A (Not At All Definitive) Guide to Mastering

We’ll be hitting the lecture couch again in just a few days when we kick off Red Bull Music Academy in New York. Over the past 15 years, we’ve hosted some of the finest mastering engineers in the world. They’re names you may not immediately recognize, but the records they’ve worked on are. Among them? Amy Winehouse’s Back to Black, Jay-Z’s The Blueprint and Nirvana’s Nevermind. There were many recurring themes and lessons from these lectures, so we’ve gone ahead and distilled some of that knowledge into one place. (If you’d like to watch the full lectures, simply click on the first instance of each engineers name.)

The studio at Metropolis Mastering The studio at Metropolis Mastering MASTERING IS...

Stuart Hawkes: What is mastering? To me, I think, it is a quality control to some kind of degree.

Tony Dawsey: Mastering is like icing on the cake. If you ever had some cake before, a little icing on it, if it’s a good cake, makes it that much better. I’ll take what people give me and I try to make it a little bit better.

John Dent: Sometimes the mastering engineer is the only professional in the chain, especially if you’re doing it all yourself. A lot of record labels like the fact that at least someone is listening to it before it’s released. We pick up on stuff, like bad edits and bad sample edits, clicks and glitches. We put the magnifying glass on it.

Mastering is that last bit of spit and polish. - Rick Essig

Rick Essig: It’s really just having hopefully somebody you trust as that last set of ears to listen to your record and make objective changes. Because you’re so close to your own record, it’s tough to really make informed decisions on what may not sound right. I am that extra trusted set of ears to say, “You know what? We could probably fix it by doing a little bit of this and a little bit of that.” It’s that last bit of spit and polish.

John Dent: When you’re making your own tracks, most people are absorbed with the content. They’re looking at the instrumentation, the arrangement, the general vibe of the track. And when people bring stuff in to me I can tell what they’re trying to do. But sometimes there’s an enormous difference between what people bring in and what they really want. And that’s what my role is. It’s to supervise that process.

Tony Dawsey: These days, you can have an album that is 15 tracks and you could have seven different producers and it could be done in ten different studios across the country. That makes it a little bit more challenging to get it very consistent across the board. So that seems to be the biggest challenge these days to master engineers: To try to get a project consistent from track to track.

John Dent: Say you’ve got an album of ten tracks, and you string them together. They may not relate to each other, but you can play it and enjoy it. If you give that to someone to play in the kitchen, and they have to adjust the volume from track to track, they may not decide it’s OK. You take it for granted when you buy a CD that you can put in the player and listen to a performance that starts at the beginning and finishes at the end. I’m one of the guys who make sure that journey is the right kind of journey.

 

John Dent John Dent MASTERING IS (ALMOST) ALWAYS NEEDED

John Dent: Probably one track in 50 that I receive in my studio I actually hardly have to do anything to. Most music does need some kind of attention at the mastering stage.

Chris Palmer: There are about three engineers in the whole world that don’t get EQed when they go for masterings. Everyone gets EQed. The mastering engineer EQs everything, trust me.

Stuart Hawkes: There are times tracks arrive and I literally can't do anything to improve them. I remember I had a client a couple of years ago, a French guy who used to bring loads of jazz albums to me, and he brought this album, he came all the way from France with a bit of an entourage, and I listened to it and I literally couldn't do anything to it. It was already perfect, it sounded good, it was all balanced and I said: “I can't change it, it sounds great,” and he went away and I never saw him again. But to say that you can't improve it at all? I would say that’s maybe one track in 50.


Howie Weinberg Howie Weinberg Credit: Evans Vestal Ward THE CLIENT IS (ALMOST) ALWAYS RIGHT

Howie Weinberg: One of my first directions when taking on a project is talking with the artist about what direction they want. Do you like a big bottom sound? Do you want this or that and a lot of times they say, “I don’t know, do what you want” or sometimes they say, “Yeah, I want it to sound this way or that way.” I’m here to make my clients happy, I’m not here to cause problems. I’m here to make somebody’s vision happen in the end.

