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[Front End] Understanding Mastering

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[Front End] Understanding Mastering

Postby DMS System » Sun Apr 25, 2010 9:15 pm

This is a blog post. To read the original post, please click here »

Written by Edward Vinatea

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.

Some Perspective
These days a large majority of people are recording either at home or at project studios; some artists can afford to use mid-level facilities while fewer and fewer, whether billed by their own labels or not, are willing to pay for major recording studio fees.

It's also apparent that "project studios" are now everywhere as a direct result of these technological advances in computers and the consequent lower prices on music software and recording equipment. But, the quality of the results varies enormously and you usually get what you paid for. Therefore, it's important to keep in mind that project studio work may, or may not necessarily mean good quality results.

Mid-level facilities, on the other hand, have better results because they are usually operated by the more experienced engineers charging as much as $40 an hour (or much more). They also attract the more serious artists or recording projects from labels. These facilities are now capable of delivering the kind of sound quality only major studios were able to achieve in the past but at a much lower financial cost to the artists.

Having said all this, what we usually listen to these days on iPods and other type of mp3 players is the end result of all that; a mixture of well made old records from the past converted from vinyl and/or cd, decent amateur recordings, professional quality indie music, and the current major label releases of today which are recorded at reputable major studios. What is also unfortunate though, 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 and are coming from many sources that may have not been optimized for the desired target format.



The process of mastering for good speaker translation to all of these different sources can be a daunting task and a real challenge to any so called mastering engineer. But, a seasoned mastering engineer listening inside an acoustically fine tuned "mastering room" should adjust the recordings and compile them with a similar frequency balance and perceived loudness to a final storage medium for proper translation {e.g. wav computer file, CD, tape reel, etc}.

As one can see in the illustration, there are many targets to hit and the resulting master source will have to translate or sound 'on point' on those speaker systems to be considered a well done mastering job. However, the results are always best when processing from great sounding mixes, that is, great mixing is the key to a great master.

Having said all that, and since the subject at hand is "mastering", we will not discuss recording or mixing techniques and will concentrate all our attention only to the subject of mastering. I also have to add that -in my opinion- “mastering” is often a very 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 types of code programming {e.g. ISRC, UPC bar and text for CD}. Some mild signal processing maybe required in order to create a cohesive audio material.

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 "industry standards" (or whatever this means these days). 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 at 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 right and displayed or presented correctly.

A mastering engineer {ME} should be able to make a great mix sound louder, punchier and clearer better than anyone and without significant sonic sacrifices. Next to experience, one has all the tools needed, e.g., the gear and the acoustic environment. But, one 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 a crucial step 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 noise and harmonic distortion 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 harmonically imbalanced master recording will be sent to the manufacturing plant for mass replication.


Realistic Mastering Results:

  1. Bad mixes always yield bad masters, no exceptions.
  2. Mediocre mixes yield inconsistent mastering results. However, some significant improvements are usually achieved when done right and some results may even meet industry standards.
  3. Good mixes are always elevated to industry standards and sometimes the results are even dramatic.
  4. 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 {10+ 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 .

Because even for one to arrive to the conclusion that the mix is perfect and will translate fine on all playback system, it 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 sounding just right, it's actually going to be degraded in sound quality at this last step by the incompetency of an inexperienced mastering engineer.

That said, bad mixes can potentially sound a bit better, although never like 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 enough 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 even for free, but don't expect him to volunteer an opinion. You need to ask for it first. One 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 one for one's patience, great suggestions and professional advice.

Again, don't expect this to be part of the service; the most successful mastering engineers have very good reasons not to form opinions on anybody's mixing work and they just process what is given, no questions asked. Some fear that they may offend the sensibilities of the mixing engineer. Therefore, due to the nature of the business this could represent to some ME's a big conflict of interest; one that they don't want to touch with a 10 foot pole.

I certainly will not discuss a mix that came from a record company (especially major), but I might do it 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 (as close to flat response).
  • 3. An acoustically ‘conditioned’ room (as accurate as one can get it to be).
If you don’t have 2 and 3, do it at your own risk.

1- A Digital Audio Workstation

I don’t want to get focused on this requirement too much. Many of you know about workstations and computers more than I, 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 high quality 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.

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.

2- 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 true frequency response of the recorded sound. I doubt you are going to find quality speakers that can respond relatively ‘flat’ at less than $500 each. Thus, those $300 a pair speakers that you use for mixing will only make the mastering task a whole lot more difficult to accomplish.

However, nothing is impossible when you have good ears or instinct for sound, and the knowledge of an accurate Real Time Spectrum Analyzer ("RTA"). Ah, I and that controversial subject again.

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

3- Acoustically conditioned room

The room you use to monitor 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. To make things more difficult, if the room is also flawed with comb filtering issues or acoustical interferences, then the speakers you use for monitoring sound might be rendered either 'not-so-accurate' or almost 'useless'.

Because sound always 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. Even distance, angle can change that perception. You can improve upon room acoustics with sound traps, sound deflectors and acoustic treatment, or by hiring an acoustics engineer to re-design an existing room or to build a new one if necessary. If you choose the latter, you’ll be required to invest some serious $$.

Realistic Mastering Results

  1. Bad mixes yield always bad masters, no exceptions.
  2. Mediocre mixes yield inconsistent mastering results. But, some significant improvements are usually achieved when done right and some results may even meet 'industry standards' (or whatever that means these days). Here is where the experience of the ME might save the project and the day.
  3. Good mixes are always elevated to industry standards and sometimes the results are perceived as dramatic.
  4. 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 decent mix can be mastered and the sound quality can be raised to "industry standard", but this can never be accomplished with a poorly engineered record. It's never going to 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 time after time, do all the mixing-mastering (or mixtering) work in the same place and/or have a budget set aside to buy all the basic gear needed and build a frequency response accurate mastering room in your home/studio, or have plenty of time on your hands to practice the art of mastering, it's simply a lot faster and cheaper to hire a professional mastering engineer within your album's budget today, than trying to learn something that's going to take a very long time to sink in tomorrow.

Edward Vinatea
Mastering Engineer
Website: EV Sonic Lab
Edward Vinatea is a mixing and mastering engineer who has worked with artists of the likes of Cindy Blackman Santana, John Davidson, The Shirelles, Geri King and many more.
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  • Re: [Front End] Understanding Mastering

    Postby acme-studio » Sat Jun 18, 2016 10:50 pm

    This was an old locked topic thread moved from the old forum to new mastering forum now open for discussion.
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