RoundUp: Mastering Tools
The controversy is over: We all know there’s a reason why pro mastering
engineers using high-end analog gear are pros, and we also know it’s
possible to do a more than credible job of mastering in the project
studio with plug-ins. The whole point is to make your final mix sound
better—and no one really cares how you get there, as long as it sounds
This special section on mastering has several elements. This month, “Sounding Board” features comments from project studio owners about how they master in the “real world”—sometimes under major time and money limitations (and there’s additional info from them at www.eqmag.com ). The second section is a roundup of affordable software mastering tools with highlights, strengths, and limitations. Next, we approached some of the top mastering engineers on the planet to get their exclusive take on what it’s like in the high-end world—with many lessons that apply to the project studio. And finally, we’ve included links for the companies mentioned in all of the mastering-related sections—a good thing, too, because most of the software that’s covered has downloadable demos so you can give the programs a spin in your studio.
SOFTWARE MASTERING TOOLS
Want to master “in the box”? You can: The difference between quality software tools and quality hardware continues to narrow.
We won’t cover individual plugins; there are a zillion companies making individual plug-ins, and we can’t do justice to all of them. But we can cover the main editing platforms, as well as a few plug-in suites that are representative of the genre.
As to detailed comparisons and evaluations, it’s not really necessary: Almost all of these programs have downloadable demos. Grab ’em, do your homework, and figure which works for you. But the following—in no particular order—should point you in the right direction. (All prices are MSRP/list prices.)
Sony Sound Forge 9
Sound Forge has been around since the mid-’90s, which in software years, makes it about 3,000 years old. So why is it still successful?
First, it’s a boring program—and I mean that in a good way. It doesn’t crash, it doesn’t pout, the learning curve is almost a straight line, and perhaps most importantly, Sony hasn’t messed with an exceptionally straight-ahead interface. When changes have been made, they’ve made sense—for example, including noise reduction tools and CD Architect as part of the program rather than optional extras, supplementing their original plug-ins with masteringquality plug-ins from iZotope, and integrating surround/multichannel operation in a simple, obvious way.
Sound Forge is a workhorse. When someone from a competing company asked me why I still use it, I said “Well, there’s this one keyboard shortcut that has probably saved me dozens of hours when doing narration” (it pre-rolls audio before a splice, then immediately picks up after the splice). That’s why being around for a while has its advantages: There are lots of little goodies that come only from a user saying, “You know, it would be really great if you just . . .” and then having someone implement it.
Strengths: User interface so simple you could be unconscious and still make it work. iZotope plug-ins. Very useful noise reduction tools. Includes CD Architect.
Limitations: No spectral editing. CD Architect doesn’t do ASIO. Some of the older plug-ins are showing their age—the time-stretching needs work.
This is a program where if you say, “Can it do this?” the answer is invariably “yes.” Multitrack editing? Yes. Burn data CD- and DVD-ROMs of audio and video projects? Yes. Author DVD-A? Yes, with remarkably complete authoring facilities. Includes cool plugins? Yes. Ah, but I bet it can’t print labels or covers for your CDs, right? Wrong. The answer is “yes.”
Remarkably, Wavelab is essentially the work of one person, but that hasn’t slowed down progress. Wavelab 6 adds really good spectral editing, and superb pitch-shifting/time-stretching. Surround editing is offered, as is downmixing. Wavelab also has great mastering tools, including Bob Katz’s K-Metering system, loudness corrected bypassing (very cool), analysis tools, and of course, lots of plug-ins as well as the ability to host other plug-ins.
Even more interesting, Wavelab segregates its various functions well so you’re not faced with unneeded options—you could go for years without knowing it does multitrack processing unless you investigate the “Montage” feature. Although Wavelab is an extremely deep program, you seldom feel overwhelmed.
Yes, it’s not cheap. But if you don’t need all the functionality, there are two “lite” versions that have most, if not all, of what you need.
Strengths: Adopted the motto “Yes, we can” long before the Obama candidacy. Great authoring options. Extremely complete feature set, with each update adding significant enhancements. Stable.
Limitations: The interface could use a few cosmetic tweaks, and a really good loudness maximizer wouldn’t hurt.
