Posts Tagged ‘ Mastering ’

Why mastering is so delicate

Mastering is no playground. Of the entire production workflow, mastering is the most critical and fragile stage. It’s also the easiest to screw up. I don’t mean that to discourage you or put you off, but to warn you to be careful. Generally, there are three reasons to be careful about mastering.

Intense listening

Of all the production stages, mastering requires the most intense listening. It’s the most demanding of your cognitive capabilities and the most draining. You’ll probably find that you get tired faster when mastering, compared to most other production activities (such as recording or mixing).

Keeping this in mind, I suggest scheduling mastering work in the morning. This is when your ears are fresh and clear. It’s also when you have the most energy to devote to the task. If you’re mastering when tired, you’re more likely to overlook details that normally wouldn’t escape your notice.

Detailed work

Mastering also requires the most detailed work. You might not worry about 0.5dB when adjusting the EQ on your guitar amp, but in mastering a 0.5dB change might require very careful consideration. This is because theres no such thing as an isolated adjustment in mastering – every change to a mixdown’s tone or dynamics affects multiple instruments (and psychoacoustic aspects) of the song.

Because of this, I suggest approaching mastering in the same way a doctor approaches a patient – “First, do no harm”. Start by listening. Then listen some more. Think about what you might adjust, but keep listening. Make the adjustment, and then listen more. Also, try to keep the adjustments subtle. Mastering is not the place for dramatic processing.

No safety net

Mastering is the most critical stage of production – it’s the very last stage of processing that your song will undergo. It’s the last chance to make it sound good. Or conversely, it’s the last chance to screw it up. Once mastering is complete, that’s it. You can’t smooth over any mistakes without going back and doing it again. There’s no opportunity to fine-tune the sound any further. When you finish mastering, what you hear is what your listeners will hear.

This is why it’s so important to be careful when mastering! You must do everything you can to make the finished product the best it can be. That means taking the time to get it right. Don’t take shortcuts, don’t settle for ‘good enough’. There’s no safety net – this is where the buck stops.



Hierarchy of production, and why mastering is overrated

Mastering is the least influential part of making a recording. It has the least effect on the effectiveness of your creative expression – your ‘sound’.

It might sound obvious, but if you want a particular kind of sound, it starts early in the processes – as early as possible. Every subsequent stage of production has a smaller and smaller influence on the end result. The most influential part of making a recording is the initial concept and composition. A great song will shine through mediocre production, but a mediocre song will bore even with great production.

A hierarchy might look something like this:

  1. Concept. This is the initial set of decisions around what the recording will sound like. The decisions at this stage are (or should be) the driving force behind the direction taken at every subsequent stage. This is where the creative direction is established.
  2. Composition. Call it songwriting, call it beatmaking, call it programming. This is the stage where the individual notes are chosen.
  3. Performers / collaborators. These are the people who play the music. Sometimes there is one person that plays all the instruments who is the same person that composes the song. Other times the composer might not perform any of the instruments on the recording.
  4. Instruments. Now we start getting into the sound. Notice that the first three items are all about the notes and the performance. It’s only after these have had their effect that the sonic choices start to matter. The choice of instruments includes the choices of which family of instruments to use (e.g. guitars vs keyboards) and which variety of instruments to use (e.g. Strat or Tele).
  5. The recording engineer. The recording engineer is the person who is responsible for capturing the sound of the instruments. This includes making creative (and practical) decisions such as room acoustics, mic choice, mic placement, initial processing chain and recording medium.
  6. Recording tools. The relationship between the recording engineer and her/his tools is similar to the relationship between the performers and their instruments. While it is the tools that we ultimately hear, the decisions around which tools to use and how they’re used are more important. Recording tools also include the recording medium (e.g. 44.1k vs 96k or disk vs tape).
  7. The mix engineer. The mix engineer is the person responsible for balancing the sounds captured by the recording engineer. As a reader of this blog, you are probably a mix engineer (possibly one of your many hats). Even though there are some neat tricks (like reamping or pitch correction) at the mix engineer’s disposal, ultimately this job is limited by what was captured by the recording engineer and what was played by the performers.
  8. The mix tools. Noticing a pattern here? The relationship between the mix engineer and the mix tools is just like the relationship between the performers and their instruments and between the recording engineer and the recording tools. In this case, the mix tools include the console/DAW, outboard/plugins and mixdown media.
  9. The mastering engineer. Once the mix is done, the mastering engineer prepares the mixdown for distribution. This requires a different set of skills and different way of listening (compared to mixing). In many cases, it also requires different tools. The mastering engineer is the person who makes decisions around how the mixdown is prepared – usually involving changing the tone and level (and sometimes, dynamic behaviour) of the mixdown so that it compares favourably with similar commercial releases.
  10. The mastering tools. And this is the end. The mastering tools are the least influential part of the production process.

In this context, you can see that if you are responsible for making creative decisions, your efforts are best spent on having a clear creative direction, guiding (or participating in) the composition process, and ensuring the performers are all contributing their best.

