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Understanding Mastering

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Understanding Mastering

Unread postby Edward Vinatea » April 25th, 2010, 5:15 pm

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The first mastering engineers were people in charge of cutting a flat transfer of the sound recording from reel tape to a disc, and thus, it was the advent of the tape recording technology what allowed for the first time these audio technicians or "mastering engineers" to modify, edit and sequence the content of any recording prior to cutting to a disc.

This disc would be used as the "master" for mass replication, hence the word "mastering". In those days it was a mundane function that any beginning audio technician could perform inside a four wall room. The main part of this function, but not the only one, was to check upon the sound quality.

As years went by and progress in audio technology was made, mastering engineers started to use two key sound reinforcement pieces of gear: the audio compressor and the equalizer. The recordings could now be tonally changed and re-balanced to optimize transfers to disc. By the 1950's, this skill of optimizing the disc's physical constraints gave mastering engineers a new-found importance, and they were - from then on - considered to be in a league of their own.

Technology has advanced to a point that is conceivable to create records very inexpensively. Most musicians today, especially those in the indie circuit, are recording and mixing their own music like never before. But unfortunately, technology alone doesn't necessarily guarantee the making of great records.

The large majority are recording either at home, or at project studios. Some artists can afford to use mid-level facilities while fewer and fewer are willing to pay for major recording studio fees these days .

It's also apparent, as a direct result of the technological advances in computers and lower prices for music software and recording equipment, that project studios are now everywhere. But, the quality of their results varies enormously and you usually get what you paid for. Therefore, a project studio's work doesn't necessarily mean good quality results.

Mid-level facilities, on the other hand, have usually better results because they are operated by the more experienced engineers who can charge as much as $40 an hour or more, and can attract more serious artists or recording projects. These facilities are now capable of delivering the kind of sound quality only major studios were able to achieve years ago.

Having said this, what we usually listen to these days on iPods and other type of mp3 players is the result of all that; a mixture of well made old records that were converted from vinyl and/or cd, decent amateur recordings, professional quality indie music, and the current major label releases which were recorded at reputable major studios. What is also unfortunate is that the absolute trash from someone’s bedroom now gets shuffled around with all these good or great recordings. In other words, the sound quality of records is pretty inconsistent these days.

The process of mastering from all of these different sources would be a real challenge even to a seasoned mastering engineer. But, if need be, a real mastering engineer listening inside an acoustically fine tuned "mastering room", would attempt to adjust each of these recordings and compile them with a similar frequency balance and perceived loudness to a final storage medium {e.g. wav computer file, CD, tape reel, etc}. However, a mastering job would be rendered best sounding when processing from a final mix because mixing is the key to a great master.

Since the subject at hand is mastering, we will not discuss recording or mixing techniques, and we'll only concentrate all our attention to the subject of mastering. However, and in my opinion, of course, “mastering” is often a misunderstood and a highly ‘overrated’ process, one that needs to be put in a realistic perspective

What Is Mastering?

Short Answer:

Mastering is the last step in the recording process conducted by an experienced and specialized sound technician who checks the quality of the audio or music for best system translation, preparing the audio content for both, mass replication and broadcasting. This preparation may consists of track sequencing {order of the tracks}, track pq coding or pre-gapping {the spaces between the tracks} and other code programming {e.g. ISRC, UPC bar and text for CD}.

Long Answer:

From a historical point of view, the name is ' pre-mastering', and "mastering" used to be referred to the creation of the replication medium {the master} needed at manufacturing plants. These days, pre-mastering is synonymous of mastering, which, from a technical point of view, is also the process of optimizing all individual frequency levels to meet the industry standards. For the most part, this process is source dependent, so the better your mix, the better the results to be obtained. Because of this, results vary from recording to recording, making it a crucial step for best system translation.

One way to look at the mastering process is publishing on the internet; while it has given everybody the freedom to create web pages on just about any subject, there is usually no good editorial content. A mastering engineer acts sort of like an 'editor', making sure that anything written is spelled out and displayed correctly.