BIAS Peak Pro 6 XT
This is the version with everything—Peak Pro itself, Master Perfection Suite of mastering tools, and SoundSoap Pro restoration software (if you do restoration, you want this) as well as the standard Sound- Soap. Peak Pro, which lists for $599, lacks only the Master Perfection Suite and restoration tools (although it does have SoundSoap LE and Reveal LE). And, the Peak LE version (covered in the 01/09 issue) does what most people will need for $129.
While I’ve used Peak for Mac projects since version 1.0, it was never my go-to editor But over the years, BIAS has been relentless about improving Peak to the point where now, it’s my first-call editor for several applications, including sound design (their DSP menu has no equal), and sample rate conversion. In fact, when working in Mac-based studios, I insist they have a copy of Peak for editing and even back in my studio, where I have no lack of software, Peak 6 often gets the call. The interface is appealing (visually as well as functionally), with a very creative vibe—it’s difficult to describe, but it’s like a piece of art that decided to be a digital audio editor.
Props to BIAS for never being satisfied; that’s what has made me satisfied with the program.
Strengths: The plug-ins have a smooth sound, and don’t add coloration other than “niceness.” Good playlist, CD authoring, burning, and loop tuning options. Artistic-level interface. Good workflow.
Limitations: The full package isn’t cheap. No spectral or surround editing.
i3 DSP-Quattro 3.0
Remember TC Electronic’s Spark audio editor? The man behind it, Stefano Daino, has transformed it into DSP-Quattro 3.0. Don’t be fooled by the price: This is a very capable program with quite a few interesting features, like being able to host virtual instruments.
DSP-Quattro does resampling, records multiple inputs in real time, offers scrub mode with a “virtual ribbon controller,” and has a robust list of editing functions (most with realtime previews) and plug-ins. The interface is appealing, too.
In addition to mastering tools, laptop fans will appreciate that DSPQuattro can host multiple instruments and plug-ins not just for off-line editing, but for realtime performance. It won’t replace MainStage, but comes closer than other digital audio editors, and supports MIDI well. And, there’s hardware sampler support— which is getting hard to find these days.
You can assemble your album, too; there’s a playlist with per-track insert effects and crossfades between tracks, image file export, and of course, Red Book CD burning.
Strengths: Exceptionally cost-effective. Many unexpected functions, like instrument hosting for live performance. Kind to your CPU. Batch processing and other advanced functions.
Limitations: No dynamics processors included with the package. No noise reduction/restoration tools.
Adobe Audition 3
Audition evolved from Cool Edit Pro, a popular Windows digital audio editor that later added multitrack capabilities. Although recent revisions have concentrated on beefing up the multitrack aspect—rewritten audio engine, mixer, MIDI support, etc.—Audition has retained what made Cool Edit Pro desirable, including a comprehensive suite of plug-ins (now augmented by some iZotope technology, including their timestretch algorithms) and nearly artifact-free sample rate conversion.
For mastering, Audition offers superb spectral editing so you can surgically remove specific frequency ranges; for example, breathing sounds from a classical guitar recording, or only the kick drum and triangle from a drum loop. Overall, the noise reduction, restoration, and analysis tools are excellent. I’ve even used the click remover on guitars sent through digital processing to smooth “spikiness.”
Navigation is a little more awkward than some other programs, but you get used to it. Plug-in chaining is done through a “rack” plug-in. Overall, many studios that could afford anything do their mastering with Audition—which tells you something right there.
Strengths: Very complete feature set with outstanding restoration tools. Cost-effective. Switches easily between multitracking and editing views.
Limitations: Multitrack capabilities don’t equal programs like Pro Tools, Sonar, Cubase, etc. Navigation could be smoother.
iZotope Ozone 4
Ozone, long a mainstay mastering plug-in for Windows, now supports the Mac. Ozone is the choice of many project studios for mastering, with good reason: There’s a complete suite of mastering tools, including EQ, analysis, multiband compression, limiter, high frequency “exciter,” stereo widener, mastering reverb (don’t laugh, I use it often for narration), and a variety of test equipment. That may sound like a Ronco commercial—“It equalizes! It compresses! It whitens and brightens!”—but especially considering the cost, you get a lot for your money.
