Hippocratic Mastering

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This looks pretty long, which bit should I skip to to get the to the good stuff?

If you already know all about mastering then you probably don’t need to read this at all. The internet is your oyster, go look at a monkey peeing in its own mouth or something.

If you know absolutely nothing about mastering, and would like to know at least a little, then it would probably be a good idea to read the whole thing. Yes, I know, its long winded, pompous and filled with bad jokes. But you never know, you might learn something. Possibly even about mastering!

If you just want the answer to a specific question, well, have you noticed that the sections are headed with questions? This henceforth unused method of onscreen organisation should help with your FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTION™.

So, what is Mastering?

Originally, mastering was simply the process of transferring a finished mix to the intended listening medium, which at the time was 78rpm vinyl. What is now commonly referred to as “mastering” is actually “pre-mastering”, i.e. preparing the audio for its transmission to a finished “master”. The process of this transmission, now typically performed at duplication plants, was originally performed by the mastering engineers (or ME for short), as the production/mixing/mastering/duplication happened at the record companies themselves.

Now, the term “mastering” typically refers to the act of optimising the sound quality, running order, track spacing and noise floor of any given piece of audio in preparation for its realisation as a finished product (and I use the term product as simply a way of referring to a finished item so please don’t be offended or alarmed if you object to the commercialisation of music in some way), whether that be a CD, Vinyl, digital download, DVD or any number of other formats that may exist today or in the future.

OK, all very clever, but what does it mean for me?

Let’s split this up into a list. I know everyone loves lists.

1. Well mastered records sound better - bigger, clearer, wider, more coherent and, yes, louder (hopefully not too loud, but more on that later).

2. Well mastered records have a track spacing that makes artistic sense, highlighting the contrast and flow of the music. Any fades at the beginning and end of the tracks sound natural and appropriate for the music.

3. Well mastered records are free from pops and clicks that may have slipped through the mixing process, as well as any noise that detracts from the music.

4. Well mastered records include any ISRC or UPC/EAN codes that the artist/label requires embedding, as well as any credits, notes or CD text that are asked for.

5. Well mastered records adhere to any standards required, such as the Red Book Standard for CDs, and include a PQ sheet for the manufacturing/duplication plant to reference.

6. BADLY mastered records actually sound worse than the original, unmastered mixes.

Woah, hold on a minute. So mastering can actually make my music sound worse?!

Yes, BAD mastering can do untold damage to your carefully crafted mixes; destroying balances, mangling high or low frequencies, and introducing horrible distortion through an over-use of brick wall limiters or clipping. A good mastering engineer is like a good doctor, and the first rule of his oath is do no harm. If something makes the mix sound worse, it should not be done. Of course, a bad mastering engineer would have no problem giving your delicately balanced mix an unwanted boob job and any amount of unneeded botox if it made his dick feel bigger (apologies to all the female mastering engineers out there, I’m sure you can think of a suitably disgusting replacement metaphor if you want to). You can probably tell a bad mastering engineer when your master comes back and it sound nothing like the mix you sent in. If you wanted it to sound nothing like the mix you sent, you would have sent a different mix, right?

Once again, the number one rule for any good mastering engineer is do no harm. I cannot stress this enough. The ME should be enhancing the mix, not changing the mix.

That’s not to say that a good mastering engineer might not use certain trickery to alter internal balances a little for the benefit of the production, such as bringing the vocal to the fore with a little judicious use of EQ. The important thing is that any processing that is done to the mix should be in the spirit of what already exists.

Seriously, do no harm.

Look dude, I don’t want to be a mastering engineer, that’s why I am at this site, so you can save the lecture.

All I’m saying is that it’s helpful to understand the broad philosophies involved in good mastering in order to understand the process itself and the benefits you may or may not derive from it. But I can see that I’ve hammered the point enough (too much?) now, so I’ll move on.

So, what do mastering engineers actually do?

The typical mastering process begins with simply listening to all the tracks that are to be included in the finished product and deciding whether there is anything that can be done at this stage to make them sound better. If the answer is no, congratulations, you have made an absolutely outstanding mix with perfect impact, tonal balance and coherence with the rest of the tracks around it. Of course, these situations are rare, and there will usually be something that can be done to improve matters. Things that can be done might include equalisation, compression, limiting and all other manner of techniques.