Rick Essig: I have clients where I couldn’t listen to what they want me to do. It would drive me insane. But the client is the client and I am a service guy. Some guys want it super stupid bright, other guys like a lot of low end and they don’t like it so bright. It’s always a personal taste.

Howie Weinberg: It’s always very important in any field, to suss out a client. Maybe they don’t know! Maybe you can find a way to help them find their vision. Do they want to have a big wall of sound, do they want to have a big wide sound? Or they can play you a record and say, “I want it to sound kinda like that. I want it to sound like this, a little ’60s, ’70s, I want ’50s.” You want to eliminate the grey area basically.

I’m not in a rush to hit the knobs until I’m sure what it is they’re trying to say. - John Dent

John Dent: As an engineer I’m not actually in a rush to hit the knobs or change the sound until I’m sure what it is they’re trying to say. I have been known just to spend all day playing the tracks for the project, trying to work out which tracks sound the best before you start. You can use those tracks as a yardstick for the album and nudge everything else up until it sounds as good as that.

Howie Weinberg: At this point in my career I just want to make my client love me. So he’ll just bring me all his records forever. In any way possible, I would have this client [satisfied], he would walk out of that room going, “I like this guy, when I have more records I want him to do 'em.”

 

Stuart Hawkes Stuart Hawkes TO COMPRESS OR NOT TO COMPRESS, THAT IS THE QUESTION

Stuart Hawkes: I don’t particularly like getting tracks completely uncompressed and uncontrolled, where the producer or engineer just assumes we’ll compress it at mastering. That can change the balance of the mix. It is better as a producer to get as close as you can throughout all stages and hope that by the time you get to mastering the compression is done. I have always felt that if a track is mixed correctly, it shouldn't really need any compression at the last stage, everything should be sitting properly anyway.

Tony Dawsey: What happens a lot these days is an engineer will do a bit of pre-mastering, so to speak, and what you end up finding is that there’s no headroom. We get the tape, and it’s slammed in terms of too loud and crunchy sounding from them compressing it or making it loud and we don’t have the headroom to be creative and do our thing.

Chris Palmer: The more dynamic the actual mix is, the more I can do with it once I’m mastering it. The harder I can push. If it’s too compressed, it’s harder for me to do my job.

I don't have a little button that says get rid of the distortion. - Stuart Hawkes

Stuart Hawkes: Plug-in’s are fine, and you can’t stop people doing their own mastering and doing their own squashing of a track, but can I have the one without all the plug-in’s? Let's have two versions and let's compare them, because if there is only one version and it has been squashed and compressed and distorted, I can't undistort it. I don't have a little button that says get rid of the distortion.

Rick Essig: Never put two track compression on a mix. Make it sound as good as you can and then let the other guy do it. When you have the headroom to do that it’s much easier, and it sounds much better. Whenever they ask me, I say, “Just don’t put it through anything in the end.” Don’t worry about how loud it is, that’s the last thing you should be worrying about.

John Dent: Often it’s a good idea to send copies of the limited compressed version and the raw uncompressed version, so I can see what the difference is and what you want out of the track. The equipment in the studio is more subtle and we can achieve bigger and better levels without losing too much. So it’s nice to get an idea of what you want without having the whole thing compressed out.

 

Tony Dawsey Tony Dawsey THE LOUDNESS WARS

Tony Dawsey: I think records these days are crazy, crazy loud, much louder than they were in the ’80s.

John Dent: To me, loudness has always been there. I worked on the Motörhead stuff and Motörhead have got be loud. You looked at the way the engineer produced that material, he’d put the tape on and the needle on the VU would go up to plus one and wouldn’t move. It’s not loudness, which is subjective; loudness isn’t the same as hammering something with a limiter. A well-recorded piece of information can sound loud without necessarily being loud.

Stuart Hawkes: What has fuelled the volume issues on CDs is one-upmanship. People take their CDs home from mastering, and it's not quite as loud as something else, so they push it a bit more.