Ozone 4 has a redesigned, friendlier interface with far better preset management, along with new presets. But the biggest update is Mid-Side processing (which allows for more flexibility when using EQ, exciter, reverb, and dynamics), and the option for multiband processors to “learn” the frequency spectrum and create bands based on that data. This makes it much easier to find a good starting point. The maximizing processor has been improved too, and preserves transients better.
Strengths: One-stop shop for your mastering needs, presented as a plugin for your digital audio editor of choice. Set up everything, save it as a preset—done.
Limitations: Relatively inflexible approach compared to the à la carte approach to plug-ins.
Har-Bal Harmonic Balancer
This arrived with a flurry of controversy due to the over-the-top marketing, but after the smoke cleared, Har-Bal has gone on to become many a mastering engineer’s “secret weapon.” A standalone program, Har-Bal presents a tweakable graph of a file’s spectral response, averaged over time, into 1, 1/3rd, 1/6th, or 1/12th octave responses. Click/dragging the graph changes the response.
It takes some practice to recognize the difference between, say, a rogue resonance introduced by a room (which you want to draw out) and a resonance that’s part of an instrument (which you want to leave intact). Once you figure that out—and throw on just a teeny bit of their “Air” effect—Har-Bal makes a very easy-totweak EQ.
Some people still think Har-Bal is spectrum-matching EQ; it isn’t, although you can compare spectra. Har-Bal is much more than that, and personally, it is the one mastering tool I use on almost every project, regardless of genre.
Strengths: In the right hands, Har- Bal is a novel, useful mastering tool that excels at putting EQ under the microscope, and showing you where it needs to be fixed.
Limitations: Stand-alone only. Takes serious practice to use it well.
IK Multimedia T-RackS 3 Deluxe
(Windows/Mac, $499.99, standard version $229.99)
IK was ahead of the curve with the original T-RackS; although limited by the digital audio technology of its time, many musicians took to it as a quick, easy way to improve the quality of mixed sound files.
The new Deluxe version has nine processors (Classic Compressor, Classic Multiband Limiter, Classic Clipper, Classic Equalizer, Brickwall Limiter, Linear Phase EQ, Opto Compressor, Vintage Compressor, and Vintage Program EQ), while the standard version has the four “classic” modules. These are connectable as two 4-stage parallel chains feeding a 4-stage series chain, and the modules can go in any order. T-RackS 3 introduces extensive metering capabilities, as well as internal oversampling. (Note that while it can work in stand-alone mode, it’s not a digital audio editing program—e.g., no waveform editing, doesn’t host external plug-ins.)
Aside from the gorgeous look, T-RackS 3 excels at making things sound good. It skirts the analog/digital divide, offering both warmth and precision; it’s also clearly designed to “master” individual tracks, like drum loops or vocals, as well as program material.
When I tried the first version of T-RackS, I thought it had potential but I didn’t really get into it. T-RackS 3 fully realizes that potential.
Strengths: Mastering chain allows for novel processor patching. New metering goes way beyond previous versions. Stand-alone or plug-in mode. Very easy to get good sounds out of it.
Limitations: No surround mastering.
BIAS Master Perfection Suite
This cross-platform plug-in suite includes GateEx gate/expander, Super- Freq EQ (4-, 6-, 8-, and 10-band versions), PitchCraft pitch correction, Repli-Q spectrum matching/smoothing, Reveal audio analysis tools, and Sqweez multiband compressor (3- and 5-stage versions). Each plug-in is available separately; most are $149, but GateEx is $59 and SuperFreq, $79.
While it’s good you can buy the plug-ins individually, there’s no filler. The EQ has a smooth, “non-digital” sound, as does the compression. Repli- Qis the best of the spectrum-matching programs (see this month’s Power App Alley on page 46), and PitchCraft works well for transposition and pitch correction, including formant preservation. For some, though, the “killer app” is Reveal, with its oscilloscope, phase scope, peak/RMS/pan metering, spectral analysis, and much more. This is the kind of plug-in you open when the session starts, and close when the session ends.