Trying to achieve a certain type of sound through mastering is approaching it from the wrong end.


The difference between mixing and mastering

Are you still confused about the difference between mixing and mastering?

Do you think you’re mastering when you use a limiter on your mix bus? Do you avoid the term ‘mastering’ because you’re doing it yourself? Do you have trouble explaining what you do when you’re finished mixing? The difference between mixing and mastering is becoming more and more blurred.

In simple terms: Mixing is what you’re doing when you’re balancing the individual elements of a song. Mixing starts with several individual tracks (usually one track per instrument or sound), and finishes with one (usually) stereo track – the ‘mixdown’ – that sounds like a combination of all the individual tracks.

You know you’re mixing when you’re working with the individual sounds within a song.

Mastering, on the other hand, is what you’re doing when you’re preparing a mixdown for duplication or publication. This is often within the context of a ‘release’ – a collection of several songs that are published as a package. Mastering starts with a mixdown for each song, and finishes with audio that is ready for the world to hear.

You know you’re mastering when you’re making the final adjustments to a mixdown before the audio is considered ‘final’ and ready for your audience.

Notice that I didn’t mention tools. The tools you use don’t define the process – you’re not mastering just because you’re using a ‘mastering’ limiter. You’re not mixing just because you’re loading plugins into a mixer window. Instead, the process defines the tools – it’s the intent of what you’re trying to achieve the counts. Choose whatever tools are necessary to get you there, regardless of how they’re labelled.

For example:

  • Sometimes a single is ready for publication as it comes out of the mixer (perhaps with the help of a limiter on the mix bus ). It doesn’t matter that the whole process happens within the mixing environment – mastering is choosing the start and end points and applying the mix bus processing. Hopefully it also included a reference to other comparable commercial releases.
  • Sometimes a song requires some compression on the mix bus. This can make the individual tracks gel together, and even produce a distinctive pumping sound. It doesn’t matter that this is achieved by processing the mix bus (or even the stereo mixdown) – mixing is focussing on the sound of the instruments to make them blend well and express the creative direction of the artist and producer.
  • Sometimes a song needs to be converted to MP3 (or other lossy format) for online distribution. The processing that happens as part of the conversion is a part (hopefully the last!) of mastering because its goal is to prepare the audio for distribution. It doesn’t matter whether this is achieved by an external program program or your built into your software’s export function.

If you confuse mixing and mastering, you’ll lose focus of what you’re trying to achieve. If you try to master when your mix isn’t finished, you’ll waste trying to solve problems on the mix bus that are best addressed in balancing individual elements within the mix. You’ll also be waste time fine-tuning a treatment (processing chain) for a mix that will later change. On the other hand, if you try to adjust the balance of instruments when you’re mastering, you’ll find it difficult to do it effectively without unintentionally changing other parts of the mix. If you try to ‘mix into’ a mastering chain, you’ll easily find yourself chasing your tail in an infinite loop of adjusting the mix, adjusting the mastering chain, adjusting the mix again to compensate, adjusting the mastering chain again…

It’s important to separate the two processes – not necessarily by using different tools (although that helps), but by being clear in your own mind where mixing ends and mastering begins. It will help focus your workflow goals and ultimately make your work more efficient, effective… and more fun!


Mastering doesn’t make your song sound good

That’s right.

Mastering will not save your mix. It certainly won’t save your song. Forget it. But you knew that already. Common wisdom is that mastering will only make a good mix better.

Well, it doesn’t.

And if it does, you’ve either got problems with your mix that your mastering engineer has generously offered to smudge, or you’ve got wool in your ears. Probably both, actually.

Don’t believe the hype. Mastering isn’t about making your finished mix sound better. Not at all.

Mastering is about making your finished mix translate.

It’s about taking a mix that sounds great in your studio, and translating that into a mix that sounds great on your chosen target distribution medium (which usually means ‘everywhere’). That usually involves controlling two aspects of the sound – tone and headroom. The tone is adjusted to make the overall spectral balance comparable to other music on that medium. Unlike popular mythology, tone isn’t ‘sweetened’ in mastering (it might be during the mix though!). This tone adjustment should be as subtle and transparent as possible. The idea is to do as little damage to the creative decisions that were made in the mix. The headroom adjustment is to ensure the sound is at an appropriate level within the dynamic range limitations of the chosen medium. Obviously this usually means ‘making it louder’, but also remember that not all music needs to be crushed to the point where the character of the mix changes. Like tone adjustments, this should do as little damage to the mix as possible.

The relationship between a good mix and a good master is similar to the relationship between a good performance and a good mix. A good performance will still shine through a bad mix. Likewise, a bad performance isn’t elevated at all by a good mix. A good mix doesn’t improve any performance. It’s just a clear presentation of that performance. And it’s the same for mastering – a good master doesn’t improve the sound of the mix, it’s just a clear presentation of that mix.