I’m one of the culprits [behind] this loudness war. - Howie Weinberg

Howie Weinberg: I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had a very big producer or a very big record company guy say I need it to sound as loud as this guy’s record or that guy’s record. For many years I wanted to become big in this business, so if my records are louder than everybody else’s, then… I’m one of the culprits [behind] this loudness war. But over the years, like anything else, I’ve had a few that were maybe too loud but maybe not, and the client loved it! I made the client happy, even though maybe some people complained it was a little too loud.

Stuart Hawkes: A lot of it is down to confidence. It's just about everyone having their records bigger and better, as I guess it is possibly going to sound more impressive and then sell more. But I’m not sure if there is really any proof of that whatsoever. Everybody wants to record sound a little bit louder than everybody else's, so it creeps up slowly and you end up with a standard which is ridiculously loud and distorted. But to do something quieter, and avoid this distortion, it is going to sound like less of a record. It’s hard to get everyone to buy into that, because it is a business and record labels want to sell and they want to sound bigger and better. I would say that we hate it as well, but it's kind of the nature of the beast to some degree and it is hard to turn it back.

Howie Weinberg: You’re probably thinking anybody can just turn the volume up, and put it through a finalizer or something. But there’s an art to making loud records, which I think I’ve mastered so to speak.

Everybody wants to be louder than everybody else, so you end up with a standard which is ridiculously loud and distorted. - Stuart Hawkes

John Dent: There’s two things going on with this high level stuff, especially if you want to be the hottest band on the block. It’s like a litre of water – you can only put one litre of water in a litre bottle and CD has a digital ceiling. One way people have got their music noticed is to find clever ways of compressing and limiting and cranking the whole sound up. If you’re a thrash metal or grunge band and that’s part of your sound, no problem. But be aware that with any recording there’s a natural maximum level. Sometimes that takes a little while to work out. Sometimes I’ll do something, then go back to it a day later and decide it’s too loud. That’s common. My first instinct, and I think it comes from my work with vinyl, is to go for a slightly louder thing, but then I’ll rein it back a little bit. But if you rein it back too far, it becomes less interesting, the sound and reverbs go into the background and you don’t have this kind of impact. So there’s a window, and I try to work within that window.

Stuart Hawkes: I keep reading about this thing that is going on with the Metallica album. There is a petition at the moment to get it remastered because people thought it was the mastering, whereas it wasn't. It is so loud it is distorting and it is difficult to listen to. It is mastered by Ted Jensen, a very good mastering engineer in New York and he was obviously quite annoyed that he was getting the finger pointed at him because he has gone online now and written this letter saying this is how the masters were delivered to him. You can't do anything with it once it is truncated and squashed and sounding nasty. Hopefully it will be the beginning of the end of this ridiculous volume thing. But, again, who is going to want a quiet CD first?

 

The console at REM Sound The console at REM Sound COMPARE AND REFERENCE

John Dent: One of the things I would suggest that you do: Input tracks that are already out there, place these tracks on your workstations and make the comparison. This is the kind of thing that I do every day when people bring tracks in. You may think you’ve got a loud sound or a big sound, but maybe you’re just monitoring too loud. Be aware of what you’re doing compared to what’s out there.

I’ve heard great records come out from people’s basements. - Rick Essig

Stuart Hawkes: I find if you're getting stuck or are unsure – especially with clients in the room – that it helps if they bring in their own stuff to reference against so that everyone is clear about monitoring. Because I couldn't walk into a studio and start mastering on a set of monitors I have never worked on before, so it is a bit unfair when people turn up and expect artists to give opinions on what I'm doing and if they like it or not. “Do you want to try this or this?” They're not familiar with the monitoring that we are using, so it's important people bring in reference CDs to get them used to the speakers.

Rick Essig: A lot of times new clients will say, “Here is my record, here is this Dr. Dre record. Make my record sound like this record.” Well, sure, it’s not going to happen. Dre has the people around him that know how to put a record together. That’s why this record sounds like that. If that really is your goal, and you have the system in your house, put the Dre record up. How does the Dre record sound on your system? Try to make your mix sound as close to that as possible. You may have a crappy system at home, but the whole comparative thing is what you can really get your ears to tune into. I’ve heard the worst records in the world coming out of The Hit Factory, [and] I’ve heard great records come out from people’s basements.