Strengths: Excellent sound quality and very useful functions cover a wide range of mastering needs. Individual plugs are available separately. Reveal rules.
Limitations: No level maximizer per se, although Sqweez comes close.
Mastering in DAWs
(Windows/Mac, prices vary)
Can you master in a DAW? These days, that’s getting more likely. Magix Samplitude was the first program to promote— fairly, I might add—its ability to master and create CDs from within a DAW. But now other programs have joined the club; Cakewalk Sonar seems to be making the most concentrated effort at become a mastering platform, thanks to the addition of phase-linear processing tools, 64-bit audio engine, and customization (the screenshot shows a custom layout I did for Sonar that emulates Sound Forge’s menus, Wavelab’s Master section, and uses the new linear phase processors). You can send the output to an archiving medium, such as the Korg MR-series of 1-bit DSD recorders, or back into the DAW for saving the mastered file in the same project as the original file. If you can’t afford a dedicated audio editor, your DAW might have most of what you need.
Strengths: No need to make an additional purchase. Stay within one environment throughout an entire project. Most DAWs also handle video, so you can edit to picture.
Limitations: Bundled plug-ins may be designed for CPU efficiency, not mastering quality. Navigation may not be conducive to straight-ahead mastering. Analysis and restoration tools, if present, are generally limited.
THE MASTERS ON MASTERING
THE IMPORTANCE OF THE SIGNAL PATH
A mastering engineer’s signal path, and complete familiarity with it, are key. It’s so important that everything in the path is transparent and adds no unwanted coloration to the audio signal. Because I often use analog, even in these days of all-digital mixes, the heart of my analog signal path is as important as ever.
In 2007 we installed Sound Performance Lab’s DMC 2-channel mastering console in my studio. The DMC sounds amazingly transparent and clean; I know I’m hearing the details of what I put through it. Ergonomically, it’s great as well. I also use SPL’s MasterBay insert switcher, which allows adding or removing my favorite analog devices from the signal path.
The proper digital audio workstation for mastering applications is also crucial. While many DAWs can get the job done, given the amount of complex work I do, great sound and efficient workflow are key. In 2005 I (and eventually all of Gateway Mastering) adopted the Merging Technologies Pyramix system, and we haven’t looked back since.
The Pyramix sounds great, and is by far the most efficient DAW I’ve used for editing, creating references for clients, and creating masters for manufacturing. The ability to network multiple Pyramix machines at Gateway has also been a huge advantage—we presently have five Pyramix systems running and networked together. —Multiple Grammy Award-winning Adam Ayan’s list of credits includes projects for such artists as Nirvana, The Rolling Stones, Linkin Park, Faith Hill, Sarah McLachlan, Tim McGraw, Rush, Kelly Clarkson, Foo Fighters, Carrie Underwood, Nine Inch Nails, Bob Marley and Incubus, to name a few.
THE SUM OF THE PARTS
My favorite “tool” for mastering is the sound of the signal path itself. The sound of your masters is really the sum of whatever comprises that chain, and a big factor in my sound is a Lavry DA- 924 digital-to-analog converter—which I think sounds amazing.
Next in line is a Dangerous mastering router, which is a very large part of why all the gear I use works so well as a chain. It’s very functional, but almost more importantly, super-clean. At the end of the analog chain, a Lavry AD- 122 converts back to digital. In between the analog chain is a somewhat revolving cast of characters (it’s not much fun to use the same boxes day in and day out!), but one constant is an EQ that started out as a Millennia NSEQ-2, and then became a totally different beast when I installed a Fred Forssell motherboard. Love affairs come and go, but the combination of the Dangerous, Lavry, and Forssell NSEQ-2 has been a constant that I don’t see changing for some time.
I also use the dbx Quantum a lot— amazing bang for the buck, but you have to spend quality time with it to see what it’ll do. I haven’t seen any other box or plug-in that handles multiband compression similarly. I do think it sounds far better at 96kHz, so I’ve been capturing at 96kHz, routing to the Quantum (and a few other digital goodies), then sample-rate converting in real time through a Lavry 3000S to the destination session at 44.1kHz. This results in sound quality (especially from mixed in-the-box digital sources) that never makes the cat’s ear twitch, if you know what I mean! —David McNair masters full time and has a room at Masterdisk in New York City. He mastered Angelique Kidjo’s Oyaya!, and is currently working on Somalian poet/rapper K’Naan for A&M/Octone, as well as Parachutes Va. for Island Def Jam.