The important thing to understand is that each production, and each product, must be treated as an individual piece of sound (within the context of the tracks around it of course) and there is no one process that is applied to every master. Sure, I might use a certain, subtle amount of brick wall limiting 95% of the time, but knowing the 5% of the time not to use it is just as important. MASTERING CANNOT BE ACCOMPLISHED EFFECTIVELY USING PRESETS, whether they are on a plugin in your computer or simply a default idea in your mind. Could you imagine deciding what to wear for a day hiking outdoors without knowing anything about what the weather and conditions are likely to be? I wouldn’t want to be the guy who turns up to climb mount everest in swimming trunks and a vest. That would just be embarrassing.

Generally, the results speak for themselves. If it sounds better than before then it doesn’t really matter how the result is achieved. If it sounds worse than before then something has gone badly wrong and a change needs to be made.

Can mastering make my terrible mix sound good?

Unfortunately not. Mastering can improve a terrible mix to an extent (and any good ME will absolutely try and improve it as much as they can while retaining the original spirit of the recording), and it can certainly take a mix from “good” to “great”, but there is a limit to what can be done. Think of mastering as a full wax and shine for your audio - a full wax and shine is not really going to help your battered 1978 Ford Escort in the same way it might your full on Jeremy Clarkson speed machine. Sorry, you can probably tell I don’t drive here.

If in doubt, the old “lipstick on a pig” analogy should suffice. Not that I just compared your music to a pig!

What equipment do you use to master?

This question isn’t really relevant as by far the most important piece of equipment in any mastering studio is the engineer’s pair of ears. If the engineer only has one ear then we might have a problem, but assuming both are present and correct then we should be OK. As far as I’m aware you can’t read reviews of different pairs of ears on Harmony Central or Gearslutz so you’ll just have to judge them by the work they do.

That isn’t to say that the quality of the equipment being used isn’t important. It certainly is to the engineer that is using it. Without an accurate acoustic environment and a decent monitoring chain (monitors and converters, essentially) then the mastering engineer will have no idea what he/she is actually hearing and will have no reference on which to base his/her decisions. Processing equipment, be it analogue or digital, is also important and every engineer will have his/her own favourite pieces of gear.

However, unless you know the particular equipment the mastering engineer employs intimately yourself, and I mean have actually used it at least a few times and not just read about it or watched low resolution YouTube clips, then you can not base any opinions on the quality of the ME on their equipment preferences. I don’t mean this in a disparaging way - why would you have big experience of mastering gear if you are not a mastering engineer?

One thing that you can easily judge a mastering engineer on is credits. Has the ME done consistently good work that you think sounds good? There is no way you will like every record a ME has worked on, and there is no way you will like how they all sound either, but it becomes pretty easy to check out the broad quality of someone’s work if you listen to a selection of records they have mastered. If I want to get a cabinet made and am looking for a carpenter then I will look at the quality of the cabinets that person has made in the past. I don’t really give a shit what make of bandsaw or hammer they use but if that kind of thing floats your boat then please do enjoy the search.

What do I need to send the mastering engineer?

The mastering engineer needs the highest resolution (sample rate and bit depth) version of the final mix that you have for each song. Typically, this 44.1khz (sample rate) and 24 bit (bit depth) in .wav, .aif or .sdII format, but it could easily be 48, 88.2 or 96khz and 16 bit. Other possibilities exist but these are the most likely sample rates and bit depths. Please, no mp3s, .wmas etc. If you are unsure what any of this information means then by all means ask.

If you want to send any vocal up, vocal down, guitar up etc versions in addition to the main mix then feel free to do so. Just make sure that you are absolutely clear about which version of the mix you want to use (by marking is “MAIN” or something similar) and any considerations you may want the ME to take into account (for example, you might say “I’ve got a feeling the vocals on this song might be too quiet so I’ve included a vocal up mix, feel free to use it if you agree”).

If there is a version of the mix that has been compressed/limited more (for example, a lot of mix engineers limit their mixes to send to clients for approval in order to obtain a “competitive” level) then please include this as well for reference, clearly labeled with “LOUD”, “LIMITED” or similar.

The ME will also need a track listing for whatever product you are making, be it CD, digital download, vinyl, etc, and ISRC and UPC/EAN codes if you need them embedding. If you want any credits included then also let the ME know.

PLEASE MAKE SURE THERE ARE NO SPELLING/FORMATTING MISTAKES IN YOUR TRACK LISTING. You can only get this right once and plenty of bands spell words wrongly on purpose to be cool, so the ME can’t correct your spelling for you. You don’t want to accidentally become one of thoze bandz that uzez zedz inztead of ezzez, do you?

Should I compress, EQ and limit my mix on the stereo bus?

This is a tricky subject. Many mastering engineers will tell you to use no processing on the stereo bus at all. It’s true that this can make the MEs job easier but there are often time when judicious use of compression or EQ on the whole of the mix while mixing makes the mix quicker, easier and better. By all means leave this processing in if you are confident in your choices. If you are unsure of the exact effect the processing is having on your mix or whether it is better with or without it, then you would be best to remove it before sending to mastering or including two versions, one with processing and one without.

