most other parts of the music industry supply chain, have had to adapt their business models in the last few years to attract independent projects and labels with more modest resources. In Canada, a full-length mastering session is usually less than $2,000 — sometimes even half that — compared to $6,000 at a well-known mastering studio in the States, and Mintz states confidently that there are at least three mastering rooms in Toronto with world-class facilities.

The time-honoured full-length album or CD is a less hegemonic format for music than it used to be, which poses challenges to the task of mastering. 5.1 Surround Sound mixes and the rise in popularity of non 16 bit 44.1 khz (CD standard) file types such as MP3s are just two of the new technical and aesthetic issues yet to be resolved. Mintz is up for the challenge. "In the next five years, MP3s or some compressed format will sound better than CDs because they're being made from the original mastered source, which is 24 bit or better." This may drive the need for even more precise and expensive equipment at the mastering level, in the same way that HDTV has forced TV to raise its production values. The value of having a trained craftsman on your side becomes even greater.

The experience of mastering forms a strange bond between the artist and the professional who's transforming your music with what seems like sonic fairy dust. Mintz has felt the love, and it's one of the best parts of the job. "With mastering it's just one day — you're best friends with the mastering engineer for one day, and they're your buddy. Then you don't really have to see them again. And that's okay."

Helpful Links

Andy Krehm's mastering tips
Craig Anderton's guide to mastering on the computer
Joao Carvalho Mastering
Lacquer Channel
Scratch Free Press

Frequently Asked Questions

Is mastering for vinyl different than mastering a CD?
Mintz says that mastering for vinyl isn't tremendously different than for CD, except the master is quieter than for CDs. Nevertheless, traditional limitations of vinyl still apply. Music that is dynamic and aggressive takes up more room. The louder a mix is, the less running time you have. "When people come in with hip-hop mixes with a lot of bass, we're lucky if we can get eight minutes on a side of 33," Mintz says. Mastering for vinyl requires a finished product that isn't going to stress the tonearm and needle with too-narrow grooves containing too many extreme frequencies and amplitudes.

Is there anything a band can do to make the mastering experience easier?
Most mastering engineers started their careers in a conventional studio environment before focusing on the two-track experience. According to Mintz, "Stop listening to commercial CDs while you're mixing. Listen to them for your musicality, not your mixing. Mixing's about getting the balance right; let mastering take care of the levels. Mix it the way you want it to sound, not the way you think it should sound. If you have a really good stereo buss compressor, you can use that. But if you're ‘mixing in a box' — such as in Protools — this won't help."

What's up with the so-called "level wars"?
One of the aims of mastering has always been to make a song stand out on the radio by brightening the sound. Since CDs can only go up to 0db in volume, by the mid-'90s there was a trend to reduce the dynamic range of discs to make them sound louder overall. Mintz explains, "We tend to get tired listening to three or four songs in a row of [aggressively mastered] music; there's a high frequency mushiness, almost like a weird high frequency distortion. In 1992, Rage Against the Machine had maybe 8 dbs of dynamic range; in 2001, they had maybe 1 or 2 db. In the mastering process, it's called the level wars and it's why albums are sounding worse and worse. On a CD changer or on the radio it's got to be as loud or louder as the song before. On the radio, compressors already take care of that. The loudest album I've heard is John Mayer, the second is Celine Dion — they're disgusting on a sonic level."