MAKE IT SOUND GREAT!
The most important and simple lesson of mastering: Make it sound great.
I always start with a limiter or compressor. Even if I know a track is muffled and needs attention in the highs, or is conversely crispy, I always compress or limit first because I find that brings out the “space” the track will provide far more than any EQ adjustment. I pass just about everything I get through the Waves Puigchild; it’s an instant “vintage” switch, where just the act of having it on gives the track warmth and presence.
For more modern sounds, I use the Waves API 2500 as a mastering compressor. It’s surgically precise, while still retaining that ’70s feel. When a track has already been smushed during the mix, I like to limit. The Waves L3-LL series has been my go-to limiter; my first big record using it was the JXL remix of Elvis Presley’s “A Little Less Conversation” in 2003. All I used on that album was a Waves L2 limiter and the Waves Linear Phase EQ.
“Great” shouldn’t require a lot of tools. Often I find that if a track is really well-mixed, then my job is to try and stay out of the way—make it sound big and loud, but don’t color the sound.
A new Waves plug-in called Center is fast becoming part of my mastering rig. It lets you manipulate what your ear perceives as the middle of the mix . . . i.e., where the vocal lives. You can push the vocal up without affecting the rest of the track, or dial it down. It’s incredibly useful.
As to software editing: BIAS Peak. It’s stable, and the perfect host for plug-ins. I leave its Reveal metering tool running all the time; the oscilloscope, spectral analysis, phase scope, and pan power meter are essential—and having them all in one window is a real plus.
The most recent addition to the toolset is the ability to assemble and deliver DDP masters without ever leaving the program. Assembly is much like the editing environment, and when everything is living just where you want it, you simply click to export the entire project to a new folder containing everything needed to send off to duplication. They’ve also added a new dithering algorithm that sounds spectacular; I really appreciate that they never stop improving the platform. —Drew Lavyne has worked with artists such as Dave Matthews, Foo Fighters, Jennifer Hudson, Aretha Franklin, Sting, The White Stripes, Prince, Santana, Jamie Foxx, and Christina Aguilera. He mastered the remix of Elvis Presley’s “Too Much Conversation,” which went #1 in 26 countries.
KEEP THE CLIENT SATISFIED
I use both analog and digital tools, depending on the project. It’s probably best to have an abundance of tools so you can provide the exact sound the client wants.
Unfortunately most people don’t seize their tools’ fullest potential, so they never realize 100% of the benefit. Regardless of how inexpensive or costly a tool is, if you can’t grasp its total functionality, then it’s useless.
Here’s what I use for my mastering chain:
Har-Bal (PC-based): Provides an instant snapshot of the spectral content of the track, which can be corrected with a few mouse clicks.
Limiter: TC Finalizer. I use only the dynamic EQ function as a DeEsser. I also use the Expander if the track lacks punch. I set the limiter default to –0.1dB to limit any major spikes I may have missed. I’m able to correct any out-of-phase issues, as well as do MS Encoding correction if needed.
Compressor: Avalon 747sp. Anything passed through this machine sounds lovely—the SC Listen function is a lifesaver. Use minimum compression here.
Equalizer: I use the Avalon 747sp’s EQ function (seasoned to taste). Some clients prefer it crispy, while some look for warmth. Make major EQ corrections in the beginning of the chain.
Multiband compressor: Aphex Dominator 720. When used accurately, it’s literally transparent. This is a real secret weapon that glues the track together nicely.
Limiter: L2 Ultramaximizer (hardware version). Yes, this beast can be tamed when necessary! I connect the L2’s digital outs to the inputs of a TASCAM CD RW700.