One thing that can severely hamper the mastering engineer is when he/she is sent a mix that has been brickwall limited. Brickwall limiters, such as Waves L2 or the many others that are now available, should typically be used last in the chain and including them on the mix you send ties the hands of the ME to the extent that any further processing is very difficult.

Remember - compressors and EQ can add to the vibe and tone of the mix. By including a brickwall limiter on your mix, all you are doing is chopping off the peaks and preventing the ME from getting the mix as loud and clear as it could otherwise be. Please don’t chop the heads off your mixes, they will appreciate it come mastering time!

Can you make my mix louder/how loud can you make my mix?

Part of mastering is bringing the audio up to optimum level. “Optimum level” as defined by certain people who should know better has got louder and louder over the years, to the point that many modern pop records have less than 3db dynamic range. When you bear in mind that a CD has a theoretical dynamic range of 96db you can see that this might not be the best use of the medium! A super loud master with no dynamic range will be the audio equivalent of turning down the contrast on your TV - there’s no black or white, just a muddy grey.

Of course, in a world of ipod shuffle it’s necessary to have a level that at least is somewhere near to the average volume of other commercially available music. In addition, in a world where music is often consumed through headphones and on car stereos, the dynamic range has to be limited somewhat in order that the quiet sections can be heard over the background noise without the loud sections blowing your head off!

What’s important is that the music is not damaged in this process. Remember, do no harm. The extreme brickwall limiting that is required to get a super loud master causes audible distortion - that’s just the way it is. If you want a super loud master then you will have to live with a certain amount of distortion and pumping.

It is, however, perfectly possible to get a nice, loud sounding master without completely destroying the song. Just understand that there is a limit. If you want a master louder, your mastering engineer (including me) can make your master louder and will do so. Just don’t expect there to be no adverse effects. You might make your ME cry as breaking the mastering oath (do no harm) is an emotional thing, but if you think it’s best for your music then screw them! Remember, it’s your record not the MEs!

If in doubt, remember that the listener does have access to a volume knob and they are not afraid to use it, so give them a little respect!

How long will it take?

A typical album should take no longer than a day to master. EPs should be 3-5 hours, depending on the material and the amount of processing required. If you require a recall to make some tweaks after the event it should normally take, at most, couple of hours to sort out, unless the problems are extensive. Of course, there are exceptions, but the figures mentioned should serve as a good guideline.

How much will it cost?

Prices for mastering vary considerably. At the highest end of the scale you might be looking at paying over £2000 for the mastering of an album. Personally, I currently charge £20 per track, which I feel is an extremely generous rate for the service I provide. One thing’s for sure, whoever you use to master your album, there are almost certainly both cheaper and more expensive options. The decision should be based on your budget and what you feel about the quality of the MEs work.

Can I get a free sample/do a shootout with another engineer?

Lots of mastering engineers will master one track for free as a sample, myself included. The proviso is that if you choose to use the master for anything then you pay for it. The same applies to shootouts with other engineers (when 2 or more engineers are asked to master the same song and the ME who does the best job masters the album), though you should avoid comparing every engineer in the phone book/on google in this way and try and limit your options to 2 or 3 solid choices. People, even mastering engineers, don’t like to feel like they a part of some kind of macabre lottery or, even worse, house hunting process!

Can I attend the mastering session?

Most engineers will do both attended and unattended mastering sessions, though the attended variety are often more expensive. Personally, my rate is currently the same whether the session is attended or not, though it is often beneficial for the client to come in later on in the process when the majority of the processing is done rather than sitting at the back of the room bored for a few hours.

Should I/my friend/the mix engineer master my record?

One of the main advantages of hiring a mastering engineer to master your record is the fresh perspective that he/she brings to proceedings. He/she can hear things in your mix that you can’t because he/she listens as a listener not as someone who has been mixing the song for 10 hours. If mastering is done by the mix engineer then the audio processing part of the mastering phase does not make sense - why weren’t those changes made during the mix if they were such obvious problems?

The other factor that comes into play is experience. Any given ME will have mastered many, many records. This is likely to be a significantly broader range of experience than anyone other than a dedicated ME. Mastering is like anything else - the more you do it the better you get.

Anyway, feel free to master your own record. You might do a stellar job. And I mean that sincerely, not as some kind of snide remark! Just bear in mind the potential pitfalls of doing so.

I have more questions, what should I do?

Feel free to email me at tdwoodhead@gmail.com



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