A mastering engineer {'ME'} should be able to make a great mix louder, punchier and clearer better than anyone else and without significant sonic sacrifices. Next to experience he has all the tools needed, e.g., the gear and the acoustic environment. But, he is certainly not the deciding factor to achieve great recordings. Since many mixes don't come out, in terms of tonal balance 'perfect' all of the time, mastering takes also the crucial role to improve upon system translation by means of harmonic balancing.

In addition, many engineers regard their mastering process as adding impact, color and vibe, which is fine, as long as they don't introduce too much circuit oscillation noise in their signal chain. The job may also include disc assembly and quality control for manufacturing purposes.

What is a mastering engineer required to have in order to provide this service?

Mastering can only be done inside an acoustically fine tuned, neutral response room, or one that can control sound reflections. In addition, if an inexperienced engineer is performing this task without the guidance of a spectrum analyzer, chances are that a flawed master recording would be sent to the plant for mass replication.

Realistic Mastering Results:

Bad mixes yield always bad masters, no exceptions.

Mediocre mixes yield inconsistent mastering results. However, some significant improvements are usually achieved when done right, and some results may even meet industry standards.

Good mixes are always elevated to industry standards and sometimes the results are even dramatic.

Great mixes meet by default ‘industry standards’, but with the exception that there is usually little room for improving upon system translation, and the ideal RMS level which has to be finalized. In most cases, other than increasing loudness, the results may only be perceived as subtle.

Grading Mix Quality

You may ask the ME to critique or grade your mix, but this isn't really something that should be expected free of charge. Some engineers consider this a consultation and because it does engage their attention and it takes time, it requires paying a fee. Your miles may vary, but grading a mix from the usual ‘A’ as the best mix and’ E’ the worst, you can expect a good mastering engineer to raise the quality to about half grade, e.g, from a C (mediocre) quality to a C+.

Or, we can also grade with a 5 star rating system: from an 'A' grade mix (ImageImageImageImageImage) to the lowest, 'E' grade mix (Image).

That being said, 5 star mixes are extremely rare and requires an engineer with many years of experience {15+ being the usual}. This also means that other than to boost and match levels, very little or nothing will be done to the mix. Does that sound to you like cheating? It's not, mastering is not always about what you do to a mix, but what you don't .

Even to arrive to the conclusion that the mix is perfect and will translate fine on all playback system, requires many years of mastering experience, a very good monitoring environment, or both.

Also, a highly skilled mastering engineer using quality tools to process can probably raise the quality by one whole grade, e.g., from 'B' (good) quality to 'A' (excellent).

This is why it’s important to choose a reputable mastering engineer. If you don’t, this mix that you have spent lots of money and time to get just right, it's actually degraded in sound quality by the incompetency of a mastering engineer at this last step.

So, bad mixes can potentially sound a bit better, but will never sound like those well mixed records, and there is certainly no chance at all that it will sound like a mix produced at a state-of-the-art facility.

If you are not sure you have a good mix, seek professional advice. A reputable engineer can tell you what you really have if you ask politely and are patient with his busy schedule. Some give you this advice as part of their mastering fees.

A mastering engineer who wants you as a client might tell you exactly what is wrong and what needs adjustment, but don't expect him to volunteer his opinions. You need to ask for it first. He may also not even charge you for this expert opinion because after you make the new revisions, you'll probably be more inclined to hire him for his patience, great suggestions and professional advice. Again, don't expect this to be part of the service; mastering engineers have very good reasons not to form opinions on anybody's mixing work and they just process what is given to them. Some fear that they may offend the sensibilities of the mixing engineer. So, due to the nature of the business, this could represent to some ME's a big conflict of interest. I certainly will not discuss a mix that came from a record company, but I might if I am asked by a newbie engineer. Now, if you want to attempt doing this mastering work all by yourself, please read on.