I have a host of plug-ins for doing surgical corrections if necessary. Learn what these tools can accomplish if you want to become more proficient in your sound sculpting! —Atlanta-based Earle Holder has collaborated on projects with platinum artists such as Public Enemy, B5, Tameko Starr (MCA Records Europe), Chuck D, Kenny Banks, Tuere, Houseguest, Ayana, 4ize (Disturbing tha Peace, part of the Ludacris crew), JD Lawrence, and countless others.
THE IMPORTANCE OF CLEAN
If you’ve never used or seen Algorithmix’s reNOVAtor, think of it as Adobe Photoshop for audio—you can remove disturbances, clicks, pops, and even vocal sibilance. Select an area of the audio with a problem, and reNOVAtor displays it as a 2D spectrogram. Often, you can actually see the offending click or pop. Draw over the audio nasty, then hit process; reNOVAtor extracts the selection, then “heals” the resulting silence. Somehow it determines what would have happened (audio-wise) if the disturbing event didn’t exist. The manufacturer terms this as localization, or the identification and precise removal of unwanted events without affecting audio you want to keep. I call it a Godsend.
Did a cough blow the F decay of a chamber recording? Grab the audio, feed it to reNOVAtor, visually outline the cough, hit process, and it’s gone! Other disturbances that have no chance against reNOVATOR include plosive explosions, accidental stick clicks, thumped mic stands, and, of course, the garden variety clicks, pops, and blips (especially digital clocking glitches)—something I see all too much in this era of a deteriorating U.S. electrical infrastructure.
While many people use reNOVAtor to totally cut out audio events, there’s a gain control for taking only part of a “bad” event away. With sibilance, if you take out only part of the “sss” the resulting sound can be like you went back in time and reduced the offending frequencies during the original recording.
While it might not be as sexy as a vintage compressor or top-end digital EQ, I use reNOVAtor on almost 60% of the projects I work on. It salvages track after track, making it one of the tools that I couldn’t work without.
Two other tools that I couldn’t live without are my Dorrough Meters (the hardware units) and Crane Song Avocet. The Dorrough Meters give me a neutral third-party perspective on loudness and dynamic range. The Avocet is great because it plays both source and target through the same converters (you would be shocked by the number of mastering engineers who use different converters to compare source and target!). Additionally, you can level-adjust the source mix to give it relatively equal loudness to the proposed master. Without a way to turn the mix up to the proposed master level, it’s difficult—if not impossible— to tell if your equalization and other changes are helping or hurting your client’s audio. —Garrett Haines runs Treelady Studios in Pittsburgh, PA, which has mastered Kiss Kiss, The Starlight Mints, and Dressy Bessy, and re-mastered releases by Pete Seeger, Gene Autry, and Malvina Reynolds.
MASTERING ON THE MIX BUS
For my mix bus, I recently started using T-RackS 3 and it instantly became essential. My typical mix bus chain includes the Vintage 670 compressor, followed by the Vintage EQ1A, to shape the broad strokes; the Brickwall Limiter at the end of the chain makes sure the mix is nice and loud, without sounding crunched. The 670 is great— you can just pound it and it sounds like a real Vari Mu-type compressor. For individual tracks, I’ve also found T-RackS 3 useful on bass and vocals (usually the 670 and EQ1A), as well as a plethlora of other sounds. —Ken Lewis has produced or mixed artists like Kanye West, John Legend, CeCe Winans, Fallout Boy, Beastie Boys, David Byrne, Lenny Kravitz, Usher, and many others.
MASTERING TRACKS DURING THE PROJECT
I am not sure if my approach to using mastering tools is normal or not, but I kind of master a couple times in whatever session we’re working on. I’ll take all of the drums, bus them in Pro Tools to an aux track, and put a T-RackS 3 on that aux . . . so it’s like “mastering” the drums. Then I do the same thing with keyboards, and instruments—then one more aux for the vocals. I’ll put a [T-RackS 3] on my master fader too, to control the overall mix. Even if we are just recording beats, they have to be on point for [Jon] to write to, or to send to other artists to write verses/hooks to, so they need to be “mastered” as well.