TURN IT DOWN

Tony Dawsey: Sometimes people come in wondering if the vocals are loud enough. I have a little trick I do. It’s no secret. We turn the music down quite low. Even at this level you should understand what the artist is saying. The music shouldn’t overpower. You should be able to understand very clearly what’s being said.

Chris Palmer: I got the best advice from an engineer called Jay, he mixed Prince’s Black Album. He said, “Put the mixdown to a soft [volume] level where you can just hear – quite soft, but not too soft that you can’t hear. If you can hear everything clean and balanced when you listen to it that way, your mix is right.”

 

WATCH THE PROCESS IN PERSON

Stuart Hawkes: If you are mastering your music at a mastering facility, it is best to go along. Hopefully they’ll give you ideas about what you are doing wrong, and you can go away and use that information on your next project. If you are not there in person, you’re just going to hear the finished product – but not the thought process that has gone into it.

John Dent: You do learn a lot. For instance, vinyl is an easily distorted medium. Some singers don’t actually record to vinyl that well. I remember when I started, Queen were the house band at the studio, and Freddie Mercury’s voice wouldn’t record to vinyl very well. There were big efforts made to find the right microphones, and the right way of getting that sound of his through onto vinyl. His vocals were spitting, very sibilant, it was quite a distraction. So when you attend the mastering session, simply come away with some information that will help the next mix you do.


SECRETS? THERE ARE NO SECRETS

Howie Weinberg: The only secret is years of experience. With mastering, the number one secret is having done maybe 3,000 records. You have a problem? I’ve had that problem 50 other times and I’ve solved it, so you’re just 51 on the list. It’s all about experience, experience, experience in mastering, there are no real secrets.

Tony Dawsey: I’ve been doing this for a long time, so I bring a certain amount of experience to the table. Instantly when I go and play something back in my room, I go: “Uh, it needs a little boost on the top end,” and I start working on that. Or if I notice that the bass needs a bit boost, I immediately attack that.

It will take you a good couple of years before you actually start hearing the difference. - Chris Palmer

Rick Essig: If you were lucky enough to get in the door of a good studio back when I started, you were taking out trash cans, getting coffee, just the lowest-of-the-low bullshit. But that’s really how you got into it. First of all they find out if you are serious about it – because you’re there about 90 or 100 hours a week. But that’s where you also get to see these guys do this stuff. You get to see how signal paths works, what a signal path is, what’s actually happening to the sounds from either the guitar or vocals all the way through to the final tape. There’s a lot of stuff going on, and it’s a big juggling act to get a good sound on tape. I mean, that process, just learning how to do that, you can’t buy that kind of stuff.

Chris Palmer: When you’re new to producing, you won’t hear the difference. It will take you a good couple of years before you actually start hearing the difference.

A mastering studio at Masterdisk A mastering studio at Masterdisk AT THE END OF THE DAY...

Tony Dawsey: Don’t get me wrong, the mastering can make a world of difference. But you’ve got to take each step of the process; the recording and the mixing and the mastering and try to get it the best you can. Don’t be an engineer that shortcuts it and says, “I know my mix ain’t good but we’ll fix it in the mastering.” If you want to have one of the best sounding records out there then each of the three steps have to be done as well as possible. There’s no such thing as bringing in a crappy sounding mix and when you leave mastering, it sounds like the best record in the world, it just doesn’t work like that.

Howie Weinberg: There has to be something there to begin with, OK? I’m not a magician, I can’t go “POOF” and make somebody’s crappy sounding record sound as good as some of the big boys. I don’t make the hits; the hits are made way before I get them.

Tony Dawsey: You can’t polish a turd. If it doesn’t come in sounding like something in the ballpark, you ain’t going to get it.

Howie Weinberg: In this day and age where equipment has got so good and so cheap, everybody making records is even. Once that bar has been dropped, it all comes back down to content. Can you write songs? Can you make beats? Can you make exciting records? It’s all come back down to the music, which is really what it’s all about anyway.
 

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