The Three Main Conditions For DIY Mastering
In order to attempt mastering your own mixes, you need to have at the very minimum the following:

1. A Digital Audio Workstation {DAW} with a mastering software installed.
2. A pair of fairly ‘accurate’ speaker monitors.
3. An acoustically ‘conditioned’ room.

If you don’t have 2 and 3, do it at your own risk.

A Digital Audio Workstation

I don’t want to get focused on this requirement. Many of you know about workstations and thus, I’ll keep it simple. The DAW is basically a computer system with an audio card to capture and to output sound. Better results can be achieved by adding AD/DA signal converters, though this benefit comes with a higher price tag; there are some converters that are a lot more expensive than both the computer and mastering software put together. But still, there are units that accomplish the job under $1,000.00.

If you can’t afford converters, you can attempt mastering in the box (ITB) with decent results. As long as you stay in the digital domain, you’ll be fine.

Fairly ‘accurate’ speaker monitors

If mastering depends on what you hear, then you can’t skimp on these items. If you thought about mixing and mastering your music, then you need a pair of monitors that reveal the sound’s true frequency response. You are not going to find speakers that will respond relatively ‘flat’ at less than $500 each. Thus, those $300 pair of speakers that you use for mixing will only make the mastering task a lot more difficult to accomplish. However, nothing is impossible when you have good instinct for sound and the knowledge of an accurate Real Time Spectrum Analyzer or RTA.

Warning: If you do both mixing and mastering {even with mastering speakers} you may still miss or not be able to clearly hear rogue frequencies/peaks or flaws created at the mixing stage.

Acoustically conditioned room

The room you are in is essentially the place where you do your critical listening and all your compression and equalization decisions. Most people know that the room you record in should not be used to mix and master as well, thus having one room to record and one to monitor is the ideal situation. But, having an extra room is a luxury that many don’t have. If the room is flawed with comb filtering issues or acoustical interferences, the speakers you use for monitoring sound could be rendered either 'not-so-accurate' or almost 'useless'.

Because sound bounces on reflective boundaries, the shape of a room and even the contents in it can be a big factor in how sound will be perceived. You can improve room acoustics with sound traps and acoustic treatment, or hiring an acoustics engineer to re-design an existing room or build a new one. If you choose the latter, you’ll be required to invest some serious $$.

Realistic Mastering Results

Bad mixes yield always bad masters, no exceptions.

Mediocre mixes yield inconsistent mastering results. But, some significant improvements are usually achieved when done right and some results may even meet industry standards. Here is where the experience of the ME might save the project.

Good mixes are always elevated to industry standards and sometimes, the results are even dramatic.

Great mixes meet by default ‘industry standards’ and there is usually a little room for improving upon the translation and RMS level. Other than increasing loudness, the results may only be perceived as 'subtle'.

To recap, there can’t be ‘great’ mastering without ‘great’ mixes to begin with. A good or a decent mix can be mastered and the sound quality can be raised to ‘industry standards’ but this can never be accomplished with a poorly engineered record. It just won’t happen, if your mix is bad, then expect disappointing results.

Conclusion: Unless you never second-guess your own mixes and consistently produce an outstanding work, and/or have a budget set aside to buy all the basic gear needed, build a frequency response accurate mastering room in your home/studio and have plenty of time on your hands to practice mastering, it's simply a lot faster and cheaper to hire a professional mastering engineer who is within your album's budget today, than trying to learn something that is going to take a very long time to sink in..

Recommended reading:

Mastering Myths

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Edward Vinatea
Mastering Engineer
Website: Edward Vinatea Sonic Lab
Edward Vinatea is a mixing and mastering engineer who has worked with artists of the likes of Cindy Blackman, John Davidson, The Shirelles, Geri King, Op Critical and many more.
Edward Vinatea
Mastering Engineer
Mastering Engineer
Posts: 670
Joined: March 16th, 2010, 10:12 am
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