I usually start with a preset and work off of it, whichever way it needs to go. When working with someone like Lil Jon who has so many things going on at once, you have to be fast, and stay fast. The T-RackS plug-ins are fast to navigate and the interface is very user-friendly, so that’s important. But also, everything sounds good with them, and they can take a beating. I just keep hoping for an update that lets you use the different EQs and compressors on their own. —Mark Vinten is the engineer and producer for Lil Jon, and also has engineering credits for Nas, Ciara, Usher, Fat Joe, and Method Man, to name a few.
HIGH-END MASTERING WITH ANALOG AND DIGITAL
A standard mastering session starts, after having a conversation with my client about their goals and desires, by listening. The most important pieces of gear are the room and my ears. My environment needs to tell me what’s happening sonically—good and bad. Only then do I start making adjustments.
Most releases today are 44kHz/16- bit, and although some clients mix to analog tape, the majority bring in files from a workstation at a higher sample rate and word length and that’s where the mastering occurs. Instead of using sample rate converters, I prefer a D/A/D conversion, using the Pacific Microsonics Model 2.
Generally, I make two types of adjustments. The first is general, “broad stroke” shaping. After converting to analog (if needed), I go to the EAR 660 compressor. It smooths out the dynamics without killing the transients, and helps “glue” the musicians together. The EAR 825, and sometimes the EAR 822/823, allow cutting or boosting wide tonal bands.
Next, I use the Weiss EQ-1—an excellent-sounding EQ, capable of very precise control for notching out problem areas. It’s also very useful for adding narrow boosts at attack frequencies to help give a little punch when needed. The top end shelving is very smooth, and opens up “air” without adding overall brightness.
After that, the Weiss DS-1 mk3 is an extremely transparent compressor/limiter with many uses beyond compression— the look-ahead feature catches dynamics in a very musical way, without getting rid of the transients. It now features parallel compression where it splits the signal, applies its compression settings to one split, then re-combines that with the dry signal. This invaluable process retains the transients and dynamics, while pulling the music forward.
Both of the Weiss pieces can do M/S processing (i.e., they change the standard Left/Right signals to Mid/Side for processing, and then back to Left/Right). Having separate control of the dynamics or the EQ for the sides vs. the middle opens up a whole new world of control. In the past, most engineers would send several different mixes of each song to mastering: A standard mix, mix with vocal up, with vocal down, maybe bass up, etc. Mix engineers don’t do that as often these days. So, being able to affect the level of the mid signal vs. the side signal is huge. Now add the ability to modify the mid and side EQ/dynamics—huge. Consider a mix where the vocal is dull but the guitars are bright. The vocal is usually in the center of the mix while the guitars might be panned to the sides. M/S capability allows opening up the vocal and even pulling back the guitars so everything sits just right in the mix. You can apply compression similarly.
I rely on Sonic Studio’s soundBlade for capture, editing and master creation— the sound is good and honest. I also use Sonic Studio’s NoNoise and iZotope’s RX for cleanup and repair work, and the Crookwood Mastering Bricks to tie together every piece of gear, from tape decks to DAWs to outboard gear and converters. Sonic Studio and Metric Halo interfaces get audio in and out of my computers. The majority of my work is done with outboard equipment, but if I need to make some adjustments in the box, the Metric Halo +DSP Transient Designer, EQ and Compressor are the best-sounding tools for me.
I sometimes use TC Electronic’s TC6000 for adding a touch of space. Or, if the client faded their mix a little sooner than intended, I capture a reverb trail and edit it back together at the end of the file to create the illusion of a longer tail. But I don’t use multiband compression; I don’t like how it changes the mix and sacrifices one segment of an instrument’s audio component for another.
As to monitoring, I use only one pair of speakers. For mixing, multiple monitors can help the engineer but for mastering, I need to know my room and playback system deeply and unequivocally. My job is to make the audio as translatable as possible to as many different types of playback environments. The only way to do that is to know precisely what the sound is when I listen in my studio.
When it’s time to make the CD reference and ultimately the master, I prefer the sound of the HDCD dithering scheme to go to 16 bits from 24. —Michael Romanowski’s clients include Pete Ham, Paul Jackson, Norton Buffalo, Jacqui Naylor, the Radiators, and Runaways UK.