Mastering can’t make a good song better. It can’t make a good mix better. And it certainly can’t make a bad one into a good one. I’ve written more about mastering here:


Mastering article on ProRec

It seems ProRec is back online, and they’ve published a new article I’ve written. It’s a step-by-step explanation of the mastering process, using a specific song as an example. It’s an account of ‘a day in the life’ – Two And A Half Hours(including lunch) To Master A Single.

  • 10am-10:30am – Finding Reference Music
  • 10:30am-11am – Technical Preparation
  • 11am-11:30am – Technical Audio Analysis
  • 11:30am-12pm – Fine-Tuning Level, Tone, Width and Headroom
  • 12pm-12:20pm – Rest Ears, Have Lunch
  • 12:20pm-12:30pm – Final Check, Trim and Fade, Export
  • Bonus: Tips For A Better Mix Next Time

If you’re interested in mastering your own music, check it out:


Frequency analysers and mastering

Sometimes frequency analysers can be used in mastering. Of course your ears should be the ultimate decision maker, but an analyser can be useful as a ‘second opinion’. It can help sway you one way or another if you’re unsure about something.

There are, however, some issues to keep in mind when using frequency analysers when mastering:

  1. There are differences between analysers. Different analysers have different options and defaults for frequency tilt, time constants, resolution, etc. What one analyser shows as a straight line may look like a gradual rolloff on another. One analyser might show show short-term peaks differently to average level, whereas another might only show the peaks, and yet another might smooth everything out to show only averages. Configurations options might appear similar in some cases, but it can be difficult to know exactly how they’re implemented ‘behind the scenes’. Solution: If you’re going to use a frequency analyser (or, really, any kind of analyser) make sure you pick one and don’t use any others. Get to know how it responds to different signals. Don’t get distracted by comparing its readings to the readings from other analysers.
  2. There are differences between songs. Just because your reference song has a certain shape in a frequency analyser, it doesn’t mean your song must have the same shape. Different voicings and dynamic behaviour will cause two songs to sound different with the ‘same’ frequency balance, and sound the same with a different frequency balance. Further, non-technical aspects of music (such as structure, pace, harmony, etc) will also have an impact on how the audio sounds, which affects the frequency balance that is required in order for the song to sound balanced. Solution: Recognise that frequency analysers only measure some technical aspects of audio, and that music is much more than what can be revealed by a frequency analyser. The analyser is not a source of truth.

Ultimately, the only ‘analyser’ you should trust is your ears. Your tools can be helpful in some situations, but only if you understand their limitations.


Five secrets to making your mix louder

Don’t dismiss this post yet! Even if you’re in the ‘more dynamics’ brigade, these tips will give you clearer mixes that suffer less in mastering. That means better-preserved dynamics and higher fidelity!

For those of you who really do want your mixs SUPER LOUD, this tips will let you push more volume without your sound turning to mush.

  1. Go easy on the bass. That includes sub bass, kick and melodic bass. It always tempting to turn them up, but the low frequencies really use up a lot of headroom (high peak level for the same perceived volume). The more headroom your audio needs, the less you can push it in mastering and the worse it will sound when it’s pushed hard. First try to compare your bass levels with commercial reference songs. Listen carefully to the level of the low frequencies in comparison to the rest of the spectrum – you might find there’s less than you initially thought! Also consider saturating the kick or the bass.
  2. Saturate those peaks. Take a look at your mix bus peak meter to see if any tracks are ‘poking out’ of the mix – often it will be the kick or the bass. Used carefully, you can use saturation to reduce the peak level of your kick or snare tracks without reducing the perceived volume. Often peak level reductions of 6-9dB are easily attainable without adversely affecting the audio quality. Limiters are usually not so useful here because they’ll tend to change the sound too much.
  3. Embrace the background. Push some instruments further to the background. If you try to put too many sounds in the foreground you’ll end up with an indistinct mush. This indistinct mush will quickly become even worse when you apply heavy limiting in mastering. Instead, try to identify the three or four most important elements of the mix (typically the snare, kick, bass and lead synth/vocal). Be bold and push everything else to the background! You’ll get a mix that’s more focussed and more powerful.
  4. Leave your stereo widener at home. Stereo widening tricks might be fun to play with, but they’ll rob your mix of punch and power. If you want those foreground sounds (snare, kick, bass, lead) to hit as hard as possible, stay clear of any stereo width manipulation. Some subtle widening is sometimes useful for special background effects, but remember – if you do it, do it in moderation.
  5. Be careful of the lower mids. The region between 100Hz and 1000Hz is the cause of many troubles. It’s very easy to put a mix together that has a lot of mud build-up in that area. To get the ultimate clear mix, get brutal with an EQ! Make some big dips in the lower mids for all background instruments, and make sure you don’t have any excess lower mids in your foreground instruments. You need to keep some lower mids, because that’s where your body and thickness comes from. Here’s a secret though – a mix with body and thickness only needs a few foreground instruments to have that body and thickness. To put it another way, a few fat foreground instruments makes for a fat mix. A lot of fat instruments makes for a flabby mix.

With these mixing tips you should be able to get a few more decibels of clarity in mastering!