THE DANGEROUS WORLD OF MASTERING
What matters most to me, doing this crazy and exciting task every day:
1. A true “Mastering Transfer Console.” By using a Dangerous Master console, I get clean analog gain before the input stage. Many times I’ve solved 80% of my EQ work by simply adjusting the gain stage on the console before I ever have to reach for an EQ. It’s clean and accurate.
2. An adjustable insert path, with sum and difference integration. Being able to do a touch of pre-limiting, spacialization, correctional EQ, and final limiting/color can all be achieved simply and phase-accurately with the Dangerous Master. I can’t imagine needing more than the three inserts that are provided; along with my patch bay, it’s perfect. The second insert point can do a sum and difference matrix decoder/encoder on the send/return (analog!), which allows for discreet control of the center and stereo channels.
3. Synchronous D/A converter for pre-vs-post mastering analysis. The Dangerous Monitor lets me compare the source mix against a full-round-trip mastered track—with the gains matched—using the same D/A converter (built into the Dangerous Master). The converters, system calibration, gain stages, and A/D input stage manipulation all affect the results just as much as signal processing, so you want to judge those along with the rest.
4. Reliable visual cues. The two meters on the MQ show the analog and digital status. While I’m mainly an “ear guy,” I also want to know “where things are at” as concrete supplemental information.
5. A dedicated room for mastering with known acoustics. Every room is different, every speaker and speaker design is different. Your room and speakers should work for you, not against you.
6. Top end and dither. Hard truncation to 16-bits and avoiding dither has become more popular on big records, and on certain genres, it can sound really good. Try it! If you’re working on “softer” music, see how dither affects your top end. My current dithering favorites are: None at all, the Weiss POW-R series, David Hill’s “Analog Dither,” and iZotope’s MBit+. —Mike Wells Mastering hosts the San Francisco Bay Area’s only Aria-equipped ATR Services 1" 2-Track recorder for use as a layback processor during mastering. A sampling of his mastering clients include Jello Biafra, Jackie Greene, John Vanderslice, WHY?, The Mother Hips, and Sound Tribe Sector 9. Photo credit: Chuck Revell ( www.revellray.com/ ).
DIGITAL MEETS ANALOG
I use BIAS Peak Pro XT 6 for digital processing and assembling the final master and production parts for the Redbook PMCD and DDP File Set. And in this world of digital format mixes, my best friend is my Ampex ATR 102 tape recorder, tricked out at ATR Services by Mike Spitz.
I get so many digital mixes that are too loud to have the headroom for proper mastering; also the extra analog generation [from tape] enhances the sound in a good way, beefing up the tracks and correcting the time domain before re-importing back to a G5 dual 2.5 at 24-bit into Peak 6 at optimum levels.
Once back in the digital world, I select a few equalizers. They can range from the URS (Unique Recording Software) api, Neve, Pultec, SSL, and other clones of classic modules to the BIAS SuperFreq EQs, the EMI Abbey Road Brilliance Pac, and the EQs within the BIAS Sqweez multiband compressors.
My favorite compressor/limiters are the Waves L3, BIAS Sqweez bundles, EMI Abbey Road TG12413 1969 & 2005, and PSP Vintage Warmer. The biggest issue for me is to use very small boosts from each device. I get more dynamic range, less distortion, better tone and more volume by using three to five gain devices in small increments than putting the task of all the volume makeup on any one device.
I also use BIAS’s Sqweez 5 multiband compressor to push down or reveal certain instruments that don’t sit right in the mix, and prefer the Sqweez 5’s EQ module over many dedicated EQs.
After gain makeup, I’ll use EQ to balance out the deficiencies or overpowering areas with some (usually subtle) cuts/boosts. I’d say the URS A10 graphic and A parametric are my favorites.
In the final analysis, the less I have to do to a track the better the result—which means the mix is very good. Once again it takes me back to where I started—using tape to do most of the work and make everything sound better, with the most emotional impact, dimension, and that subtle ingredient that makes people want to buy records. —Nashville-based Ray Kennedy has worked on projects from Solomon Burke, Delbert McClinton, Steve Earle, The Slips, Waylon Jennings, Lucinda Williams, Johnny Cash, and many others, as well as several movie soundtracks.